The Ramones had gotten too far from their core in the early eighties. Fruitless efforts to win over radio had transformed the boys from Queens into a pop band. It was time to recapture the inspired simplicity of their formative years. Hailed as their comeback record, Too Tough To Die recaptures the excitement of the early days.
It was like 1978 all over again. Not only had Tommy reprised his role as producer, The Ramones also had a brand new drummer. Replacing the recently fired Marky, Richie Ramone seemed determined to play faster than his predecessors.
Of course, Tommy was not the sole producer during those ’78 sessions. Ed Stasium had worked as an engineer while recording Leave Home and Rocket to Russia before co-producing Road to Ruin. Stasium was now recalled to produce Too Tough to Die.
Despite the links to the seventies, Too Tough to Die was not purely an attempt at recapturing the past. It was entirely about the present. This tougher, stronger Ramones had something for everyone.
“Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)” could have been a hit if radio only played it. Chosen as the single with its own promotional video, the song would also become a standout track on the compilation Ramones Mania.
“Durango 95” is a rare instrumental. Stripped down to 56 seconds of pure energy, the song became a concert staple. Years later, “Durango ’95” would open the sets immortalized on Loco Live, Greatest Hits Live, and We’re Outta Here!
Dee Dee assumed lead vocals for not one but TWO songs. Both were amphetamine-fueled doses of speed that utilized the talents of Richie. Having no problem keeping up with the beat, Dee Dee yelps the lyrics with ease.
“Wart Hog” finds Dee Dee confronting his drug addiction head-on.
I take some dope, I feel so sick
It’s a sick world, sick, sick, sick,
Doomsday visions of junkies and fags
Artificial phonies, I hate it, hate it
Ramones lyrics always had dark qualities, but these songs were typically balanced with humor. Not so with “Wart Hog.” There is nothing funny about heroin addiction and Dee Dee takes great pains to underscore the misery of a dope addict.
I wanna puke, I can’t sit still
Just took some dope and I feel ill
It’s a sick world, sick, sick, sick
It’s a hopeless life, I hate it, hate it
Dee Dee’s tale of addiction may have been too disturbing for print. A casual glance at the lyric sheet seems to poke fun at the breakneck pace that Dee Dee spits out lyrics. In reality, it appears that the grit and suffering of a strung-out dope fiend have no place on the inner sleeve of a Ramones record.
Dee Dee’s contributions help set the tone for what is overall a very dark album. “Endless Vacation” is equally disturbing.
I kill myself kill the pain
A suicide death a suicide game
My skull he’s bleaching in the dust
My rage turns to insane lust
Dee Dee repeats the refrain of “Endless Vacation” with a voice that is at once melodic and dissonant. It’s a perfect mocking punk voice full of snotty self-abandon. As with “Wart Hog,” vocals are spit out in time with breakneck drums. The song is a dizzying tug of war between melody and aggression.
Naturally it’s not all doom and gloom. “Chasing the Night” is a song of boundless optimism that celebrates youth, nightlife and possibility. The song also benefits from solid production. Synthesizers actually work in a Ramones song. Who knew?
Still, dark themes haunt Too Tough to Die more than any Ramones record in the past. “I’m Not Afraid of Life” lays out a laundry list of struggles. Poverty, homelessness, mental health and the threat of nuclear holocaust paint a bleak picture of modern life. While many of these themes were not new to The Ramones, the lack of humor is. A sense of stubborn hope is implied from the song’s defiant stance, but optimism is minimal.
Sappy love songs courtesy of Joey had become a staple of Ramones records. Too Tough To Die features a love song, but one that’s miles apart from “She’s a Sensation.” Keeping with the dark vibe of the album, “Daytime Dilemma (Dangers of Love)” is a tale of infidelity. In the atmosphere of Too Tough To Die, love is a source of pain, not salvation.
“Danger Zone” upholds the Ramones tradition of writing songs for rejects and cretins. The lines “They say you’re just an awkward kid/You flipped your lid/You flipped your lid” could describe the typical Ramones fan. There’s also a shout-out to New York City as themes of an unstable world persist. “Danger Zone” is classic Ramones!
In the end, Too Tough To Die was the band’s lowest charting album to date. Still, the record stands as both the darkest and fastest offering in the Ramones discography. It would also be the last time Tommy Ramone lent his touch to the knobs, making it the final album to feature all four original members. Listening with fresh ears, it’s clear that Too Tough To Die is among the finest efforts in the vast Ramones catalogue.