Talking about the punk legends’ underrated ’84 with longtime tour manager Monte Melnick
Nine years into their career, and facing their ninth album, Too Tough to Die is where the Ramones had hit a stride. Though in 1984, it was easy to claim otherwise.
The general perception was that they’d done their best stuff, since that astounding first four albums run. Then the troubled Phil Spector-produced End of the Century; the solid, but kind of career place-holding Pleasant Dreams; the somewhat expected insta-cult film fate of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School; and 1983’s Subterranean Jungle already positioned as a kind of “comeback,” given the minor hits “Psycho Therapy” and “Time Has Come Today.” Nevertheless, the idea the band would last another decade-plus was not a good bet, even amongst the underground / college radio / late night MTV crowd that still followed the Ramones’ every move.
And those moves – iffy baby boomer covers, appearing on the cheeky Sha Na Na show, and the members entering their mid-thirties – was in stark contrast to where their genre was going. Predominantly teenage-led hardcore punk was taking the Ramones roots and pulling them into a much scarier and violent future than the Ramones’ mostly irreverent stance.
Nonetheless, Subterranean Jungle announced a last blast of songwriting prowess that would fully flower on Too Tough to Die. Flower not being the right word I suppose, as the ‘60s covers were out, and some fast-ass blasts were in (“Warthog” “Danger Zone,” and the opening statement, “Mama’s Boy”); as were solid harbingers of otherwise unwise later attempts to stalk ‘80s pop metal terrain (“I’m Not Afraid of Life,” “Planet Earth 1988”).
VIDEO: The Ramones “Howling at the Moon”
In addition to the we-still-got-it songs, the band solidified their effortless ability at catchy power pop (the soaring “Daytime Dilemma,” and the amazing, Dave Stewart-produced “Howling at the Moon”). Though the album’s title winked at a recognized forefather status, on Too Tough to Die – arguably the last great Ramones album – the band simultaneously updated to the times and a gave reminder of what beefy hooks they cooked from day one.
Monte Melnick was there from day one, too. As the band’s tour manager and homeboy confidant, Melnick was there for nearly every day of the Ramones existence, and detailed loads of it in his essential 2007 book, On the Road with the Ramones. Over the summer, Melnick released an expanded “Bonus Edition.” As fun and informative a read as his book is – and considering he was in the middle of the Ramones storm for 22 years – in person, Melnick remains an instantly likeable, soft-spoken guy. But we tried to get some thoughts from him anyway about the days and nights of Too Tough to Die.
What would you say was the band’s state of mind as they approached making Too Tough to Die? Did they think they were “turning a corner,” or were they already kind of soured on the music industry, radio, etc.?
With each new album, the Ramones always thought that this would get them to a better place in the music industry. That is why in the later years they kept on changing producers with the thought that that could get them to a higher level.
Did they tour right around the recording session, or did they give themselves some time off to write/record?
It varied year to year. If you go to the back of my book On The Road with the Ramones, I list all the 2,263 show they played. You can get a good idea of the schedule there.
Why do you think they chose to have Tommy (Ramone) Erdelyi back to produce Too Tough to Die?
Tommy started off just wanting to manager and produce the Ramones, not be in the group. When he left the band, he was more than happy to produce them. With Too Tough to Die, they wanted to get back to the musical incite that Tommy brought to the band. Tommy was a true professional. He always enjoyed producing and working with the Ramones.
Where did they record the album; and how was the band getting along during the session?
It was recorded at Media Sound here in NYC. I was there at the studio although not in the room where the recording was made. They got along just fine.
AUDIO: The Ramones “No Go”
Actually, at that point, 1984, were the four Ramones all traveling together in one bus?
Depending on where the tour was, the band traveled in a variety of vehicles. Short tours in the U.S., it was in a van. We did use tour busses overseas and on some special occasions in the U.S. The band for the most part always traveled together.
“Warthog” might be the most infamous song from that album — Dee Dee singing lead, and the songs structure and speed kind of in line with hardcore punk that was going strong at that point.
It’s a true hardcore punk rock song! They did play it live, and after Dee Dee left, CJ sang the vocals.
VIDEO: The Ramones “Wart Hog” Live
What did the band think of hardcore? I assume they were happy to have young guys say they were influential, but at the same time, the Ramones were getting a little older and trying some different things musically…
The Ramones liked all forms and styles of music. They liked the hardcore bands, but they also wanted to expand into other musical areas.
Speaking of which, “Howling at the Moon” — up to that point, maybe the Ramones’ most “lush” song. How did they like working with Dave Stewart; and how long did it take to get that song done?
They got along fine with Dave. Not sure how long they took to do the song but in general – with the exception of working with Phil Spector – the Ramones liked to work fast. Johnny didn’t get along with Phil. Johnny liked to work very, very fast, and Phil liked to work very, very slow. Also, Phil was very controlling.
“Planet Earth 1988” is a heavy, political song. Joey was getting more overtly political at the time. That caused some friction with Johnny, right?
Joey did start to get very involved in politics, but Johnny and Joey never did discuss any of their own political views with each other.
Okay, I’ll ask it — who was the easiest Ramone to drive along with, and who was the biggest pain in the ass?
They all were very fun people to drive along with… ha ha ha.
It’s interesting to think that when the album came out, the title – and the somewhat menacing cover shot – seemed to already be referencing that the Ramones had been around for a while, and this was like the Ramones proving “They still go it.” But really, they were barely 10 years old, and would record and tour for another decade-plus. But was the band feeling like they had to prove something with this album?
No, they didn’t have to prove anything at that point in time. They were well established and musically strong, and felt very confident in that. Oh, and a quick shout out to that great cover photo, by my good friend and talented photographer, George DuBose. I think it captures the spirit of the Ramones at that time.
The lyrics to “Chasing the Night” — Joey really did live like that, didn’t he? He was always going out, seeing new bands, etc.
Yes, Joey did chase the night quite a bit. He always liked to see new bands, and when he got to produce his own special nights at clubs, he tried to give [new bands] a showcase.
Tell me about the new edition of your book.
I’ve added 40 new pages of info, photos, and images that I needed to include since the book first came out. Look for the On The Road with the Ramones – Bonus Edition, on Amazon Worldwide.
AUDIO: The Ramones Too Tough To Die (full album)