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Rancid – And Out Come the Wolves – Classic Music Review

RANCID-And-out-come-the-wolves-Front

Click to buy the best punk album since Rocket to Russia.

Fuck, yeah!

I was only fourteen when this album came out in ’95, a year or so after I’d fallen in love with Liam Gallagher. Once a slut, always a slut, so I forced Liam to accept that my virtual relationship with him would never be monogamous, and began trolling the airwaves for other lovers. Lucky for me, I found several promising candidates right in my own backyard. The San Francisco Bay Area was one of the epicenters of the punk revival, and it was during this period that I became a committed punk rocker, just like Sheena. Unlike the Sheenas of the 1990’s, though, I didn’t shave my head, get a pomade-shaped mohawk or color my hair pink, purple and green. I didn’t pierce anything other than my ear lobes (the nipples came later) and I didn’t have any visible or hidden tattoos (the tattoo came later, too). When I first showed up at an all-ages punk show at the age of sixteen with my long, classically-styled hair falling over the tank top straps on my shoulders with my lower half comfortably ensconced in a pair of new leather pants, people immediately stereotyped me as a pretty-girl poseur—until the action started in the pit and they saw I could take it, dish it out and then some. At the end of the night, some of the people started calling me “Princess,” but they meant it with sadistic affection.

I followed Rancid closely from the moment I heard And Out Come the Wolves, but it was just my luck that they spent a good chunk of the years following its release on tour, playing only a few dates in the Bay Area. I didn’t get to see them live until 1998, at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. It was a great show, but I felt somewhat disappointed that I had to settle for seeing them in an outdoor amphitheater. Punk rock is best experienced in small rooms where you can feel the walls shake, where your bodies have nowhere to go except into other bodies. I would have given anything to have seen them at Gilman, but it was not to be.

Rancid appealed to me for two reasons: intensity and musicianship. People who don’t know punk generally get the intensity part but they look at me with narrowed eyes when I mention musicianship, and it’s true that not all punk bands display the level of skill that bands like Rancid, $wingin’ Utter$ and Fugazi have in bulk. To my ears, though, those guys were the rock version of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, playing revolutionary music at breathtaking speed. The basic chords of a punk song aren’t nearly as complex as the chords in bebop, but the sheer physical demands of punk combined with the ability of certain practitioners to create surprising variations within the mix gives the music a depth that casual listeners often miss.

You certainly can’t miss the musicianship in “Maxwell Murder,” the one-and-a-half minute welcoming track that opens with ethereal sounds that are quickly engulfed by a high-speed explosion of sound. Brett Reed is all over that drum kit, maintaining the drive while slipping in high-speed fills and cymbal play that would leave most drummers in the dust. Listeners often miss his contribution because it’s easy to get distracted by Matt Freeman’s super-charged bass work. His backing during the verses is enough to qualify him for whatever hall of fame you’ve got, but the stop-time solo is one for the ages, perfectly designed to intimidate the shit out of any amateur who thinks he or she’s got the chops. I mean, we’re talking about a guy whose speed on those fat bass strings is close to Coltrane’s speed on “Giant Steps,” so don’t fucking tell me that punk rockers can’t cut it as musicians!

Now for the intensity part. What I sought in punk were moments of total immersion in sound and rhythms so demanding that moving in sync with them would activate every nerve, tendon, ligament, muscle and blood cell in my body. Above all, I didn’t want it to stop or slow down: I wanted the sonic analogy of a hard, non-stop fuck where I come to orgasm every thirty seconds. What I love most about And Out Come the Wolves is these guys don’t shit around—they give us nineteen drivers in a row without backing down once. Like many punk songs, the lyrics deal with social reality from a naturalist perspective combined with an eye to the absurd that have the force of a whack upside the head, guaranteed to knock you out of your bourgeois comfort zone. And what makes it all even more satisfying is that Rancid had more musical flexibility than many other punk bands because of their ska-core roots. Ska is like a door to many genres—R&B, Calypso, jazz—and to greater rhythmic and melodic possibilities. The moving bass line of ska was a perfect complement to punk’s emphasis on rhythm, and the integration of all these influences is on full display on And Out Come the Wolves.

