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‘Road To Ruin’: How Ramones’ Fourth Album Journeyed Into New Territory
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Road To Ruin’: How Ramones’ Fourth Album Journeyed Into New Territory

Still searching for that elusive hit, with the ‘Road To Ruin’ album Ramones refined their sound and made a punk-pop classic.

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By the time punk mutated into new wave in 1978, Ramones had already done enough to go down in rock history. However, while their initial trio of classic albums – their self-titled debut, Leave Home and Rocket To Russia – collectively confirmed the group’s place among the most influential bands of all time, “Da Brudders” were preoccupied with commercial concerns. Critical acclaim was all well and good, but as they turned their attention to recording their fourth album, Road To Ruin, Ramones were chasing the elusive smash hit they still believed was within their grasp.

Listen to ‘Road To Ruin’ here.

The backstory: “Tommy wanted to get back to producing”

The New York City punks also needed to contend with a major change in personnel. Despite co-founding the band, co-producing their records and writing classic songs such as I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, drummer Tommy Ramone quit the group after they completed their US tour with The Runaways in the spring of 1978. Frustrated by the twin pressures of touring and simmering internal tensions, he played his final Ramones show at New York’s CBGB club on 4 May – though he remained associated with the band.

“Tommy didn’t really leave,” Ramones engineer/producer Ed Stasium said in Everett True’s Ramones biography, Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story Of The Ramones. “He was still involved in songwriting. He never considered himself a drummer. I do, his style is so influential to so many, but he wanted to get behind the console and produce.”

Tommy had started his career as an assistant engineer at Record Plant, in Midtown Manhattan, working on albums such as Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys, and he re-enlisted with Ramones to helm the Road To Ruin sessions alongside Stasium. Firstly, though, the group needed to bed in their new drummer. Sources differ as to whether Dee Dee or Johnny Ramone made the initial overtures, but what is certain is that Marky Ramone (born Marc Bell in Brooklyn, on 15 July 1956) formally auditioned for the band in March 1978 and got the job immediately.

Having recorded two albums with early-70s rockers Dust and also occupied the drum stool for another NYC punk classic – Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ Blank Generation – Marky had experience and technical ability on his side, but he was also working against the clock. Before he played his first Ramones show, in Kansas, on 29 June 1978, he had a mere three weeks to learn the band’s repertoire – 31 established songs, plus nine more that were freshly penned for Road To Ruin.

“I’m playing so quick with the Ramones, I don’t have time to whirl a stick,” Marky explained. “It wasn’t hard to learn because I sat there with a drum kit, headphones and the tape on ten hours a day. Tommy would sit behind me until I got it right, so I learnt the eighth-notes [on the hi-hat] real quick.

“That’s something a lot of punk drummers try to do, but can’t,” he added. “Heavy metal drummers play with their arms and shoulders. I play with my wrists and fingers.”

The recording: “We had a bigger budget and a powerful new drummer”

With Marky fitting right in, the band, Tommy and Ed Stasium set up camp in Mediasound Studios, in Midtown Manhattan, for the Road To Ruin sessions during the summer of 1978. Having recorded the Rocket To Russia album at the same venue, all concerned were familiar with the surroundings and collectively believed Road To Ruin would finally deliver some much-needed chart action.

“We had a bigger budget, we knew what we were doing, and we had a new drummer with a different style,” Tommy Ramone recalled. “Marky was a professional drummer. He has a powerful, dynamic sound. We were able to make real good use of that. I was free to shape the sounds and be in control.”

Road To Ruin also proffered the most varied selection of material Ramones had created to date. Plenty of the band’s traditional suburban ennui was present on the punkier tracks (I Just Want To Have Something To Do, I Don’t Want You, I’m Against It, Bad Brain), but the tracklist also found room for notably more radio-friendly fare. This included the shimmering, country-flavoured pop of Don’t Come Close, the tear-jerking ballad Questioningly and even a highly faithful cover of Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche’s Needles And Pins, first popularised by Merseybeat stars The Searchers in 1964.

Road To Ruin reflected not just the Ramones’ enduring love for 60s pop,” Tommy Ramone said in an interview with music critic Clinton Heylin, “but a nagging desire to extend beyond the confines of 120 seconds in search of a new vocabulary of harmonic hooks, albeit linked with the guitar-crunching sonics established on their first three albums.”

For the first time, the band’s overall sound was also enhanced by additional musicians. Indeed, most of Road To Ruin’s acoustic and additional electric guitar textures were played by either Tommy or Ed Stasium.

“Johnny [Ramone] is a specialist guitar player. Nobody in the world can do what he does,” Stasium reflected in Hey Ho Let’s Go. “But the Ramones wanted to augment what was there and he didn’t feel he wanted to, or was capable of doing, these things. For example, the way I Wanna Be Sedated was double-tracked with my [Fender] Stratocaster.”

Now regarded as a true artistic pinnacle among the best Ramones songs of all time, I Wanna Be Sedated is the sound of punk-pop in excelsis. However, while Road To Ruin’s greatest track sounds both joyful and infectious, it was inspired by an appalling pre-show accident at a Ramones gig at the Capital Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, which ended with Joey Ramone literally being sedated after a vaporiser he used to help with his asthma blew up in his face.

“Joey did these breathing exercises. He suffered from asthma. He had to take care of his throat,” Ramones manager Linda Stein later recalled. “All I remember is that he got severely burned by the vaporiser, and we took him afterwards to the hospital where he stayed for a week, in agony. He really was a mess. I don’t know how come he did the show.”

Thankfully, Joey recovered quickly and the band turned near tragedy into artistic triumph with I Wanna Be Sedated. The powerful, yet inherently radio-friendly Road To Ruin ought to have similarly transformed Ramones’ career, too, yet – while it did bequeath a UK Top 40 hit in Don’t Come Close – the album peaked at just No.103 on the Billboard 200, disappointing the band, who felt they’d been sitting on a classic album.

The release and legacy: “It’s beautiful, balls-to-the-wall rock’n’roll”

“The songs grow on you instead of hitting you on the first play,” Johnny Ramone reflected in an interview with ZigZag magazine following Road To Ruin’s release, on 21 September 1978. “There’s a couple of country’n’western-type songs, more medium-tempo songs. It was just something we had to do. We can’t play just 12 fast songs on every album.”

As it turned out, Ramones would finally make a mark on the chart with their next album, the Phil Spector-produced End Of The Century. Yet, while Road To Ruin couldn’t provide that breakthrough at the time, it added yet more heft to the band’s legacy – and it’s now a firmly established fan favourite.

“I was talking to Slash from Guns N’ Roses once, and he was like, ‘Dude, that’s the best record ever – I learned how to play guitar by listening to that album,’” Ed Stasium revealed in the liner notes for Ramones’ Anthology box set. “People really liked Road To Ruin.”

Road To Ruin is probably my favourite Ramones album,” US super-fan George Tabb told Everett True. “Just because it’s got all that power, plus you hear acoustic guitars in there. It’s beautiful. It’s complete balls-to-the-wall rock’n’roll.”

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