Rocket To Russia
Sire Records, 1977
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/12/2005
The Ramones invented punk rock.
I don't think they intended to invent anything, they just wanted to rock. It's been questioned and examined to pieces, but it's an inescapable fact that they were the first punk band. The Brits like to think they gave birth to punk rock, but they didn't. By the time anyone heard of The Clash, The Sex Pistols or The Jam, The Ramones (Joey-vocals, Tommy-drums, Johnny-guitar and Dee Dee-bass) were an East Coast phenomenon (and quickly moving West) and were releasing their third, and many say their best album, Rocket To Russia.
In the late 70's, music was going off in all directions. Rap was in its infancy and wouldn't be a mainstream genre for several more years. New wave was going strong and seeping into the all sorts of musical styles. Heavy metal was growing like a leather-clad chia pet and was about to take over the world. Prog-rock giants like Yes and Pink Floyd owned the arena circuit. Out of this fertile soil emerged punk rock... and the world responded with a collective "What the hell is that?"
Powerful, angry, violent, and making their own rules as they went along, punk artists found no boundaries they wouldn't cross. Musicianship was almost an afterthought, as part of the anarchist philosophy of punk seemed to put attitude and the artists' particular message before anything as mundane as knowing how to play more than three chords. Much of the world dismissed it as mere noise. I had heard some punk rock from acquaintances, but it sounded to me like the worst garage band crap that had ever been recorded. I dismissed it utterly.
Then I heard the Ramones for the first time. Late at night, listening to my local FM station, the nasal cry of "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" caught my attention, as did the furious riffing that sounded like the ghost of Eddie Cochran on a serious meth binge. I had to hear more of this, and I got a copy of Rocket To Russia. From the opening blitzkrieg of "Cretin Hop" I was entranced. Backed by the most simplistic three-chord arrangements possible, these 2-3 minute blasts of energy were full of greaser bravado and a wicked sense of humor, all wrapped up in killer melodies, inescapably catchy hooks, and relentlessly driving beats.
It was no wonder these guys were embraced by the disenfranchised future Gen-Xers who were trying hard to eschew the legacy of flower power and the plastic veneer of mainstream rock. First off, they looked nothing like rock stars, more like extras from a 50's biker movie that were never told the shoot was over. The biggest thing was their attitude, a combination of happy-go-lucky pop sensibility and dark, brooding urban angst. From that came the musical identity of the cooler-than-thou misfits that you found both disturbing and compelling at the same time. The Ramones were telling us it was okay to be weird, it was okay to be a loner, it was okay to feel like an outsider. Case in point is one of the classic tracks on Rocket, "Teenage Lobotomy," affirming that even the most whacked out loser can still get the girl;
"DDT did a job on me / Now I am a real sickie Guess I'll have to break the news / That I got no mind to lose All the girls are in love with me / I'm a teenage lobotomy."
Whether it was real or not, they painted a picture of a seemingly unwholesome world of mental deficients, violence, outcast losers, and dark romance so vivid you wanted to believe in it. You didn't want to live there, but you wanted to drive by with your doors locked just for a look. The prime cuts of the Ramones distorted little window of unreality are "I Wanna Be Well" ("Daddy's broke / Holy smoke / My future's bleak / Ain't it neat?"); and the satirical look at the '70s nuclear family "We're a Happy Family."
Rocket also includes some very early examples of surf-punk, soon to be a genre in its own right, with the tracks "Rockaway Beach" and "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," as well as a hyperdrive version of "Surfin' Bird." What passes for romance in the Ramones world, usually a very twisted affair, surfaces with the groupie homage "Ramona," and the creepy letter to a dead girlfriend "Why Is It Always This Way."
The Ramones firmly and proudly embraced the music of the fifties and sixties, producing some of the finest cover songs ever done by any artist. Who could imagine a punk version of the fifties classic "Do You Wanna Dance?" They did, and it works as one of Rocket's cleverest tracks. They wallowed in the work of Phil Spector, girl groups, '60s bubblegum pop, and surf music. The funny thing was, the uber-cool punk movement was as far removed from these sunny, feel-good influences as possible, and a typical mainstream rock fan would roll their eyes at the idea of the likes of Del Shannon or The Dixie Cups. These guys took the most un-hip music of that time and their muse and created a turbo-charged monster that made them the most successful punk band in history.
Rocket was reissued in the late '90s with extra tracks, including a superb version of "Needles And Pins." After almost 30 years, this album still sounds every bit as fresh as it ever did. With nascent punk wannabes coming out of the woodwork and peppering the airwaves with wimpy punk knock-offs, this album stands as an icon of what punk should sound like, and just sounds all the much better for that comparison.