Undisputed kings of the three-chord thrash and arguably responsible for punk rock, it took over 10 years and the theme song to a Stephen King film to secure serious US chart success for the Ramones...
Before them came the proto-punk New York Dolls. In their wake, on the other side of the Atlantic, the more aggressively nihilistic Sex Pistols. Yet, in America, the Ramones were the ultimate punk band, melding a requisite devil-may-care attitude and stripped-down, no-nonsense, four-chord rock & roll with catchy pop melodies and warped bubblegum-style lyrics that appeared to have taken a left turn out of the early 1960s — "DDT did a job on me/Now I'm a real sickie/Guess I'll have to break the news/That I got no mind to lose/All the girls are in love with me/I'm a teenage lobotomy." Sun and surf, girls and glue... The American Dream had been put through the blender.
All nice middle-class boys from Queens, New York, Jeffrey Hyman (aka drummer Joey Ramone), John Cummings (guitarist Johnny Ramone) and Douglas Colvin (singer/bass player Dee Dee Ramone) got together in 1974, with Tom Ederlyi (Tommy Ramone) as their manager, and played their first gig on March 30th of that year at New York's Performance Studios. Within a couple of months, Joey had taken over on vocals, Tommy had filled his place on drums, and by the summer the band had secured a residency at CBGB's on the Lower East Side, playing 20-minute sets of rapid-fire sub-two-minute songs. Energetic, unsophisticated and rife with tension, their shows encapsulated the burgeoning punk ethic, and in August 1975, having attracted a regular cult following, the Ramones signed a contract with Sire Records.
The next year was a breakthrough one for the band. In the spring of 1976 their eponymous debut album, recorded for just over $6000, was released to critical acclaim and just failed to crack the Top 100 on the US Billboard chart. Then an appearance at London's Roundhouse on July 4th, second-billed to the Flamin' Groovies, served to kick-start the British punk scene, before a repeat performance by both bands the following month, at the Roxy on Sunset Strip, had a similar effect in LA. A second album, Leave Home, was released towards the end of the year, climbed to number 48 on the British chart in the spring of 1977 and spawned the Top 40 UK hit, 'Sheena Is A Punk Rocker'. Nevertheless, even this modest success continued to elude the group in the US, and this remained true through the next two classic Ramones albums, Rocket To Russia (1977) and the somewhat more ambitious and textured Road To Ruin, which saw Marc Bell (Marky Ramone) taking over on drums for Tommy, who stayed on in a production capacity.
Although the 1978 demise of the Sex Pistols signalled an end to punk's halcyon period, the Ramones kept going, releasing a live double album of a 1977 performance at London's Rainbow Theatre, and also appearing in — as well as on the soundtrack album of — the Roger Corman movie Rock & Roll High School, while embarking on what would turn out to be a traumatic, if somewhat triumphant, collaboration with production legend, Phil Spector. At one point during the sessions, Spector indulged his now-famous penchant for guns by pointing one at Dee Dee and ordering him to play a specific bass riff over and over again. Not exactly conducive to open-minded improvisation. Yet, the resulting album, End Of The Century, although moving away from the Ramones' trademark thrash-pop sound, as previously captured by engineer Ed Stasium, towards the tighter one of their producer — and who could blame them for not arguing? — did at least make an impact on the US charts, peaking at 44, while also achieving Top 10 single success in the UK with a cover of the Ronettes' 'Baby I Love You'.
That was in 1980, and the decline in critical acclaim and die-hard following that commenced with End Of The Century continued throughout the rest of the decade and a succession of mostly slick-sounding albums, during which Marky quit and subsequently rejoined the group. The one exception, at least in commercial terms, was the theme song to Stephen King's 1989 horror movie hit, Pet Sematary, wriiten by Dee Dee and sometime-Ramones producer Daniel Rey. Although dismissed by certain hardcore fans because of its relatively polished, film-oriented patina, this still stands as a bona-fide Ramones classic, one that garnered plenty of US radio play while peaking at number four on Billboard's 'Modern Rock Tracks' chart. As such, it was arguably the band's last hurrah.
"I remember Howard Stern playing it on his radio show while I was driving one morning and I heard him call it his record of the year," says Fernando Kral, who engineered the song at New York City's Sigma Sound Studios alongside producer Jean Beauvoir. "Still, I have to admit I was surprised it did as well as it did. Sure, the production was good and so was the guys' playing, but they weren't giving the fans a traditional Ramones record. A case of 'This is a risky move, let's see what happens.' The safety net was that it was for a film soundtrack, and when the film did well at the box office, the song did well, too."
Born in Colombia, raised in New York, high-schooled in Florida, Kral began his music business career at the age of 19 in 1981 at an eight-track studio named White Rabbit in Sausalito, California, serving as a gofer, assistant and eventually full-fledged engineer. After a couple of years, on the advice of fellow engineer Tom Lubin, Kral then opted to really learn his craft by interviewing for jobs at the large, multi-room facilities on the East Coast — "where I could at least walk in through the front door; on the West Coast I wouldn't even get past the gate."
