Record Store Day Presents Ramones “Pleasant Dreams (The New York Mixes)”
A rawer sounding alternative truer to the New York punk rockers’ roots
Within the musical landscape of the 70s, the Ramones came out of the woodwork like a brutal attack. Their style of downstroked three-barre-chord songs about sniffing glue, sedation and lobotomies was the antithesis of the overproduced pop and self indulgence prevalent at the time.
The band’s first several albums released from 1976 to 1978 (Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin) are, as far as I know, the punk rock bible that every future punk band would reference. Despite being critically acclaimed, the Ramones never were commercially viable. The group was also of Interest to "Wall of Sound" innovator producer Phil Spector. When the two joined forces for what materialized as 1980’s End of the Century, it saw the band steering far from their punk roots and heading more towards a radio friendly pop sound. The album failed to give the band the “hit” it needed, to which guitarist Johnny Ramone later reflected, “At that point, I knew that we weren't going to be selling any records.”
The Ramones must’ve still felt pressure to generate sales when they acceded to Sire Records' demand that they again work with a well known producer, this time 10cc’s Graham Gouldman. The product of their collaboration, 1981’s Pleasant Dreams, is a reflection of the building tensions going on within the group. Johnny wanted to return to the band’s harder punk sound and Joey continued to venture into pop territory. Compromises were met with nods to institutionalism, such as “You Sound Like You’re Sick,” with its tasteful ear-candy background vocals. Another highlight is “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” a song that became a permanent concert staple until the band’s retirement in 1996. A song like “We Want The Airwaves” was a mantra for the group's persistent desire to produce a radio friendly track. Some of the time, the band still found itself in Spector territory with odes to 60s girl groups like “Don’t Go” and “7-11.” Ultimately, Pleasant Dreams sounds like "product", that while made with good intentions, was done more as "make work" in the hopes that it would bring better fortunes ahead.
The group is clearly a Record Store Day favorite. Over the past few years, numerous early catalog studio and live albums have gotten the vinyl treatment as 40th anniversary deluxe editions (remember the punk rock bible I referenced earlier?).
These earlier albums—Ramones, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin got 40th anniversary super deluxe editions between 2016-2018, released as 3CD/1LP sets in a hardbound book style gatefold jacket with booklet, but subsequent albums will not get such lavish treatment. That hasn’t stopped the powers-that-be from releasing product that is, as of now, exclusively made available on vinyl only This year’s offering is Pleasant Dreams (The New York Mixes) and the end result is a more raw sounding alternative that is truer to the band’s punk roots.
Graham Gouldman’s production style tends to be on the brighter/airy side, which is reflected in the way Pleasant Dreams was recorded, and it gives the album a distinguishable tone. This new, “work in progress” rendering of the album shows how it evolved, with a lion’s share of the work already being done at New York’s Media Sound. The vocals tend to be less manipulated yet more dry sounding and the arrangements are straight-forward with no frills. Early on Gouldman provided some texture to the songs in addition to supplementary acoustic guitars, which appear here. To add exclusivity this version includes additional tracks recorded during the sessions that were omitted from the final album. They are “Sleeping Troubles,” “I Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind” and “Touring.” The latter two would subsequently find their way on 1989’s Brain Drain and 1992’s Mondo Bizarro respectively.
Comparing the original album (my copy is part of The Sire Albums 1981-1989 box set) with this version made clear that the additional back vocal overdubs, keyboards and percussion were added once the sessions decamped to Strawberry Studios in England, owned by 10cc's Eric Stewart. These embellishments give Pleasant Dreams the flavor of a band still wandering in pop territory. Those who grew up with the original record may remain attached to and defend its distinctive style. "Purists" (myself among them will most likely find Pleasant Dreams (The New York Mixes) provides a newfound enjoyment of an album packed with great songs that more accurately reflect the band’s original sound.
Pleasant Dreams (The New York Mixes) comes packaged with the originally proposed cover artwork, consisting of a distorted band photo with a uniquely designed logo and cursive typeface. The printed inner sleeve includes the band photo that appears on the original back cover, this time fully maximized in size. It's a remarkable decision given the release's alternative nature and a genuine iimprovement over the original. An extra printed inner sleeve Marky’s drums are tastefully mixed with various toms and cymbals spread across the stereo space. The record comes with credits published on a paper sleeve. Better would be a paper insert with a poly-lined sleeve, but you can't have everything (c'mon Rhino!). Precision Record Pressing in Canada did a fantastic job on this one: the yellow vinyl is quiet and the label accurately duplicates the Sire original.
Sonically, this is another 'knock-It-out-of-the-park" Ramones vinyl reissue. Sterling Sound’s Joe Nino-Hernes has been doing a remarkable job preserving the Ramones’ recording legacy on vinyl, having mastered every Ramones vinyl release since 2018. The overall brightness of the recording produces high frequency clarity. Despite the brightness, there is still a solid bed of bottom end from Dee Dee’s bass guitar. Marky’s drums are tastefully mixed with various toms and cymbals spread across the stereo space. The dry vocal presentation produces a more intimate sound compared to the original's processed, soaked in reverb, vocal sound.
Though it's marketed as being a “RSD Exclusive” limited to 7500 copies, this record is still available on Discogs for a little over retail price as I write this. Once sold out I think it will retain or increase in value so don't sleep on it! Pleasant Dreams (The New York Mixes) will certainly provide plenty of pleasant enjoyment.