1986 will go down in the annals of music history as one of its worst years ever. "Artificial," "pre-packaged," "innocuous" -- these are all adjectives which accurately describe three-quarters of the albums released that year. Even bands who had previously demonstrated innovation and integrity corrupted their sound and sold their guitars to join the synthesizer revolution, or devolution. What did we expect of the Ramones? To make a generic synth-pop album?
Hey, you got it! Animal Boy is a generic synth-pop album! At least, in parts. But it's far from the worst I've ever heard.
After the minor resurgence of the Ramones with Too Tough to Die, the band decided to leave behind co-producers Ed Stasium and Tommy Erdelyi (original drummer Tommy Ramone). The production of Animal Boy was entrusted to ex-Plasmatics bass player Jean Beauvoir after he produced the album's first single, "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg." The problem with that single applies to the album as a whole: electronics, in the form of echo (on both the metallized guitars and the robotized drums) and cheesy keyboards, is everywhere on here. Yet the synthesizer onslaught did happen to coincide with the band's desire to get back to their roots, and I can't say overproduction spoils the record a whole lot. It does spoil the very last song, their parody of Michael Jackson's "We Are the World" campaign -- their 'universal anthem' "Something to Believe In" -- although you really wouldn't know it for a parody if it weren't for the controversial video that accompanied it. Without the video, the song is little more than a pretentious throwaway, made even worse by the fact that it's the Ramones, of all people, who are displaying pretentiousness.
Another point of contention is how little Joey contributes to the proceedings. He's got only two songs here, one of which ("Hair of the Dog") doesn't register anywhere for a hundred miles in sight. The other one, "Mental Hell," however, is exceptional -- perhaps the one true classic off this record. Its three-note riff is recycled as usual, but by 1986, I've really lost count, so I could care less. The fact is, the riff is angry and edgy, and Joey's "I'm not feeling very well, I'm not feeling very well" shakes across the room in such a manner that you actually start to wonder if he really was feeling very well, which I seriously doubt. The song's frantic conclusion -- "Mental! HELL MENTAL! HELL MENTAL! HELL!" -- should be paid serious attention. It's arguably the wildest, most desperate yell of paranoia that Joey has ever let out so far, and considering the fact that it was he -- the good-natured goof of the band -- who wrote that song, well, it both scares and impresses me.
On the downside, Dee Dee is still playing the fool with his hardcore send-ups: "Eat That Rat" is every bit as moronic and unlistenable as "Wart Hog," except that Dee Dee slows down the speed of his vocal delivery to let us hear the political message of the song: "You wanna play a game of cat and mouse / With the president in the White House." Not much better is the title track, which at least rolls along at a reasonable pace and allows Johnny to play something vaguely resembling a riff consisting of more than one chord. The Ramones rarely need more than three chords, but they always need more than one. The Ramones on one chord is as much of a ridiculous thing as the Ramones on fifteen chords.
Besides this, there's not much to add. Richie Ramone contributes a song called "Somebody Put Something in My Drink" (supposedly based on his experience of consuming a cocktail spiked with LSD), and it meshes with the band's spirit -- although musically it is more of a metallic Judas Priest-style
anthem. Then again, who really cares? If the Ramones want to play some heavy metal on their album, I won't protest as long as it does what good heavy metal is supposed to do. Does it? Well, the vocal melody is catchy and an emotional flow is present. Let's not forget, actually, that the Ramones were primarily recognized for their vocal hooks; personally, I ceased paying major attention to whatever Johnny was playing after Road to Ruin. All that's necessary is that there be more than one chord present.
While nowhere near as bad as the triumvirate of tripe that would follow, this album's lack of an organic sound quality hinders it in the long run. In all honesty, it's a chore to get through Animal Boy in one sitting -- and we're talking about a 31-minute record. While passable when enjoyed in small, scattered doses, Animal Boy is best left locked in its cage. Or case.