I like to think this is the album Buddy Holly would’ve made if he’d grown up surrounded by bullies in a big, dysfunctional city.
I would listen to this album while: Having a party, taking a road trip, or cleaning house.
A Spike Jonze film about space aliens that help a high-school student cope with life’s struggles and heartache. (You’ve got my number, Spike.)
Listening to the Ramones’ first three albums is like watching someone practice on a firing range. Most of the material on the quartet’s self-titled debut reaches the target, but the delivery appears rough and a little wild. The band’s sophomore effort, Leave Home, exhibits some much-needed polish and focus, but the grip feels too tight on some tracks. On Rocket to Russia, the Forest Hills boys develop into gunslingers. Nearly every cut connects with center mass. The album splits the difference between the debut’s raw energy and Leave Home’s more melodic surf and bubblegum vibes.
For instance, “Rockaway Beach” combines a chugging guitar and addictive chorus that manages to capture summertime escape in the musical equivalent of a postcard. Even on the slower “Ramona,” everyone plays at their best. Johnny Ramone’s hard-charging down-beat chords couple with Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone’s metronome precision to create a well-timed engine that drives the harmony-laden chorus straight to the heart of leader Joey Ramone’s serious crush. Such relentless energy and romantic idealism make Rocket to Russia more than a punk classic. It’s also a fine example of pure pop songwriting.
Of course, August 1977 was a tough time to be a member of the Ramones. In spite of handling a brutal international touring schedule and receiving rave reviews from hip scribes, the band faced stagnant domestic album sales. News headlines about the Sex Pistols’ spit-spattered appearances turned the Ramones and other punk artists into pariahs, effectively shutting down the potential for radio airplay. Never known to back down from a fight, “da Brudders” entered Mediasound Studios in Manhattan with more than $25,000 in production money and chips on their shoulders. Melody Maker reporter Everett True wrote that guitarist Johnny Ramone raged about the band’s music having gotten ripped off and demanded engineer Ed Stasium help the foursome make a record that sounded better than “Anarchy in the U.K.”
From a sonic standpoint, Rocket to Russia succeeds. Joey’s vocals fit comfortably up front, Johnny’s Marshall amp stack looms large, and Dee Dee and Tommy’s rhythm machine is given full propulsion. This is the Ramones album that best captures the quartet’s formula: triple-distilled, 100-proof shots of fast, furious, fun-filled rock n’ roll.
The shrink wrap sticker on this 2018 Rhino reissue of the album’s stereo mix boasts that it’s sourced from “Superior 2017 Remastered Audio.” While it may provide a bit more definition compared to Greg Calbi’s original master of the Sire original, some listeners may find that the 2018 remaster (lacquers cut by Ray Janos at Sterling Sound) loses a bit of the first pressing’s raw energy. A better reissue of this title is Rhino’s 2010 remaster cut by Chris Bellman from the original analog tapes. It retains the original’s snap while allowing the bass and midrange to open up even more. While not nearly as flawed as its 2016 reissue of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Rhino’s latest edition of Rocket to Russia proves that remastering punk is more challenging than it might appear. Even though this latest reissue doesn’t quite match an expensive 2010 edition, Rhino delivers a flat, quiet pressing and well worth the sticker price.
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