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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 Rhino’s 2018 reissue of the album’s stereo mix claims the LP is sourced from “Superior 2017 Remastered Audio.” While not as anemic as the Warner Brothers/Rhino remaster of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, the LP fails to match the solid midrange and sonic balance of Greg Calbi’s master of the Sire original. While deliberately tipping up a recording’s treble brings out upper-register detail, some listeners mistake the trick for actual sonic improvement. Alas, the midrange remains where the music thrives. Whoever took charge of this remaster forgot that cardinal rule. Listening to songs such as “Cretin Bop” and “Surfin’ Bird” might lead you to believe Tommy loved his cymbals and cared not an iota about his snares and kick drum. Dee Dee’s bass lines struggle to emerge amidst all the splash and sizzle. While the Rhino pressing is quiet and the packaging authentic, it just doesn’t rock like a U.S. original.
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