The result was a staff position at New York's Media Sound, assisting on sessions for Luther Vandross, Was Not Was and numerous jingles, before moving on to Sigma Sound and working on projects by Bon Jovi, the B52s, Whitney Houston, Grover Washington Jr, George Benson and Talking Heads. The NY sister facility to Sigma's four-room Philadelphia complex — founded by Joe Tarsia in 1968, and associated with the 'Philly Sound' of soul songwriters and producers Gamble and Huff — was housed within a Broadway skyscraper (formerly the Ed Sullivan Theater, now the venue for Late Night With David Letterman). It contained three rooms of its own, including the main one for tracking, Studio 5.
Fernando Kral had first met Jean Beauvoir in 1983, when working on the former Plasmatics bass player's solo album at Media Sound, and five years later, in late November or early December 1988, Beauvoir called Kral out of the blue to ask if he was interested in engineering a movie theme song by the Ramones.
"'Pet Sematary' would end up being included on their Brain Drain album," says Kral, "but at that stage there was no album in the works. It probably helped that Jean knew I'd already worked on some movie soundtracks, because that's what this song was specifically for."
The Ramones were in the midst of week-long rehearsals at SIR on Manhattan's West Side when Kral subsequently met them and familiarised himself with the track, and this was then recorded in Studio 5 at Sigma on Thursday, December 15th. Overdubs were done later that night and all day Friday, including those for the lead vocal, and thereafter the mix was completed in just a few hours on the Saturday and delivered on Sunday the 17th.
Studio 5 comprised a 45 by 25 foot, low-ceilinged, all-wood-construction live area, backing onto a control room that housed a 40-channel SSL 5000 console with E-series EQs, a Studer A800 24-track tape machine, Urei 813 monitors, Yamaha NS10 near-fields and a then-typical array of outboard gear, including EMT 140 plates, EMT 240 gold-foil reverb, EMT 250 R2D2 digital reverb, AMS delay, RMX reverb and a Publison Infernal Machine.
"At that time, we used Ampex tape, almost always with a +6 alignment on the 24-track, and no Dolby," Kral recalls. "There was a Neve sidecar with a dozen modules, including mic preamps for all the drums. Bass and guitar would also go into those Neve modules, and then not into the board and bussed, but directly patched into each track. That meant we'd control the level to tape with either the mic preamp itself or coming out of the preamp into a compressor of some kind. Typically speaking, it would be something like a really fast Dbx on the kick drum, [Teletronix] LA-2As on the snare and on the bass DI, and another Neve sidecar compressor or fast Dbx on the guitar. All of this just allowed for a better tonal quality, and it also spoke to the taste of Jean Beauvoir, who hated the sound of real drums. The gated snare was totally him, and once I'd set up the effects he'd reach over and everything would go to '11'. I have to say, it worked really great."
Looking straight ahead from behind the desk, Marky Ramone's drum kit backed onto the window separating the live area from the control room — adjacent to the snakes for the mic cables — and was recorded with an AKG C451 on the hi-hat, Sennheiser 421 on the kick, Shure SM57 on top of the snare, 421s on the toms, Neumann U87s as overheads, and also as near and far room mics.
"That was semi-standard back then," says Kral. "It was my rock setup, and fairly consistent at that time. I mean, we're talking about the Ramones."
To the left of the kit, facing the drummer, stood the DI'd bass player, although in this case it wasn't Dee Dee Ramone, who didn't actually show up for the session.
"He'd been at the rehearsal and the band had sounded tight," says Kral. "But, having written the song with Daniel Rey, he must have thought he'd done his job. So Jean played a guide bass part, which he later re-did, and we also kept that guide part. We EQ'ed it for a lot of bottom and had it in there for low-frequency stuff."
Perhaps Dee Dee already had his mind on other things. Following the summer 1989 release of the Brain Drain album, he'd quit the band to pursue a career as a rap artist named Dee Dee King...
"Johnny's guitar setup was to the right of the drums," Kral continues, "with his Marshall stack in a little alcove, gobos all around for isolation, and recorded with a 57 close to the cabinet and either a FET 47 or U87 about three feet back, for a bit of air."
"The start time for most rock & roll sessions was around noon, and we began by setting up the drums, getting a drum sound, getting a bass sound and getting a guitar sound without anyone there. I don't think the band showed up until four or five in the afternoon, at which point we started tracking. They were working from Dee Dee and Daniel's demo, and they'd also recorded all of the rehearsals at SIR, so that's what they referenced for tempo and key, and I don't recall the tracking itself being a laborious process. By six in the evening, tape was rolling, and way before 11 at night we had a master take. No comp'ing, no edits, just a straight take.
"It's not like we were dumping things into Pro Tools and moving them around, and there also wasn't any punching-in on the basic track. Don't forget, Jean Beauvoir is a pretty darn good musician himself, he's got some great music chops, and he knew what he wanted to get out of these guys. What's more, having rehearsed with them beforehand, he also knew what they needed and expected, and whatever coaching needed to be done. In other words, he knew what the headphones needed to sound like for Johnny to play along, and what Marky needed in that regard. He was the fifth Ramone that day.
