Monday, November 18, 2013

ROCKAWAY BEACH-- Rocket to Russia 2

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Diminished in stature only by the later appearance of a superior derivative (ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), ROCKAWAY BEACH is another top notch early classic-- confidently constructed upon its simplistic foundation and full of evocative summertime imagery. Although minor weaknesses become apparent upon closer clinical examination, it is easy to agree with the selection of this track for the LP's leadoff single. (However, the ludicrous appearance of this 45 during the dead of winter was a typical RAMONES career timing misfire.)

Another effective retooling of the 1-4-5 progression in A, the song throws the listener off balance by starting with a few measures of 4 in D. (Note how ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL cunningly improves on this tactic, strumming introductory measures on the 5 of that track's root key instead.) The RAMONES' re-appropriation of the BEACH BOYS' favorite CHUCK BERRY-style derivations is sidelined only twice for brief, bridging blasts of slightly off rhythm punk riffing-- probably the least commercial trait of this proposed 'hit.' The first appearance of this powerful change-- G to D, then F to C-- is followed by an abrupt swing down to Fsharp. The subsequent, doo-wop-driven middle eight makes clear genre sense, but in the context of where the preceding 'punk' section is rooted, it represents surprising movement between keys. The growing dexterity of the band's barre-chord-patterned approach occasionally brought them to unpredictable melodic inventions; some unlikely to be matched by even the more studied competition. The simultaneous slide by DEEDEE and JOHNNY to the lower register as JOEY delivers a repeated line of lyric in the new pitch (which ironically punctuates that it's neither 'hard' nor 'far' to 'reach'--despite the accomplished octave-wide distance the melody has just bounded) leaves the listener with an impression of effortlessness-- a considerable deception.

The persuasively concise performances come into play again as the instrumental 'punk' section reappears towards the finale. This time the G-D to F-C is followed by a matching D to A, stunningly returning the song to the home key--where the band then halts so that TOMMY can count off the coda of final choruses. Once again, the dynamic execution succeeds in making the atypical arrangement seem natural, almost inevitable. ROCKET TO RUSSIA's sharper mix also proves ideal for boosting the overall appeal, as the background vocals impressively augment an already notable amount of hooks, and the crisper tone of the instruments heightens the cartoonier feel of the arrangement- while sacrificing hardly any of the overall strength and drive.

Despite sorely lacking a second stanza, the potency of the RAMONES' street poetry is striking. Driven by unrelentingly rhythmic phrasing and attention to situational detail, the lyrical ambience is arresting from the very first unforgettable line. (Unfortunately, the second line fumbles the flow somewhat, syllabically insufficient at an unwise juncture amidst a verseful of compelling couplets.) Eliciting sweeping familiarity via era-specific and domain-exact minutiae, DEEDEE's lyric transforms the seasonal compulsion towards, in all reality, a rather seedy destination into an inclusive, worldwide anthem of sunburned excitation. The defiance of actuality is reflected in JOHN HOLMSTROM's accompanying illustration, where the protagonists are altered into comical, non-human (but somehow familiar) characters. And similarly, the power of ROCKAWAY BEACH is the metamorphosis of the observational specificity detailed from DEEDEE's sweaty, mid-70s New York environment into a universal, utopian mindset and locale, which resonates personally with each of the group's fans-- no matter how far removed from Disco-era Queens in July they actually are.


Friday, November 8, 2013

CRETIN HOP-- Rocket to Russia 1

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The RAMONES' trademark LP kicks off with an extremely uncharacteristic barrage of open chord, power strummed, lone guitar. The unsettling absence of '1-2-3-4' is atoned for once the chorus chant kicks in, and it becomes apparent that it's been omitted to prevent unnecessary repetition. The aural adjustment compared to LEAVE HOME is recognizable immediately: the guitars are still layered- but more focused, the bass is drier and less overbearing, and the drums are doctored with fewer effects, leaving them more crisply defined in the mix. The promise of ROCKET TO RUSSIA's fresh approach was so utterly fulfilled-- and the popularity of this track was so instantaneous-- that it is easy to overlook how much CRETIN HOP might have benefited from the previous album's heavier crunch.

One of the most simplistic of all the RAMONES' classics (which IS saying something), the song's melody offers only a three chord verse aside from the opening riff, with an exemplary tribal drummed exaltation for the second part (which again utilizes the repeated intro.) Inspiration for the minimal lyric seems to have sprung from a trip to a St. Paul, Minnesota gig, where the band was amused by road signage referring to the local Cretin-Derham Hall High School, and the adjacent Cretin Avenue. These were all named after a historically prominent area bishop, Joseph Cretin.

For the chorus, the band retools a common playground nursery rhyme, to humorous effect. This couplet had already appeared during the side two 'suite' of the BEATLES' Abbey Road, but as the RAMONES had previously mentioned Charles Manson in a lyric (see RAMONES- GLAD TO SEE YOU GO), it's worth noting that Vincent Bugliosi's definitive 1974 account of the murders, HELTER SKELTER, featured a prominent illustration of an interesting piece of evidence: a door from the Family's home at Spahn Ranch graffiti'd with several phrases, including '1 2 3 4 5 6 7 All good children (go to heaven?)'--another possible source. (At first this may seem like a prime example of Manson's obsession with the BEATLES, but the scrawled slogan seems to predate Abbey Road's release by some time, and indeed Manson was in custody within weeks of that LP's appearance.)

