David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 27: The Ramones (We're A Happy Family)

May 23, 2020

This week, as many across the country may know, the Michigan Governor "opened" the northern part of the state, our common vacation area. Just in time for Memorial Day. As people in Michigan are allowed to start to go out and about, especially to these summer cabins up north, I can't help wonder if the pressure valves will start to be turned off for many families.

I'm not driving north. I hate owning one residence, never understood why I would want two. Still, I heard The Ramones' "We're A Happy Family" yesterday, and I had to laugh. How many of our homes have turned into the dysfunction that is at the heart of this Ramones' song? I know I have had my own share of tension within our home the last 9 weeks or so. If I was driving for a mini-vacation this weekend, songs like "We're A Happy Family" would be blaring through my rolled-down windows.

The simplicity of Ramones' songs is always a key element to their catchiness. Lyrically, there is little to remember and the beat naturally leads to some fist bumping on the steering wheel.The structure is predictable: chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, maybe repeated verse. Somewhere in there Johnny Ramone might hang a chord change or two but never for long.

"We're A Happy Family," off their third album, mixed the recipe up a bit. We get the chorus twice, as bookends to the verses in between. Of course, chorus number two extends for many bars. Charming here is the narrative that makes up the middle of the song. The details in the family narrative are delightful, ranging from the only reference (more than likely) to "eating refried beans" ever made in a song, to "gulping down thorazines," to the fact that "daddy likes men." The Ramones made American punk rock a joke form, from their caricature personas to the silliness of their lyrics. It's probably part of why they could maintain a career longer than much of the British socially critical punk.

The final twist in the Ramone recipe is that the song goes on forever, at least for a Ramones' song, at 2:40. In their defense, the last 45 seconds is hardly song, as household chatter drowns out the anthemic repeating of "We're A Happy Family/Me, Mom and Dad” and the thrashing chords, especially of Johnny Ramone.  There's a freaking dog barking, a baby crying, and indistinguishable conversation. It's all a perfectly good joke, ain't it boys and girls?

On the other hand, is there something darker here? One should never look too deeply into Ramones' lyrics, but one does wonder if these were a little autobiographical. Rocket To Russia, the album it came off, will be the last to feature the original four Ramones, and rock and roll mythology is replete with stories of the band fighting with each other, of fighting personal demons. Joey was apparently diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Dee Dee was a frequent narcotics user, and most of them suffered from physical abuse from their fathers.  The punk ethos was one usually developed through the worst circumstances.

I can't help wonder if the Ramones, these "relations" as false and comical as the Cunninghams, Jeffersons, and Sanfords, were mocking the family unit in ways that Married With Children would do in a few years for t.v. sitcom families. Of course the t.v. sitcom always wrapped up the tension by the end of an episode, at worst leaving a cliffhanger for the next week or year. The Ramones did come back the next year with Road To Ruin, but with a new drummer, slipped in mostly without fanfare, like Chris Partridge in The Partridge Family.

After all this was 1970s America, the world was on fire outside our doors, but don't you doubt that we're a happy family, even if we have swapped out one of the kids.

"We're A Happy Family." The Ramones. Rocket To Russia. Sire. 1977. Link here.

Day 26: The Motors "Love And Loneliness."

Day 28: The Killers "When You Were Young."

See complete list here.