One of the hallmarks of the Ramones’ long and storied career was their unquestioned consistency. The leather jackets and jeans, the mop-top ‘dos, and of course that infectious three-chord blast of sound never changed. Fans could always count on the boys from Queens to stick to a simple plan: Hey! Ho! Let’s go! and it was off to the races, each and every time. That is precisely why the new Ramones tribute album We’re a Happy Family is so puzzling; it is consistently inconsistent.
Purportedly a collection of Ramones covers lovingly performed by some of the music industry’s biggest acts, it is in actuality an eclectic mix of artists playing an even more eclectic mix of Ramones songs, with varied results. Of the 17 tracks, several are outstanding, most are serviceable, and a couple are downright painful to hear. Not surprisingly, the album’s strongest moments come from consistency, in choice of artist and song rendition. Problems arise when there is a deviation from this musical blueprint.
The inclusion of bands such as Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring was essentially a no-brainer, as this trio traces their respective lineages directly back to the Ramones. Simply put, they owe everything they have to Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky for blazing a trail and essentially creating punk music. In fitting tribute to their heroes, each group plays note perfect covers of Ramones’ favorites “Outsider”, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”, and “I Wanna Be Sedated”. As the album’s highlight moments, this tuneful trifecta should have served as the base from which to build upon. Unfortunately, the album’s direction does not stay true to form.
One would have expected heavyweights like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Rob Zombie, Metallica, and the Pretenders to deliver gargantuan results to such an album, but the returns are mixed at best. The Chili’s choice of “Havana Affair” is far too tame for a Ramones tribute; it lacks the rawness and punch of other available, (and potentially more appropriate), songs like “Cretin Hop” or “Warthog”. U2 on the other hand, selected the tremendous “Beat on the Brat,” but Bono’s tepid vocals render the song as nothing more than an outtake from The Joshua Tree. Rob Zombie’s contribution of “Blitzkrieg Bop” is definitely an interesting interpretation that will be loved or loathed, while Metallica offers a solid, though unspectacular take on “53rd and 3rd”. The Pretenders follow the pedestrian route as well with a pleasant cover of “Something to Believe In;” not bad, just not great.
Furthering the underlying inconsistencies of the album are two fine performances by Eddie Vedder, “I Believe in Miracles” and “Daytime Dilemma (Dangers of Love);” Pete Yorn’s impressive “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend;” Rooney’s “Here Today Gone Tomorrow”; and Garbage performing a very Patti Smith-like version of “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do”. The album’s balance is drastically disrupted as these songs are tempered by Marilyn Manson’s “The KKK Took My Baby Away” and Tom Waits’ rendition of “The Return of Jackie and Judy”. The latter two covers defy description, as they are nothing short of excruciating, and most listeners may opt for the skip button to avoid them altogether.
If the obvious ebb and flow of the album is somewhat disappointing for Ramones fans, take heart, all is not lost. The most unexpected surprise comes by way of KISS covering “Rock and Roll Radio”. Perhaps not that unexpected, as KISS and the Ramones did form at roughly the same time in the outer boroughs of New York City. The real surprise is that KISS would actually be featured on a Ramones tribute, and end up stealing the show in the process. If nothing else, the aging arena rock Kabuki monsters demonstrate that they can still deliver, even by way of a cover tune. The album’s final song is also something of a surprise. Possibly making amends for his band’s less than inspiring effort, Chili’s axeman John Frusciante delivers a stunning version of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” displaying both his stellar guitar skills and vocal abilities.
So then, what to make of this tribute? As compilations go, the roster of participants is fairly impressive, and fans of the respective groups may have their curiosities peaked enough to give a listen. For loyal Ramones aficionados however, there may be some unfulfilled expectations. The trademark sound that they have grown to know and love is present on occasion, more often supplemented by unorthodox interpretations of varied songs. In some respects, the divergences and inconsistencies of We’re a Happy Family parallel the direction of the Ramones own cover album Acid Eaters, and purists may prefer to stick with the group’s original releases and greatest hits collections. Nonetheless, We’re a Happy Family does offer an interesting tribute to one of music’s most influential and endearing bands, and may appeal to those who enjoy the periodic break from the status quo.