why Ramones’ ‘Leave Home’ is their best album
I never like to credit one band with starting an entire genre, and if I credited the Ramones with doing so, I wouldn't even be right. The term may not have existed at the time, but bands like The Stooges and the New York Dolls were making music before the Ramones even formed that would still qualify as punk -- not proto-punk -- today. (And of course, from The Who and The Kinks to The Velvet Underground to The Sonics, there are plenty of clear predecessors to punk that go back even further.) But there is a good argument to be made that the Ramones' 1976 debut album solidified the formula that punk still uses today. On the Ramones' debut album, almost every song was delivered with the short, fast, and loud formula that went on to define punk. Even the one "ballad" ("I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend") sounded more like today's definition of punk than like the '60s girl groups that inspired it. "Search and Destroy" was as punk as it gets, but "Gimme Danger" wasn't. After the first Ramones album, there was an almost instant sea change within the genre. 1977 -- the year punk first became a widely established genre -- saw debut albums from The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Damned, and Dead Boys that all followed in the footsteps of the Ramones' debut (whether or not those bands admitted it). When punk split into hardcore, new wave, and post-punk, the hardcore bands pushed the sounds of the Ramones' debut to its most aggressive limits while the new wave/post-punk bands followed more in the footsteps of fellow CBGB regulars like Television, Talking Heads, and Blondie. When punk entered the mainstream during the '90s pop punk boom, the Ramones were among the clearest precedents (alongside the Buzzcocks, the Descendents, Bad Religion... all of whom took cues from the Ramones themselves). Punk is back out of the mainstream charts today, but plenty of the genre's leading bands still utilize the Ramones formula, and the Ramones' music and iconography are both still omnipresent and widely influential.
The Ramones' debut album is their most significant contribution to culture, but their sophomore album Leave Home -- one of two Ramones album released in punk's breakout year of 1977 (along with Rocket to Russia) -- is their finest hour. If you're ranking the band's discography, the top four could pretty much be the band's first four albums in any order and it would be entirely reasonable. Leave Home is my favorite, but the self-titled debut, Rocket to Russia, and 1978's Road to Ruin are only a hair behind. No Ramones fan's collection is complete without all four (and, while they never made an album as nearly perfect as the first four again, they released tons of other essential songs over the years), but when forced to pick just one, I always say Leave Home. Leave Home had much better production than the Ramones' debut did (they had a bigger budget and they made it with co-producer Tony Bongiovi, whose credits included Gloria Gaynor and Jimi Hendrix, and who went on to co-produce Rocket to Russia), and it still sounded more raw and punk than Road to Ruin or any Ramones album that came after that. It's also more timeless sounding than both the debut and the later stuff -- there are still bands today who try to make records that sound like Leave Home. It's not just the production that makes Leave Home an improvement on the Ramones' classic debut, though. They were also a better, faster, harder-hitting band on Leave Home. The debut has countless iconic punk songs like "Beat on the Brat," "Judy Is A Punk," and of course "Blitzkrieg Bop," but the sound of Leave Home is arguably more influential than the sound of the debut. Hardcore bands that took after the Ramones took after "Pinhead" more than they took after anything on the debut, and the pop punk bands of the '90s can be traced right back to punchy songs like "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment." Some of the best Ramones songs are on Road to Ruin and even later albums than that, but Road to Ruin is when the Ramones start to deviate from writing albums that are strictly within the wholly unique world they created. The first three (which are also the only three with original drummer Tommy Ramone) are the Ramones at their purest, and Leave Home is the one in the Goldilocks Zone.
While Leave Home is often overshadowed by the debut because the debut came first and is therefore more groundbreaking, Leave Home is more than just a refinement of the sound the debut created. It's stacked top to bottom with some of their catchiest, funniest, darkest, sweetest, and most iconic songs. Songs of war ("Commando") and murder ("Glad To See You Go") sound as sugary sweet as the love songs ("Oh Oh I Love Her So"). The ballads ("I Remember You," "What's Your Game") sound as punk as the harder/heavier songs ("Pinhead," "Now I Wanna Be A Good Boy"). "I Remember You" is one if -- if not the -- best ballads of the Ramones' career. It's sharper and more affecting than "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" from the debut and more driving than ballads on subsequent albums like "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" and "Don't Come Close" that brought in jangly acoustic guitars. "Pinhead" isn't as widely loved as "Blitzkrieg Bop," but it's just as crucial to the Ramones' status as icons and arguably a better song. "Blitzkrieg Bop" gave us "Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" but "Pinhead" gave us "Gabba Gabba Hey." "Pinhead" also gave us the shouted "D-U-M-B / Everyone's accusing me!" and it's hard to imagine generation after generation of punk bands with gang vocals if not for that line. "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" (which was technically released as a single after Leave Home came out, but which replaced "Carbona Not Glue" on most US versions of Leave Home after the first pressing, and was also included on Rocket to Russia) is among the band's finest moments as pop songwriters. Other memobrale moments include the way Joey Ramone sings "Swallow My Pride" on the song of the same name, the way he sings "ey!" on "You're Gonna Kill That Girl," the way the band shouts "FIRST RULE... IS!" (and so on) on "Commando" -- so many things that only the Ramones can do, or at least that the Ramones did first, and all on this same album.
Most Ramones albums -- especially the early ones -- also had cover songs, and Leave Home has one of their strongest covers, "California Sun." Ramones do The Rivieras' 1964 surf rock version of the Henry Glover-penned 1960 song, and Ramones weren't even the first band to turn it into a punk song (The Dictators did that in 1975), but all these years later, no version of "California Sun" is more iconic than the Ramones. They really knew how to take a song and turn it into their own, and as much as they went on to do great takes on "Do You Wanna Dance?," "Needles and Pins," "Time Has Come Today," and other songs, "California Sun" just might be their most essential cover.
The most common criticism that Leave Home faces is that it was just more of the same after the debut, and yes the Ramones had a signature style that they stuck to, but Leave Home really has its own vibe within the context of the Ramones' discography. More than any other Ramones album, Leave Home mirrors the band's legendary high-speed live show. Nearly all the songs -- even the "slow" ones -- zip by at a pace that still feels exhilarating today, even with the invention of much heavier, faster music in the time since 1977. There isn't a song worth skipping, and the highs on this album are among the highest highs of the band's career. Both Leave Home's popular songs and its deeper cuts are among the best songs the band ever wrote, and there's nothing on this album that gets old. Every time you put it on, it feels like the first time.
Stream Leave Home and watch some live videos of its songs below...
For more Ramones, epix just released a four part documentary series on punk. I haven't actually seen it, but the LA screening Q&A where Johnny Rotten and Marky Ramone exchanged words, was very entertaining.