Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ham Sandwich - The Singles Box Set

(no, this isn't a real thing. It's DIY)

(apologies for the slightly blurry pictures. I photographed this as soon as I made it, which was about 11 pm, and the camera flash was too strong)

At the Ham Sandwich show at the Village a week and a half ago, I bought the band's four singles from before their album for €10. (This I did before the band's set, meaning I had to stand in the crowd with four CDs wrapped up in my jumper). The gig was supposed to be a launch for the newest single, 'Never Talk', but that wasn't physically available. Probably, it's on iTunes or some facility like that which I never use (other than eMusic, I get all my music in physical format).

Ham Sandwich built themselves up over the last couple of years as a touring band and by self-releasing singles on their own label, Route 109 Records - named after the bus route between Dublin and their home town of Kells. Carry the Meek was ROU006, with associated radio single 'Keepsake' ROU005, and presumably 'Never Talk' becomes ROU007 whatever way you get it.

The first four singles are as follows - 'Sad Songs', 'St. Christopher', 'Words' and 'Click... Click... Boom!', with the last single appearing as a b-side on 'Sad Songs'. This series helps explain the strength of the album, which features the above four songs and 'Keepsake' as tracks 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7. On top of that, it establishes the band's image and artwork, designed by Laura de Burca and Enda Casey.


I don't talk about the Ramones often enough on this blog - despite them being the source for my username, and the original punk band. In fact, I've hardly mentioned them at all except for including 'Blitzkrieg Bop' as the opening track on my personal mixtape for Zen and the Art of Mixtapes (#008 - Tickle Yr Ears). I suppose I don't delve far enough back to get into 70s punk on the blog; and although I don't listen to that much of it, you can't possibly go without listening to the Ramones.

I first heard the Ramones by picking up a second-hand CD copy of their 1980 album, End of the Century, in a record shop in of all places, Hay-on-Wye (the site of a major literary festival in England). That Spectorised pop gem of an album got me hooked, and I started to explore the decent half of their back catalogue (everything up to Too Tought To Die). Most of them came in the format of the Sire/Rhino reissues - except for Leave Home, which was a bizarre second-hand Japanese import version, and Rocket from Russia, which I downloaded from the internet and, probably for that reason, have never particularly liked - and these came with those fancy but completely extraneous card sleeves. Ever since, along with similar from Leatherface reissues Minx and Mush, they have been gathering dust on a shelf, awaiting some further use. The covers, and the albums they represented, were all too good for them to be casually discarded.

These particular two - 1981's Pleasant Dreams and 1983's Subterranean Jungle - are bona fide Ramones favourites of mine. Sure, the 1976 self-titled debut and the following Leave Home are the true, unbeatable punk classics - a designation usually extended to all the first four - and End of the Century is certainly something special in its own rights, but these two are their most interesting and endearing albums for me. Essentially, they represent the paradox between pop and punk which the Ramones struggled through over the formative and post-formative period of punk rock. To put them in context, the Clash released London Calling in 1979 (or 1980, depending on where you are coming from) and Sandinista in 1980. Neither of these albums are quite the Ramones' version of Sandinista, but they're close enough.

Pleasant Dreams and Subterranean Jungle provide absolutely solid Ramones punk rock/punk-pop songs - 'We Want the Aiwaves', 'It's Not My Place (In The 9 to 5 World)', 'Outsider' (a Dee Dee Ramone song with a, vocally, quite interesting cover by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong) - a few classics - 'The KKK Took My Baby Away', 'Psycho Therapy' - and a whole slew of slow pop songs, country-and-western oddities and experimental covers - 'You Sound Like You're Sick', 'Sitting In My Room', 'Little Bit O' Soul', 'Highest Trails Above', 'Time Has Come Today' - as well as weird stuff the Ramones were playing from the start - 'Every Time I Eat Vegetables I Think of You' (seriously, what a song title!). Not that the Ramones never had this diversity in the first place (it just achieves its, in my opinion, best outlet here); it is a well known fact that every one of their albums has some kind of an iteration of 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend'. In fact, the reissue liner notes by Legs McNeil for Road To Ruin describe the genesis of 'She's The One' as follows:

"...seems like the it was written as an afterthought. Like 'Hey guys, where's the bouncy pop song?'

'Shit, we forgot it'

'Quick, write one!'

And at two minutes and eleven seconds, there you have it"

The liner notes, along with the card sleeves, were a feature of each of these reissue albums. Most begin by telling the story of the band at the point of the album's recording, and as such the theme of the story became depressingly familiar. For Pleasant Dreams, Ira Robbins begins "For a band that sang 'We're A Happy Family' on their third album, the Ramones three years later were nothing of the sort.". Subterranean Jungle, Gil Kaufman - "Marky Ramone knew the jig was up. He'd been stashing his vodka bottle..." (and of course Legs McNeil for Road to Ruin simply begins "It was a lousy time to be a Ramone."). The endless tragedy of the Ramones family, trapped between the pop desires and ambitions of Joey Ramone, and the conservative punk stance of Johnny, was destined to lead to schizophrenic albums.

