In 1985, with its members now in their thirties and the acclaim surrounding them having quieted down, the Ramones found themselves drifting further and further away from the unadorned and simple ideals of their youth. It just so happened that at one point they must have shaken off the druggy haze and said, “Hey! This punk thing is happening without us!” Of course, punk as a worldwide phenomenon that combined rebellious and commercial aspects had long been extinguished, but independent scenes still thrived, and hundreds of hardcore bands were now making music louder, meaner, and faster than the Ramones. It was nowhere near as catchy and, I would say, transcended the brilliance of the Ramones into the absurdity of Minor Threat (sorry, I'm not a hardcore fan), but the world didn't seem to need the Ramones anymore.
At that time, Dee Dee presided over the band. Drummer Marky was gone, and newcomer Ritchie was all too happy to follow directions; Johnny didn't give a damn as long as he didn't have to change his playing style (not knowing any other); and Joey had been declining, at least quantity-wise, as a songwriter. This left the one true punk of the band, Dee Dee, to lead them through the second half of the eighties. And his motto was: back to the past. So they returned back to Tommy Ramone and handed him the production reins, his true forte. Dee Dee wrote the majority of the songs on Too Tough to Die, steering as clear from the happy vibes as the rest of the band and his own sensibility allowed him. And?
Well, it's sort of a half-assed success -- a success plagued with disappointments and disillusionment, but a clear improvement over most of their previous output of the eighties. Firstly, I must express my disgust for these lyrics: “S’wrong with you boys? / The solution to peace isn't clear / The terrorist threat is a modern fear.” Wow. Thank you, Dee Dee, for opening my eyes on the matter. Yes, everybody keeps talking about the Ramones' ever-growing political and social awareness, and how it distinguishes their early who-gives-a-fuck albums from their later I-sure-give-one albums. Well, I prefer their earlier attitude. If I want to hear political commentary, the least I can do is go listen to the sermons of Joe Strummer, who is smarter and better educated on the matter than the Ramones -- while at the same time being just as honest. However, it's not just the political commentary. The lyrics in general are getting more “complex.” Farewell, early minimalism. Nowadays, when you want to express anger, you have to cope with the following poetic genius: “But I see an old lady with a shopping bag / And I wonder is life a drag,” sung at face value. The criterion "smart/stupid" doesn't really apply to the Ramones’ lyrics, but the criterion "interesting/uninteresting" does, and Too Tough to Die is a formal return to the days of old which fails to capture the true spirit of those days.
Not to mention Dee Dee's laughable attempts to catch up with the present: His hardcore send-ups “Warthog” and “Endless Vacation” are dumb, unfunny, uncatchy, and derivative pieces of crap, crowned by his, um, “vocals.” In a better age, the band might have worked on these more and fine-tuned them into humorous numbers, but not today. Today, Dee Dee is just angry, and that's that.
Fortunately, most of the other songs are quite good. So the lyrics suck (ignore them) and their attempts at hardcore are as unique as Carlos Mencia’s comedy routines, but the return-to-basics approach manages to energize the band, and when that energy is married to a good hook, the result can't even be spoiled by the occasional bleating synths. Even better is the doo-wop-meets-bubblegum insanity of “Howling at the Moon,” which surprisingly is the least Ramones-sounding tune on here, with its huge electronic drums and keyboards. Despite a lack of trademark buzzsaw guitars, spiritually the song captures the band’s exuberant essence and is a clear highlight.
Of the angrier rockers, one should probably single out “Mama's Boy” and the title track, both of which use syllable repetition to the required so-dumb-it's-brilliant effect. “Danger Zone” is slightly weakened by the pseudo-hardcore “you flipped your lid” mid-section, but gets redeemed by the flaming guitar solo (yes, by now they do solos) and the catchy chorus. The 50-second instrumental “Durango 95” will get any punk going, and even became a regular concert opener for the band. This generally dark album ends with the surprising “No Go,” a sunny piece of rockabilly that would put Tiger Army to shame.
Despite their attempt to surpass the other punk bands and regain their prominent place at the helm of the genre with Too Tough to Die, the Ramones never did. What could they do anyway? You can't reinvent punk rock every few years, especially not with the insane amount of people willing to do it. All you can do is, well, get tough; chances are, they'll hear you kicking ass and they'll at least stop crying about selling out. And the Ramones got together and got tough -- perhaps with mixed results, but with the kind of energy that recalled their best years.