[16 July 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Although they’ve been a Canadian institution for the last three decades, Teenage Head’s audience barely extends outside their home country. Offering a less edgy but equally hook-oriented take on the Ramones’ early proto-punk rock (think of them as the Eddie Cochrane to the Ramones’ Phil Spector), the Hamilton, Ontario band quickly made a name for themselves, first with their classic self-titled 1979 debut and then with their platinum-selling Frantic City a year later. As strong as their recorded material was, with Gord Lewis’s rockabilly-inspired riffs countered by the unmistakable, snarky voice of Frankie Venom, Teenage Head earned their reputation through their live show, and they’d go on to become the ultimate Canadian road dogs, playing anywhere and everywhere. Thirty years, and well over 200,000 units sold later, the band is still doing its thing in Canada, regardless of the fact that there’s a huge market just to the south that has still yet to be tapped.
Bad marketing ideas and just plain bad luck were big reasons why Teenage Head weren’t able to make any kind of headway in America, but thanks to a spur-of-the-moment recording session with Marky Ramone and producer Daniel Rey, not only does the band at long last have a product to plug Stateside, but it turns out to be their best release in a very long time.
Usually, the very idea of a veteran band going back to the studio to re-record classic tunes has fans and critics alike rolling their eyes. The simple fact is, rarely if ever does the gimmick work, as it always ends up sounding like a bunch of tired, aging rockers putting on a sorry display of just how much of that original spark has been lost. Which makes Teenage Head With Marky Ramone all the more of a marvel, as not only do these re-hashed songs completely measure up to the originals, but several actually manage to top them.
And without question, the two guests on the album play a pivotal role. With everyone rushing into the studio with barely any time to spare, Rey is the perfect person to helm such a project, just like he did with the Ramones, as he has the musicians buckle down and hammer out each track in short succession, focusing more on the visceral attack of the riffs than the more frilly accoutrements such as acoustic guitar and piano that accentuated past Teenage Head albums. Marky Ramone, meanwhile, remains one of the tightest drummers rock ‘n’ roll has ever seen, his fierce backbeats keeping everything in check, his fills fluid, giving the impression of both efficiency and lackadaisical fun. But it’s the three members of Teenage Head who are most crucial to this album’s success, and Venom, Lewis, and bassist Steve Marshall rise to the challenge. The thin sneer of his youth maturing into a comfortable drawl not unlike the late Joe Strummer, Venom sounds as charismatic as ever, while Lewis’s Les Paul riffs benefit hugely from Rey’s mix, echoing the bite of Johnny Ramone at times.
As for the material covered, the most attention is paid to the debut album, as half of the CD’s 12 tracks come from the ‘79 release, but as for the other six, there’s a good variety. The cover of Chris Montez’s “Some Kinda’ Fun” and the raucous “Teenage Beer Drinkin’ Party” differ greatly from the rather lightweight originals heard on 1982’s Some Kinda Fun, the performances all muscle, while 1988’s “You’re the One I’m Crazy For” is especially noteworthy as it’s the first time we’ve heard Venom perform the song on record (he had left the band in the late ‘80s), and the rousing cover of the Boys’ “First Time”, originally from 1995’s Head Disorder, has Marky leading the charge, with Lewis channeling Johnny Ramone in his down-strummed, buzz saw riffs. The lone Frantic City representative is Canadian rock classic “Let’s Shake”, the signature song benefiting hugely from Venom’s more measured vocal performance.
As for the six Teenage Head cuts, Marky Ramone adds a distinct Ramones flavor to the strutting “Top Down”, the ride cymbal dinging away, while Venom carries such fan faves as “You’re Tearin’ Me Apart” and the classic “Picture My Face”. “Lucy Potato” and “Little Boxes” are raucous, energetic performances, but it’s “Ain’t Got No Sense” that emerges as the biggest surprise, as the song, a gorgeous slice of post-punk pop that dares to rival the Undertones, has band, drummer, and producer gelling perfectly, the chemistry undeniable. It’s the kind of joyous, dryly funny summer fare that obliterates Warped Tour bands young enough to be these dudes’ grandkids.
Lewis mentions in his extensive liner notes, “I always thought it was so cool that Miles Davis listed Gil Evans as an arranger along with the performers for Some Kind of Blue. To me it was a true acknowledgement to the importance of someone outside of the musicians to the importance of the recording. I think of Daniel Rey in the same light.” Indeed, while Marky Ramone gets the second billing, it’s actually Rey who’s the straw that stirs this particular drink, the immediacy which he lends to this project paying off with an immensely rewarding collection of re-worked classic cuts. No matter how many copies of this album sell in the States, this collaboration works so well, that the band would be nuts not to work with Rey the next time they have some new songs to record. In the meantime, we’ve got this irresistible gem of a record, and for Canadian rock ‘n’ roll fans, plenty of upcoming shows to catch.