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To Box or Not to Box 

The new Ramones box set illustrates some hard truths about the band and retrospectives.

The entertaining booklet that accompanies Weird Tales of the Ramones (Sire/Rhino) suggests what an icon the band became. The three-CD and one-DVD package includes a booklet that examines the Ramones mythology through comic art by underground artists such as Rick Altergott, Bill Griffith, Carol Lay and Xaime Hernandez. In one of the most effective pieces, Scott Shaw selected some of the band's more Dr. Seuss-like lyrics and illustrated them imitating Seuss, with the Ramones looking like leather jacket-clad Thing One and Thing Two (and Things Three and Four). The comic artists put the band in different contexts -- Archie comics, daily strips, ghoulish EC horror comics -- that all seem appropriate, and none seem to misunderstand the band, perhaps because the Ramones created their image so perfectly.

The band's uniform of blue jeans, leather jacket and bowl haircuts, combined with lyrics about pinheads, cretins, chainsaws and the KKK, turned the Ramones into human cartoons. Michael Gramaglia's and Jim Fields' documentary End of the Century -- now available on DVD -- is a riveting history of the band because it humanized its members after, sadly, singer Joey and bassist Dee Dee had died. Guitarist Johnny is depicted as a Lee Marvin-like character who refused as a matter of principle to give an inch or make a concession, even when Joey was dying. Johnny himself died on Sept. 15, 2004 -- before the release of the movie earlier this year, adding an additional level of poignancy to the film and the band's story.

In many ways, the Ramones were the archetypal rock 'n' roll band, and the army of punk pop bands today are obviously their descendents. They were fans of music who were, by all accounts, not suited to do much of anything except play in a rock 'n' roll band. That contributed to their icon status, as they seemed like figures as one-dimensional as their music.

All that history and significance might explain Weird Tales of the Ramones if the band's catalogue had been neglected, but in 1990 and 1991, the first four albums were reissued on two CDs, All the Stuff (and More) Vol. 1 and 2. In 1999, Rhino Records released the two-disc Hey! Ho! Let's Go: The Ramones Anthology, and all the albums up to 1981's Pleasant Dreams have been remastered and reissued this decade. Add to that 2002's 30-song greatest hits collection, Loud, Fast Ramones: Their Toughest Hits, and you have a band whose music has remained widely available in a number of configurations.

For all of that reissue activity, what becomes abundantly clear is that the first four albums -- The Ramones (1976), Leave Home (1977), Rocket to Russia (1977) and Road to Ruin (1978) are all you need. Disc one of Weird Tales focuses on those albums, and it's striking to play those songs loudly again and notice the monochromatic wall of guitar Johnny erected with his relentless downstrokes. Critics who wanted to intellectualize the band dubbed them minimalists, but it's more accurate to think of them as economical. There was no philosophical affection for repetition driving the songs, just a desire to keep the songs pared down to the bare necessities. They didn't write two verses when one would do -- "second verse, same as the verse" in "Judy Is a Punk" wasn't a joke -- and they didn't bother with even rudimentary gestures toward melody.

End of the Century implies that such frills weren't in them as people or artists, but the spare nature of the Ramones songs also comes from Johnny's conservative ethic: everybody does their job. The singer sings the melody and that's his job; if someone else has to add melody, the singer must not be doing his job.

The documentary suggests that producer and drummer Tommy conceptualized the band's sound -- as much as anyone did -- but he was also the first to leave. Marky -- Mark Bell, ex of Richard Hell's Voidoids -- replaced Tommy, and the Ramones would eventually go through three drummers and two bassists. No configuration was an improvement on the original four, though. Marky played on the most Ramones albums, and he hit harder than Tommy. Still, he followed Tommy's blueprint for Ramones drumming: 16th notes on the high hat, quarter notes on the snare and an occasion cymbal crash. Floor toms, rack toms, and drum rolls were for art guys like Neal Peart of Rush.

There may be some dark, poetic justice in the only surviving Ramones being drummers. The box set shows that starting with the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century (1979), the band dealt with the growing sense that it ought to be selling better by making more conventional-sounding albums and -- as they embraced their role as godfathers of punk -- speeding up to the point that no drummer could play that simple and that fast for long. Live, third drummer Ritchie Beau left that simple pattern behind for a more propulsive, hardcore punk style, but the songs became less recognizable as they blurred together.

When the Ramones embraced their punk progenitor role later in their career, it was the sign of a band that had lost its way because early on, they insisted they were a pop band. Throughout Weird Tales, you hear songs that would be typical, Beatlesque pop if the guitar was less of a buzz saw, the tempo was more moderate and the lyrics weren't about commies, thorazine and the dangers in the basement. By 1984's Too Tough to Die, they sound so much like a regular rock 'n' roll band that "Howling at the Moon" and "Daytime Dilemma" sound like they should have been hit singles. It's a tribute to the band's pop sense that their recordings don't sound musically outrageous at all anymore.

Oddly, the one album that falls through the cracks in Sire/Rhino's numerous compiling of Ramones' material is It's Alive, the live album recorded New Year's Eve 1977 in London that Sire initially released only as a British import. End of the Century includes footage from around the time the album was recorded, and it illustrates what a great rock 'n' roll band the initial lineup became. It was so tight and focused that the guitar, bass and drums sound like one instrument. There's no tentativeness in Joey's voice, and he had figured out how to be awkward and slightly menacing at the same time. In just under an hour, they slam through 28 songs with barely a pause between them, and onstage, Johnny and Dee Dee's co-coordinated charges from the front of their amps to the lip of the stage reinforced that sense that the show was a musical display of power.

In the end, Weird Tales of the Ramones prompts mixed feelings. Just as it was exciting to see punk culture enter the mainstream as "Blitzkrieg Bop" became rallying music at sporting events, it was also unsettling to see the culture absorb a song so primitive that critics initially questioned whether it was even music. Similarly, it's nice to see Sire and Rhino Records making an effort to keep this influential band's music available -- punk pioneers the Stooges and the MC5 haven't been nearly as well served -- but it's unsettling to see them treated like cash cows.

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