Ramones Loosen Up: ‘Rocket to Russia’ (12/12/77)

There’s a looseness, a rhythmic snap, and a feel for rock as rock on Rocket to Russia (Rock It to Russia? Free the Plastic People?) that I didn’t hear on the Ramones’ first two albums, and I think this means their whole sensibility is getting looser–or, dare I say it, maturing. (Not that this record should have been called Ramones Grow Up.) Ramones and Ramones Leave Home (wonderful title) struck me as cold and ugly; I found the apparent irony of songs like “Beat on the Brat” very unconvincing–as in a lot of rock and roll, irony here seemed like a mask the singer put on to disguise the fact that he meant exactly what he said. I also found those records dully one-dimensional. It’s one thing to have a concept–lumpen-rock for lumpenoids (or people who get a kick out of touching the lumpenoid in themselves)–but you’ve got to have more than a concept to back it up. If, as a writer who shares these pages has said, “musicianship is just another concept” (which means, among other things, that after a while you just stop hearing brilliant guitar solos), anti-musicianship is just another concept too. Perhaps the reason Rocket to Russia sounds more lively than its predecessors is that as musicians the Ramones are a lot better than they were and don’t really want to play down to themselves, or to anyone else. Whatever the reason, this record isn’t merely conceptual.

The Ramones have never been short on melodic sense (hard rock is always melodic; it’s heavy metal that isn’t) but here the melodies are right on the surface, and they’re delicious: you can float on the changes in “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” The band often flips out their best riffs at the beginning of songs (“Rockaway Beach,” “I Can’t Give You Anything”), and then buries those riffs; one half-consciously anticipates their returns, eager for the sweetness of the early ’60s chords the Ramones are fooling with (“Sheena” is little more than “Let the Little Girl Dance,” which is a lot–the line about how Sheena, swept away by punk, “just couldn’t stay” with all the other kids down at the discotheque, is actually moving). The band shows range: they go back to the ’50s for the feeling behind “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” revealing a talent for sentimentality no less acute than that of doowop ancestors like the Dubs (“Could This Be Magic”), and the Beach Boys are all over the album. A few cuts, short as they are, run out of steam before they’re through, and the band continues to strike out with actual oldies. “Do You Wanna Dance” is pedestrian, and “Surfin’ Bird” is only a messy gesture–not a performance with any bounce to it, but just a statement of concept. It sounds like a throwback–not to 1963, but to the Ramones’ first two albums. It’s a waste for them to be cute with “Surfin’ Bird” or “California Sun” when they can write songs as good as “Rockaway Beach,” which deserves to be a hit single–though if it were, it’d be the first summer song to to make the charts in winter. That’s the kind of concept-mongering I’d like to see more of.

The central weakness of the Ramones remains: there’s no conviction in their music. This is particularly evident on a record where they have little to be ironic about (“Cretin Hop” is the only song here that might be called cruel, and that’s pushing it). Foregoing the blood and guts of “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl,” the Ramones have made a very straightforward album–which is probably why I like it–but while some may have found them seriously ironic, or ironically serious, in the past, their dropping of this pose/device, and the subject matter that demands it, simply shows up their inability to put emotional force behind what they say. “We’re a Happy Family,” a good song (as written) about a nuclear disaster area (“Daddy’s telling lies/Baby’s eating flies”) might have been truly sordid, but though the Ramones sing as if they mean to communicate bitterness, the song doesn’t cut, nor is it funny.

Down-and-out as they may appear, the Ramones sound spoiled: smug. There’s no conviction in their music because they don’t sing from the inside of the personae they posit; they make insulated music. It’s music that, for me, never puts across the feeling that something’s at stake when the band plays; none of their songs sound as if anything would be lost if they weren’t sung. To say that that’s the point isn’t good enough. It’s why, at this point, the group’s music does not compare to Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” or just about anything by the Clash or the Sex Pistols. Much as they may intimidate AM radio, the Ramones aren’t dangerous yet. Until they get inside the roles they assume, they won’t be.

Village Voice,  December 12, 1977


3 thoughts on “Ramones Loosen Up: ‘Rocket to Russia’ (12/12/77)

  1. Greil articulates his problem with the Ramones well in the last graph, better than he does in interviews, where he’s more quickly dismissive. I still can’t help but wonder, if he’d been raised in Long Island and not northern CA whether he’d find, say, Suicide more vital and influential than he does.

  2. Astonishing the extent to which Marcus simply did not get the Ramones…even when he is reviewing an album he claims to like his comments about it and the two preceding albums reveal him to be floundering in something he does not understand. Compare with BBC DJ John Peel who gave punk bands the airplay in the UK that they were denied in North America… “At that time almost all the new bands comprised of [sic] people who had previously been in successful bands who had broken up then reformed…. Well I played the first Ramones LP — it was identical to the first time I had heard Little Richard — the intensity was frightening! So I played five or six tracks on the next show and immediately I received mail from people demanding that I never play stuff like that again. Whenever that happens I always go in the opposite direction, so I played more and it was great! It was a classic case of changing courses in mid-stream and in a month the average age of the audience dropped by 10 years and the whole social class changed — which I was very pleased about.” Maybe Marcus needs Joe Strummer’s help to understand the Ramones…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zt9JAnSDNE&t=119s

  3. Marcus has always had a problem with ironic disaffection. Personally I didn’t really get the Ramones until Joey started baring his soul.

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