The middle section of Simon Reynolds’ recent (and excellent) Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past explores the idea that nostalgia in popular music is nothing new. He paints the Ramones (quite rightly) as a group mired in the past rather than heralds of a futuristic punk rock revolution. After all, “Ramon” was the name that Paul McCartney used to sign into hotels under, and their 1976 debut was produced to sound like A Hard Day’s Night. By their fifth album, 1980’s End of the Century, this nostalgia had become clearly signposted by the use of Phil Spector as producer, as well as songs such as Do You Remember Rock‘n’Roll Radio? and a cover of The Ronettes’ Baby, I Love You. They were in some senses a very conservative band, especially compared to other, more notorious New Yorkers like Suicide or The Velvet Underground.
1977’s Rocket to Russia, their third album, is perhaps their most critically acclaimed, mixing an obvious yearning for rock‘n’roll’s past with a minimalist punk attack which made them sound fresh, even if they were an old idea repackaged with new clothes. (The Ramones uniform of tight jeans ripped at the knees was a risqué joke – ‘punk’ was originally slang for a homosexual or rent boy, and the ‘brothers’ were suggesting that they weren’t beyond prostrating themselves to perform ‘favours’. As they sing on Needles and Pins: “I get down on my knees and pray…”) But it’s true that here they get the balance absolutely right.
Representing the old guard are versions of the garage rock standard Surfin’ Bird, originally by The Trashmen, and a rambunctious cover of The Beach Boys’ version of Bobby Freeman’s Do You Wanna Dance? In fact, The Beach Boys were a big influence on the album, and their long shadow falls across Rockaway Beach in the same way it does across The Jesus and Mary Chain’s You Trip Me Up. But if there’s one song that sums up the Ramones’ entire career, rather than just their iconic status, it’s Sheena Is a Punk Rocker: it’s positive, exciting and fun, like a razor taken to modern American rock music, slashing a groove between surf guitar fare and punk. Rocket to Russia is a classy album in ragged, oil-stained jeans.
“Rocket to Russia is a classy album in ragged, oil-stained jeans.” – John Doran, BBC