“11th Hour” features front man Tim Armstrong’s street-wise, anti-enunciation vocal style and some fabulous rock guitar work from Tim and Lars Frederiksen. The chorus, “Do you know where the power lies and who pulls the strings? Do you know where the power lies? It starts and ends with you” is such an irresistible shout-along mantra that I always accompany the boys with passionate self-validation whenever I hear it. A split-second later, they jump into “Roots Radical,” a paradoxical tribute to their reggae influences as they ride Bay Area buses—paradoxical because this song seriously fucking rocks! Ripping guitars, more incredible bass, kick-ass drums and plenty of opportunities to shout “yeah!” while you’re slamming into your squeeze. Fuck yeah!

Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman were co-founders of one of the best ska punk bands, Operation Ivy, and here they give us one of the best examples of the genre with “Time Bomb.” The catchy chorus, “Black coat, white shoes, black hat, Cadillac/Yeah, the boy’s a time bomb” sounds like it could have been written by Chuck Berry in the 1950’s, but the hero of this story isn’t Johnny B. Goode getting ready to storm the ramparts on his way to stardom. This kid spent time with the youth authority, runs numbers and either winds up dead or causes the death of a rival:

He’s rollin’ in the Cadillac it’s midnight sunroof is down
Three shots rung out, the hero’s dead, the new king is crowned.

Either way, the image is a dark version of the JFK assassination and the decision to go without the bubble top. The music is hardly dark; it’s a hip-swaying delight driven by a rhythm that hooks you from the get-go, and the introduction of a Hammond organ to the mix was an inspired choice.

“Olympia WA” gets us back to kick-ass rock with a ripping lead guitar solo in a song describing alienation in the Big Apple, and though I can’t understand why anyone would want to go back to Olympia under any circumstances, I love this song and Tim Armstrong’s lost boy delivery. “Lock, Step and Gone” is a dystopian call-and-response rocker where the narrator is getting the uneasy feeling that the world as we know it is spinning out of control:

there’s a fire on the corner and it’s never gonna stop
killer in the neighborhood never got caught
I lock up my door step out and I’m gone
waitin’ for the buses but the buses won’t come

As someone who grew up in the Bay Area dependent on mass transit, “waitin’ for the buses but the buses won’t come” is not the signal that the world is about to end, but business as usual. I spent half my fucking youth freezing my ass off waiting for Muni buses to show up, and from all accounts, things weren’t that much better with AC Transit in the East Bay. To me, the message of the song is that we’re already living in a dystopian society . . . the future is now, and all these common irritants we accept as normal are indications that total collapse may be more imminent than we think.

You hear a similar message in “Junkie Man,” with the killer line “when you’re brought up you’re caught up in a system that’s goin’.” This one features one of the best lead vocals on the album, combining fabulous phrasing, belt-out passion and a poetry-slam narrative that features the album title and Joycean word play:

my hand went blind
you were in the vein, clairvoyant/you were in the vein, clairvoyant
my hand went blind
i make love to my trance sister my trance sister
and my trance parents see from the balcony
I looked out on the big field
it opens like the cover of an old bible
And out come the wolves! Out come the wolves!
their paws trampling in the snow the alphabet
I stand on my head and watch it all go away

It’s also said that the title refers to the major label bidding war that whirled around the band as their popularity grew. Thankfully, they told the record companies to piss off and stayed independent. Their pals from Green Day went the other direction and wound up with Grammies and world renown, and while I don’t begrudge anyone from making a buck in the dog-eat-dogshit world of capitalism that we’re apparently stuck with for a while, I have a hard time understanding how the punk ethic can coexist with the power structure and survive.

We’ll leave that argument to the musical sociologists and get back to Rancid, who now kick some serious ass with “Listed MIA,” a song that defines the word “relentless.” “God damn it, man I almost had it” is the story of too many people’s lives as they try to break out of the lower reaches of the social system, and find they’re stuck in an endless loop:

God damn it, man I almost had it
I did it again, yeah, I do it out of habit
Well, I’m numb, it ain’t no fun
I’m less than zero when you add up the sum

After a while, you just have to say “fuck it” and get away from that “courtship built from anger,” even if you know you don’t have any options. The combination of great lyrics, Lars Fredericksen’s take-no-prisoners lead vocal and that relentless guitar attack make “Listed MIA” my favorite Rancid song of all time. Here’s a rather jiggly video of them playing the song at Le Trianon here in Paris . . . nine months before I moved here. Shit, I missed them again!

