When the Ramones started work on their fourth album, Road to Ruin, in early 1978, they were in something of a bind. Their previous three albums had helped spark the punk revolution and established them as one of the greatest bands in the long and checkered history of rock & roll, but they weren't getting the sales that their label wanted or breaking out in the mainstream the way some of their N.Y.C. compatriots like Blondie had. The Ramones also wanted those things, so they made some major moves. One switch was personnel-based, as Tommy Ramone passed the sticks to Marc Bell, who had played with Dust and Richard Hell. Tommy stayed on as producer, though, and he and Ed Stasium enacted the biggest revamp. Once the band had laid down the basic tracks for the new batch of songs, the pair painstakingly added guitar, bass, and keyboard overdubs and mixed them to get a much fuller and polished sound. By the time they were done, sometimes barely anything from the original sessions remained. This approach worked well with the more diverse songs the band brought to the album. Along with the usual batch of three-chord rockers (including some new entries in the I Wanna/Don't Wanna category), they wrote jangling pop songs ("Don't Come Close") and melancholy ballads (Dee Dee's painfully introspective "Questioningly"), and covered the Searchers' "Needles and Pins" with a lightly poppy touch. The expanded arrangements work really well on these songs -- the twanging bassline and keening guitar solo add a surprisingly effective country touch to "Don't Come Close" -- and they don't dilute the powerful punch of the thundering rockers like "I Don't Want You" and "Bad Brain." The classic "I Wanna Be Sedated" is a perfect example of how well the new approach worked for the band. The guitar overdubs give the song a huge sound, the massive handclaps and Bell's thumping drums drive the beat home like jackhammers, and Joey's voice comes through like a 1,000-watt beacon. His vocals reached their peak right around this time; he carried the faster songs with authority and dug into the ballads completely, transmitting an almost painful amount of emotion. It's clear throughout that Tommy and Stasium definitely had the best interests of the band in mind as they aimed the sound a little closer to the mainstream, and the changes they made served to open it up in interesting ways. Sure, some of the raw power of the previous albums was lost, but it was replaced by deeper feelings and emotion. The question was whether Ramones fans really wanted those two things, or did they just want more songs about Sheena. That's debatable, but what's clear is that the band's noble efforts didn't pay off with the general record-buying public, and Road to Ruin was their worst-charting release to that point.
Road to Ruin Review
by Tim Sendra