Take Five: Classic Covers by The Ramones

The Ramones burst onto the music scene like a breath of (if not fresh than) New York City air. The foursome played a high-speed, stripped down punk version of rock ‘n’ roll, and their approach – from music to their distinctive visual aesthetic – wold prove hugely influential. But the Ramones didn’t come out of nowhere: the group made no secret of its love for the pop music that had come before. The Ramones would include a cover song on each of their first several albums, each delivered in the band’s own inimitable style. Their choice of songs provided clues that helped place their original music in its proper context.

Later in their career, the Ramones would record an entire album’s worth of ace covers, 1993’s Acid Eaters, but the earlier tracks – five of which are featured here – arguably capture them at their best.

“Let’s Dance” from Ramones (1976)
Chris Montez recorded “Let’s Dance” a pop song written by Jim Lee, in 1962. The song was wildly successful on release, climbing quickly to the #4 spot on the Billboard singles chart. It fared nearly as well in England, where it reached #2. Re-released a decade later, “Let’s Dance” charted yet again, making it to the top five in both Germany and the U.K. The tune would be covered by many other acts, including Sylvie Vartan, Tony Sheridan and Slade. The Ramones’ version would be the sole cover on their debut album.

“California Sun” from Leave Home (1977)
Even though they were billed as a surf-rock band, The Rivieras hailed from South Bend, Indiana. (The waves on nearby Lake Michigan aren’t conducive to surfing.) The teenage foursome had a hit with “California Sun” in 1964, though the song itself dates from 1961, when first recorded by r&b singer and songwriter Joe Jones (early singles falsely credited notorious music figure and mobster Morris Levy as composer). The Rivieras’ cover held onto the singles charts for 10 weeks. The Ramones’ version – featured on their second LP – was also used in the film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

“Surfin’ Bird” from Rocket to Russia (1977)
One of the wackiest one hit wonders in pop music history is “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen. Released as a single in 1963, the two-minute song is actually a combination of two other songs previously recorded by other artists. But the Trashmen made the tune their own by adding an improvised vocal section to the middle. For their efforts, they earned the #4 spot on the Billboard singles chart. Their followup, “Bird Dance Beat “didn’t fare as well, and the group broke up by 1967. The Ramones’ amped-up cover of “Surfin’s Bird” is a highlight of their third LP.

“Needles and Pins” from Road to Ruin (1978)
There have been many recorded versions of “Needles and Pins,” the 1962 song written by producer-arrangers Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono. Jackie DeShannon had the first (minor) hit with it in ‘63; the Searchers followed with a worldwide smash (US #13, U.K. and elsewhere #1) in 1964. Moving a bit beyond their punk sound, the Ramones covered the song with jangling guitars on Road to Ruin. It wasn’t released as a single.

“Baby, I Love You” from End of the Century (1980)
In one of the oddest pairings in pop history, The Ramones worked with producer Phil Spector on their fifth album, 1980’s End of the Century. While the group’s bubblegum roots and affinity for girl-group songs had long been well known, Phil Spector’s signature “wall of sound” production approach was a radical departure for the Ramones. The album was nonetheless the band’s biggest-ever selling release. And while none of the group members played on it, Joey Ramone’s vocal has a quirky charm, backed by syrupy strings and drums (by famed session player Jim Keltner).