Way, way back in the mid-70s 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 yearned 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 pure rock 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 high-speed flights, Joey Ramone’s vocal 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 that 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 “I Wanna Be Well” comes 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 in Rocket to Russia, it’s brainlessness: cretins, lobotomies, and 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 their songs have more depth than meets the eye.
And even if they didn’t, it’s nice to give your brain a rest 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.