The Ramones are special. You're supposed to either love them or hate their guts, but merely liking the Ramones or saying, "Well, they're sort of okay" just doesn't seem like a possible perspective. At their best, the Ramones were so extreme, uncompromised, and fervently dedicated to pushing music to its absolute limits of existence, that calling them mediocre or passable seems like an insult. They're either great or they're terrible: Each of these perspectives has a right to exist, and music fans all around the world are divided in two approximately equal halves based on this criterion.
Their early music, especially the debut album (once you get past the sonic blasts and the monotonousness of the sound), contains some of the catchiest melodies ever written -- don't mind if they're all stolen, because that's beyond the point. The sound -- that raging, provocative, uncompromised attack on the senses -- manages to form a sequence of melodic lines and entertain you. It is, at the same time, extremely avant-garde (for its time, at least) and a perfectly sincere, emotional, involving performance, accessible to anyone as long as that "anyone" bothers to approach it with an open mind and, what's more important, an open heart.
The Ramones would eventually fall into their own trap, of course -- with this kind of formula, even more limited than that used by AC/DC, it was pretty hard to continue for decades without failing. After four classy albums and one almost-classy one (End of the Century) began their wallow into pleasant mediocrity and vain attempts to recapture their former magic for almost two decades more.
Halfway to Sanity represents the closest that the Ramones ever got to being all-out metal, and, as a point in their substantial timeline, finds the band at their most insipid, artificial, and bipolar. Are they metal or are they punk? The Ramones themselves did not seem to know when they recorded this album.
Representing the metal side are trashy failures such as "I Wanna Live" and "I'm Not Jesus," the latter being penned by Richie, easily the worst Ramone ever. "I'm Not Jesus" rips along at a demonic pace, which, if you ask me, is ridiculous, because I can't ever see the Ramones competing with the likes of Slayer. They don't even have a proper Cookie Monster vocalist! At almost three minutes long, the song properly takes its place among the worst piles of shit the band has committed to tape.
Also in the mix is a strange `60s influence, as evidenced on forced tracks such as "Go Lil Camaro Go," "A Real Cool Time" and "Bye Bye Baby," the latter being an embarrassing girl group-type ballad. The milder the Ramones got, the more they started sounding like nothing but a lame parody of their bubblegum idols. The "pure enjoyability" factor is somewhat present, but when you deal with a band that operates on the three-chord mentality, steals most of their riffs from predecessors, and sings lyrics that are unsophisticated, you need that extra punch to make it work, and the production on Halfway to Insanity is lacking. The primal energy is gone, and even though some of the songs are passable, I can't even remember most of them afterwards.
"Bop 'Til You Drop" may be the only worthwhile song on here. Johnny's chugging guitar on the chorus is `80s metal, but then it blasts right back into three-chord heaven that reminded me of something off of Rocket to Russia. The lyrical reference to "Cretin Hop" seems like a forced attempt to recapture the greatness of their younger years, but on this album one must settle for anything that recalls those days.
Looking back at this album with a comfortable amount of hindsight, one sees that almost all of its songs are of the "look at us, we're seriously fucked" variety. Well, at least you can't accuse the Ramones of acting inadequate -- they see their problem and they feel crappy about it. "Stop this crazy carrying on," sings Joey. I have absolutely no idea why they didn't, given their evident decline. You can't say that they didn't see they were trapped inside their image, and yet they never did anything to break the vicious circle. On the other hand, who are we to say when a band should break up and when it shouldn't? The Ramones felt like it shouldn't, and that was their decision. They just couldn't imagine their fate without the Ramones -- and to break the conglomerate would be a brave and extremely risky thing to do.
Despite all that the Ramones did for music, and the four classics that they left us, as a document of music from the `80s, Halfway to Sanity rates no more than a single star.
For completists only.
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