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The Ramones – Rocket to Russia – Classic Music Review

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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.

Nirvana – Nevermind – Classic Music Review

nevermind

No other artist and no other album dominated the 90’s in America like Nirvana and Nevermind. This was especially true after Kurt Cobain’s death, for Americans, along with all their other notable traits, are quite ghoulish creatures at heart.

To begin to understand how an under-publicized record stuffed with songs containing perfectly meaningless lyrics played by a band with little musical range could have achieved such a lofty position in musical history, you have to understand the differences between The Baby Boomers and Generation X.

Baby Boomers believed they were special; they thought of themselves as people on a mission. For many of them, the mission didn’t matter so much as the feeling of being on a mission, which is why they were able to morph from anti-capitalist peaceniks in the 60’s to greedy fucking bastards in the 80’s. Even if they were unable to articulate life’s purpose beyond a few slogans, they believed and generally still believe that life has a purpose.

Their children did not share their views. Hitting adolescence during America’s Dark Ages in the late 1970’s, then watching their parents lose their jobs in the mass layoffs of the 1980’s while the country’s leaders were telling everyone it was “Morning in America,” Generation X learned not to believe or trust in anything. They thought the whole system was bullshit. They didn’t think of themselves as special; they even failed to develop any sort of generational identity. Generation X became the anti-generation, the generation of bottled-up feelings, the generation of emptiness.

But every generation, even the unfortunate ones, has their spokesperson, and Generation X adopted Kurt Cobain as their poet laureate. Since Kurt Cobain recoiled at the very notion of being the voice of any generation, the pairing was perfect: the anti-generation crowns the reluctant hero who doesn’t want the fucking job.

It is precisely because Kurt Cobain’s lyrics make no apparent sense that they constituted the ideal message for a generation that viewed any coherent message with deep suspicion. Kurt Cobain expressed meaninglessness in the form of half-sentences, jarring word combinations, stutters and stops. He modeled the very inability to succinctly express emotion that characterized Generation X. More than anyone else, he also expressed the intense frustration that his generation felt about expressing anything tangible at all; the line, “Well, whatever, never mind” encapsulated the frustrating experience of trying to connect with other human beings better than any ode, sonnet or epic could have. Dave Grohl observed that Cobain would often dash out the lyrics to a song five minutes before recording, and that’s about all the time and energy that his co-generationists desired to put into the apparently hopeless quest for human understanding.

This is the key to grasping the significance, if not the meaning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song unwittingly named after a deodorant. The confused and meandering lyrics of the song reflect the confused and meandering soul, searching without aim for God knows what. Far more important than the lyrics is the timbre of Kurt Cobain’s voice, one of the greatest rock voices of all time, combining elements of shyness, angst and bottled-up fury. During the verses here his voice sounds like it’s drifting, like a compass needle unable to find the magnetic pole. But when he gets to the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he comes at you full force with that incredible growl, exploding with all the power of a broken dam:

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yeah

Even with the comparatively professional production of Nevermind (a classic tempest in a teapot debate), the power of that voice singes the soul. I can’t explain why in words; it just does.

More accessible to the literate listener, “In Bloom” describes the wannabes out of the scene descending on Nirvana concerts after their maiden release, Bleach:

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means

Ah, that voice again. I love the way Cobain extends the syllable on “he’s” at the start of each chorus, holding that sandpapery voice to the note an impossibly long time without losing a single watt of power. On the downside, the song reflects a formula that dominates much of Nevermind and gets boring after a while: quiet verses followed by loud choruses. Straight from Pixies.

“Come As You Are” is one of Nirvana’s more popular songs, and it does feature both a strong melodic line and musical intensity. It also features a consistent and unfortunate motif that runs through the first three tracks: all the songs mention guns. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” opens with “Load up on guns, and bring your friends.” The gun line from “In Bloom” is noted above; in “Come As You Are” it’s “And I swear I don’t have a gun,” repeated three times. Cobain was apparently obsessed with firearms, and this feature of Nirvana’s music caused me to feel less enthusiasm than my teenage schoolmates felt about them. I could read these lyrics and think, okay, maybe he’s using the gun as a symbol of human protectiveness against real friendship and intimacy. Still, it was hard to separate any perception of the song from the fact that the guy killed himself with a gun and the cops found four more firearms in his house. Whether the imagery represented the leavings from his drug-addled, gun-obsessed, anger-polluted brain or an unconscious precursor of his demise is something for a psychologist and a psychic to figure out. I find the constant reference to guns a disturbing distraction that detracts from the music in the same way that gratuitous violence dominates many Tarantino and Coen Brothers flicks.

