LETTING THE ELDRITCH SEEP- THE MONDO BIZARRO WORLD OF RAMONES
Letting the Eldritch Seep: The Mondo Bizarro World of Ramones
Ramones may be the most mainstream punk band in American musical history. The boldness of this claim is not lost on me. As a rabid consumer of pop (and pop-adjacent) music, I understand the kneejerk reaction to declare other bands, such as The Offspring or Blink-182, the most mainstream punk act of all time. But it is my assertion that no other musical act to emerge from the nascent Seventies punk scene managed to leave a vestige on popular entertainment as lasting as that of the Ramones.
Ask yourself this: outside of “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”—that most regrettable of pop-punk radio darlings—how often has The Offspring’s music found its way into the collective cultural consciousness?
In all probability, you’ll have to strain to remember the last time you woke up with “Come Out and Play” or “Self Esteem” rattling around in your brain basket. You’d have to strain that much harder to remember when skate park was still a term used in mainstream media.
Now, consider the presence of the Ramones’ music from 1979 to 2020. Between the release of the Roger Corman-produced Allan Arkush-directed teen musical comedy Rock ‘N Roll High School in ’79 and the appearance of “I Wanna Be Sedated” in television’s 9-1-1 Lone Star, the Ramones’ songs had been featured in approximately sixty movies, music specials, and episodic television programs.
What sets Ramones apart from other modern pop acts is their enduring genre appeal. Their songs have been used to score everything from pseudo-horror soap operas like The Vampire Diaries and dark indie thrillers like Better Watch Out (2016) to hit-or-miss Stephen King adaptations (1989’s Pet Sematary and 2017’s Mr. Mercedes) and dystopian action sequels (2015’s Terminator: Genisys).
One of their most controversial songs, the once-OOP “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” was even featured prominently in Rob Zombie’s garishly gory directorial debut, House of 1,000 Corpses. Despite their obvious embrace by the genre community, Ramones remain one of the most accessible acts in the annals of contemporary rock music. Their songs are used in television ad spots, shitty American sitcoms, and tentpole superhero movies.
Paradoxically, their iconic band logo (a spherical military-style crest replete with a bald eagle brandishing a baseball bat in one hand and an olive branch in the other) continues to be used as a symbol of angst, outsiderness and rebellion by Hollywood. Note the T-shirt worn by troubled teen Kinsey (Bailee Madison) in Johannes Roberts’ The Strangers Prey at Night.
Before Kinsey got her hands on it, Jack Black’s Dewey Finn passed it off on his adolescent bass player in the 2003 family flick School of Rock. This same design has been worn by Lily Tomlin’s aging bad-ass Frankie Bergstein in Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, Tracee Ellis Ross’s quirky Dr. Rainbow Johnson in TV’s Black-ish, and Shia LaBeouf’s aptly-named Kale Brecht in the early-2000s Hitchcock rip-off, Disturbia.
Most vexing of all is when we see it worn by John Cusack as some sort of faded indicator of street cred when appearing in a typical Hollywood rom-com. One can easily imagine the notoriously political Cusack justifying his wardrobe as if he’s using his platform as a mainstream Everyman to promote an obscure band. But Ramones are neither obscure nor in any dire need of being promoted, especially not in something like Must Love Dogs.
Nevertheless, Ramones’ widespread appeal—and the ease with which their catchy, fast and fun tunes have been homogenized to fit pop culture—has kept their music from being lost to time in the way other punk bands have been all but forgotten by the culture at large.
When’s the last time you heard someone mention Alkaline Trio or the mostly superior The Damned?
The key to their enduring fashionability may lie in their unyielding devotion to the dark and peculiar. Yes, their music was bubblegum and minimalist, its cords deliberately simple and its runtime geared towards the perpetually distracted. But this was by design. It’s interesting to note that most of their biggest hits are shorter than your average TikTok video.
All Ramones songs are catchy and poppy. Incidentally, they are also horrific. We can dig all the way through the slush pile to their self-titled debut to see that Ramones were interested in horror long before the horror genre was interested in Ramones. From unabashed movie celebrations like “Chainsaw” (a tune about Tobe Hooper’s post-‘Nam masterpiece) and “Pinhead” (a loving ode to Todd Browning’s Freaks) to satirical war whoops like “Blitzcrieg Bop” and Kafka-worthy breakdowns like “Anxiety,”
Ramones have always expressed a concern with the grisly nature of the times.
It is this interest in the absurd and the eldritch that may be responsible for Ramones’ continued value and the prevalence of their music in popular culture. Like the Rolling Stones’ prevailing radio fave “Gimme Shelter” with its Gospel clarion call of “Rape, murder, it’s just a shout away,” their music speaks directly to the heart of the modern human living amidst a baffling onslaught of daily atrocities.
This also explains why they were the perfect band to be tapped for the soundtrack of 1989’s Pet Sematary. Ramones were just bouncy and commercial enough to be palatable to an eighties moviegoing audience but just dark and arcane enough to render the tone of King’s mass market classic.
The chorus says it all:
“I don’t wanna be buried
In a pet sematary.
I don’t want to
live my life again.”
There has never been a pop group as embedded in the collective consciousness of horror fans without becoming a novelty act along the way. No exceptions. Oingo Boingo, you say? My point exactly! When your music is played at Six Flags’ Fright Fest, you lose a great deal of credibility. But Ramones never pandered to horror fans, they were horror fans, and they so happened to be the greatest or, at least, most accessible pop-punk band of their generation.
Ramones are worth celebrating today because, despite what some episode of MacGyver or Parenthood might have you believe, they never strayed from the path of macabre musical purity. For evidence of this, one need look no further than 1992’s Mondo Bizarro; the album’s title (an allusion to the snuff film reality of the Twentieth Century) tells us everything we need to know about the band’s outlook on life in the wake of the Bosnian War, the Gulf War (“Anxiety”), and Tipper Gore’s crusade against free speech (“Censorshit”).
Tracks like “Cabbie on Crack” and “The Job That Ate My Brain” capture a sense of workplace dread that’s every bit as tangible as anything documented in Kafka’s The Trial, Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, or Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. This is working class horror at its most raw and, yes, catchy as fuck.
Bob Freville is the author of The Filthy Marauders (The Evil Cookie Publishing), The Proud and the Dumb (Godless) and The Network People (Bizarro Pulp Press). You can follow his sporadic ramblings at moderncustodian.substack.com or leave creepy comments on his sporadically-curated Instagram @bobfreville