Thursday, May 28, 2009

No Such Thing as a Cretin: The Ramones' Rocket to Russia (1977)

It's about summertime and I've been cruising around in the new ride, blasting an oldy-old favorite: the Ramones' third album, Rocket to Russia. It was perhaps the second or third Ramones album I owned back in the mid-'80s, and I wasn't expecting much as my friend who gave it to me told me it wasn't as good as their debut. How wrong he turned out to be.

Released in November 1977, at the commercial, pop-cultural height of the filth and fury known as Punk Rock, Rocket to Russia was make-or-break time for the band. Sire Records was gearing up for some serious sales and betting a lot on the band. It's no wonder, then, that the album has the band's cleanest, leanest, most accessible sound, refined to defiant, power-chorded perfection, with Joey Ramone's shouts, hiccups, and croons perfectly suited to the full-throated singalong quality virtually every song here has.

How any rock lover can resist the obvious, sugary-yet-substantial charms of intro tune “Cretin Hop” with its no-nonsense two-chord shuffle that opens the album escapes me. Once Dee Dee's bass and Tommy's drums wallop in, the song immediately introduces the album’s good-time freakshow tone.

“Isn’t a song about cretins in poor taste?” an interviewer asked guitarist Johnny Ramone back in the day. “No,” he said, “because there really isn’t any such thing as a cretin anymore. Same with pinheads. If we did a song about retards, that’d be in poor taste.” Holy shit—he’s dead fucking right! You’re gonna have to trust me on this—it was in a fanzine I bought at a Ramones show in 1989 that was actually a reprint of a fanzine from the ’70s—whew.

There's the nihilist's anthem "I Don't Care," a punk dirge in which Joey declares "I don't care about this world/And I don't care about these words." "Ramona" is a bittersweet confection with a lovely melody about a girl and the kids who love it loud; ditto the poison-pen love letter “Locket Love.” One of Joey's earliest songs, written before the Ramones, is the plaintive ballad "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" (a roaring cover by Ronnie Spector in 1980 with Cheetah Chrome on guitar truly does the song justice). Can’t go wrong with the delights of the covers of “Do You Wanna Dance?” and the live staple "Surfin' Bird." These two songs are a perfect example of what endeared me to the Ramones when I was a teen, that they seemed to get it right: innocence without irony, absurdity without cruelty. Wouldn’t it be funny if we, you know, covered a forgotten one-hit wonder pop song with power chords, tuneless vocals and an irresistible beat?

Of course there are the stone-cold classics: "Teenage Lobotomy." "We're a Happy Family." "Rockaway Beach." No Ramones show would be complete without them. And then there's the song that I consider to be just about the most perfect pop song ever written, "Sheena is a Punk Rocker."

An ode to free spirits and non-conformists everywhere, to New York City, and to the power of identity that the best rock'n'roll provides, "Sheena" is everything that makes the Ramones great in 2 minutes 47 seconds:

"Well, the kids are all hopped up and ready to go/ They got their surfboards and they're heading/ to the Discotheque a Go-Go/ But she just couldn't stay/ She had to break away/ Well New York City really has it all—Oh yea-ah, oh yeahhhh!"

Second verse, same as the first. A put-the-top-down, fist-in-the-air, sing-along radio-friendly classic if ever there was one. However, when it was released as a single, radio stations took one look at the phrase "punk rocker" and recoiled in fear. Really. It's funny to think today that that phrase once struck horror into the stoutest of record company hearts, but it's true. Once the American music industry saw the Sex Pistols, punk was simply "safety pins, vomit, anger, snot." The whole thing was terrifying, mystifying, verboten.

Ah well, surely the less-threatening sounding "Rockaway Beach," with its Beach Boys-go-garage vibe and unforgettable chorus ("Rock-rock, Rockaway Beach/It's not hard, not far to reach/ We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach") would leap to the top of the charts and ensconce the Ramones in the nation's warm bosom.

Except that this sunny, funny, delightful little ditty was released in the dead of winter. And it died. And that was it. Rocket to Russia, charting at Billboard #49 (1980's End of the Century would chart a few spaces higher) stopped cold. Despite relentless touring (for the next 19 years!), the spectacle of Punk Rock was a "dangerous" one, and any band associated with it was thrown out with the bathwater. Plus, audiences outside of New York City's Lower East Side just couldn't get with four geeky-looking guys in motorcycle jackets, Captain America T-shirts two sizes too small and ripped-up blue jeans—straight-leg, not flares!—not when there was John Travolta looking so suave and so dapper in his disco get-up. But come on, people, look at these fucking hipsters!

Today the reputation of the Ramones is beyond reproach; unbelievable as it may seem to all those radio DJ detractors and pretty people who were busy buying up those Styx, Foreigner, ABBA, and Bee Gees albums in 1977, they are firmly established as one of the most important bands in rock'n'roll history. Who ever would have thought?

Well, all the cretins, pinheads, and teenage lobotomies throughout the world, that's who. There are such things after all.


Drake said...

Ramones, my favorite band ever.
Great blog and Gabba Gabba Hey!

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for reading! Ramones forever!

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