Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Ramones, "Halfway to Sanity"
Ramones—"Halfway to Sanity"
Label: Sire Records
Release Year: 1987
Run time: 30:22
The Ramones' tenth studio album, Halfway to Sanity, was released in late 1987, and by all accounts it made absolutely no impact outside of the band's small, but fiercely loyal, fan base at that time. They had been considered cutting edge in the '70s, but the Ramones had fallen off the pop cultural radar by the mid-'80s, dismissed as over-the-hill and irrelevant by the MTV generation. The Ramones' early catalog is revered today, but later, mid-career albums like Halfway to Sanity generally are remembered only by the die hard, gotta-have-everything collectors and fan boys (like me).
Part of it was the band's own fault. When the Ramones tried to court mainstream pop acceptance with overly-polished albums like 1980's End of the Century and 1981's Pleasant Dreams, their audience moved on to newer, edgier underground music like hardcore and thrash metal to get the loud-n-fast fix the Ramones once provided. By '87, their new studio albums were practically being released straight into record store cut-out bins. Halfway to Sanity barely scraped the lower rungs of the Billboard album chart upon its release, landing briefly at a mere #172 before disappearing without a trace... which is a shame, because it's a pretty damn good album!
By 1987, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and new drummer Richie had successfully re-embraced their basic, hard-edged sound. 1984's excellent Too Tough to Die (a personal favorite) and 1986's Animal Boy announced to the younger bands that had sprung up in their wake, "Hey, kids, we aren't going anywhere. We invented this sh*t, and we can still kick your ass!"
"I Wanna Live"
Halfway to Sanity essentially picks up where its predecessor Animal Boy left off, featuring a dozen tracks split evenly between the Ramones' trademark hard-edged punk and a few token pop songs.
The album opens with its best known track, the moody single "I Wanna Live." This is one of the few Halfway songs that stayed in the Ramones' live set lists beyond the tour for this album, and has appeared on several best-of compilations. The chunky "Bop Til You Drop" and the atmospheric "Garden of Serenity" find the band veering into heavy metal territory.
The ridiculously titled "Weasel Face" is a classic two-minute punk barn burner, and then Joey gets to show off his Beach Boys influence on the goofy surf-rock throwback "Go Lil' Camaro Go," which features backing vocals by long time friend Debbie Harry.
The middling "I Know Better Now" is one of two songs written by drummer Richie Ramone (the other is the thrashing "I'm Not Jesus," another metalized highlight), and Dee Dee steps up to the mic on the snotty punk blast "I Lost My Mind."
"A Real Cool Time" and the ballad "Bye Bye Baby" slow things down and give Joey the opportunity to flex his radio-friendly side. The album closes with one more obnoxious punk throwdown, "Worm Man," whose lyrics sound like they were tossed off in about thirty seconds ("I'm fed up... I wanna puke... I wish I was dead!") but caps off the album on a fittingly mosh-able note.
Twelve songs in just a hair over 30 minutes? Yep, that's a Ramones album, all right!
"Bop 'Til You Drop"
All in all, Halfway to Sanity showed that the Ramones were still in pretty decent musical shape in spite of their diminished profile. However, some major changes were looming on the horizon.
Richie Ramone abruptly left the band after the Halfway album was recorded. According to Richie, he was tired of being treated like a hired gun rather than a full-fledged band member, in spite of his regular contributions as a song writer. The last straw came when Johnny Ramone refused to increase Richie's cut of the band's t-shirt proceeds -- which were making them more money than record sales at that time.
After Richie's sudden exit, the Ramones performed two shows with Clem Burke of Blondie on drums (alias "Elvis Ramone") before they welcomed former drummer Marky Ramone back into the fold. Marky remained in the lineup till the Ramones broke up for good in 1996.
1987 also marked Dee Dee's first release as a solo artist - the rap single (!) "Funky Man," under the stage name "Dee Dee King." To this day, there is still some debate as to whether Dee Dee intended "Funky Man" to be a tongue-in-cheek parody of hip-hop, or if he was seriously trying to cross over to the rap world... but the fact remains that as white rappers go, Dee Dee makes Vanilla Ice sound like Chuck D.!
The rest of the Ramones were puzzled by Dee Dee's sudden, newfound interest in rap music, which apparently happened during a stint in drug rehab. Dee Dee claimed that the rap record and new stage name were the result of his feeling "pigeonholed" by the Ramones. He was also suffering from creative burnout after carrying most of the songwriting load for the last few studio albums. The schism with his band mates led to Dee Dee's eventual exit from the Ramones in 1989.
Dee Dee Ramone—"Funky Man"
Summing It Up
Things started to pick up for the Ramones again with 1989's Brain Drain, which featured the minor hit "Pet Sematery." As the '80s began giving way to the '90s, the "alternative" rock wave began to gain strength in the mainstream, and the Ramones were regularly named as one of the main influences of that scene. They still weren't selling many records, but at least they were finally getting some respect.
As of this writing, Halfway to Sanity is out of print and hard to find on CD, except as a "manufactured on demand" CD-R product from online retailers. However, I still feel it's worth seeking out!
© 2019 Keith Abt