Ramones: Rocket to Russia – [Record 86]
Rocket to Russia is the third studio album by the American punk rock band The Ramones, and was released on November 4, 1977, through Sire Records. Its origins date back to the summer of 1977, when “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” was released as a single. That summer was known as the peak of the punk rock genre, since many punk bands were offered recording contracts. The album’s recording began in August 1977, and the band had a considerably larger budget with Sire allowing them $25,000 and $30,000; much of this money went toward the album’s production rather than recording.
The album’s cover art was directed by John Gillespie. John Holmstrom and guitarist Johnny Ramone both worked on illustration, with the entire back cover contemplating a military theme, while the inner sleeve artwork depicted many of the themes portrayed in songs. The subject matter of songs varied throughout the album, though nearly all the tracks on the album incorporated humor into the lyrics. The musical style showed more of a surf rock influence, and many songs had minimal structuring.
The album received positive reception, with many critics appreciating the matured production and sound quality as compared to Rocket to Russia’s predecessors. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it his favorite Ramones album as it contained several hooks and featured more variety of tempos. The album was not as commercially successful as the band had hoped, peaking at number 49 on the Billboard 200. Band members blamed the Sex Pistols’ for their lack of sales, saying that they changed the punk image for the worse. The shortage of popularity caused Tommy Ramone to leave his position as drummer, and he instead solely worked on production.
1. Cretin Hop.
2. Rockaway Beach.
3. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.
4. Locket Love.
5. I Don’t Care.
6. Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.
7. We’re a Happy Family.
8. Teenage Lobotomy.
9. Do You Wanna Dance?.
10. I Wanna Be Well.
11. I Can’t Give You Anything.
13. Surfin’ Bird.
14. Why Is It Always This Way?
Background: In the summer of 1977, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” was released as a single, being an outtake from the band’s previous release, Leave Home. This period was extremely significant to the punk rock genre, as it was the initial wave of New York City’s underground punk bands retrieving recording contracts. New York based clubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City began to see bigger audiences crowd in to hear these bands. Punk fans commonly believed that this musical style would soon top the market, to which author Tom Carson explains: “To be in New York that summer was to have some sense of what it might have been like to live in San Francisco in 1966 or ’67, or in London when the Beatles and the [Rolling] Stones first hit.”
Recording and production: Sire Records allowed the band between $25,000 and $30,000 to fully record and produce the album, which is a considerably larger budget compared to the band’s previous albums. The band spent most of the money Sire had given them on the album’s production value. The studio rent was $150 per hour, usually using the first take of a song as its final recording. Johnny explained that “it’s best to do it quickly … You do not wanna sit there and bullshit. It’s your money they’re spending.”
The recording began on August 21, 1977 and took place in Midtown Manhattan at Media Sound Studios, a premises of a former Episcopalian Church. On the first day of sessions, guitarist Johnny Ramone brought a copy of the Sex Pistols’ single “God Save the Queen” with him, remarking that their type of music “robbed” the band. He emphasized that the album’s sound engineer Ed Stasium needed to incorporate better production than that of the Sex Pistols, to which Stasium replied “no problem.” Johnny relates: “These guys ripped us off and I want to sound better than this.”
Though the album cites Tony Bongiovi and Tommy Ramone as the head producers, much of the album’s production was done by Stasium; Johnny so far as to insist that Bongiovi was omnipresent during the band’s recording sessions. Rocket to Russia’s final mastering was mainly done in Bongiovi’s Power Station studio. Infamous record producer Phil Spector offered to fabricate Rocket to Russia, but the band denied, feeling as though the album would not be the same without Tommy and Bongiovi.
Title and packaging: The album was released on November 4, 1977 under the name Rocket to Russia, though it had a working title of Get Well. John Gillespie directed the artwork on the album, and the cover photo was taken by Danny Fields. Arturo Vega is credited as Artistic Coordinator, and Punk magazine editor John Holmstrom illustrated for the album. Holmstrom and Johnny collaborated on the back cover’s concept, eventually conceiving a military theme with an anti-communist cartoon drawing. The back cover art depicts a “pinhead” riding a rocket from the US to Russia. The drawing features many landmarks which pertain to their global position, including The Empire State Building and Capitol Building, and Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. The original artwork is now featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. The inside sleeve features cartoon illustrations of each song’s basic concept.
Lyrics and compositions: Compared to the band’s previous albums, the songs from Rocket to Russia were more surf music and bubblegum pop influenced. But similar to their previous releases, the lyrics integrated humor, specifically black comedy with themes circling mental disorders and psychiatry.
