The Ramones have never been short on melodic sense (hard rock is always melodic; it’s heavy metal that isn’t) but here the melodies are right on the surface, and they’re delicious: you can float on the changes in “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” The band often flips out their best riffs at the beginning of songs (“Rockaway Beach,” “I Can’t Give You Anything”), and then buries those riffs; one half-consciously anticipates their returns, eager for the sweetness of the early ’60s chords the Ramones are fooling with (“Sheena” is little more than “Let the Little Girl Dance,” which is a lot–the line about how Sheena, swept away by punk, “just couldn’t stay” with all the other kids down at the discotheque, is actually moving). The band shows range: they go back to the ’50s for the feeling behind “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” revealing a talent for sentimentality no less acute than that of doowop ancestors like the Dubs (“Could This Be Magic”), and the Beach Boys are all over the album. A few cuts, short as they are, run out of steam before they’re through, and the band continues to strike out with actual oldies. “Do You Wanna Dance” is pedestrian, and “Surfin’ Bird” is only a messy gesture–not a performance with any bounce to it, but just a statement of concept. It sounds like a throwback–not to 1963, but to the Ramones’ first two albums. It’s a waste for them to be cute with “Surfin’ Bird” or “California Sun” when they can write songs as good as “Rockaway Beach,” which deserves to be a hit single–though if it were, it’d be the first summer song to to make the charts in winter. That’s the kind of concept-mongering I’d like to see more of.
The central weakness of the Ramones remains: there’s no conviction in their music. This is particularly evident on a record where they have little to be ironic about (“Cretin Hop” is the only song here that might be called cruel, and that’s pushing it). Foregoing the blood and guts of “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl,” the Ramones have made a very straightforward album–which is probably why I like it–but while some may have found them seriously ironic, or ironically serious, in the past, their dropping of this pose/device, and the subject matter that demands it, simply shows up their inability to put emotional force behind what they say. “We’re a Happy Family,” a good song (as written) about a nuclear disaster area (“Daddy’s telling lies/Baby’s eating flies”) might have been truly sordid, but though the Ramones sing as if they mean to communicate bitterness, the song doesn’t cut, nor is it funny.
Down-and-out as they may appear, the Ramones sound spoiled: smug. There’s no conviction in their music because they don’t sing from the inside of the personae they posit; they make insulated music. It’s music that, for me, never puts across the feeling that something’s at stake when the band plays; none of their songs sound as if anything would be lost if they weren’t sung. To say that that’s the point isn’t good enough. It’s why, at this point, the group’s music does not compare to Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” or just about anything by the Clash or the Sex Pistols. Much as they may intimidate AM radio, the Ramones aren’t dangerous yet. Until they get inside the roles they assume, they won’t be.
Village Voice, December 12, 1977