Animal Boy by the Ramones
Label: Sire Records
The Ramones celebrated their tenth anniversary as a recording act in 1986 with the release of their ninth studio album, Animal Boy, which was produced by former Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir. Picking up where its return-to-form predecessor, 1984's Too Tough To Die, left off, Animal Boy is another collection of the band's trademark hard-edged punk rock, with a few slicker, pop-leaning tracks in the mix to try and court radio and MTV play—which, as usual, never materialized.
"Bonzo Goes to Bitburg"
Unexpected Controversy: "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg"
Animal Boy's mid-1986 release was preceded by 1985's "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" single, which was an unusually "deep" political song co-written by Joey and Dee Dee, with producer Beauvoir. The track was inspired by Joey's anger over then-president Ronald Reagan's 1985 visit to a WWII-era cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, where members of the Nazi SS were buried. Sire Records refused to release "Bonzo" in America, calling it "too political," but import copies of the single trickled into the U.S. and the song ended up becoming a minor hit on American college radio.
Long-time Ramones fans were surprised by the song's political stance since the band were not generally known for making "statements" in their music. Legend has it that "Bonzo" also caused trouble between Joey (who was of Jewish descent and a staunch Liberal) and guitarist Johnny Ramone (a conservative Republican and supporter of Reagan). Johnny felt that it was disrespectful to refer to the President as "Bonzo" (a reference to the chimpanzee who starred with Reagan in the 1951 comedy Bedtime for Bonzo) in the song's title. When it was included as an album track on Animal Boy a year after its original release, it was re-titled "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down," with the original title in parentheses.
In spite of Johnny's reservations about the track, "Bonzo" became one of the Ramones' best-known latter-period songs and was featured regularly in setlists up till their 1996 breakup.
"Love Kills" and "Something to Believe In"
"Bonzo" was not the only topical song on Animal Boy; Dee Dee's "Love Kills" is a cautionary tale of heroin abuse, inspired by his friendship with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Dee Dee apparently wrote this track hoping to get a slot on the soundtrack to Alex Cox's 1986 Sid and Nancy movie, but it didn't make the cut. Ironically, in spite of the track's anti-drug message, heroin abuse would claim Dee Dee's life in 2002
Meanwhile, the album's plaintive ballad "Something to Believe In" was accompanied by a music video that sarcastically parodied the "We Are the World" style charity records which were in vogue at the time. The video is presented as a mock pledge drive for "Hands Across Your Face," a charity that would, of course, benefit "Ramones Aid." A wide variety of the band's friends make cameos in the video, including Weird Al Yankovic (who deadpans, "This is Debby Boone, urging you to give till it hurts"), Toni Basil, Ted Nugent, actress Mary Woronov, and members of Spinal Tap, Sparks, the B-52s, and more.
"Something to Believe In"
The Rest of the Album
"Bonzo" and "Something to Believe In" were the Animal Boy tracks that got most of the attention, but the remainder of the songs on the album are no slouches either.
Drummer Richie Ramone penned the blistering opener "Somebody Put Something in My Drink," based on his experience when someone gave him a drink spiked with LSD. As usual, Dee Dee contributed most of the nastier-sounding tracks on the album, including the speed metal title cut, the goofball "Apeman Hop" and the thrashing "Eat That Rat" and "Freak of Nature."
Joey was becoming better known for penning the Ramones' softer-leaning tracks at this point in their career, but in addition to the acidic "Bonzo," he also penned the sinister ode to stress, "Mental Hell."
Animal Boy barely dented the Billboard charts upon release (its peak position was a weak #143) but surprisingly, it garnered some of the Ramones' best reviews in years, due mostly to the notoriety of "Bonzo," which was voted the fifth-best single of 1985 in the Village Voice newspaper's annual music poll.
Animal Boy also made a great showing at the inaugural New York Music Awards ceremony in 1986, winning for "Best Album" and "Best Single" (for "Bonzo"). Their "Best Album" trophy is visible in the collage of vintage memorabilia on the cover of 1988's Ramones Mania compilation.
"Go Home Ann"
Summing It Up
The British Bonzo Goes to Bitburg single featured an exclusive B-side called "Go Home Ann," which was co-written by Dee Dee and Mickey Leigh (Joey's brother) and mixed by none other than Lemmy of Motorhead. This hard-charging track was not included on Animal Boy and has never appeared on any of the Ramones' multitudes of compilation albums; thus the "Bonzo" single is a bit of a Holy Grail for collectors.
Like most of the studio albums the Ramones released during the 1980s, Animal Boy went pretty much unnoticed outside of the band's small but diehard core fan base, which is a shame. This album may not be quite as bad-ass as Too Tough to Die (which is my favorite Ramones record outside of the first four) but it's still a strong collection that is well worth revisiting (or experiencing for the first time) all these years later.
© 2019 Keith Abt