The Ramones vs. Phil Spector: Revisiting "End of the Century"
The Ramones, "End of the Century"
(Sire/Warner Bros. Records, 1980)
Between 1976 and 1979, the Ramones released four critically acclaimed studio albums and a live disc, and starred in a movie (Rock N Roll High School)... yet, in spite of all of their hard work and all of the underground "cred" they'd amassed, they still hadn't sold very many records.
Hoping to finally score the elusive "hit" that would open the doors to the mainstream for them, the Ramones made a controversial decision to leave New York behind in mid-1979 and head to L.A. to record their fifth album, End of the Century, under the guidance of famed producer, Sixties girl-group impresario, and "Wall of Sound" inventor Phil Spector. On paper, this must have sounded like a match made in heaven. Spector's vast catalog of pop hits had been a major influence on the Ramones' catchy, retro flavored pop-punk music. Spector was semi-retired at the time (the last album he'd worked on was the Beatles' Let It Be in 1971) but he'd approached the band during the filming of Rock N Roll High School to talk about working with them. Phil thought the Ramones' high-octane sound was a perfect match for his brand of sonic re-invention. Joey Ramone was said to be especially excited to work with the legendary Spector, but unfortunately the experience quickly turned into a nightmare for all involved.
"Do You Remember Rock N Roll Radio?"
Crashing into the "Wall of Sound"
From the moment the Ramones began working with Spector at Los Angeles' landmark Gold Star recording studios, culture shock was evident on both sides. The Ramones were used to banging out albums in a week or less, as cheaply as possible, so they could get back out on the road and continue touring. Their budget conscious, hit-and-run work ethic was completely alien to the famously compulsive Spector, who was well known for keeping musicians in the studio for hours at a time, playing the same part or singing the same line over and over, until he finally captured the "right" take. Naturally, the stubborn, set-in-their-ways Ramones rebelled against Spector's perfectionist methods throughout the recording process, which led to numerous disagreements and session delays. Dee Dee Ramone's oft-told tale of Phil pulling a gun on him when he threatened to walk out of the studio has become rock n' roll legend, though the alleged incident was downplayed by drummer Marky in an interview years afterward, saying that Phil "never held us hostage... we could have left at any time."
After the band completed basic tracks for End of the Century, Spector mixed and re-mixed the album several times, trying to get it to sound the way he'd imagined in his head. Legend has it that he has never considered the final product to be truly "finished."
When the smoke cleared, End of the Century cost nearly $200,000 to make. By comparison, the Ramones had recorded their 1976 self-titled debut album for a mere $6,400 only four years earlier.
"Baby I Love You"
Spector's trademark, multi-layered "Wall of Sound" production works well on some of the album's tracks, particularly on the jack-hammering opener "Do You Remember Rock N Roll Radio," a salute to the rock n' roll DJ's of yesteryear, and the plaintive ballad "Danny Says," which describes the boredom of life on the road. (The "Danny" in the title refers to their then-manager, Danny Fields.) A revved-up new rendition of the theme from "Rock N Roll High School" is another rockin' highlight. On the other hand, the producer's glossy touch feels unnecessary on the album's harder-edged, more "punk" tracks like "Chinese Rock" and "Let's Go."
One of the more notorious End of the Century cuts is the cover of the 1963 hit "Baby I Love You," which Spector had written for his then-wife Ronnie Spector's girl-group, the Ronettes. The track is essentially a Joey solo performance, singing along to an orchestral backing track. "Baby I Love You" was released as a single and the band "performed" it on TV several times, but none of them were happy with it. In his book Commando, Johnny described the "Baby I Love You" cover as "the worst thing we ever did."
"Rock N Roll High School"
End of the Century was released in February 1980 to mixed reviews. Many critics wondered if the Ramones were trying to "clean up" their tough-guy image to prepare for the new-wave decade. The album's cover, which showed the band posed in plain t-shirts rather than their trademark leather jackets, seemed to lend credence to this theory.
End of the Century performed slightly better on the charts than any Ramones album had before (its #44 rank on Billboard remains their high water mark to this day) but it wasn't the massive breakthrough they'd hoped for. Even with its polished, slicker, Spector-ized sound, rock radio continued to resist playing the Ramones. However, the music videos for "Do You Remember Rock N Roll Radio" and "Rock N Roll High School" got a fair amount of play on the fledgling MTV network when it first launched in 1981.
Cracks were beginning to show in the Ramones' brotherhood by this point. While Joey still held onto the dream of making it big with a hit single, Johnny and Dee Dee felt that they should quit trying to chase mainstream success and stick to doing what they did best, without selling out. These musical disagreements would continue to simmer till the end of the band's career.
End of the Century remains a "love it or hate it" experience for most Ramones fans to this day. Some feel it's their worst album, while others enjoy its willingness to experiment in a way the Ramones never had before (and never really would again). It may not have been released at the end of a century, but the album definitely marked the end of an era.
© 2020 Keith Abt