Much more popular with the fans is “Ruby Soho,” definitely one of Rancid’s catchier and more melodic numbers that adds diversity to the mix without sacrificing intensity. And god damn, do they explode on the chorus, or what? The group vocals on this one are super, and damn if it isn’t a great song for sing-alongs, slamming or just making yourself feel good for a change. The experience described in the song is one of listening to life in an apartment building, something you can always experience in California apartments because of the cheap-ass walls they build to squeeze every last dime out of their real estate investments. Ruby Soho made the mistake of falling in love with a forever-itinerant musician, and spends her life helping him out when he’s around (“He’s singin’ and she’s there to lend a hand”), then waiting for him to return from his eternal road trip to eventual fame and fortune. The bittersweet goodbye scene contrasts with the bouncy, energetic music, but hey, it’s life, and we all do what we gotta do to survive: enjoy the “warm gesture” while you can.

“Daly City Train” is a ska skipper that forms an ironic eulogy of an “artist and a writer and a poet and a friend” who died young from drug and alcohol abuse, but rather than whine and shake their heads like all the do-gooders who think death is some kind of sin that’s entirely the fault of the individual, Rancid celebrates the life of a guy who “rolled the dice” but “never thought twice about being him.” Our hero did something that our health-nazi, paranoid, play-it-safe culture considers insanity: he lived.

Jackyl was one of the one’s that perished
He was one of the one’s that was already saved
Through all the evil and wreckage
He maintained a sense of himself

In addition to the fabulous, life-affirming message, the guitar solo on this song is terribly clever, adding just the right touch of dissonance to support a message that the average person will have a hard time hearing.

These guys never quit—not live, not in the studio. “Journey to the End of the East Bay” opens with another dazzling display of dexterity from Matt Freeman before you hear the sound of feedback coming at you like you’re the trussed-up heroine headed for the buzz saw and then WHAM! Let’s kick some rock ‘n’ roll ass! The song is a playful retelling of Operation Ivy’s brief career and the ups and downs of trying to make a living in music. Some of the lines provide back story to their (Rancid’s) decision to remain independent (“too much attention unavoidably destroyed us”), and describes what it’s like to live and play in a place that the media has identified as a musical hotbed (“Matty came from far away/from New Orleans into the East Bay/He said this is a mecca/I said this ain’t no mecca man, this place is fucked!”). Tim Armstrong’s vocal is right on target, and you get the feeling that he’s reliving it all right there in the moment. Absolute fucking knockout of a song.

Tim has to catch his breath now, so Lars Frederiksen steps up to the mike for “She’s Automatic.” If there’s one song that brings my teens back into the present, this is it. The tight, pounding music provides a perfect background to the description of the punk club scene I knew and loved. Here are the full set of lyrics (the handwritten liner notes omit a couple of key lines) with my recollections in italics:

The way that she moves, well I was aroused (that was always my goal—I wanted every guy in the joint to get a hard-on watching me move)
Impowered, impassioned by every move (and I wanted every girl to drip and maybe reach between her legs for a quickie)
It’s so cold outside, we need a place to hide
Go into the club to thaw out for the night (yes, it gets fucking cold in California, especially when the wind and the fog are pouring through the chute from the Golden Gate to the Berkeley Hills)

She’s automatic, so automatic, the way that she moves (2) (I always wanted to give my best performance, like a punk Olympian)

Situation’s so tricky, I was feeling so proud
The bass and the drums, the music’s so loud (surround sound is a pale imitation of a punk venue when the band’s hot; it’s like swimming in sound and electric fire)
She asked me if I would stand by her side like glue
That I would till the end of the night (sometimes I’d go to SF shows alone and immediately attach myself to any guy with big arms and a few spiked accessories)

My head was spinnin’ a million miles an hour
The chance I was takin’ I get anxious around her (they may have looked like tough guys, but I found most punk men very respectful, a bit on the shy side and often submissive—yes!)
She put her head on my shoulder I started to hold her (believe it or not, there was a lot of tenderness, bonding and camaraderie beneath the noise and the slamming)
Swingin’ and swayin’ the morning began (a good chunk of my swingin’ and swayin’ took place afterwards on some guy’s futon, but that was NOT automatic)

We go back to high-speed ska dominated by Matt Freeman’s amazing bass for “Old Friends,” the most mellow song on the album—and that is a very relative term. It’s followed by the ass-kicking, poetically economical and enlightening experience of “Disorder and Disarray,” where the act of signing your life and your music away to the music industry is compared to getting your ass nailed to the cross. Hey, we just want to make fucking music! Don’t you suits get it?

