The Ramones – Bonzo Goes To Bitburg

6th July 2024 · 1980s, 1985, Music, Punk

The Ramones had a late-career peak in 1985 when they released their first protest song, the anti-Reagan anthem Bonzo Goes To Bitburg.

By 1985 I’d long lost interest in The Ramones and all the other old punk bands sticking to the three-chord ramalama formula. Then, out of nowhere, and after about 10 albums, came this classic.

It’s one of their best songs, filled with trademark buzzsaw guitar, surf harmonies and a bubblegum pop melody. What’s more, after a decade of of songs telling us in the dumbest of terms what they wanted (and didn’t want) to do, The Ramones became political.

Bonzo Goes To Bitburg was a protest song.

The subject of their ire is US president Ronald Reagan’s state visit to a German military cemetery, laying a wreath in a place where Nazi soldiers from the Waffen-SS were buried.

Not the smartest move from not the smartest president – a former actor who had made his name in a film starring opposite a chimp called Bonzo – on a trip intended to pay tribute to the victims rather than perpetrators of Nazism.

It’s not as if he didn’t know, either, since his visit to Bitburg’s war cemetery – home to 2,000 German soldiers and 49 members of the SS – had been condemned heavily in advance by critics in Israel and Europe, and by US veterans and both houses of Congress.

Incredibly, before departing for Germany, the US president had ignited more controversy when he expressed his belief that the soldiers buried at Bitburg “were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” You can imagine similar words coming out of Trump’s mouth.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the single was not released in America, but it did appear a year later on the band’s album Animal Boy: a fairly lucklustre effort, though it does open with another great song, Somebody Put Something In My Drink.

Discussing the inspiration for Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, singer Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman), who co-wrote the song with bassist Dee Dee and producer Jean Beauvoir, expressed his view that Reagan “sort of shit (shat) on everybody” by going to Bitburg.

“We had watched Reagan going to visit the SS cemetery on TV and were disgusted,” he said. “We’re all good Americans, but Reagan’s thing was like forgive and forget. How can you forget six million people being gassed and roasted?”

Bonzo Goes to Bitburg was issued in Great Britain as a 12″ single by Beggars Banquet but not in America. The Ramones’ US label Sire said the decision was “both financial and political” though their parent company Warner Bros. source claimed “It just wasn’t considered a good enough record.”

They got that wrong.

Postscript: When the Animal Boy album came out in 1986 the song’s title had been altered to My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg), a change made to placate guitarist Johnny Ramone, a staunch Republican and Reagan supporter (though it’s hard to see how that title is less offensive to the president).

Meanwhile, Joey doubled down by singing another anti-Reagan lyric, at the invitation of Steven Van Zandt, on the all-star protest single Sun City released by Artists United Against Apartheid.