The album opens with “Creitin Hop,” which pays homage to Ramones fans, and was inspired by Cretin Avenue of St. Paul, Minnesota, named after former Bishop Joseph Crétin. When the piece was performed at concerts, the band would pogo dance on stage. “Rockaway Beach” was written by bassist Dee Dee Ramone, and was inspired by the Beach Boys along with other surf music bands. The title refers to a neighborhood and beach in Queens which Dee Dee was a fan of, as confirmed by Tommy and Joey. “I Don’t Care” is composed of three chords and features minimal text composition. The song is among the first pieces written by the band, and was originally recorded as a demo that was released on the 2001 expanded edition of the Ramones debut album. “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” was written by Joey, who explains that the lyrics are about a young female outsider named Sheena who strayed away from the popular disco and surf music and instead visited nightclubs and listened to punk rock. The mid-tempo song deviates from a three-chord pattern and starts off with Joey shouting “Go!”, followed guitar riffs deemed to have a “raucous” texture by author Tom Carson. The author also suggests that these chords “bump[ed]” into each other until the song’s fade-out ending.
“We’re a Happy Family” is a caricature of the conditions which 20th century middle-class American families lived in. The song’s lyrics depict a dysfunctional family where the father is a lying homosexual, the mother is addicted to prescription drugs, the infant has chills. The writing also tells of how the family are friends with the President of the United States and the Pope, and indicate that the family sells “dope,” which is slang for marijuana. The song fades out with various different lines taken from fake dialogue, which illustrate a side of Joey’s personality according to his brother Mickey Leigh.
Side B of the album begins with “Teenage Lobotomy,” which deals with the brain surgical operation lobotomy. The lyrics outlines how this procedure can cause serious consequences to the brain, with the line “Gonna get my Ph.D, I’m a teenage lobotomy.” The composition features more complex melodies than that of other songs from the album, with Stasium proclaiming it to be a “mini-Ramones Symphony.” Rocket to Russia is the first album to feature two cover songs: “Do You Wanna Dance?” (originally performed by Bobby Freeman) and “Surfin’ Bird” (originally performed by The Trashmen).
Critical: Rocket to Russia was well received by critics, and was often given a positive review. Many critics appreciated the band’s progression of sound quality and production value, as opposed to the album’s predecessors. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a music critic at AllMusic said that the production “only gives the Ramones’ music more force.” He rewarded the album five out of five stars, stating that although it lacks the revolutionary impact that their debut had, Rocket to Russia is the band’s “most listenable and enjoyable album” because of its surplus of hooks and varying tempo.
Critic Robert Christgau reaffirms that the album’s content evolved significantly since previous releases. Christgau noted that the album had “something for everyone” and called it a “ready-made punk-rock classic.” Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh began his review of the album by stating: “Rocket to Russia is the best American rock & roll of the year and possibly the funniest rock album ever made.” Like other critics, Marsh recognized the advanced sound quality, explaining that “the guitars still riff relentlessly, but they are freer within the murky sound, and the songs give them much more to work with.”
Sales and aftermath: Though the band expected the album to spawn a few hit songs, Rocket to Russia sold few records. The album charted on the US Billboard 200 at number 49, making this album one of the most successful of the Ramones’ releases. It also debuted at number 31 on the Swedish charts, 36 on the Canadian charts, and 60 on the UK Albums Chart.
The lack of record sales was largely due to fellow the fellow punk band Sex Pistols turning people off the genre “with their antisocial behavior,” as put by author Brian Bowe. Rock music historian Legs McNeil relates: “Safety pins, razor blades, chopped haircuts, snarling, vomiting–everything that had nothing to do with the Ramones was suddenly in vogue, and it killed any chance Rocket to Russia had of getting any airplay.” Joey also insisted that the Sex Pistols were partially responsible for the low sale numbers, concluding that before 60 Minutes’s focused on the Sex Pistols, Rocket to Russia had decent airplay. After this, Joey asserted that “everyone flipped out and then things changed radically. It really kind of screwed things up for ourselves.”
Departure of Tommy: Drummer Tommy, who had also worked to co-produce the album, was troubled by the lack of sales and began debating on continuing with the Ramones. He also considered touring to be “depressing,” and that the audience at unfamiliar gigs were “a bunch of very eccentric, high-strung, crazy people, from one shit-hole club to another.” The drummer left the band to continue on the album’s writing and mixing.
“I was thinking, ‘What’s best for the Ramones?’ There was all this tension between me and Johnny. I was trying to release the pressure, to keep the band going. I told Dee Dee and Joey first that I was leaving the band. They said, ‘Oh no, don’t go, don’t go, blah, blah, blah.’ I told them we had to do something, because I was losing my mind.”