Friday, November 1, 2013
RAMONES-- ROCKET TO RUSSIA
Image via THIS AINT THE SUMMER OF LOVE. Thanks!
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 Wanting to optimize commercial appeal for the new songs, the heavy crunch of LEAVE HOME was retracted for a drier, more streamlined and consistent sound.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.