In the summer of 1989, I was growing out of the metal music that had been my obsession for the previous six years, craving something, anything that was a bit different. That year was a really slow one for music, and as the months went by with no new releases that I craved, I found myself frequenting the audio/visual department of my town's local public library. Around that time, their collection of vinyl LPs was turning me on to such artists as Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, and Lenny Bruce, but that summer, my mind was focused on one band only: The Ramones. I spent the following months poring over every detail of the band's great first six albums, from a scratched-up copy of their seminal first album, to the uproarious cartoons on the inner sleeve of Rocket to Russia, to the much-overlooked Pleasant Dreams album. However, there was one Ramones album that I just could not get enough of, and it was the one I immediately ran out to buy when Rhino Records re-released the early Ramones catalog in 2001: their second album, 1977's Leave Home.
While most fans of the band prefer the album that followed, Rocket to Russia, the exuberant charm of the band is more effective on Leave Home ("Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" and "I Don't Care" slow Rocket to Russia to a crawl, in my opinion). On this album, the Ramones are witty, menacing, goofy, cynical, and head-over-heels in love, all at the same time. Produced by Tony Bongiovi and drummer Tommy Ramone, Leave Home is slicker, and much heavier than the debut record, with guitarist Johnny Ramone's buzz-saw guitar work and Dee Dee Ramone's pummeling bass offset by Tommy's energetic, but warm-sounding drumming.
The Ramones' incredible run from 1976 to 1981 was one of the great album streaks in rock 'n' roll history, ranking alongside Bob Dylan (1964-66), the Beatles (1963-69), the Rolling Stones (1968-72), Elvis Costello (1977-80), and Hüsker Dü (1984-87). After all but defining punk rock on their 1976 debut, their next three albums transcended the punk label entirely. While UK bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash took the reins and led punk in new directions, the Ramones took a step back and incorporated more of a sixties rock 'n' roll influence on their next few albums. You had hints of Phil Spector bubblegum tunes (Spector wound up producing the Ramones' underrated End of the Century record), Brian Wilson's sun-soaked pop, Nuggets-era garage rock, and, of course, the Beatles (the band took its name from the alias used by Paul McCartney during his Beatles years).
Leave Home is a record with two distinct, vastly different sides, but the band alternates between the two styles with incredible ease. On one hand, you've got some of the happiest, most optimistic songs the band has ever recorded. "I Remember You" is a perfect bubblegum pop song (on their last tour, U2 performed the song as a tribute), with just one verse sung by Joey Ramone that says all that need to be said: "Remember lying awake at night / And thinking just of you / But things don't last forever / And somehow baby / They never really do". Joey continues to look on the bright side of life on the sunny "Swallow My Pride" ("Things were looking grim / But they're looking good again"), culminating in one of the simplest, yet greatest lines in the Ramones' canon: "Gonna have a real cool time / And everything's gonna be real fine". Their cover of the Rivieras' surf classic "California Sun" is brilliant, while "What's Your Game" yearns for a sweet girl to just be herself ("All you ever want to be / Is like the other girls you see"). "Babysitter" is an adorable song about teen love, laced with some sly humor: "She went to see if the kids were asleep / She says they're quiet except for one little creep ... We can't start kissing, 'cause the little kid's a spy". Best of all is the glorious "Oh Oh I Love Her So", two minutes of effervescent rock 'n' roll that practically bursts with joy. Ramone sings of hanging out at Burger King, falling in love by the soda machine, going to Coney Island, the giddy anticipation of a first kiss, and again, that line that seems to be the album's mantra: "Everything's gonna be real fine".
In direct contrast to that feeling of happiness is a wicked satirical side. "Glad to See You Go", which was written about a particularly abrasive girlfriend of bassist Dee Dee Ramone's, masks a really nasty side with a contagious hook in the chorus ("Gonna take a chance on her / One bullet in the cylinder / And in a moment of passion / Get the glory like Charles Manson"). Both "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" and "Carbona Not Glue" make fun of teen malaise ("It's TV's fault why I am this way"), while Dee Dee's lyrics to "Commando" are hilarious ("Third rule is: Don't talk to commies / Fourth rule is: eat kosher salamis"), making fun of the military, from America to East Germany. "You're Gonna Kill That Girl" is a dark street narrative inspired by sixties doo-wop, and "You Should Never Have Opened That Door" is another hilarious send-up of slasher flicks that the band loved to do. And, of course, you can't forget the timeless "Pinhead", the band's trademark rallying cry, the chants of "Gabba gabba / We accept you / One of us" (lifted from the great Todd Browning horror film Freaks) and "D-U-M-B / Everyone's accusing me" urging all the freaks of the world to unite as one.
The Rhino reissue of Leave Home only makes the album more essential. Due to copyright hassles, "Carbona Not Glue" was left off the album for 25 years, replaced by the single "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" in the US and "Babysitter" in the UK, but both "Carbona" and "Babysitter" are included here ("Sheena" was relegated to Rocket to Russia, and justifiably so). In addition to the restored album, fans are also treated to a full live set from the band's first Los Angeles performance in the summer of 1976, a blistering performance consisting of songs from their first two albums.
Their next two albums, Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin, proved to be the band's creative peaks, but for me, Leave Home has always worked best. It's so simple, such pure rock 'n' roll, embodying all of those characteristics of the genre that haven't changed in 50 years: it's fun, it's energetic, audacious, shamelessly romantic, snide, and above all else, loud. Though their two strongest creative forces, Joey and Dee Dee, have passed away, their music keeps getting better as the years go by, waiting for the next chance to win over yet another teen misfit who's looking for something different from what's coming out these days. Gabba gabba hey, indeed.