More focused and to the point, “Breed” allows Dave Grohl to demonstrate his power as a drummer (though not his versatility—“unnecessary frills” were frowned upon in the band’s dogma). The song itself is nihilistic and neurotic, but at least Nirvana produces a pretty strong attack here. The overrated “Lithium” follows next, a song about a guy who finds religion. The arrangement and delivery sound rushed, busy and overly tense, and the song is about a minute and a half too long. “Polly” is a first-person narrative based on a true story about a rapist who has captured a 14-year old girl (but who eventually tricks him into escaping). Though it’s hardly a pleasant topic, Cobain does a decent job of expressing the muddle inside the rapist’s sick mind. “Polly” is also one of the two acoustic songs on the album, adding some blessed variety to the mix.

By far the worst song on the album, “Territorial Pissings” makes fun of the Baby Boomers by opening with Krist Novoselic singing (badly) the chorus from Dino Valenti’s “Get Together.” While the clichéd and sappy song deserves the jeers, there’s no insight here except “we think that song was dumb.” The rest of the song is repetitive and boring nonsense. “Drain You” involves vivid imagery to describe a manipulative relationship gone bad, but the images are so disturbing they say more about Cobain’s deterioration and insecurity than anything else:

One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection
Chew your meat for you, pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss from my mouth to yours
Sloppy lips to lips, you’re my vitamins
I like you

“Lounge Act” and “Stay Away” don’t provide much in the way of variation or interest. More insightful (in the ironic sense of the word) is the song, “On a Plain,” where Cobain’s difficulty with words is admitted and the deliberate use of obfuscation is embraced as a valid approach to poetry:

Somewhere I have heard this before
In a dream my memory has stored
As a defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say?

It is now time to make it unclear
To write off lines that don’t make sense
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?

Harmonies and background vocals make this song a tad more interesting than the previous two, but the self-absorption sours the mood.

The album closes with the funereal acoustic number, “Something in the Way,” remarkable for the stunning inclusion of cello in violation of punk-grunge dogma (Nirvana would use a cello again in “Dumb” and “All Apologies” on In Utero, those naughty boys). The lyrics in the verse describe a homeless guy living under a bridge (Cobain claimed it was his personal experience, a claim thrown into doubt by a biographer). Disconnectedly, the chorus simply repeats “something in the way” over and over again, but there’s a certain allure to the vocal and the background music that makes this piece unusually compelling. When I hear the song, I imagine Cobain looking at his life, and using his typical fragmentary form of expression, simply notes that there is “something in the way” of being who he wants to be or doing what he wants to do, but he lacks either the energy or the insight to move that obstacle out of the way. As such, it provides an appropriate epitaph to his short and painful existence.

Back in Seattle, my last stop in my U. S. existence, Kurt Cobain is still revered. I didn’t know much about Nirvana until after his death, as they hit the big-time in my pre-teens. So, both in terms of geography and generation, this San Francisco Gen Y girl is something of an outsider when it comes to Nirvana, which could contribute to my relative lack of enthusiasm. They were a phenomenon, to be sure, but I was somehow born with the gene that warns my brain to view all phenoms with skepticism. When I hear Nirvana, what I hear is a band that simply didn’t have a whole lot of room to maneuver beyond their basic sound and nihilistic philosophy, and even if Cobain had lived, Nirvana would not have lasted much longer. Dave Grohl’s talents and energy would have had to come out sooner or later, and a healthy Cobain might have explored his other artistic talents. Whatever the reason, the hourglass had already started to run out for Nirvana when Nevermind hit the stores.

They tried once more, rejecting the production values of Nevermind in an attempt to create a more raw sound for In Utero, with mixed results. Cobain’s screaming vocals would become annoying while his repressed melodic skills would provide the few highlights on the album. Novoselic’s bass certainly sounds better on In Utero, but the material itself is spotty. “Spotty” is also a good word to describe Nevermind: flashes of occasional brilliance and obvious talent are marred by confused, neurotic lyrics and the limitations of punk-grunge dogma. As a statement of rejection of the generally lifeless music people were listening to in the 1980’s, Nevermind is perfection; as a timeless work of art, it leaves much to be desired.

 

 

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