In the eleventh hour, Dee Dee brought the Ramones back to life with Brain Drain
Shortly before Dee Dee Ramone transformed himself into “Dee Dee King” for his earnest but short-lived rap career and many years before he’d ever be credited as a horror novelist (seriously, Chelsea Horror Hotel is a fucking masterpiece) he was best known as the bassist and chief songwriter for the Ramones, helping “da brudders” churn out bona fide punk standards like “53rd and 3rd,” “Rockaway Beach” and “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.”
While songs about prostitutes and Nazis may have initially helped the Ramones solidify their sound, exhaustive touring and bitter warmongering between band members seemingly stunted their musical growth. Albums like Animal Boy and Halfway to Sanity missed the mark for critics and fans by embracing too many different genres and ultimately eschewed the raw punk sound the group had pioneered in a losing bid to appeal to a broader audience. The Ramones brand was dying, if it wasn’t dead already. By the time their 11th album – Brain Drain – arrived on the scene, it was anyone’s guess how it would be received; with the help of producer Daniel Rey and author Stephen King, Dee Dee would create an unlikely hit that ensured the band would have a few more years to live.
Love it or hate it, “Pet Semetary” is just one of those songs that gets stuck in your head. While the sparkling pop instrumentals seem like they’d be more at home on a Springsteen album, the lyrics are about as clever as they are utterly ridiculous (in true Ramones fashion): “I don’t want to be buried in a pet cemetary/I don’t want to live my life again.” The result is a divisive tune that somehow managed to earn the band the only slot they’d ever have at the top of the Billboard Alternative music charts and a 1989 Razzie Award for Worst Original Song. So how did the Ramones get involved with Stephen King’s Pet Semetary in the first place? That kind of depends on who you ask, apparently. Marky Ramone (newly rejoined with the band in 1989 after his firing from Subterranean Jungle) claims King invited the band to his basement for a grand dinner where he gifted Dee Dee a copy of Pet Semetary – thus inspiring the song. King swears the guys have actually never even been to his house and that Pet Semetary may have only come up in passing during dinner conversation at the nicest restaurant in Bangor. Either way, it’s clear that the author was a huge fan of the Ramones, who often included other songs from their extensive catalog in his books and films.
VIDEO: Ramones – Pet Sematary
In some ways it’s easy to pin Brain Drain as a novelty album, since “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” has had an enduring grip on every punk kid’s Christmas since it was released, but some of the album’s best songs like the ear-splitting opener “I Believe in Miracles” improves on their basic formula and even adds some 80s appropriate sludge just to update the sound a little. “Zero Zero UFO” and “Learn to Listen” have that same red-blooded spirit, allowing these songs to easily rise above what feels like a lot of album filler.
Honestly, even some of the most irredeemably boring tracks on Brain Drain like “Punishment Fits the Crime” are still lyrically compelling and while that particular song doesn’t have a whole lot going on with its melody, it sure has a lot to say and showcases Dee Dee’s more serious and self-reflective writing style pretty well: “They say the answers are blowin’ in the wind/And to take yourself out would really be a sin/You just have to cope and start over again.” Daniel Rey (who had been working with the Ramones since 1984’s Too Tough to Die) is credited for perfecting the structure of many of these songs, since he was also one of the only neutral figures in the band’s circle everyone could feel comfortable working with – but his collaborations with Dee Dee helped save the album from what could have been a real disaster. Dee Dee Ramone actually doesn’t even play bass on this album, possibly due to the catastrophic tensions between Johnny and Joey Ramone, which ensured Brain Drain would see his last creative contribution to a Ramones album. Sadly, Dee Dee Ramone passed away along with many other members of the original band in the early 2000s, but Brain Drain ensures we can bring the Ramones back again and again.
VIDEO: Ramones Live The Ritz, New York 1989