35 Years Ago: The Ramones Fracture With ‘Pleasant Dreams’
By 1981, the Ramones found themselves at something of a crossroads. The punk sound they pioneered had begun to get either angrier or synth-ier, neither of which gelled with the fun, witty, grimy-but-jokey barebones rock that the guys from Forest Hills, Queens, excelled at. They continued this slide with Pleasant Dreams, which was released on July 20, 1981.
After a harrowing attempt to inject some actual production value under the eye of Phil Spector for End of the Century, the band was in dispute as to where to turn their music. Singer Joey Ramone wanted to more fully embrace the '50s and 60s pop sensibilities that he had always favored, while guitarist Johnny Ramone wanted to stick with the breakneck style of the very movement they began. Meanwhile, Sire Records just wanted the hit that had eluded them since the beginning.
Pleasant Dreams satisfied no one, and the accumulated pressures, both internal and external, would begin to crack apart the band. While they kept touring and releasing albums, the '80s would be a tough decade on the Ramones, both personally and creatively.
Which isn't to say that Pleasant Dreams is a weak record. It's just that the tug-of-war between the Ramones themselves, and between them and their record company, is obvious. The internal friction is shown by the fact that this is their first record in which the writing credits were not shared by the entire band; all of the Joey-penned tracks sound like broken-love letters to the Ronettes, while Dee Dee's and Johnny's contributions ("You Sound Like You're Sick," "You Didn't Mean Anything to Me") are hit-'em-fast punk numbers. "We Want the Airwaves" is a statement of intent by the band, but label-assigned producer Graham Gouldman gave the tracks too much polish and took away the scruff that was, to many of their fans, the very essence of the Ramones. The airwaves never relented. None of the singles were released in the U.S., and the album peaked at No. 58 on the Billboard 200.
More than anything, Pleasant Dreams seemed to be out of sync with its time. Both Def Leppard's High 'n' Dry and Motley Crue's Too Fast for Love dropped in 1981 as well, signaling a shift in popular music towards the big hair arena rock that would dominate the decade. A half-punk, half-bubblegum pop record was always going to look quaint at that time, and the album's influence wouldn't be felt until the pop-punk explosion of the '90s.
Still, the album is probably most well-known for the rumor surrounding one of its songs. During production, known arch-conservative Johnny carried on an affair with Joey's girlfriend, Linda, and eventually the two were married. The music industry has twittered ever since about how "The KKK Stole My Baby Away" was Joey's revenge song. While Joey's brother, Mickey Leigh, denies the rumor, stating that the song had been written before Joey ever found out about the affair, it does lend itself to a rock band's most powerful commodity, after sales: Mystique.
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