Road to Ruin delivered on the bubblegum potential that had been implicit since their 1976 debut.
The big not-so-secret about the Ramones is that they never really wanted to be punks: their high-volume, high-velocity take on pre-British Invasion pop was just so warped that it couldn’t help but spark a revolution. With this context in mind, the group’s fourth album feels like less of an outlier than it otherwise might. Slowing down and dressing up their trademark buzzsaw guitars and pogoing rhythms with more conventionally radio-friendly textures, 1978’s Road to Ruin finally delivered on the bubblegum potential that had been implicit since their 1976 debut.
Of course, just because the Ramones wanted to be a pop band didn’t mean they were meant to be one; Road to Ruin is thus inevitably more of a mixed bag than the insurmountable trilogy of Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. Singer Joey sounds right at home channeling his knack for teenage melancholy into a cover of “Needles and Pins” by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono, but the original ballad “Questioningly” may be a bridge too far: the midtempo arrangement, complete with Johnny’s acoustic rhythm guitar and almost George Harrison-esque lead, feels listless coming from a band that normally operated on a surfeit of energy. Better is “Don’t Come Close,” a sparkling power-pop track that sounds like the song that was in Joey’s head when he recorded “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.”
Alongside these relatively radical departures are a clutch of bog-standard Ramones tracks, which remain irresistible even if their novelty is beginning to wear thin. “Go Mental” and “Bad Brain” are respectively the fourth and fifth darkly comic songs about mental illness in the group’s rather slim oeuvre to date, and you can pretty much write “I Don’t Want You” in your head based on the title and a rough familiarity with other Ramones songs. The same is arguably true of “I’m Against It,” though it’s hard to begrudge a song that so perfectly encapsulates the Ramones’ cartoon nihilist ethos: “I don’t like politics/ I don’t like communists/ I don’t like games and fun/ I don’t like anyone.”
The most successful songs on the album are the ones that stretch the band’s existing formula without upending it outright. Opening track “I Just Want to Have Something to Do” is slower and heavier than the usual fare, prowling with an almost Stooges-like menace; “I Wanted Everything” is a more conventional three-chord wonder, but with lyrics about a frustrated blue-collar worker turned petty criminal that would have sounded as natural coming from Bruce Springsteen as Joey Ramone. And of course, “I Wanna Be Sedated” may be the band’s most perfect pop moment, crystallizing the heart of their musical and lyrical formula and burnishing it to a sheen.
In classic Ramones form, however, Road to Ruin was not the hit it was clearly intended to be: it missed the Billboard Top 100, peaking over 50 places behind their most successful album to date, 1977’s Rocket to Russia. It’s thus a compelling experience to hear the alternate mixes on this 40th Anniversary edition, which offer some alternate glimpses at what a more conservative—and potentially more popular—follow-up to Russia might have been. The new “Road Revisited” rough mixes by original co-producer Ed Stasium add some teeth to the punk tracks, but mostly show how true to the band’s vision Stasium and drummer-turned-producer Tommy Ramone were in 1978: even shorn of many of their overdubs, the aforementioned “Don’t Come Close,” “Needles and Pins” and “Questioningly” are clearly the product of a softer, sleeker Ramones. Punk purists will be more pleased by the even rougher mixes on the second disc, which capture the band sounding more like they did on their less-varnished debut: never before has the appeal of “Bad Brain” to a certain group of DC hardcore kids felt so self-evident. And of course, as has been standard for this latest series of Ramones reissues, the third disc includes a full, roughly period-appropriate concert recording, this one from New York’s Palladium on New Year’s Eve 1979. It is superb, with the band cramming an impressive amount of their canon into a little over an hour, making the disc something like a bonus “greatest hits” on amphetamines.
There is admittedly something faintly absurd about an album which ran just over 31 minutes on its original vinyl release being bloated into three full CDs of music; yet it also feels somehow apropos. Road to Ruin attempted to please everyone, and inevitably fell short. Now, with three discrete versions of the album to choose from, we can all choose a Road that comes closer to our individual tastes. Not a bad sendoff for an album that arguably marked the end of the Ramones’ classic era: as 1980’s Phil Spector-produced End of the Century would prove, their complicated relationship with the punk movement they inadvertently spawned had only just begun.