What irks me, mildly enough it must be said, is that the write-ups for the two albums here treat their odd nature, their deviation from the idealised Ramones three-minute, three-chord punk, as a distraction to be tolerated but not to be, particularly, celebrated. For me, however, it is precisely this strangeness, cocooned in the catchy, soulful simplicity of the Ramones sound itself, which makes Pleasant Dreams and Subterranean Jungle so enjoyable, so deserving of Ramones classic status.

The artwork of the covers reflect this oddity. While presaged by the - incongruous to the Ramones sound, if not sense of fraternity - colour-coordinated t-shirt cover of End of the Century, these are markedly different from the covers of the early Ramones albums. Pleasant Dreams formed the first time a cover did not feature the members of the band. Subterranean Jungle, a picture of the band inside a subway train - soon-to-depart drummer Marky Ramone peering out of a lonely window - not only failed to return to the aggressive, backs-to-the-wall stance in favour of a more receding portrait, but introduced some pretty incongruous elements of colour. But it's all part of the fun of these albums.

Which are, incidentally, as fun as Ham Sandwich.

(Subterranean Jungle, perhaps for the cover alone, is my favourite of these two. The spraypaint aesthetic, after all, perfectly matches the urban deliquency and artistry of the Ramones. Read the Moonman passage from Don DeLillo's Underworld - approved by at least one resident - for a feel of such underground expression.)


Ham Sandwich - Click... Click... Boom! (ROU004)

Since I didn't actually get the 'Never Talk' single, but as it appears in a very slightly different form and under a different name as the b-side for 'Click Click Boom' - itself still one of Ham Sandwich's very best songs.

1. Click Click Boom

2. Song in D ('Never Talk')

(As always, if you like what you hear, do buy the album Carry the Meek. The best thing I've heard this year so far)

'Click Click Boom' - live at HMV instore

'Click Click Boom' - acoustic on The Last Broadcast

'Click Click Boom' - live at Tower Records (State magazine launch)


josephlovesit said...

Rocket to Russia's always been my personal favorite. The Beach Boys and Trashmen covers are excellent and give me a nice idea of how they came to form their sound. Something about it resonates.. I guess it reminds me of the pop-punk I liked as a kid (emphasis on pop, haha).

I'll definitely be checking out Subterranean Jungle and Pleasant Dreams though. And you're right, the Subterranean Jungle cover is awesome. I'm reading this book about the early history of hip-hop (the majority is New York City-based) and the cover gives off that vibe to me. Every so often there are examples of punk's connection to hip-hop in their respective gestation periods and I get goosebumps.

Jenny said...

Is there a download link by any chance? Eh, anyway, I agree that The Ramones were good up until Too tough to die. Though I'm partial to Bonzo goes to Blitzberg from Animal Boy too

gabbagabbahey said...

joseph - I don't mean to denigrate Rocket to Russia, I'm sure it is actually a great album, it just never caught by attention like others of theirs.

You should definitely read that Moonman passage, although it's not specifically about hip-hop at all; and there was also a really good documentary on BBC4 a little while ago which told the story of punk, hip-hop and disco in NYC simultaneously. Not sure if it's knocking around the internet somewhere, but it was really well done.

*should I even mention Standing in the Spotlight and Dee Dee King? Probably not, but I just did*

jenny - no download link, as I presume Ramones albums are fairly easy to find on the internet. Depending on what you mean by 'until' I agree with you also; Too Tough To Die was a pretty good Ramones album but also a completely unnecessary 'comeback' from Subterranean Jungle.

I've nearly purchased Animal Boy myself, on account of 'Somebody Put Something In My Drink'.

josephlovesit said...

I remember seeing a special over here on VH1 called "NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell," which sounds similar to what you're talking about (maybe the same?). Miles better than anything VH1 has ever done.

gabbagabbahey said...

did a quick Google search and I'm pretty sure this was it, from 2007: Once Upon A Time In New York( " exploration of a different era, one in which the troubled streets of the city gave birth to three brilliant musical cultures that would become known as Punk, Disco and Hip Hop"
it was a really good documentary, even by the BBC standards!

Brushback said...

You're being picky-- those "singles box" photos aren't that bad...

gabbagabbahey said...

oh no, but I just felt the need to explain why they don't meet my usual high standards :)

now, I need to find out where my paragraph spacing has gone...