Say goodbye when you see me sign
Now I’m crucified
Crucify-ay-ay-ay-ay me

The ground is fertile and the grass is green
So many things to be seen
So many bands to be heard
Just for once can I be ignored?

“The War’s End” deals with the war of the generations; at this time in history, parents (not mine!) had pretty much bought into Reagan’s patriotic bullshit and American militarism, while one faction of the punks began to foment revolution from the left. Rancid gives the kid at the center of the story the best advice possible: get the fuck out of that house! “You Don’t Care Nothin'” is all about the music: the rhythmic variation in this song is so compelling that the lyrics fall into deep background for me. Brett Reed seems to come in and out of nowhere with rolls, skips and stutter-steps, and frequently the band plays off-rhythm for a few seconds to build up the tension and make the experience of coming together the sonic equivalent of a thick cock in just the right place at the right time.

Sorry if that offends you, but read À Propos de Moi! I frequently experience music on a sexual level, so piss off!

“As Wicked” matches any of the other songs on the record in terms of musical power, but the real power of the song lies in the lyrics, describing an everyday occurrence in the rich and painfully expensive cities of the Bay Area, where people who can afford to pay millions for homes stick their noses high in the air when they confront the ghosts of American society:

I saw an old man on the street
he was in a dumpster lookin’ for somethin’ to eat
he moved so slow like a dyin’ dream
ike a machinist who got caught in the machine

I saw this lady and she was cryin’
she said it’s hard when someone you love is dyin’
I saw this kid who was about 5 years old
he was in the park all alone he was cold

there’s something coming around
as wicked as it may seem
as wicked as anything could be

This is one quality of great political punk: it forces you to look at the things you don’t want to see, primarily your failure to live up to your responsibilities to other human beings who are down on their luck. This theme of convenient blindness is echoed in the first line of “Avenues and Alleyways,” a no-bullshit wake up call to those who are satisfied with the way things are and think that because they passed a few laws to protect minorities that everything’s hunky dory:

I figured out the problem yeah the problem is you
You didn’t see us comin’ now there’s nothin’ you can do
Times are gonna change, change or step aside
It’s my point of view that took you by surprise

The sun’s coming up yea the new dawn arrives
New generation standing stand with anger in their eyes
No love in the city ’cause there’s no connection
Been stricken with disease a racial infection

I’m a battering ram comin’ through to you
In every alleyway on every avenue

Actions could erase all the fear that we suffer
People segregated no one understands each other
He’s a different color but we’re the same kid
I will treat him like my brother he will treat me like his

The “Oy-oy-oy!” shouts on this song must be accompanied by clenched fists raised in unison. I only wish that the line, “the force is unstoppable” was true. With everything going to shit in this world and unsolved problems continuing to pile up, where the fuck are all the revolutionaries? And I don’t want to hear from psychopaths masquerading as saviors, I want collective action to “erase all the fear we suffer,” not spread more fear.

Boy, great punk music is thrillingly radicalizing! I haven’t felt this good in months!

Speaking of feeling, the seemingly nonstop barrage of extraordinary music ends with “The Way I Feel.” The opening is a stutter-step killer, where they hold onto the notes a few milliseconds longer with building speed before kicking it into high gear; it’s a fabulous time-suspended passage that they repeat midway through the song and again at the end. The song has serious attitude, rocks with a passion and has a shout-to-the-top-of-your-lungs “na na na na” passage guaranteed to get everyone in sync. It’s another killer song and the perfect end to a killer album.

Both Rancid and $wingin’ Utter$ are still alive and kicking, proving that age has nothing to do with attitude. My review of $winging Utter$’ 2013 release Poorly Formed was decidedly positive, and when I’ve had time between reviews to go back and simply enjoy some newer music, I always play Poorly Formed first. The word on the streets is that Rancid has a new album coming in June called Honor Is All We Know, and I’ll be all over it when it comes out. If their relatively recent performance videos on YouTube are any indication, they’ve still got the chops and they’ve still got the attitude . . . and punk’s revolutionary message is more relevant than ever.

