Everyone in music knew singer Joey Ramone was in poor health, but they honored Joey’s wish to keep it mum until the last minute. But surely, the plans for We’re a Happy Family: A Tribute to The Ramones were being made before Joey took his last breath. The lineup they assembled is staggering, a who’s who of rock music. Some were no-brainers (Green Day, Rancid, Offspring), while others were head-scratchers (Pete Yorn, Tom Waits). The overall result lands somewhere in the middle; We’re A Happy Family is better than most tribute albums, with some very pleasant surprises. But perhaps organizer Rob Zombie should have picked the best bands over the biggest ones.
The album gets off to a promising start. The Red Hot Chili Peppers work their mellow SoCal mojo on “Havana Affair” with startling results. Rob Zombie’s take on “Blitzkrieg Bop” could have been killer had he not dropped the drum track to half the speed of the original. Green Day, who did a stellar set of Ramones songs at the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, turn “Outsider” into one of their own. But the biggest surprise may be Kiss’ rendition of “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio,” which just jumps out of the speakers. It’s also hilariously ironic, since Kiss was the very kind of band the Ramones were trying to kill in the first place.
In the Dramatic Departure department, no one comes close to Marilyn Manson’s creepy “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” turning the song into a sequel to the Cure’s “Lullaby.” The Pretenders are a close second with their oddly effective coffee shop turn on “Something to Believe In” (also the only song to top the four minute mark). Meanwhile, Pete Yorn turns “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” into the kind of 1960s girl band song Joey was always fond of.
And then there’s Tom Waits. He seems to be woefully miscast on a Ramones tribute, but au contraire. His version of “Return of Jackie and Judy” is easily the rawest, raunchiest performance here. In fact, he makes some of the supposed hard rock bands look pretty tame by comparison. The spirit may be willing throughout, but the flesh was occasionally weak.
Take, for instance, Metallica’s “53rd and 3rd,” where not only do James Hetfield’s gravelly vocals seem wholly inappropriate on a Ramones song, but the band doesn’t muster up half the energy that the Ramones could. Ditto the Offspring, whose dead straight take on “I Wanna Be Sedated” seems witless and weak. And is everyone so afraid of Bono that they couldn’t tell him that a U2 rendition of “Beat on the Brat” would not be necessary? Because it wasn’t.
We’re A Happy Family is less like what its title says than what it really means. Every family wants to believe they’re normal and functional, but there are black sheep, embarrassing secrets and scandals in each one. Some kids are just smarter, or better, than others. As long as you’re willing to embrace them for what they are, then this Family will not disappoint.