The second and perhaps final solo album by the late Ramones frontman Joey Ramone is titled . . . Ya Know? (after the phrase with which Joey habitually concluded his sentences) and it opens with an appropriately powerful, upbeat stomper called “Rock ‘N Roll Is the Answer.” Full of snaky power chords and chant-along choruses, the song is pleasantly evocative of a Gary Glitter stadium-shaker and it gets the record off to a magnificently rousing start. But if rock is the answer, what exactly was the question?
The big question hanging over . . . Ya Know? is why it took so damn long for this album to see the light of day. Joey succumbed to lymphoma in 2001, and his first posthumous solo album, Don’t Worry About Me, arrived one year later, providing a tremendous boost of comfort to still grieving and disbelieving fans via the reassuringly positive messages of its title track and Joey’s moving rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” But it was well-known even then that numerous other unreleased songs existed, including the wistfully haunting lament “Waiting For That Railroad,” which was widely bootlegged after Joey had performed it live on a New York radio show, accompanied by Daniel Rey on guitar.
What eventuated was an eight-year legal battle between Rey, who had produced a series of demos with Joey but was never paid for his services, and Joey’s estate, which claimed those demos were the late singer’s 100% exclusive property. To his credit, producer/songwriter Rey has arguably done more to promote The Ramones’ legacy than anyone else involved, and he still performs live as the principal guitarist at official Ramones-related events (including C.J. Ramone’s 2011 summer tour); but Joey’s estate enlisted another veteran Ramones producer, Ed Stasium, to serve as an intermediary and eventually wrest them from him. Stasium completely reworked these tracks, adding a stellar lineup of guest players including Joan Jett, former Ramones drummer Richie, and members of Cheap Trick, The Plasmatics and The Dictators. Rey was notably excluded and is coldly referenced only as “the person who was withholding Joey’s demo tapes from all of us” in the CD acknowledgements penned by Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh.
The blunt truth, though, is that Rey may have been doing fans a huge favor by forestalling these songs’ release. Don’t Worry About Me garnered a lot of positive press, with critics agog that a man dying of a lingering disease could sing so sweetly about a wonderful world. That perception may be completely reversed after they hear such . . . Ya Know? selections as “There’s Got to Be More to Life,” which almost sounds like a suicide note (“There’s got to be more than the holiday blues”) and “Seven Days of Gloom,” not exactly the feel-good hit of the summer, which concludes with Joey singing, “I’ll never be happy again.”
What’s also surprising is how much of the new album sounds like lost outtakes from The Ramones’ 1987 Halfway to Sanity, which Rey produced. “Going Nowhere Fast,” a great rocker with just the sort of blasting guitars that Ramones fans cream for, and “Eyes of Green,” about lust and temptation, would have certainly sounded right at home there, nestled between “Go Lil’ Camaro Go” and “Death of Me.” To his credit, Stasium does a magnificent job of cleverly sequencing all these tracks, such as easing into “Waiting For That Railroad” directly from the fake subway PA announcement (“Next stop . . . Forest Hills!”) which concludes the otherwise forgettable “New York City.”
. . . Ya Know? includes two revisions of tunes familiar from The Ramones’ own albums. “Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight” gets a slower, waltz-time reading which gives it more of a ‘50s feel, accented by sonic snowfall effects; and “Life’s a Gas” concludes the CD in a warm acoustic arrangement that makes its life-affirming lyrics (“So don’t be sad”) easier to appreciate than in their much heavier presentation on Adios Amigos.
The album’s real winner, though, is “Party Line.” Co-written with Rey, it’s a delightfully retro throwback in every way, with ’60s girl-group vocals (showcasing Holly Beth Vincent of Holly & The Italians) and Phil Spector-ish Wall-of-Sound production values. Undeniably catchy, after just one spin it became my default singing-in-the-shower song, resonating in my head for days afterwards. But it begs another question: Do any of those SmartPhone-texting designer punks, wearing Ramones T-shirts from Hot Topic, have any idea what a “party line” was?
. . . Ya Know?