Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
People frequently think of the Ramones as being goofball one-trick ponies, fit more for T-shirts than turntables. This grossly misrepresents their point and their purpose, never mind the debt they pay to whole swathes of earlier, largely ’60s music. Like no other punk band, the Ramones brought back the energy and the intuition up into a future (now the past) that both honors and updates those motifs. And this never became clearer than on 1993’s Acid Eaters, where many of the songs sound like they were originals that “da brudderz” wrote. Even if you know the originals forwards and backwards.
Covers were an important part of the Ramones’ formula right from the start, with “Let’s Dance” appearing on their debut, and “California Sun” on their followup. That point is worth making if only to appreciate quite how far the band progressed in the interim twenty-odd years. The early records, thrilling as they remain, really do represent a lumpen and rudimentary thrash, albeit with a tightasthis precision underpinning the speed with which they played. They were positively proficient by the ’90s, with audible lyrics and guitar solos. Maybe to their overall loss. Thankfully there had been no attempt at updating the rhythm section part of the sound; while the band was on their second bassist and fourth drummer (who’d also been their second drummer), root notes and biscuit tins were still the template.
Mind you, it was Johnny and Joey who always were the band, however much first bassist Dee Dee lived and came from from the cartoon image and expectation. Johnny the shy and bespectacled gangly-legged loner, drowning his anxiety and OCD in booze, Johnny the military school grad, running the band, or trying to, like the marine corps, with little love between them, not least as Johnny later ‘took’ Joeys girl, thus always after portrayed the bad guy.
The roster of music the Ramones covered on Acid Eaters offers few surprises. The songs were generally three- or four-chord wonders, three-minute epics, that populated the charts of the mid-60s. There’s clearly identifiable verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and very little, if any, fuss around instrumental solos. There is a hefty nod to the British invasion acts: the Stones, the Animals, the Who and, most tellingly, the Troggs, who had contrived(?) a similar imbecilic ambience. But it is the presence of Love and Jefferson Airplane songs on the album that might give greater surprise. Or maybe not, Arthur Lee’s band having very little to do with the summer of love, with an aggressive garage band vibe to their early recordings.
Acid Eaters kicks off with “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” by hardcore metal man Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, that band then at their most psychedelic. It’s an odd choice for an album opener; with bassist CJ Ramone on vocals, it doesn’t even sound like the Ramones, having more of an Eddie and the Hot Rods feel, arguably no bad thing. Whilst not quite a false start, it positively begs that the following song be more Ramoney. Thankfully, it is – “Substitute” hurtles on through, a noisier near-clone of the original, Joey’s vocal perhaps the only trademark feature to differentiate it. Together with the absence of any fancy-pants bass. And yes, that’s actually Pete Townshend chipping in on backing vocals.
Joey takes control on the next song, “Out of Time,” his idiosyncratic slur making Jagger’s seem positively stage school, ahead of another side step. With a classic chugalug start, CJ’s back on the mike, the Barrie Masters/Hot Rods debt to the Ramones again writ large on their version of “The Shape of Things to Come.” This Mann/Weill song comes from the teen exploitation movie Wild in the Streets, maybe a film that fed Johnny’s band blueprint. It’s good, and at less than two minutes, it’s a not-unusual Ramones length, but it ain’t Joey.
Surrealistic Pillow-era Jefferson Aiplane were bona fide street level counterculture, making “Someone to Love,” their “other” hit single, apt material for the Ramones strip-back treatment. This continues into Eric Burdon’s somewhat autobiographical “When I Was Young.” Burdon too had had military experience; this may have been of some appeal to Johnny. Joe McGinty’s background keyboard shimmer, never part of the orthodox sound of the band, is perfect, and had me wondering how it could appear in more of the band’s material.
I was then bounced rudely out of that reverie by a bangbangbang “7 and 7 Is,” making even Love’s original sound leisurely. Terrific drums and an awesome middle eight of Joey’s “1, 2, 3, 4,” the count with uncharacteristic pauses, rather than the headlong pelter found more usually heralding the start of a song. A delightful throwback reminder. (In the format as devised, this was actually the opener to side two, for once allowing the CD to exert superiority over the vinyl.)
The title Acid Eaters suggests a lysergic ambience, at some odds with the amphetamine velocity more typical of the band. This discrepancy is further heightened by the throwaway buzzsaw thrash through “My Back Pages.” It’s more the Byrds on speed than Bob, diluted again into a generic punkathon, courtesy CJ taking the microphone, thankfully for the last time.
The Seeds oddity “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” is perfect for the band, who apply their patented slow-song burr to it. It’s another Acid Eaters highlight, with more neat keyboard flutters and probably the best vocal performance on the disc. The positioning here is also ironic, as the band then nails CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and make it very much theirs. With the gearbox cranking up the excitement, the listener is now fully warmed up and gagging for the na na na na nas of a reverently high vis, high vol canter through the much-anticipated Troggs song “I Can’t Control Myself.” Joey excels again here, his vocals perfectly mirroring the song title.
The album-closing “Surf City” seems then a backward step, the Jan & Dean song, even if co-written by Brian Wilson, not amongst the duo’s best, possibly why the Japanese edition tacked on “Surfin’ Safari,” a proper Wilson/Beach Boys song. Which is a far better cracker to end the set with.
This opportunity to delve back and recall this recording, let alone the originals, has been a diverting memory dive. Fondly recalled as a belter, Acid Eaters is near-fatally flawed on a number of levels. The production is a little too smooth, the guitars often mixed a little too low, the order of the songs a little ill thought through. I haven’t even mentioned the art. Budget label Disky later re-released it, confusingly entitling it The Ramones, with a different track order, possibly more sympathetic. Me, I’d have just switched side one with side two and ditched “Surf City.” And I would have had a stern word with CJ, or more probably Johnny, questioning why they abandoned Joey for those three songs. But, y’know, flaws or not, it is still a great record. Anyway, since when were the Ramones for listening to and dissecting? Get out there and pogo!!!
- Journey to the Centre of the Mind (Amboy Dukes cover)
- Substitute (The Who cover)
- Out of Time (Rolling Stones cover)
- The Shape of Things to Come (Max Frost & the Troopers cover)
- Somebody to Love (The Great Society cover, via Jefferson Airplane)
- When I Was Young (The Animals cover)
- 7 and 7 is (Love cover)
- My Back Pages (Bob Dylan cover, via the Byrds)
- Can’t Seem to Make You Mine (Seeds cover)
- Have You Ever Seen the Rain? (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover)
- I Can’t Control Myself (Troggs cover)
- Surf City (Jan & Dean cover)
- Surfin’ Safari (Beach Boys cover)