Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy Ramone introduced their fast and furious style of bubblegum punk on 1976’s Ramones, then followed it up the next year with the even more potent Leave Home. Just months later, the band dropped its third major salvo. With Rocket to Russia, the sound and feel of the band’s first two albums was taken to the next level – and now, forty years later, it’s often recognized as the finest Ramones set. Happily, Rhino has continued its series of LP-sized, hardcover book-style box sets dedicated to the group with the generously expanded Rocket to Russia (R2 563470) on 3 CDs and 1 LP.
Though the band initially bristled at the “punk rock” tag, they embraced it for “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” the 45 RPM release of which predated Rocket to Russia. “Sheena,” with its nods to the comic book jungle queen and the sound of sixties surf, bopped its way onto the Billboard Hot 100 and was also included on the second U.S. pressings of Leave Home after a copyright dispute over the title of “Carbona Not Glue.” You can’t keep a good song down, and so it made its third appearance on Rocket. The rest of the album, though, was sonically in line with the infectious track as the Ramones upped their game – bigger budget, better playing, better production (by Tony Bongiovi and Tommy Ramone), more hooks, more variety.
The band earned its highest-charting single ever with “Rockaway Beach,” an enthusiastically catchy surf-music ode to the sunny spot about ten miles down Cross Bay Boulevard from the Ramones’ birthplace of Forest Hills. But other influences and sounds found their way onto Rocket – never veering too far away from the tried-and-true, but subtly expanding its boundaries. “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” slowed the tempo down as a slice of Brill Building-inspired heartbreak, and the paean to (“sweet little”) “Ramona” is pure pop rather than rock, punk or otherwise.
With its “heavy” guitar riff and simple chords, the disaffected “I Don’t Care” goofed on metal in irreverent Ramones fashion, with the narrator, who doesn’t care about his girl or indeed the world, going so far as to declare “I don’t care about these words,” too. (“I Don’t Care” had been introduced in a different recording on the B-side of “Sheena.”) Like “Carbona Not Glue” on the previous LP, “We’re a Happy Family” (“Daddy likes men/Daddy’s telling lies/Mommy’s on pills/Baby’s got the chills”) and especially “I Wanna Be Well” (“LSD, golly gee/DDT, wowee/Daddy’s broke/Holy smoke/My future’s bleak/Ain’t it neat?”) proved spiritual successors to West Side Story‘s lament, “Gee, Officer Krupke” (“My father is a bastard/My mom’s an S.O.B./My grandpa’s always plastered/My grandma pushes tea/My sister wears a moustache/My brother wears a dress/Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!”) disguising truthful social commentary with a blasé attitude and bitterly humorous outlook. The dark pair of “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Why Is It Always This Way?” similarly show that no topics were taboo for the band to skewer.
Following the footsteps of “Let’s Dance” on Ramones and “California Sun” on Leave Home, the band continued the cover tradition on Rocket with not one, but two, choice oldies rendered in breakneck Ramones fashion: Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” (by the way of The Beach Boys, of course) and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” The latter, with a twist of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” fit right in with the likes of “Cretin Hop,” the Ramones’ own goofy anthem.
Rocket to Russia is presented twice on the first disc of this collection – first, in a remastered version of the original album (also available as a standalone release), and then in original engineer Ed Stasium’s 40th Anniversary Tracking Mix. (Stasium has also co-produced this box with Bill Inglot.) As Stasium explains in an essay contained in the set’s booklet, the band recorded the album “live,” with minimal editing. Then, the recordings were actually “toned down” with the addition of “clean” and acoustic guitars. This new mix (also presented in the box set on vinyl) returns the album to its original, raw setting, and offers a couple of rare treats as well. “I Don’t Care” has been included in a completely different version, while an alternate take of B-side “It’s a Long Way Back to Germany” replaces “Sheena” (which had been recorded months earlier) in the sequence. The tracking mix isn’t a total shock; even with the added production polish on the final record, it remained true to the Ramones’ roots and their ability to bring a visceral live sound to the studio. But with less “varnish” and nothing but the tight interplay between the four players, it packs a considerable sonic punch.
The second disc offers even more windows onto the album’s creative process, with 24 tracks (all but two of which are previously unreleased). The first 12 selections are rough mixes from Mediasound, where the band began the LP, and The Power Station, where they finished it. These rough mixes aren’t revelatory, but longtime fans will appreciate the even rougher feel to many of the tracks. A couple of these (“Ramona,” “Why Is It Always This Way?”) have alternate lyrics. Then another 12 songs comprise a Rocket potpourri, with associated B-sides (“Babysitter,” “It’s a Long Way Back to Germany”), demos, backing tracks, a radio spot, and alternate mixes and versions. The “Sweet Little Ramona Pop Mix” is brighter than the final album version, with a less heavy guitar sound, additional background harmonies, and other alterations. “Surfin’ Bird” is even more raucous and in-your-face on this alternate vocal take.
Of the five bonus tracks from the 2001 expanded edition, “It’s a Long Way to Germany” is here, and the singles of “Sheena” and “I Don’t Care” previously appeared on the Leave Home box. The demo of “Slug” is absent, and that reissue’s early version of the band’s “Needles and Pins” cover has been replaced by a never-before-heard demo. (As the finished version of the jangly Jackie DeShannon favorite appeared on the fourth Ramones album, Road to Ruin, it’s possible that the missing version could turn up on an upcoming box set edition.)
Finally, a previously unreleased concert from Glasgow, Scotland’s Apollo Centre on December 19, 1977 rounds out the box. Over the course of these 25 breakneck tunes, the Ramones briskly surveyed the highlights of their three albums to date. Naturally, the live interpretations aren’t radically different than their studio counterparts, but the band clearly feeds off the audience’s energy with even more loose, aggressive, and fun performances.
Rocket to Russia marked the end of an era for the Ramones. With their next album, Road to Ruin, Marky Ramone took over as drummer, though Tommy stayed on to co-produce with Ed Stasium. Road also further diversified the band’s sound from its punk origins, leaving Rocket as the final statement from the original Ramones. Exploring the album from various angles, Rhino’s box is a power-packed celebration of the last work of the original “happy family.”