Classic-Tracks

Classic Tracks: “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” The Ramones

It’s a song, it’s a movie, and it marks one of the oddest chapters in the history of New York punk: the time when The Ramones went to L.A. to record songs for a musical comedy film, and ended up working with Phil Spector.

 

First came the film: Producer Roger Corman and director Allan Arkush hired The Ramones to perform and record music for a movie about fictional Vince Lombardi High, where a new principal has been hired to whip the troublesome pupils into shape. P.J. Soles stars as “Riff Randall, rock ’n’ roller,” a delinquent student/songwriter whose dream is to see The Ramones in concert and get them to record her songs.

 

The Ramones—Joey, guitarist Johnny, bass player Dee Dee, and drummer Marky—demo’d two songs for the producers: “I Want You Around,” and this month’s Classic Track, the title track of the film. The demo of “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” was arranged with a catchy drum beat intro, and was recorded mainly in an 8-track studio that engineer Ed Stasium had set up in the basement of Sire Records’ office building in New York City.

 

“We did the band demos down there, but we didn’t do the vocals there,” Stasium explains. “Joey was spooked by that studio, so we did vocals at [producer/musician] Moogy Klingman’s studio on West End Avenue. I think there were some lyric changes on ‘Rock ’n’ Roll High School’ from the demo to the final product, but the arrangements were done.”

 

The Ramones left for California to start production on the film, and Stasium followed. On November 25, 1978, they all went into Cherokee Studios to track the movie music. “It was the only time I ever worked at Cherokee,” Stasium says. “They had a Trident A-Range console at the time.”

 

Stasium recalls some of the other equipment in Cherokee largely because he had by then developed tried-and-true methods of capturing the band. “Dee Dee had his SVT rig and his Precision bass; that went direct and I probably also miked it,” the engineer says. “Johnny’s guitar amp would have been miked with a 57 on the cabinet and an [Neumann] U 87 back further. I probably also put a Pultec on his guitars, and an LA2. Those are still my go-to items.”

 

Stasium set up guitar and bass rigs in iso rooms. “We rented some guitars,” Stasium recalls: “a Martin D28 and a Stratocaster, which is what I play. We also borrowed Joan Jett’s Les Paul for power chords. One of The Ramones’ roadies, Little Matt—there was a Little Matt and Big Matt—was a friend of Joan.”

 

Marky Ramone, who had taken over as drummer after Tommy left the band, was out in the main tracking room. “As powerful as Tommy sounded, he had played pretty lightly,” Stasium says. “Marky played very hard, very solid. Tommy had more of a swing, and Marky was more rigid in his playing. Tommy invented the Ramones beat and played on the first three records; Marky gave it more definition and precision.”

 

Stasium used the same miking scheme on Marky as he had on Tommy: Shure SM57 on snare top and bottom, Sennheiser 421 on kick, Neumann FET 47 outside the kick, 421s on toms, AKG 451s on hi-hat and ride cymbal, and AKG 414s or Neumann U 87s. “I also would have put up a couple of room mics,” Stasium says. “Once I was lucky enough to work with [engineer/producer] Roy Thomas Baker. He enlightened me to the beauty of ambient sound.”

 

During band tracking, Joey sang a guide track in a booth. “We might have set up an SM7 during tracking, but for overdubs my usual vocal chain on him was a [Neumann] U 67 through a [Teletronix] LA-2A and Pultec EQP-1A,” the engineer says.

 

Stasium mixed a mono track for the film at Cherokee and made “some quick stereo mixes” that would come in handy for future releases. “We also did a version of P.J. Soles singing ‘Rock ’n’ Roll High School’ for the movie,” he says. “I’d made a safety copy of the Ramones version so we could put P.J. on it with the Ramones playing, but she couldn’t sing in the key that Joey sang; it needed to be higher. The guys were all gone, so I changed the key and played all the guitars myself.”

 

What Stasium didn’t know was that Phil Spector, who had for some time wanted to produce The Ramones, had somehow become involved in the project. Sire Records gave Stasium’s tracks to Spector, who remixed both Ramones songs. “So, the wall-of-reverb ‘Rock ’n’ Roll High School’ and ‘I Want You Around’ ended up on the soundtrack record,” Stasium recalls. “You had to love it. Phil Spector was an early influence on me: ‘Be My Baby,’ ‘You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’—his records sounded great to me. He probably put some of that Gold Star chamber onto everything.”

 

L.A.’s famed Gold Star Studios—renowned for those echo chambers used on recordings by artists from Eddie Cochran to The Ronettes to Herb Alpert—was also the site of yet another rendition of “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.” After remixing the film tracks, Spector signed on to produce a full-length album with the band, who hoped that Spector’s genius at crafting pop hits would boost their commercial success. And for some reason, Spector and The Ramones decide to remake “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” yet again for the album End of the Century.

