Thursday, January 1, 2015

Too Tough To Die: An Homage

Now that the sands of 2014 have run through the proverbial hourglass, I'd be remiss if I didn't celebrate one of my all-time favorite albums: Too Tough To Die, released in October 1984 -- often regarded as the last truly great record that The Ramones would make. I just pulled it out again this week, having been laid low by gout -- and I'm not making a huge impact on the eBay world (see the entry below, "Too Much Pressure," for specifics). To date, I've only pulled in $15, so I guess I'll have to redirect my talents elsewhere -- we'll see once I'm feeling better.

What makes Too Tough To Die an essential record? Start with the circumstances behind its creation. The pop experiments of End Of The Century (1980) and Pleasant Dreams (1981) -- which featured production input from Phil Spector and Graham Gouldman, respectively -- hadn't worked. Mainstream radio play appeared remote, with the likes of Journey, Styx and Foreigner seemingly poised to occupy a lifetime position there -- a painful irony for a band that prided itself on its pop smarts.

Between November 1981 and February 1985, the Ramones had also abandoned touring internationally -- aside from a few forays to Canada, according to Everett True's cracking bio, Hey Ho Let's Go.  Having been the toast of the UK punk scene in 1976, the Ramones -- or, more likely, their management -- apparently decided that such excursions no longer made sense without the rabid enthusiasm to support them. What's more, the scene had moved on from its sped-up Mod/garage rock origins to hardcore's warp factor who needed the Ramones?

As the cliche goes, however, you often do your finest work with your back against the wall. Determined to recapture their signature intensity, the Ramones brought back their old creative team of their former drummer, Tommy Ramone (nee Erdelyi) -- who'd moved into production -- and Ed Stasium.  "It was a different atmosphere than before," Tommy stated in Hey Ho Let's Go. "Of course, I would have preferred they all loved each other, but they thought what they were doing was important."

Indeed it was. The 1984-era Ramones revealed themselves as darker, grittier and even ready to tread into social commentary, too. "Mama's Boy" opening two-minute blast sets the tone: "Couldn't hold your tongue, you were just too young/Like a two-year-old, you told, you told/You were all the same, jellybean brain/Everyone's a secret nerd, everyone's a closet lame."

In my view, Too Tough To Die succeeds due to its no-frills production and the Ramones' willingness to play off each others' individual strengths, yet still work as a unit. Bassist Dee Dee Ramone, fresh from kicking heroin, wrote or co-wrote nine of the 13 tracks, which gave the album a cohesive sound. As a lyric writer, he also revealed a more thoughtful, reflective side than previously associated with him.

A good example is the album's second track, "I'm Not Afraid Of Life," which swirls around a droning E chord that anchors its melody -- and somber mood.  The lyrics blend pointed social commentary ("But I see a street crazy shivering with cold/Is it a crime to be old?") with an introspection that seems unbearably poignant after Dee Dee's drug overdose death in 2002 ("There's nothing to gain, a life goes down the drain/I don't want to die at an early age").

The thumping midtempo title track -- another solo Dee Dee effort -- offers a lovably two-fisted salute to the band's critics ("At the concert when the band comes on/I'm in the ring where I belong/On my last leg, just gettin' by/Halo around my head read, too tough to die"). In this case, life mirrored art, as guitarist Johnny Ramone had sustained a skill fracture after getting into a street brawl with another musician. Either way, the song served notice that the band hadn't lost its determination...and cutting corners wasn't on the agenda.

Dee Dee and Johnny, who hadn't been hitting it off, joined forces on three songs. "Danger Zone" sketches a pointed snapshot of inner-city decay in just over two minutes ("New York City is a real cool town/Society really brings me down/Our playground is a pharmacy/Kids find trouble so easily"). The guitar solo from ex-Heartbreaker Walter Lure -- which is simple and to the point, like everything else here -- aptly caps off the mood.

However, Dee Dee and Johnny outdid themselves on the album's hardcore tracks, "Wart Hog," and "Endless Vacation." Both songs clatter and rumble with an intensity that's awe-inspiring and downright frightening. Dee Dee's lyrics provide a harrowing glimpse of the drug addict's world, from the physical price 
("Wart Hog": "I wanna puke, I can't still/Just took some dope and I feel ill/It's a sick world, sick, sick, sick/It's a hopeless life, I hate it, hate it") to the mental one ("Endless Vacation: "All depressed, all alone/I drift into the danger zone/Hair trigger temper, tormented mind/Deadly spitting cobra, I'm the losing kind"). Even now, it's hard to think of a comparable track that matches either of them in ferocity or velocity.

