It may be a tiny bit disingenuous to refer to a B-side by The Ramones as being “the other side of the hit.” The Ramoneswere a pop band, but they were a pop band without any hit records. They never broke into the Top 40, nor did they receive much airplay to speak of. The Ramones somehow pummeled their way into the lower half of Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart with three consecutive singles in 1977 and ’78. “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” made it to # 81. “Rockaway Beach” was the relative breakout, peaking at # 66. “Do You Wanna Dance” was The Ramones’ third and final shot at the top of the pops, and its shot stalled at # 86. The Ramones would never again darken the singles chart with their uncouth presence. Somewhere, Casey Kasem breathed a sigh of relief. And up one from last week, swapping spots with Swedish supergroup ABBA, we have those Forest Hills punk rockers The Ramones with “Teenage Lobotomy.”
Nonetheless: They were all hits to me.
My road to The Ramones wasn’t exactly circuitous, but nor was it necessarily as direct as one might expect. I read about The Ramones in magazines, primarily in the tabloid Phonograph Record Magazine. I had never heard them–as noted, they weren’t quite tearin’ up the airwaves on AM or FM in Syracuse in 1977–but I was intrigued by what I read. Frankly, they scared me, but they didn’t scare me enough to kill my growing sense of curiosity about this elusive, unheard…noise. Noise, perhaps, but potentially transcendent noise. I ached to hear its secret sound.
If you’re a younger music fan in this fantastic world of the 21st century, the very idea of any kind of music, or any conceivable sort of pop commodity, being elusive or unheard is as alien and archaic as stone tablets or immobile, wired entertainment. In the fall of ’77, I heard my first Ramones record–“Blitzkrieg Bop”–by requesting RAMONES!!!! at my college campus radio station. I bought the “Sheena” 45 before I’d even heard the damned thing, and my transformation into a fully-invested Ramones fan was complete. It might not have been as convenient as YouTube or Spotify, but I got there.
By the spring of ’78, I’d added the “Rockaway Beach” single and the Ramones LP to my vinyl library, and I saw a live Ramones show over Easter break. In Bomp! magazine, writers Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza! had waxed rhapsodic about The Ramones as a power pop band, listing “Sheena” and “Rockaway Beach” among the all-time great power pop tracks. Shaw was further knocked out by a ballad–a ballad!–called “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” on the Rocket To Russia album, and The Ramones’ then-unreleased cover of The Searchers‘ “Needles And Pins.” I heard “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” played live, pined to hear da brudders warble about needles and pins-za, and reveled in the giddy euphoria of falling in love with a pop band.
None of which really prepared me for “Babysitter.”
As a cash-strapped college lad, I preferred to buy Rocket To Russia on the installment plan, one 45 at a time. Looking back, I’m not 100 % certain whether I purchased the “Do You Wanna Dance” single before or after my introduction to live Ramones. The A-side was just ace, probably my favorite cover track ever, streamlining and energizing the familiar pop classic while remaining essentially faithful to previous templates by Bobby Freeman and The Beach Boys. This is the one, I thought. This is the one that’s gonna get The Ramones on the radio. THIS is the hit!
The B-sides of the “Sheena” and “Rockaway Beach” singles had been Rocket To Russia album tracks (“I Don’t Care” and “Locket Love” respectively). This third single from the album had a non-LP track, “Babysitter.” It was a ballad, The Ramones’ second ballad as far as I was aware. It freakin’ blew me away.
I guess Greg Shaw’s mention of The Ramones covering “Needles And Pins” should have prepped me for “Babysitter.” It did not. When I heard the song for the first time, I wrote My GAWD, The Searchers live on! “Babysitter”certainly shares beaucoup DNA with “Needles And Pins,” its folk-rock riff drawn from the same gene pool that gave us The Byrds and The Beau Brummels, albeit messier, grungier, more exuberant. The scowling countenances of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy notwithstanding, “Babysitter”‘s tale of late-night kissin’ and canoodlin’ with a babysittin’ chickfriend is inherently more upbeat than The Searchers’ lover’s lament. It’s a more leisurely-paced companion to The Ramones’ earlier “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” a joyous and straight-faced celebration of over-the-top, hormonal teen romance. It signifies The Ramones fully embracing a presumed identity as an unabashed, unashamed pop act, America’s rockin’ response to The Bay City Rollers.
If ever a post-1960s record deserved to be a double A-side chart and radio smash, “Do You Wanna Dance”/”Babysitter” would qualify to join the hallowed ranks of “I Get Around”/”Don’t Worry Baby,” “I’m A Believer”/”(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” and a short stack o’ Beatles 45s. I could not believe it when that pop dream failed to materialize. Stupid real world.
Throughout the rest of the ’70s and all through the ’80s, I never gave up hope that The Ramones would break big, that they’d start selling records in the gaudily massive quantity I felt was their just due. It was important to me. I wanted the world at large to appreciate The Ramones like I appreciated The Ramones; I wanted them to appear on Solid Gold and Entertainment Tonight, to make a delightful blockbuster sequel to their sole film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, to be household names, to be respected and idolized. I wanted to hear The Ramones on the goddamned radio. They had to die before that would happen. Stupid, stupid real world.
It should have been different. If nothing else, The Ramones should have scored big with an incredible cover of “Do You Wanna Dance,” a distillation of pure bliss that deserved to rule radio and the planet by divine right. Its B-side was an irresistible confection called “Babysitter:” the other side of the hit that never was.
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