1 I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement
Shall we deal with the Blitzkrieg Bop question first? Yes, it's their best-known song. Yes, it's their defining statement, opening their first album. Yes, the "Hey ho! Let's go!" chant would be heard at every show they played until the very end. Yes, I love it. But, equally, I've heard it so many times I don't actually ever need to hear it again. So let's have something a little less overexposed from that peerless debut album (and one that contains, for the Ramones, a staggering number of chords).
Broadly speaking, the early Ramones had two types of songs: the ones that took 60s pop as their template, with Joey offering lovelorn tremulousness, and the ones that appeared to have been written after watching trash movies on late-night TV. One song, Chain Saw, was a straight tribute to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though for the sake of providing a rhyme with "me", it became a "massacree". Here, two decades before Kevin Williamson did it with the movie Scream, they deconstruct the horror film, but they only need three lines to do it: "Hey daddy-o/ I don't want to go down to the basement/ There's something down there." They added another four lines, but they added little, and two of them were repeated from those first three (by the way, the 1974 live clip linked to in the heading is a priceless record of the Ramones's early incompetence). They would repeat the horror movie deconstruction trope on their second album, with You Should Never Have Opened That Door, with its sublime couplet: "You don't know what I can do with this axe/ Chop off your head so you better relax." Oh, and other things the Ramones don't want: to be learned, to be tamed, to walk around with you, to grow up, you, to live this life (anymore). Things they do want: to sniff some glue, to be a good boy, to be sedated, to be your boyfriend, to be well, to live.
2 Oh Oh I Love Her So
And here's the 60s pop template: Oh Oh I Love Her So is pretty much the classic American teenagerdom of cliche boiled down to its essence. Where did he meet her? At the Burger King. And where did they fall in love? By the soda machine. Their first date, naturally, is at Coney Island, where they go "on the coaster and around again". There's even an explicit nod to the Shangri-Las when Joey notes he's going to give her "a great big kiss", a more cheery nod than 1981's 7-11, which was the Ramones' own "death song" ("Oncoming car ran out of control/ It crushed my baby and it crushed my soul"). Oh Oh I Love Her So is pretty much a perfect pop package – pure bubblegum from start to finish, from the "whooo-eee-ooo" backing vocals to the rare but perfectly judged production flourish that ends the song: a little sprang! of surfy guitar.
Babysitter is a minor song, but makes it to the list by virtue of its relative unfamiliarity, at least to me. Leave Home, the second Ramones album, was originally issued with a substance abuse anthem called Carbona Not Glue, which was rapidly withdrawn for breaching the copyright of Carbona, a stain remover. When I started hunting down the early Ramones albums in the mid-80s, Leave Home was out of print, so the first copy I found was a US import, which replaced Carbona … with Sheena Is a Punk Rocker. I followed that with two secondhand original copies – one with a lyric inner sleeve – that had Carbona. Only at my fourth purchase did I find a copy with Babysitter (to my slight embarrassment, I now have six copies of Leave Home). So, while freshness is a relative concept with the Ramones, Babysitter still sounds fresh for me. And musically? Worth it just for the awesome key change before the final verse, and for the babysitter's response after being asked if the coast is clear for snogging on the sofa: "She said they're quiet 'cept for one little creep."
4 Rockaway Beach
OK, I'll give way to the pressure for an undisputed classic, for arguably the best single to have come out of punk, a template for a million lesser pop-punk bands to follow. Rockaway Beach, in the Ramones' home borough of Queens, is the largest urban beach in the US (with the only legal surfing in New York), and the song effortlessly captures the need for the breeze and the water on a hot, hot day – "Up on the roof, out in the street/ Down in the playground the hot concrete/ Bus ride is too slow, they blast out the disco on the radio." For a band whose lyrics were often minimal to the point of cartoonishness – "second verse, same as the first," anyone? – the Ramones had some startlingly good lines. "Chewing out a rhythm on my bubblegum," which opens Rockaway Beach, is as terse a summation of teenage ennui as anyone ever managed. No surprise, really, that even the NYC Parks department boasts: "From surfers to swimmers to the Ramones, everyone wants to 'hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach'."
5 I'm Against It
By the fourth album, 1978's Road to Ruin, the formula was starting to creak a little, so changes were rung. Acoustic guitars – acoustic guitars! – were brought in. There was a ballad, Questioningly. And there was a new drummer. Marky Ramone – Marc Bell in real life – was more proficient than Tommy, his predecessor, but that wasn't always to the Ramones' benefit. Tommy had been recruited precisely because he offered not even a hint of frills. Even though Marky was hardly Keith Moon, just the few fills he did throw in rather slowed the band's forward propulsion. But Road to Ruin was actually a pretty good album, and I'm Against It took misanthropy and raised it to new levels, being a simple list of the things the band didn't like: politics, communists, games and fun, anyone, Jesus freaks, circus geeks, summer and spring, anything, sex and drugs, waterbugs, playing ping pong, the Viet Cong, Burger King, and – again – anything. "I don't care about poverty," Joey announced. "All I care about is me." It was as if they'd looked over at the bands they'd spawned in the UK and decided to highlight the pointlessness of nihilism.
