Sunday, February 2, 2014

SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER-- Rocket to Russia 6

Image via  THIS AINT THE SUMMER OF LOVE.    Thanks!

The manner in which this project is sequenced brings us to an awkward situation with SHEENA IS A PUNK ROCKER, one of the RAMONES' greatest and best loved songs. Previous consideration of the CARBONA NOT GLUE quagmire has already mapped out this song's appearance (see CARBONA NOT GLUE), and the wrongheaded programming of the SHEENA 45 mix as an extra on the deluxe edition of the ROCKET TO RUSSIA cd instead of LEAVE HOME (where it clearly would have made more sense) requires that we now evaluate this LP variant, released months later, several entries before we arrive at the original--arguably, the definitive rendition. To maintain some semblance of order, this discussion shall concern itself with SHEENA compositionally, and the upcoming blog for the initial SHEENA single version will concentrate on the performance and production, including a comparison of the two differing mixes.

To briefly recap: JOEY composed SHEENA shortly after the release of LEAVE HOME, and it was, at SIRE's behest, quickly recorded and rushed out as a single. (Ultimately this caused market confusion as the song, and its b-side BABYSITTER, were jumbled around newer pressings of the LP, replacing the supposedly poisonous CARBONA NOT GLUE.) Despite being hurriedly written in an inspirational rush, the song is striking in the perfections of its constructions-- perhaps the only detectable flaw being the torrent of syllables occurring in the second line of verse, as opposed to the perfectly spaced pacing of the first. It's interesting to note that omitting 'au go-go' would have made the phrasing more of a workable match, and maintained the rhyme, but this would have sacrificed the 60's flavor of the scenario being invoked.

One of the RAMONES' most triumphant accomplishments in the doo-wop derived surf music idiom, the melodic progression of SHEENA was presaged by OH OH I LOVE HER SO, and the further developments evident within the subsequent ROCKAWAY BEACH would later culminate into ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL-- debatably, the apex of this experimentation. Unlike ROCKAWAY BEACH, which starts with a few bars in the 4 of the root key, or ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, which kicks off in its 5, SHEENA commences in its actual pitch: C. Swinging invigoratingly up to G instead of the expected 4 (F) after a few lines, the verse then turns to a repetition of A and the anticipated F before returning to C. After a buildup in 5 ('oh yeah'), the chorus blasts off into a sturdy variation of the standard BLITZKRIEG BOP 1-4-5. This framework of four chords is the very essence of doo-wop, although unsurprisingly, JOHNNY eschews adherence to the minor variation of A which strict genre parameters would dictate. Unlike YOU'RE GONNA KILL THAT GIRL, a more exacting homage to the doo-wop style, SHEENA draws its strength from unique chord selections made inside the limited options.

Another uncommon maneuver awaits as the song enters its middle eight. Hopping up to the 4 (F), it immediately becomes apparent that earlier the verse avoided this change in order to keep the melody of this section distinctive. After moving through typical 1-4-5 devices, a sudden swoop down to A sharp throws a nervy curveball before the return to the verses. Once again, the band's comfort in dexterously moving around their boxlike barre chord patterns had brought them to a subtly unorthodox melodic choice-- one which would be highly unlikely to a guitarist prone to performances within only the standard open chords, but would have made perfect sense in the adventurously rulebreaking playfulness of the early BEATLES. Of course the RAMONES hurtle along at their characteristic velocity through these changes as if little of note is happening, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the cunning underneath the onslaught.

Although JOHN HOLMSTROM's lyric sheet illustration harkens back to the IRISH MCCALLA TV show SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE from the 50s, JOEY's lyric concerns itself with the rite of passage necessitated by the abandonment of the next era's trappings, be they 60's surfboards, or somewhat more ambiguously dated 'discotheques,' for the excitement of the modern 'punk' age. (The 50's are briefly alluded to, in the form of obsolete terminology for drug use, which would end up hurting the 45's fortunes-- more on this in the future SHEENA post.) Of course, the RAMONES themselves were fond of anachronistic nostalgia, and there is something vaguely celebratory about the life our protagonist is leaving behind. This elicits an exhuberant empathy from the listener-- even those with no concrete shared experience with either SHEENA's past or future adventures. It is telling that it would be more than a decade before the group would attempt another completely new name-specific personalization, perhaps conceding that this bullseye was untoppable. For the band had concocted, with this character, the ultimate avatar of their existential and aesthetic struggles. In the near-mythical archetype of SHEENA, the RAMONES and their fans found the very embodiment of joyous reinvention that successive generations of misfits would cherish, and seek to emulate.


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