Stasium again joined the band in L.A. He’s credited on the album, as “Musical Director”; in fact, his role encompassed playing numerous guitar parts, singing background vocals, and acting as intermediary when things went off the rails, but not engineering.

 

“Phil had his longtime engineer, the great Larry Levine, at the board, but I think Johnny felt uncomfortable being by himself with Phil. He was suspicious, and rightly so, because Phil had some eccentric methods. I had played bits and pieces on a lot of the Ramones records, especially Road to Ruin, but while we were doing End of the Century, I was in the studio with the band for every song.”

 

Stasium recalls playing his Strat with Johnny’s Electro-Harmonix Mike Matthews Freedom amp. “It was a practice amp for him, but that’s what I used to do my tracking, through all the pain and the glory of making that album,” Stasium says.

 

Over the years, some exaggerated accounts of the sessions have surfaced. In a memoir, Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, Dee Dee wrote that Spector held the band at gunpoint. He also maintained that Stasium actually played all the bass parts on End of the Century.

 

“I never, ever saw a gun,” Stasium says. “I was there the entire time except for the mix, and I never saw a gun. And it’s untrue that Dee Dee didn’t play on the album. There’s one song that The Ramones did not appear on—where I am the only Ramone [other than Joey]—and that’s ‘Baby I Love You.’ Jim Keltner played drums on that; Barry Goldberg played keyboards. But during all the other songs on End of the Century, The Ramones played. It’s no secret—Dee Dee had substance abuse problems. He may have forgotten, but Dee Dee played bass on the record.”

 

And as for the stories Johnny later told about being forced to play the opening note to Spector’s revised arrangement of “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” repeatedly for 10 hours? “It was more like two or three hours,” Stasium says. “Phil had both of us, Johnny and I, in the studio getting feedback. We could see Phil and Larry in the control room, and Phil was telling Larry to do something. Johnny’s looking at me with his eyes up in the air, like ‘We’re doing this again? Oh my God!’ We’d count it off and play the note: braaaaaang, feedbaaaaaack. ‘Okay stop, stop,’ Phil’s on the talkback. At this particular time, I didn’t know what they were doing, and when they played it back, it didn’t sound like anything spectacular was going on.”

 

It was while Stasium and Johnny Ramone were playing that first note seemingly endlessly that Johnny threatened to quit the album. “So being the Henry Kissinger of rock ’n’ roll that I am,” Stasium says with a laugh, “I staged a summit meeting at Joey’s room at the Tropicana Hotel. Phil and his bodyguard, George, came. Everybody was there, and I had to say, ‘Phil, Johnny can’t work under these conditions anymore. He doesn’t want to play stuff over and over,’ and from there Johnny started talking and Phil started talking. Ultimately Johnny agreed to stay and finish the sessions.”

 

The Ramones were lucky to have an “honorary Ramone” who was willing to step into whatever role they needed. Stasium filled musical gaps and interpersonal ones, helping them all weather the tumultuous studio environment Spector created.

 

“Phil would have little hissy fits about things,” Stasium says. “If he couldn’t express himself, he’d start stomping his feet and swearing. He had also worked out a sign language because he listened back so loud, you couldn’t hear anything even if he yelled. If he wanted the snare to come up, he would pantomime hitting the snare drum with one hand and point up or down with the other. He would tap Larry on the shoulder, do the gesture, and Larry would bring up the snare. If [Spector] wanted more reverb on something, Phil would gesture a vocal or a guitar, and then he would slap his tongue, which meant, make it wet.”

 

As he wasn’t the engineer on the sessions, Stasium doesn’t remember much of the equipment used at Gold Star, except he knows that Joey’s vocal microphone was a Neumann U 47, because they shared the mic for background vocals.

 

Later, Stasium was asked to overdub further guitar parts for the album. So, he took Levine’s tracks over to Scream Studios in Studio City. “I’m going to reveal something now,” Stasium says. “When I pulled up the tracks of the song, there was one track of just my guitar and Johnny’s guitar combined that sounded like it was sent through an Eventide Instant Phaser or Flanger. It was just going swish swash. And I thought, ‘That’s what he was doing for two or three hours?’ And I erased it! I was on my own, and I needed a track so I wiped it. And I don’t hear any phasing or flanging on that first chord on the album, so I guess Phil didn’t miss it.”

 

Today, Spector is incarcerated; he was convicted of second-degree murder of a female guest in 2003. All of the Ramones but Marky have passed on, but their recordings continue to be repackaged and reissued. Stasium’s mix of “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” was not released until 1988, as part of the compilation Ramones Mania, but it was subsequently added to further collections, and often shows up in Internet radio and streaming services as the “Ed Stasium Version.”

 

“I kept those masters for years, but they disappeared when Rhino started remastering various collections. A picture of the box is all I have left,” Stasium says. “I kick myself now for not carrying a camera around in those days.”

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