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6 Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Radio?
For musical revolutionaries, the Ramones were mired in nostalgia, especially in a golden age of popular culture that really only existed in the imagination, one where every song that came on the radio was great. So it was natural that, sooner or later, they would hook up with the emperor of that golden age, Phil Spector, even if the sessions for the resultant album, 1980's End of the Century, were a nightmare for all concerned. The record became the band's biggest yet – though that still meant only No 44 in the US and No 14 in the UK – and gave them a hit single in a string-laden version of Baby, I Love You. But it was a bit of a dog's dinner. Spector's production style didn't suit the roar of Johnny Ramone's guitar, and it worked best where he was able to dispense with the basic Ramoneness of the songs entirely. So Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Radio?, introduced by the never-gets-tired trick of a flicking a radio dial across the stations, is far more a Spector song than a Ramones song. He starts by throwing in the kitchen sink, then builds from there, till he's constructed an edifice that sounds like every noise you might hear at a fairground.
7 Danny Says
You can hear how much Spector added to Do You Remember … and this, the other great song on End of the Century, by listening to the demos on the current edition of the album. Both are clumsy and skeletal. Where Spector made the first song cruise like a Cadillac on the freeway, this one he makes skate: he makes the Ramones sound delicate. And that's precisely what they need for the saddest song they ever recorded, a portrait of being lonely on tour, trapped in a cycle of having nothing to do and nowhere to go – and bear in mind that the Ramones never became anything approaching big in the US. So when, on their fifth album, Joey sings: "Danny says we gotta go/ Gotta go to Idaho," you know the prospect of driving thousands of miles to play a show to a few dozen people, when you and your bandmates don't really like each other very much, isn't one that excites him. A side note: the Danny of the title is their former manager, Danny Fields, one of the most important backroom figures in US alternative rock – among his other claims to fame is being the man who signed the Stooges and the MC5 to Elektra.
8 Psycho Therapy
Horrible production du jour mars 1983's Subterranean Jungle – Marky sounds like he's hitting deflated footballs. The number of songs dealing with mental health on Ramones albums – stretching back to Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment – suggested a band mocking the afflicted. In fact, Joey suffered throughout his life from mental illness. As a teenager he had been placed in a psychiatric ward, where the diagnosis offered was: "Schizophrenia, Paranoid type with minimal brain damage … It is strongly recommended that he be in intensive psychotherapy." Yet through songs such as I Wanna Be Sedated and Psychotherapy, he turned his illness into part of a remarkable statement of pride in his otherness: as tall as a tree, with limbs that seemed to operate independently of his brain, thick dark glasses permanently glued to his face, and a voice that sounded halfway between a crooner and a dying frog, Joey Ramone was no one's idea of a pop star. He was too different, too alien in every way. And still he managed to become one of the most perfect pop (not rock) stars ever.
9 Mama's Boy
In 1985, the Ramones released their best album in years. Too Tough to Die wasn't perfect – its attempt to engage with current affairs on Planet Earth 1988 was embarrassing: "The solution to peace isn't clear/ The terrorist threat is a modern fear." But the band sounded reinvigorated. They had inspired the American hardcore punk scene and responded in kind with Wart Hog and Endless Vacation; they offered two of their best pop songs in years in Daytime Dilemma (Dangers of Love) and Chasing the Night, and a title track that summed up their status. Sadly, it's not available on Spotify, so we'll have to make do with this version from 1992's Loco Live. Older readers may recall the band's appearance on Whistle Test to promote the album, beginning their appearance with the cameras set to monochrome and a wildly excited Andy Kershaw literally jumping up and down as he back announces them at the end.
10 Bonzo Goes to Bitburg
The last great Ramones song was this standalone 1985 single, written in response to Ronald Reagan's visit to a German cemetery where members of the SS were buried. It cropped up on the following year's Animal Boy album, retitled My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, because the fiercely Republican Johnny was so upset by its criticism of the president (Johnny and Joey's tortured relationship is a matter too tangled for this piece: watch the film End of the Century to discover the extent of their mutual loathing). On page, the lyrics don't really make a whole lot of sense, but on record Joey's rage burns through: "You watch the world complain, but you do it anyway."
• What do you think of Michael Hann's choices? Let us know what he's missed and we'll publish an alternative playlist of your selections.
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