The best art is one where the artist has a clear concept of what they’re trying to say, but is executed in a vague enough manner that people can attach their own meaning to it. This allows the beholder to personalize and attach personal, emotional meaning connected to people or situations that mean a lot to the individual. This is fundamentally what art *is.* This has never been more true than with my all-time second favorite song, which is actually about smoking weed. I’m getting ahead of myself.
When people think of the Ramones, they generally know the template set by the first four albums, the “I Wanna Be Sedateds,” the “Pinheads” and the like. These songs are great and they fit a very specific formula. They’re what the Ramones are known for and they launched millions of pop punk outfits into existence. They’re what make the Ramones the most influential band of my lifetime and there is no question that version of the Ramones is great.
HOWEVER, I submit that the best version of the Ramones is far and away the Ramones of the early 1980s.* The pivot occurred after of a disastrous sell-out attempt in which they brought Phil Spector on as a producer which as I understand it, ended up with the worst possible result from every angle aside, in my opinion, from the album itself. I love End of the Century, but it’s sort of in a category all its own. It’s--weird. It sounds labored. Listen to the version of “Rock n’ Roll High School” and compare it to other versions. It sounds exhausted. If Johnny Ramone’s account of how that went down is to be believed, Spector made him play the guitar part for 8 hours straight. Spector also felt that Joey was the star of the band and the rest of them were just filler (incorrect of course, and this is coming from a Joey girl), which caused a lot of division within the band. Their uncharacteristic, orchestral cover of “Baby I Love You” doesn’t even involve any of the non-Joey members. Then there was all of the psychotic Phil Spector stuff that involved actual firearms.
*”Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” #63 on this list is from the album Animal Boy, released in 1986. Honorable mention song “Pet Semetary” appears on Brain Drain, which was released in 1989. It’s an honorable mention because I forgot about it, quite honestly. I think it actually deserves a spot on the top 100. Bottom line: 80s Ramones.
After the album failed to break them out of cult-status, they kind of gave up on the concept of being a successful mainstream band and decided to focus on maintaining for the pleasure of their current fans. This is what they said, but I don’t understand it since what rose from the ashes of End of the Century sounds like a third band but the subsequent three albums, Pleasant Dreams, Subterranean Jungle, and Too Tough to Die are my three favorites, with Too Tough being by far and away my favorite. And the stretch of songs on Too Tough beginning with “Chasing the Night,” “Howling at the Moon” and “Daytime Dilemma” is to me, the strongest string of three songs on any punk album, ever, with the creamy middle being the highlight.
It is SO hard to explain why “Howling” is so special. Musically, it’s one of those *perfect pop songs*, a description I’ve invoked several times on this list and I’m sitting here listening to it, hard, in order to come up with an explanation and I can’t. Elements just come together perfectly. I want to lay it in the laps of Dee Dee as a songwriter (certainly) but also Joey’s vocal performance. It’s a bit old-fashioned, with a simple structure and a non-lexical chorus are (like “Who Put the Bomp” and “Wooly Bully,” in this case “sha-la-la,” as suggested in the title) and this is right in Joey’s wheelhouse. He’s so comfortable with the transition from verse to chorus, with the “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” leading into the “sha-la-la-la,” it’s like he was born to sing this song.
But it’s not just the musically breezy nature of this song I adore so much, as you might expect, the lyrics and mood of “Howling” are so satisfying to me, just hearing the twinkly synth sound in the introduction is like a shot of adrenaline. Which brings me to why a song about smoking weed is my all-time second favorite.
I’m a somewhat tightly-wound person. I definitely crave rules, routine and structure. I share a lot of characteristics with your typical perfectionist. I’m a planner. This extends to planning leisure time as well. I am getting better about this, but for a long time I had vacation activities and meals planned down to the minute. I have an excellent memory (for everything but names). This all backfires on me in myriad ways. I have trouble letting go of things when they don’t turn out the way I want them to. I have a tendency to get so tense and so stressed, I give myself back and shoulder pain from being all tensed up. Sometimes when I’m watching TV, I need to ask myself whether I’m actually comfortable and then walk myself through why I’m not. Neck hurts? It’s because you’re tense. Arm throbbing? Tension.* I also don’t always like myself when I’m plotting everything out. There are a ton of things I feel like would be more enjoyable if I’d allow myself to be spontaneous, but it’s so hard. It's a weird hang-up for someone with artsy tendencies and maybe even a little embarrassing. I also blame this side of my personality for my inability to enjoy pot at all. I get tense and paranoid and anxiety shoots up. It’s bad. These are all things I recognize and am working on easing up.
*I’m very lucky to have genetically low blood pressure. It balances out to low-normal range. <br>
So while I’m comfortable in an environment with structure and limitations, I also resent it. All of this may explain why I instead like to drink alcohol so much--perhaps to a fault. It’s never gotten out of control, where anytime north of my 20s I felt it negatively interfered with my life, but it’s admittedly unhealthy and has become a low-priority for self-improvement. There is substance abuse in my family history. I’m not completely unsure it didn’t contribute to my mom’s passing away at a fairly young 58. It’s just--a bad thing to overdo.
This is not such an issue that I don’t still fondly look forward to nights on the town* with friends and that’s exactly what “Howling at the Moon”** feels like to me. I never looked into what this song actually meant before sitting down to write this because it so clearly held the meaning I assigned to it: the liberation of stepping out of your comfort zone, being free, untethered by plans or convention. In short, howling at the moon.
*Not to mention chill, beverage’d nights at home watching Full House or classic cinema.
**Another song that evokes this same feeling is “Off the Wall” by Michael Jackson, another song that would have made this list if Michael Jackson wasn’t a documented, dangerous sexual predator.
Knowing what I know now, the weed tie-in is fairly obvious. “Ships are docking, planes are landing, a never ending supply?” I thought it was a metaphor. “Keep it glowing, glowing, glowing; I'm not hurting anyone.” Glowing? The energy of a night out, of course. And the bridge:
Winter turns to summer
Sadness turns to fun
Keep the faith, baby
You broke the rules and won
But like, my meaning is not entirely implausible either. This song was written LONG before the Internet was there for us to satisfy such curiosities, which I guess is a double-edged sword. True, I have all information I could ever want at arm’s reach at all times, but there is so much TALKING and so little inference. It takes self-control to resist shattering your own perception of meaning with art that means a lot to you, but some things are so powerful, even finding out the fairly banal *intention* behind it can’t spoil it for you. So true with “Howling at the Moon.”