"The only real problem occurred when the drum tech set up the kit and, because this was an important recording session, decided on his own to change all the drum heads. Everything went fine until he got to a couple of the toms and stripped the lugs. That became an issue. It was so late in the day when that happened that, instead of renting gear from SIR, it was decided that Marky would press ahead with what he had. Well, if you listen to the song, there are really no drum fills until the end, and we even punched in some of those fills. Due to the lugs being stripped, they weren't holding their tuning, so after one pass around the kit it was over. That meant, after we had a solid take and he did the one live fill, we just punched in one or two fills.
2. Kick drum
4 & 5. Stereo kit
6 & 7. Room stereo — cymbals and room (near)
8. Room (near and far)
9. Guide DI'd bass
10. Live guitar
11. Overdubbed bass
12. Double-track of Johnny's guitar
13. Daniel's overdubbed guitar
14. Percussion overdub
15-20. Lead vocals
21. Comp'ed vocal
22. Backing vocals
"I was pleasantly surprised by the Ramones. I liked them, I was a fan of theirs, and on this occasion they were certainly disciplined, in that they came in and did the job that they needed to do. There wasn't any kind of fooling around. In fact, Johnny was a really serious character. When he came in, he was focused, he knew what he had to do and he was just spot-on. I remember single-tracking his rhythm part once the final take was established, then double-tracking that part. There was none of that changing his guitar for another sound — he just double-tracked it again that same night, and then boom, gone. With Marky it was the same thing. He was great, really communicative, and once the drums were done, boom, gone.
"It was then left to us to keep on working. The objective was to get a decent basic track, work on overdubs through the evening, have Joey come in at night to lay down a rough vocal and feel it out so that there could be more overdubs, and then return on Friday to do some punching-in. Everything went pretty much according to plan. He initially came in at one or two in the morning, and again, he was a sweet guy, a total pro. He listened to what we had, walked around doing his vocal exercises and getting loosened up, and I put up a U87 going to a Neve mic pre, with a Urei 1176 compressor. We worked with Joey until about six or seven in the morning, using about six tracks for his vocals, and then comp'ed a good vocal which we gave him on cassette. After he left, we continued working until 10 or 11 Friday morning, doing more overdubs, including backing vocals by Jean and Daniel [Rey]. Then we went home and came back at five in the afternoon for vocal overdubs.
"The idea was that Joey had lived for several hours with the cassette we'd given him, and so now we could punch-in and do any fixes that he thought — or we thought — were needed. There was a very minimal amount of that, maybe just a couple of hours, and once that was done we continued overdubbing through Friday night, including synth pads doubling the guitar in a higher register, as well as some percussion, gated handclaps and Daniel's single-note guitar solo, using a Fender Twin in Studio 5 with the spring reverb. That was the kind of flourish that changed the track from sounding like traditional Ramones, because Johnny could never have played that solo — as anyone who ever saw the band live would know, four chords and that was it! Still, in this case, what Daniel added, driven by Jean's momentum, was being aimed at the film, whereas traditional Ramones would have meant Johnny's rhythm parts being tripled or quadrupled."
"We finished overdubbing at about five or six in the morning, went home, slept for a few hours, and were back at the studio before noon on that Saturday in order to set up the mix," Kral recalls. "It was one of the fastest mixes. For Jean and Daniel it was their second week working on it, so they knew the song inside and out, and since I had already been doing this for three days there was no guessing as to what was on the tape. We were therefore actually printing the final mixes before five that afternoon; the choice mix, which had more vocal level, slightly more background and a little bit more lead guitar; and the album mix, which had more of a controlled, live band sound. What we didn't do was a separate mix for the film. We just sent them a stereo mix and that's what they used, because it only came in at the end of the movie."
The following day these remixes were handed over to the record company and to the production company. A couple of months went by. Then came the call for a remix, which took place at the Hit Factory on February 16th, 1989.
"In typical record company fashion, they said, 'We love the mix, here are the changes,'" Fernando Kral recalls. "They wanted a louder lead vocal, more of the background vocals — they really wanted to hear those words 'pet sematary' — and while they liked the rhythm guitars they also wanted some more ringing lead parts. Nothing unexpected. Anyway, the session began at midnight, Jean and I were probably ready to start remixing by about three or three-thirty in the morning, and we were trying to beat the clock because Jean had parked his car on 54th Street. As it turned out, the car got towed, but the remix sounded great.
"Looking back, it was a terrific experience for me, doing that song. The band was just so good, even at the rehearsals, and they all seemed to be getting on and really into the whole thing. What's more, they booked one of the best studios in New York, Sigma Sound, which came loaded with top-quality equipment — when you booked that studio, you didn't just get the engineer and the room, you also had access to tons of gear, including three or four different amplifiers, some excellent pianos and some great outboard gear. So, it was a higher-end production for them, and I remember after it was all done and everybody was happy with the record, I heard the comment, 'We ended up spending more than twice the cost of the first album on this one song.'
"Well, that's what happens when you spend a week at SIR, three days at Sigma and another day at the Hit Factory!"