I feel the same way about "Planet Earth 1988," another solo, midtempo Dee Dee effort that paints a bleak, unsparing portrait of a world truly gone mad over a dark, droning D-chord riff, Joey runs down a laundry list of social ills that seem as relevant as ever today ("Death, destruction and bombs galore/The rich are laughing at the poor/Our jails are filled to the max/Discrimination against the blacks"). In case the memo hasn't crossed your desk, the chorus helps to drive the point home: "Planet Earth 1988/It's too late, it's too late, it's too late!"

(Swedish picture sleeve with exclusive remix and cover:

While Too Tough To Die makes an effective showcase for Dee Dee's songwriting, it's not his show completely. Johnny's stripped-down, six-string minimalism keeps the album grounded -- for further reference, check out his mile-a-minute chunk-a-chunk-chunk on the band's sole instrumental "Durango 95" (which soon became the set opener).  As Johnny often reminded interviewers, anything that he wrote happened with Dee Dee. However, the other Ramones make their presence felt in equally valuable ways. 

Drummer Richie Ramone only gets one songwriting credit here ("Humankind") but it's an impressive one -- powered by a chugging riff that lashes out against other people's foibles and annoyances 
("Humankind, it's a test/to see who's the very best/Humankind, I don't know why/No one cares who lives or dies"). This track stands among an impressive handful (like "I Know Better Now," for instance) that hold their own in the Ramones back catalog. Richie's animosity-fueled exit in 1987, after only four years, makes it easy to forget that he was the band's fastest, most powerful drummer -- who proved equally adept at keeping the beat, and staying out of the way -- or slamming down the hammer when the song required it.

By contrast, Joey managed only three songs this time around. The likely explanation is his non-participation in the pre-production stage, when bands start gathering riffs and ideas -- which he unfortunately missed, for health reasons. 
Hey Ho Let's Go asserts that this situation marked a personal low point for Joey, but I'm not buying that idea -- as any listener will tell you, quality beats quantity every time. 

Two songs are collaborations. "Chasing The Night" is a three-way split between Joey, Dee Dee and bassist Busta "Cherry" Jones -- which hails the raver's desire to keep those juices flowing, no matter what the bankbook or the clock says. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that Joey's contribution is on the lyrical side -- it's hard to imagine Dee Dee singing, "Feelin' hot, yeah, I'm on fire/I'm never, ever goin' to tire!", or the sentiments uncorked in the last verse, "City is overloading/The circuits are exploding/Ain't comin' down, no, I'm too wired." 

So I'll assume that Busta Jones and Dee composed the riff on "Chasing The Night," which is built around the holy trinity of G, C and D. Rchie's drumming is particularly fine here, too -- his propulsive, relentless backbeat provides the perfect match for the subject. (Guess what?  My hunch is largely correct: going through my scrapbooks this afternoon, I just found a 12/29/84 Maximum Rock 'N' Roll interview with Donny the Punk, in which Joey says: "Actually, me and Busta Jones got together a few years ago, he brought some music and DeeDee sat together with him and we worked, kind of put the song together.  He had an idea, he brought some music, DeeDee came up with the title, and he wrote the first verse and I wrote the chorus and then I wrote the rest of it.  I think it's a great song. Then [Talking Heads'] Jerry Harrison had that line with the synthesizer, reminds me a little bit like 'Teenage Wasteland' [note: he means 'Baba O'Reilly, obviously], a little bit Who-ish." So there's the story -- from the horse's mouth, so to speak!)

Joey's other co-write, "Daytime Dilemma (The Dangers Of Love)," is a joint effort with Shrapnel guitarist Daniel Rey, who often helped the band in the studio during its later years. The song starts as a snapshot of an All-American girl without a care
 ("Miss personality, a grade 'A' student, naturally/She had it all in place"), whose love life quickly runs aground ("She caught him with another/It turns out it was her mother/What a tragedy").  The song exemplifies the Ramones' ability to take the unlikeliest subjects -- in this case, Joey's love of soap operas -- into darker, quirkier pastures that nobody else would even consider.

That leaves Joey's only solo songwriting contribution, "No Go," which offers a stark contrast to "Chasing The Night"'s rock-till-ya-drop sentiment. In this case, the raver has crashed and burned ("
My brain was racin', but my feet wouldn't fly")), though his desire seems undimmed as ever ("Let's fly/Yeah, you and I/Oh, my, my")...whether he gets to realize it, of course, is a different matter entirely.

Over the years, this song catches stick for its I-IV-V structure and telegrammatic lyrics, but it's also the closest link to the Ramones sound of yore -- which likely explains its positioning as the final track on the original album. (We'll go back to the archives again, this time from an interview with the contemporary Christian music mag Cornerstone, issue #7, 1985, in which Joey says: "It's sort of a be-bop, swing type of song.  I wanted to make it somewhat reminsicent of the Gene Krupa era, but I still wanted it to be very 1984.")