Oy-oy-oy!

The Ramones – Rocket to Russia – Classic Music Review

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A no-brainer in so many ways. Click to buy!

Way, way back in the mid-70’s when the rock world began to split into sub-genres like hard rock, progressive rock, glam rock, heavy metal and the like, two common characteristics united the lot. The music was often seriously overproduced to amp up the drama and the songs tended to be on the long side. While some of the music of the era justified the complexity of production, a lot of it didn’t, and the endless drawn-out jams favored at the time had to be getting tiresome. Yes, rock had come a long way since Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent, but in doing so it had lost touch with its core. Similar to what happened to jazz when Bebop came to the fore, Rock was no longer dance music, which may explain why desperate, latent butt-shakers of the era turned to that abomination known as disco. While disco allowed people to strut their stuff on the dance floor, it adopted a style of slick production that would render it a lifeless and temporary fix at best for people who really wanted to let loose.

Then along came a bunch of guys who named themselves Ramones. Two-minute songs played at high-speed with high intensity. A no-frills just-drive-the-fucker-home rhythm section. A singer with limited range unlikely to try and wow the crowd with histrionics. No weird time signatures or complex chord patterns. Keep it simple, keep it moving, kick some ass. Get back to the primal urges, strip the lyrics of any traces of pomposity, add a playful sense of humor and create strong hooks so people can sing or shout along while they shake their energy-starved bodies.

While their arrival did not prevent Saturday Night Fever, the Ramones would re-establish the beachhead for jukebox-style rock ‘n’ roll that would form the structural basis of punk and its variations, and make it possible for other get-back-to-the basics styles like power pop. There was never any threat that the Ramones would develop beyond their core: it’s impossible to imagine a Ramones equivalent of Sgt. Pepper. What their long career proved was that basic rock ‘n’ roll has eternal life, because when it’s played right and tight, it taps the endless reserves of sexual energy within the human species.

I feel so damned good when I listen to the Ramones. I feel alive and happy. They make me move and they make me laugh. No matter what kind of bullshit I deal with during the workday, I can put on an album like Rocket to Russia and say, “That shit doesn’t matter. Let’s have some fun!”

“Cretin Hop” kicks things off big time. I love the silliness of the premise, and god damn I love the way these guys commit to hard-ass driving rock ‘n’ roll. The message that even cretins need to hop is sublimely ridiculous and strangely liberating: just go with it and have a good time! When they get to the call-out “1-2-3-4, cretins want to hop some more/4-5-6-7, all good cretins go to heaven,” shout along with them and I guarantee you that all your troubles will vanish into thin air. There is an ironic subtext here, but we’ll save that discussion for the end of the review . . . right now I want to rock!

If for some reason “Cretin Hop” doesn’t do it for you, “Rockaway Beach” certainly will. I’ve never been with anyone who doesn’t start involuntarily singing “rock, rock, Rockaway Beach” when it comes up on the stereo or the radio. The theme of “this scene is a drag, let’s get out of here” is a classic rock theme that the Ramones cleverly update with the lines, “The bus ride is too slow/They blast out the disco on the radio.” You don’t need any fills or frills with a song like this, it runs on its own energy and the Ramones were smart enough to just let that energy carry the music across the finish line. Two minutes of absolute bliss!

“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” is as close to a ballad as you’ll get with these guys, and the detour away from standard chord structure with the dominant D to F# pattern is fairly complex for the Ramones. Although I tend to prefer the high-speed flights, Joey Ramone’s vocal really holds this song together with its intense commitment. You never have to wait long for the Ramones to ramp up the speed, though, and “Locket of Love” delivers with Joey’s fabulous sense of phrasing and straightforward but very effective harmonies sweetening a song about sweet revenge. “I Don’t Care” is more of a groove song with very simple lyrics expressing the classic reaction to rejection: denial. I love the way this song gets my ass moving in a circular grind: kudos to the rhythm section of Dee Dee and Tommy for warming me up for the inevitable afters.

