It's easy to look at Rhino's 2005 box set Weird Tales of the Ramones and wonder whether it's necessary. After all, there are albums for Ramones fans of all stripes: a single disc of hits for the casual fan, a double-disc set for those who love the Ramones but don't want all the albums, then, of course, the original records -- all of the prime Sire albums from the '70s and early '80s were recently reissued in expanded editions by Rhino -- for all true rockers. These should satisfy every different audience the band has, so why bother with a box set? The answer to the question is that Weird Tales of the Ramones isn't really a CD box set, even though it contains three career-spanning CDs compiled by the late Johnny Ramone -- it's a collectable, an object of art, one that's closer to being a book augmented by three CDs and a DVD than a conventional CD box set. More precisely, it's a 54-page comic book hidden inside a hardcover book that's designed like an oversized comic. It will not fit neatly next to the other box sets in your collection, which is appropriate, since Weird Tales of the Ramones is not like other box sets. Although the three discs do a good job of tracing the band's career, hitting nearly all of the high points along with more lows than necessary -- there is a palpable, unavoidable dip in quality that arrives midway through the second disc that no amount polishing or selective editing can save -- the music is nearly beside the point: the discs function as the soundtrack to the myth the entire set sells. And make no mistake, this is all about myths and comic book heroes, what fans wanted the Ramones to be -- what the band seemed to be, on their first four albums -- rather than what they actually were. It's the antidote to the blunt, honest, wholly depressing feature-length documentary End of the Century, which made no secret of the bandmembers' disdain for each other and their business-like approach to being in a band. Such animosity and discord are gleefully ignored by the 25 comic artists whose interpretations of the Ramones are the heart and soul of this set.
John Holstrom, a co-founder of Punk magazine who provided illustrations to Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin, appropriately gets the keynote story and dispenses with a cartoon version of the basic history -- which is then augmented by Jordan Crane's brief run-through of the band's lineup changes -- but that's it as far as hard facts go. After that, it's all rock & roll fantasy: tales of the Ramones riding around the world as a gang, having outlandish adventures; stories of meeting a Ramone, usually Joey, in the flesh; wondrous re-creations of classic comic art, the flashiest being a 3-D homage to EC horror comics by Steve Vance and John Vankin, but that's topped by Wayno's sublime "Sea-Markys" send-up of Sea Monkeys. There are illustrated anecdotes, one too many allegories of how the band saved rock & roll, pictures of the band drawn as Dr. Seuss characters, encounters with Betty & Veronica and Homer Simpson, while Mad's Sergio Aragones draws a typical chaotic scene of a Ramones concert. There's such a wide range that Johnny Ryan's cheerfully moronic, violent, and vulgar comic strips sit comfortably next to Steven Weissman's story of Liz Fox, a 15 year old who is the outcast at her high school and finds not just solace in the Ramones, but how the group suggests that there is a bigger, better, smarter world out there.
These two stories coexist comfortably because the Ramones represented both extremes simultaneously -- sure, they celebrated bad taste and danced with danger, but their music was smartly stupid, knowing, and knowledgeable about pop music. In their heyday -- and, truth be told, also in the years just after their heyday, when they trudged through the '80s as a working band, turning out muddled records yet still retaining their '70s mystique -- being a Ramones fan meant that you were an outsider, something different from the norm. Once that era passed, it was no longer a given that being a Ramones fan meant that you were part of a subculture. As they launched their farewell tour in the mid-'90s, they were playing for an audience that embraced them for what they represented -- namely, an idealized version of the glory days of punk -- not who they were or the music they made. They were playing to an audience that either were too young or too square to get them at the time, and in the decade between that breakup and this box set, the situation has metamorphosed into full-blown farce, as the Ramones not only sold more T-shirts and were better-known than they were during their prime, but "Blitzkrieg Bop" had been used as a soundtrack to a Diet Pepsi ad without any acknowledgement of the dark, ironic undercurrents in the song.
What's brilliant about Weird Tales of the Ramones is that it ignores all of this and prints the myth, which remains as inspirational and timeless as their best music. As wonderful as this is, there is a melancholy undercurrent to this whole set. The trajectory of the band's music itself is a little sad. What was once so bracing and fresh starts to slowly stagnate only a few years after their 1976 debut. While these three discs do a decent job of camouflaging the group's decline -- not only did Johnny Ramone do an excellent job of cherry-picking the best moments from uneven records, great bands like the Ramones are always listenable and rarely truly bad -- their songwriting turned flat somewhere after 1985, and their productions were getting too hard, glossy, and polished well before that, all of which makes the last half of this set a little hard to get through in one sitting. The DVD is uneven, starting out strong with a few excellent clips like the classic "Merry Christmas Baby (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" and the time-lapse photography "I Wanna Be Sedated," but devolving into too many performance clips. By the end of the 18 videos, it's clear that the comic book artists visually capture the spirit of the Ramones better than the video directors. And this comic book is truly something special: lovingly produced, funny, and oddly moving, it captures both the essence of the band and what their legions of fans saw in the group.
Once the book has been read, a revelation hits you like a ton of bricks: everything that Weird Tales of the Ramones celebrates is gone. It's been 30 years since the group's debut. Three quarters of the original lineup of the Ramones are dead. CBGB's was struggling to survive the very month this box was released. Many of the visual references in the comic book are anywhere from 30 to 50 years old. Kids don't read comics any more, adults do. (It could even be convincingly argued that kids aren't into rock & roll anymore, either.) The culture that produced the Ramones is gone, and the culture they spawned has changed too, drifting away from the riotous amalgam of high and low culture that was punk and turning into something slick, soulless, crass, and small. Sure, Weird Tales of the Ramones disregards what punk became and celebrates the band at its peak and it's undeniably fun in that, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this is a tombstone, a memorial to the midpoint of the rock & roll era, when everything old was new again and when the music had inherent kinetic excitement and limitless potential. This may not make it a necessary purchase for most rock & roll fans -- chances are they already have the music, and there are no real musical rarities here -- but people who had their lives changed by rock & roll or love it unconditionally will find the whole of this set both life-affirming and startlingly poignant. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine