The Ramones began as a well-put-together band of ambitious, intelligent punks, emitting cynicism and a careless attitude and playing dirty bowery bars like CBGB. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy had uniform leather jackets and black mop-top hair. Ostensibly, their image and sound were premeditated by Tommy, the original drummer of the band. Guitarist Chris Stein of Blondie has maintained that “their concept was well defined. They had a clear vision, and it was very tight.” Even as one of the progenitors of punk, they understood the importance of marketability. As the band’s career progressed, they didn’t want to continue to be a small-time band. Instead, the Ramones desired to move forward, create, release, and be consistently successful.
As punk as they appeared to be, the Ramones were essentially pop artists. 1977’s Leave Home, their second album, is a pop album, according to Tommy. They wanted to be a top 40 band with hit singles. So they wrote songs to be played on the radio. Commercial viability was essential to them, but this was slipping away the more they pursued it. It seems like the more they tried to be commercially successful, the less commercially successful they became.
By 1981, the Ramones were working on Pleasant Dreams, their sixth studio album through Sire Records. By this time, the Ramones were in the midst of a stylistic turn that began with their previous album, 1980’s End of the Century. They were no longer working with Tommy Ramone, who quit drumming in 1978 and was replaced with Marky Ramone. Tommy was also left out of the production process altogether. Instead, Sire assigned producers to the Ramones’ albums. End of the Century was produced by the infamous Phil Spector, who put the band through harsh circumstances during the album’s creation.
Despite this, End of the Century became the Ramones’ highest-charting album to date, so Sire continued to exercise control over the production of their albums. Sire assigned Graham Gouldman as the producer for Pleasant Dreams, which had an unfitting effect on the stylistic direction. Not only this, but there were personal and musical conflicts between Joey and Johnny.
Joey’s musical tastes aligned with pop music, so it makes sense that he would gravitate towards the musical trends that were burgeoning in the 1980s. That explains the hard rock style of Pleasant Dreams’ opening track, “We Want the Airwaves”. It’s a song analogous with “Do You Remember Rock’ n’ Roll Radio?” and “Danny Says” from End of a Century, making evident their fixation with radio play and widespread popularity. In songs like “Don’t Go” and “She’s a Sensation”, Joey brings forth a strong doo-wop, beach pop vocal style reminiscent of the Supremes or a song from the 1978 film, Grease. Dee Dee’s backing vocal harmonization further accentuates the daydreamy R&B surf sound. “7-11” carries the same vocal style, with a layer of synth soaring above the chorus.
The pop sensibilities persist in different ways throughout the record. “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)” has a bouncy groove similar to songs by the Kinks, an unexpected sound for the Ramones to take. It isn’t punk in tone, but it retains a punk attitude by conveying the sentiment of not fitting into a systematic life. “Come on Now” is designed for handclapping and features the closest thing to a guitar solo that Ramones recorded up to that point. “This Business Is Killing Me” is evocative of the budding rock stylings of Billy Squier and Cheap Trick.
According to Tony Fletcher, author of Walk on the Wild Side: The Music of New York City, “Every Ramones album seemed to be saved by a couple of songs.” That’s true to a certain extent in Pleasant Dreams. “All’s Quiet on the Eastern Front”, “You Sound Like You’re Sick”, and “You Didn’t Mean Anything to Me” are some of the more energetic, faster-paced tracks on the album. Joey even stuck in lyrics that called back to early Ramones songs. There are single lines here and there about dancing to “Blitzkrieg Bop” and sniffing glue. But as with the previous album, these songs lacked the energy that made the Ramones appealing from the start, which was Johnny’s issue with Pleasant Dreams.
Johnny wanted to stick to the faster punk style of their first album, which contained punchy songs like “Judy Is a Punk”, “Havana Affair”, and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”. Steady driving, cynical, spiteful punk jams like these can only come from a band whose members feel fresh and excited about what they’re doing. They had an urgency to rock. But Johnny’s name is nowhere to be found in the writing credits of Pleasant Dreams. Those who knew Johnny personally have described him as controlling. Yet, during the making of this album, he seemed to have taken himself out of the creative process entirely. According to the liner notes, each song is credited to either Joey or Dee Dee Ramone. This is the first album by the band credited as being written by the entire band collectively.
Affecting the creation of the album were the personal conflicts between band members. Dee Dee’s substance addictions had persisted for several years. Joey’s girlfriend left him for Johnny, which is rumored to be the lyrical inspiration for the album’s lead single, “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. In End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, Johnny admits that a power struggle had developed between him and Joey. The members were no longer talking to each other. This wasn’t just a toxic relationship. This means their interests and perspectives weren’t coordinated, which usually makes for a disjointed collaboration.
That’s most likely why the tracks seem detached from each other as if they don’t belong on the same album. As a result, Pleasant Dreams lacks consistency and cohesion. Not only this, but the songs sound tired, fed up. It isn’t surprising that their music took this direction. “This Business Is Killing Me” and “Sitting in My Room” stand as reactions to obstructions caused by the Ramones’ record label. Sire Records pushed Tommy Ramone away and continually resisted their attempts to take more control of who produced their music.
Overall, Pleasant Dreams isn’t a disaster. It’s a solid record that earned praise from Robert Christgau and Rolling Stone. But the album is not a high point in the Ramones’ prolific career. However, the album is worth noting as an example of how a creative effort can suffer when a mutual vision breaks because of industry interference and personal conflicts that boil over and are never resolved.