Ramon. The tall, dark amante you left behind in Barcelona, the sombrero-clad hombre who ushered you into the sweet valley of womanhood. Add a plural ending and you have the Ramones, who were lovers less gentle. The Ramones were the wild jokers of Queens — misfits who led an army of proto-punks in black leather and ripped jeans to dethrone disco and deflower America. They were four men who shunned haircuts. They had two-minute songs that eschewed production. And they had one powerful mantra that foreswore seriousness, sense, and sobriety: “Gabba Gabba Hey.” Either you got it, or you didn’t.
From their birth in 1974, the Ramones defied the Pop Establishment that hawked disco, R&B, progressive rock, and arena rock. The public reacted hysterically to the Ramones’ adolescent-anarchist attitude. Ironically, the Ramones were reactionaries. Despite the creation myth that the Ramones were the Primary Mover of Punk, their short, fast, spare compositions were deliberate tributes to earlier generations of rock. Because of this conservativism, the Ramones have been quickly canonized and assimilated into mainstream American culture.
After the death of Joey Ramone last year, a cover album with an impressive line-up is an appropriate tribute. On the scale of tribute albums, We’re a Happy Family ranks high. Much care, creativity and humility is apparent on this disc. On the scale of Ramones albums, it ranks far lower. Unsurprisingly, no one can out-Ramones the Ramones.
About half of the sixteen songs here are filler: straight, sub par Ramones covers by the grandchildren of the Ramones: Rancid, Green Day, Offspring, etc. The bands that do succeed on this compilation are strong enough to transform, not imitate, the original hits. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Pretenders slow down the tempo. U2 and KISS pump up the glamour. Tom Waits tweaks his track into a freakish burlesque. As in biology, of course, most mutations are fatal. Marilyn Manson, Garbage, Eddie Vedder, Metallica, and even Rob Zombie are all dead ends.
There are some real stand-outs here. The Red Hot Chili Peppers slow “Havana Affair” into a funky tropical crowd-pleaser. The best song on the album, the hidden track 20 by the lone Chili Pepper John Frusciante, glows with ghostly grace.
The most fun and catchy track is U2’s “Beat on the Brat.” U2 authentically combines the spontaneous energy and apathetic cool — the passionate dispassion — that marks the Ramones. Sure, Bono’s croon is honey-coated. But “Beat on the Brat” is the only track on the disc to accurately capture the stutter and fervor of Ramones’ deceptively simple guitar lines. And there’s a great, guilty pleasure in hearing Bono drop his self-righteous pursuit of the Nobel Peace Prize to revel with Gaelic gaiety in the refrain, “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh yeah!”
Ultimately, the above three songs are the only real gems in this mountain of effort. Depending on one’s tastes, the Tom Waits, KISS, Pretenders, Rob Zombie, or Garbage songs might be treasured as well. But initiates looking for an authentic introduction to the Ramones would be best advised to start with “Ramones Mania” or “Hey Ho! Let’s Go: the Anthology.”