While CRETIN HOP commences the proceedings admirably, the closing of side one with the perfect climax (WE'RE A HAPPY FAMILY) and the starting of side two with the ideal opener (TEENAGE LOBOTOMY) leaves it almost feeling as if the LP's sides should have been reversed. (Of course, on LEAVE HOME, PINHEAD seemed to terminate the incorrect side as well.) A personal admission: so often in the LP age did I personally swap the sides that now, years later, well after the rise of the CD format, I am still momentarily taken aback when ROCKET TO RUSSIA begins with its actual opener. Amusing, but true.

Another rousing call to arms for the RAMONES' disaffected fan base (JOHN HOLMSTROM's accompanying illustration appropriately captures an assortment of amusing misfits), CRETIN HOP was quickly embraced as a key live anthem. The explosive performances of the song on IT'S ALIVE and other concert documents may have eventually overshadowed the studio take somewhat, but with the song permanently added to the set virtually as soon as it was debuted, even the relatively restrained, original version's declaration could not be denied-- For CRETIN HOP, there would be NO stoppin'.


Friday, November 1, 2013


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The RAMONES maintained a frenzied work rate through 1977, releasing their third LP ROCKET TO RUSSIA 18 months and change after the appearance of the debut record. The troubled distribution difficulties faced with LEAVE HOME may have somewhat deflated that album's potential, but encouraging signs were otherwise numerous. The band was met with substantial critical notoriety in the press, their initial UK performances had been explosive, and the new single SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER had stirred decent chart action, threatening the Top 20 in England and busting the Hot Hundred in America. (No doubt that they had hoped for even better, but considering their relative stature as something of a fringe act, these were significant inroads.) The notion that the breakthough could be just a few more stepping stones away drove them relentlessly, and perhaps sensing that the window of opportunity would be brief, they heightened their labours with determined focus, commencing work on ROCKET RUSSIA almost immediately after the release of the SHEENA 45.

Another fortuitous development was the acquisition of their label SIRE's distribution from ABC to the considerably more powerful WARNER BROS, and for the moment the conglomerate seemed willing to roll the dice with the budding act. Armed with another jump in production budget, TOMMY and the group once again enlisted the aid of ED STASIUM and TONY BONGIOVI, this time setting up shop at the high quality MEDIA SOUND and POWER STATION facilities. Wanting to optimize commercial appeal for the new songs, the heavy crunch of LEAVE HOME was retracted for a drier, more streamlined and consistent sound. This unexpectedly played to the strengths of the new songs, written, more often than not, amidst the frenzy of touring. Many new, structurally impressive classics bore the stamp of collaborative compositional craft, and a majority of the fresh material exhibited an overall sharper sense of humour and melodic progression.

Hoping to strike impressively on all fronts, the RAMONES refused to neglect the packaging of ROCKET TO RUSSIA. Never again would they pay such close attention to their product's dressing. Clearly wishing to replicate the effectiveness of ROBERTA BAYLEY's debut LP photo, the front cover design features a similarly posed shot by manager DANNY FIELDS. Even more dazzling, the band recruited JOHN HOLMSTROM of PUNK magazine to illustrate impressively hilarious, cartoon style artwork for the back cover and lyric sheet- where his familiarity and understanding of the RAMONES' flavor and attitude suits the songs admirably. The sleeve image clearly reflects the group's yearning for worldwide dominance and success. HOLMSTROM's other pieces so inextricably compliment their respective tracks, they will warrant further comment here as their place in the running order is reached.

Additionally indicative of the predominant mindset is the care apparent in the selection of the LP's singles. ROCKAWAY BEACH and DO YOU WANNA DANCE were not only commercial standouts in the new set, they also met the aesthetic demands of what the RAMONES were likely to amicably excel at promoting in their concert performances. ROCKAWAY BEACH unforgettably evoked the band's NYC hometown atmosphere, and DO YOU WANNA DANCE was another effective, stripped down retooling of a relatively well known oldie (originally a hit for BOBBY FREEMAN in 1958). Perhaps only the wintertime release of the sunny, summer tailored ROCKAWAY BEACH undermined the coherence of this marketplace strategizing.

So many details, all encouragingly congealing all at once- a Xmastime release date, a headlining return to England planned for New Year's Eve (with the possibility of recording some shows for a live album looming), and WARNER's even willing to foot the bill for enormous promotional cutouts of the ROCKET TO RUSSIA cover to be shipped for display in record stores nationwide.

But then: disappointment. ROCKET TO RUSSIA failed to outperform the previous LP in the UK, and though they scored the highest position for any of their albums thus far in the US, they still could not crack the top 40. Both singles placed roughly as well as SHEENA in the US, but met less notoriety overseas. All things considered, hardly disastrous, but far from the breakthrough they had hoped for. One of the reasons is that the reactionary English version of Punk Rock was beginning to steal headlines, and the more outwardly political nihilism of this music seemed to overshadow the RAMONES in a way, sadly making their heightened melodicism and sharpened, zany humor less significant. And instead of attempting to match the upstarts, the bewildered RAMONES turned to an even more polished sound on their next effort ROAD TO RUIN, where they experimented even father outside of their established strengths. An acceptable strategy as long as the music maintained high quality, but doomed to muddle their efforts in the future, as shall be seen.

But that is getting well ahead of the story. At the time it was unleashed, it was heralded then as has been borne out in the decades since: The RAMONES' superlative work. It took some time for everybody to come around, but to simply let the needle fall into the grooves is to verify that riding atop this ROCKET, the RAMONES had reached their apex. And in the perfection of their finest moment, the coincidental failure to achieve immediate mainstream success eventually came to seem utterly inconsequential.