The most radical album of the past decade was not recorded by Roxy Music, Miles Davis or some obscure tinkerer in electronic music but by four ragged kids from Forest Hills, N.Y., familiarly known as the Ramones. Released in late spring of '76, the band's debut album, "Ramones" -- its gray blankness buzzing with the fury of a chain-saw on the rampage -- inspired a new kind of rock 'n' roll. Some called it punk; others labeled it new wave. Whatever it was, its sound gravitated over to England, where the Ramones' humorous minimalism was transformed into hysterical nihilism.
In 1980 (and five albums later), the offhand, deceptively simple style of the Ramones continues to influence rock bands alienated by the hegemony of arena rock, even though the Ramones have complicated their own sound with each new recording.
The Undertones, five hard-boiled proletarians from Northern Ireland, are a perfect example of just such emulation in that their first album, "The Undertones" (Sire SRK 6081), stings with all the slaphappy recklessness of the early Ramones.
Certainly the Undertones are the best punk band to spring from the tempestuous turf of Ireland. (Their main competition is Stiff Little Fingers, a band intensely dedicated to imitating the Clash; their album, "Inflammable Material," available only as an import on Rough Trade, is an invaluable example of the politically liberating thrust of punk.) The appeal of the band, however, probably can be attritubed to lead singer Feargal Sharkey. Not since Noddy Holder of Slade consistently choked on his own larynx has a rock vocalist warbled with such comically eery overtones. As the chords thrash and tumble, Sharkey's shivering voice gives the Undertones' music an amateurish quality that's so vital to the punk sensibility.
The Ramones abandoned the seemingly amateurish cause of minimalism on their third album, "Rocket To Russia." Yet bands like the Undertones still admire the speed and the simplicity of the Ramones' revolutionary debut. s
Of all the Ramones' albums, though, it may be their latest, "End of the Century" (Sire SRK 6077) -- conceptually, at least -- which proves historically to be their most radical work. Indeed, it is an extreme departure; the Ramones, their records previously sounding like they were recorded in garbage cans, are swallowed by the stupendous production of Phil Spector.
Despite his reputation, Spector has accomplished very little since his creative period in the early '60s as a producer of girl groups. Since then, his most artistic moments were probaly outside the recording studio -- as a guest star on "I Dream of Jeannie" and in a cameo role in "Easy Rider." In recent years, Spector has become not unlike Linda Ronstadt: if he gets involved with a song or a project, it's usually the kiss of death.
For this very reason, "End of the Century" is a thrilling achievement, the ultimate compromise between two divergent rock 'n' roll stylists. Definitely not Spector's finest hour and, by far not the Ramones' most playable album (any of their others are less uneven), it nevertheless has the significance of a velvet painting from Woolworth's being hung in the National Gallery.
The album's enthralling compromise is exemplified on the Ramones' version of the Ronettes' "Baby, I Love You." Although Joey Ramone hardly possesses Ronnie Ronette's vocal range, Spector doesn't surround him with pillows of orchestrated fluff, but instead, by using staccato strings as if they were guitar leads, encourages him to stretch his voice beyond its natural limitations. The result is a moment, speaking figuratively, when the Ramones seem to ascend -- even to the lofty heights of Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep -- Mountain High."
Actually, Spector's touch does not invade the entire album; often "End of the Century" is simply a self-reflexive work, re-doing the Ramones' standard theme of terrorism mingled with merriment. "This Ain't Havana," "The Return of Jackie and Judy" and "Let's Go" refer to earlier recordings; "Chinese Rock" and "Rock 'n' Roll High School" are older songs merely polished.
The biggest surprise on the album is the first cut. "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?," which sounds like Kiss covering a Freddie Cannon tune. Spector has obviously produced the song with a hit single in mind, and he's probably right -- it contains just the proper hint of nostalgia for Top 40 status.
In the song, the Ramones bemoan the blandness of current radio, declaring that surely it signifies the end of an era. The modern world seems to speed toward total homogenization; consequently, the Ramones wonder, "Will you remember Jerry Lee, John Lennon, T. Rex, and Ol' Moulty?" Does anyone remember Mounty, the one-armed drummer for the Barbarians, an American punk band symbol of the mid-'60s because of its semi-hit, "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?")
Perhaps by the end of the next century, no one will have forgotten the rocking Ramones.