If Eddie Cochran had been alive in 1977, he could have easily written “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” as the groove is “Summertime Blues” with a touch of methamphetamine. The lyrics in the single verse refer to previous rock fads (surf and a-go-go rock) that no longer scratch the itch the way this new manifestation of rock energy does with its rougher, rawer distorted sound. The words establish the link to the core and the sound establishes the new direction:

Well the kids are all hopped up and ready to go (they’re ready to go now)

They got their surfboards and they’re going to the Discotheque Au-Go-Go

But she just couldn’t stay

She had to break away

Well New York City really has it all

Sheena is a punk rocker . . .

The barrage of dysfunctional family images dominates the high-speed “We’re a Happy Family,” the only track on the album where I think they add too much to the arrangement with the chattering voices in the fade. It’s followed by the wild ride of “Teenage Lobotomy,” describing a world where brainlessness is guaranteed to get you the girls and likely to lead to a Ph.D; it’s a song designed for body slamming and the delicious release that comes from shouting “Lobotomy!” with Joey.

Next up is the best cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” I’ve ever heard; shit, it’s even better than the original, where the fire was diminished by the bossa nova fad of the time. The arrangement is simple, pedal to the metal rock ‘n’ roll and captures the kinetic excitement of letting your body shake and shimmer. When done right, dancing is really a form of shadow-fucking where eye contact communicates desire better than anything anyone can say in words, and the Ramones’ performance here makes me want to get up and shadow-fuck right now!

The pounding rhythm that drives of “I Wanna Be Well” come next, echoing the rhythm of a child’s tantrum in the chorus. I think they cover the theme of pursued obliviousness better in “I Wanna Be Sedated,” my favorite Ramones song. They shake up the instrumentation with less distortion and ride cymbal on “I Can’t Give You Anything,” resurrecting the classic rock theme of the boy who doesn’t have the cash reserves to make the girl happy. For me, those songs are just the warmups for “Ramona,” with its sexy groove and minimalistic harmonies supporting a first-class vocal performance from Joey Ramone.  The Ramones then take on the novelty song, “Surfin’ Bird,” a hit for a group called The Trashmen who capitalized on the surf craze by putting “surfin'” in the title of a song that has nothing to do with surfing. Americans are so easily manipulated! It’s pure gibberish and the original was loaded with irritating sound effects and clichés, but I’ll be damned if the Ramones don’t make this sucker work.

Rocket to Russia ends with the upbeat number, “Why Is It Always This Way.” The harmonies, the happy-go-lucky rhythm and the grind-it-out guitar from Johnny Ramone give the impression that this is a “we’re having a good day” kind of rock song, but the lyrics tell a different story:

Last time I saw her alive

She was wavin’, wavin’ bye bye

She was contemplating suicide

Now she’s lying in a bottle of Formaldehyde

The Ramones loved to fuck with conventions and expectations, and their lyrics often contradict the feel of the music they’re playing. You can take these lyrics one of two ways: a.) There’s nothing we can do about this shit, so let’s rock or b.) We live in a society that is so anesthetized that human tragedy and waste no longer affect us. If there’s a dominant theme on Rocket to Russia, it’s brainlessness: cretins, lobotomies, drugs to ease the pain. In one sense, that’s not a bad thing when you’re playing core rock ‘n’ roll: you don’t want to think, you want to feel it inside and move your fanny! In another sense, the feel you get from the songs is often satiric and ironic, so it’s equally possible that the Ramones were exposing the punk scene for its cultural and artistic limitations in celebrating the moronic to excess. In a paper written for the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, a gentleman by the name of Alex Taitague poses some fascinating hypotheses about the Ramones’ lyrics and punk in the context of culture.

My take is that punk is stripped-down music, not dumbed-down music, and that of all the genres in existence today, punk tends to be the most ironic, humorous and socially conscious. While the Ramones may not have the lyrical depth of Fugazi, $wingin’ Utter$ or The Evens, their songs definitely have more depth than meet the eye.

And even if they didn’t, it’s nice to give your brain a rest every now and then and just get your ass moving to kick ass rock ‘n’ roll, an art form that the Ramones mastered with surprising discipline and boundless energy. Rocket to Russia is the perfect cure for the spirit-draining effects of our increasingly regimented world.

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