("Howling At The Moon" single: Spanish variation)

Alas, Too Tough To Die didn't break the Ramones' streak of bad luck at the box office -- peaking at #171 on Billboard's US Top 200 chart, but performed better in Sweden (#49) and Britain, where a new generation of fans kept it alive for three weeks at #63 (so says Wikipedia, which also credits Johnny Ramone with playing guitar and writing lyrics -- yet another reason you should take any writer's comments with a bottle of salt). But chart positions and sales aren't the only measure of success. 

As we all know, popular music is full of records that sold by the proverbial bucketload, but don't rate a mention nowadays, and vice versa. For the band, critical notices proved more uniformly encouraging than they'd felt in awhile, whether they read the reviews in CREEM ("the most influential rock 'n' roll band of the last 10 years"), Rolling Stone ("a significant step forward for this great American band...a return to fighting trim by the kings of stripped-down rock"), New Musical Express ("the topics to which they address themselves are largely free of such distracting frills as Mom and Luv"), Sounds ("When the going gets tough, the Ramones start punching...timeless, lovable and essential stuff").

More importantly, the results felt satisfying to all the parties involved.  Regardless of how many people bought the album, the band knew they'd done something special.  "A lot of people had started giving up on us," Joey stated, in the booklet notes for the expanded version. "But Too Tough To Die reinstated us and put us back on top." He voiced similar feelings in his Maximum Rock 'N' Roll interview: "I think it's a real diverse album; very reflective of right now, very contemporary. And the fact that we're putting more time in it, it's a real reunion; we wanted to make a real Ramones record and say 'fuck everything,' which is what we're doing. "We're gonna do exactly what we wanna do this time."  That's the way to go.  Do it the way you wanna do it."

Dee Dee seconded those thoughts, with a nod to the Erdelyi-Stasium production team's input: "The whole 'less is more' thing, Tommy was a big part of that. He was always able to translate what we did when it came time to get it down on tape." 
Johnny, for his part, chalked up the album's artistic success to a newfound unity and sense of purpose: "We knew we needed to get back to the kind of harder material we'd become known for. The pop stuff hadn't really worked, and we knew we were much better off doing what we did best." 

Sadly, much of Too Tough To Die's contents didn't make to the live setlists -- which leaned toward the first four albums, a policy that likely cemented the perception that you didn't need to hear anything else. However, rewards abound for those willing to ignore the conventional wisdom: Too Tough To Die is one of them.  For me, it became an essential building block of my college soundtrack, particularly on those occasions when I'd drive home on the weekend -- though I had to make do by taping somebody else's copy, until I could get my own.

In many ways, writing this post carries a tinge of sadness -- since all the band's founding members are no longer here, leaving drummers Marky and Richie, plus latter-day bassist CJ Ramone, to carry the banner. The Ramones always felt like a necessary counterweight to a mainstream world dripping with corporate pablum. Even now, though, I can't settle for less -- not after hearing the brutal, no-frills simplicity of tracks like "Danger Zone," or "Endless Vacation," which exerted a powerful gravitational pull on my own lyrical and musical styles.

Even if you're not a Ramones fan, Too Tough To Die offers a useful reminder of what any creative person can accomplish by keeping their head down...ignoring the trends...and staying true to themselves.  When I doubt the value of these lessons, I can put on this album, and lose myself on the undertow of its unlikeliest moment, "Howling At The Moon (Sha-La-La)" -- a synth-dominated number with bells and additional keyboards from Benmont Tench -- that Dee Dee also wrote by himself.

Strangely, "Howling At The Moon" became the only single pulled from Too Tough To Die -- spending a meager two weeks at #85 on the UK charts before disappearing from view. Like many moments in the Ramones' career, the popular reaction amounted to a collective shrug, yet time and trends haven't dimmed the appeal of an outlaw sentiment that's more necessary than ever ("There's no law, no law anymore/I want to steal from the rich, and give to the poor"), and falls into ruthless focus on the bridge: "Winter turns to summer/Sadness turns to fun/Keep the faith, baby/You broke the rules and won." Keep these words in mind -- and, indeed, the other 12 tracks on display here -- the next time that somebody tries to break your spirit.You'll be glad you did  --The Reckoner

1-2-3-4...All The Links You Need (And More): Too Tough To Die Guitar Tabs (Full Album!):

Julian Cope Presents Head Heritage:
Ramones: Too Tough To Die

The Independent: Nick Hasted:
"Tommy Ramone's Rock 'N' Roll Legacy Should Not Be Underestimated":

Too Tough To Die (Expanded And Remastered Edition):

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