Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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With the Ramones.
Directed by George Seminara.
(Warner Reprise Video, color, 58 mins.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

In the '70s, the Ramones were a great band--each of their first four albums was a near-flawless gem of cartoon minimalism. Stripping down to the most basic kind of beat, tune, noise, and pose at a time when arena-rock excess and soft-rock hypocrisy made disco seem vital by comparison, they defined American punk and made the Sex Pistols possible.

In the '80s, the Ramones have been a much better band than they get credit for, but they've certainly dissipated the purity of their vision. They traffic in hooks, bridges, guitar solos--even, you guessed it, videos. Ostensibly, this augmented compilation uses the vidoes to establish their greatness, a greatness attested to by distinguished fans who include Dave Righetti, three members of Talking Heads, and the president of their record company. What it demonstrates instead is how well their cartoon genius has held up over a career that's now lasted twice as long as anybody at CBGB would have dared predict in 1975.

Two of the 10 selections really are great--"Psycho Therapy," a marginally offensive mental-ward production number about the cretins and pinheads they`ve always held so dear, and "Time Has Come Today," a marginally offensive gospel raveup climaxing with a black boys' choir diddybopping through a church full of bona fide punks. But forgiving the usual couple of duds, all visualize the philosophical question at the core of their art: just how dumb are they? Or to put it another way: just how smart are they?

The answer to this question is all of the above. If you don't think Lifestyles of the Ramones proves it, or if the clips leave you hungry an hour later, you may just have to spring for one of those '70s gems.

Video Review, Aug. 1990