This isn't where it began. It's where it was perfected.
The third record in the Ramones' discography, Rocket to Russia is where the Ramones came into their own, and created an album that would put the band on a pedestal for years to come. Chock full of hits, the album is the record that all Rock fans are familiar with, but not all own. These are the songs that have been played on the radio at various times, or in the background of a movie that you just can't seem to shake. You may not know it, Rock Fan, but Rocket To Russia is part of your psyche whether you realize it or not.
"There's no stopping the cretins from hopping," declares the first line of album opener "Cretin Hop". The album blasts open with a burst of sound from Johnny Ramone's guitar, driven by the rhythms of bassist DeeDee and drummer Tommy. Vocalist Joey sweetens the mix a bit, and before you know it, DeeDee is signaling the first "1-2-3-4" and the first surf-guitar strains are heard in the classic "Rockaway Beach". The 50's-style backups are a central part of the song (and the Ramones' sound), while the listener is left with the taste of salt air and searching for a beach ball in play.
"Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" follows, slowing the tempo down considerably. Joey's crooning dominates the song, with his plaintive "Oh ohh oh ohh" repeated throughout. This is the first true ballad that the Ramones had recorded to this point. Eschewing silliness for true emotion, it was arguably the most mature song the band had recorded at that time. "Locket Love" continues with that same 50's vibe, switching upbeat sounds for decidedly downbeat lyrics ("Hang on a little bit longer/Hang on 'Cause you're a goner).
A big part of the Ramones' genius was being able to take negative thoughts and expressing them in a way that felt positive. The aforementioned "Locket Love" makes the listener want to bounce around joyously, while the following "I Don't Care" brings a fist-pumping joy to apathy about the world and "that girl" with Joey and DeeDee backing each other on the "I don't care" lyric.
Arguably the band's greatest and most well-known song, "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," is burned into the brain of every self-respecting rock fan. Another song influenced by the sounds of surf-guitar, the Ramones are at their arguable peak on this song. Even the most jaded mohawk in the room can't resist bouncing up and down to this classic. Tommy's driving beat combined with Johnny and DeeDee's pounding downstrokes on the guitar and bass respectively create an enduring classic that continues to sound fresh. Followed by "We're a Happy Family," the song provides a dark lyrical glimpse, with the admission that "our troubles never end." The juxtaposition of a titular "happy" family along with the realistic lyrical content of "selling Daddy's dope" further shows the dichotomy of bright and fast musical tempos combined with sometimes dark lyrical tones. Fading out into creepy sounds from the neighborhood, the listener feels appropriately dark and dirty.
"Teenage Lobotomy" follows, with Joey singing of teenage mental illness set to a fast, happy beat. "Guess I'll have to break the news/That I've got no mind to lose" sounds almost comical next to Johnny's guitar and Tommy's drums. When the band starts playing "Do You Wanna Dance?" the listener stops giving any thought to previous lyrical darkness and just focuses on the unbridled joy that the song inspires. Even the listener with the most questionable dancing skills is inspired to stand up and move, regardless of the laws of rhythm.
"I Can't Give You Anything" tells a potential lover exactly what can be expected out of any chance of gold-digging. It's an aggressive kiss-off with its "You think I'm kinda cute/But who's gonna bring home the loot?" refrain, fading out repeating the song's title. "Surfin' Bird" solidifies the Ramones' love of surf music, with Joey joyfully proclaiming what all Rock 'n Roll fans know, and that is that "the bird is the word!"
On his 2007 DVD, Uncut from Israel, Henry Rollins cited Rocket to Russia as being key to international diplomacy. Loading up a plane with their albums, Rollins suggested they be flown and dropped over the Palestinian territory and Israel. "All of a sudden, all over this land, the Ramones are being played." Eventually the two opposing sides come face to face, with one asking, "Are you guys playing the Ramones?" and after being prodded as to what album, an opposing soldier answers "Rocket to Russia".
Quickly, it's understood that they are all Ramones fans. "It's good to know that, 'cause we were about to kill all you guys."
Johnny Ramone may not have thought it would bring a solution to armed conflicts, but he knew the album was special, as he declared Rocket to Russia to be his favorite Ramones album in his posthumously published autobiography, Commando. Giving it an "A+", Johnny declared that it "was the best Ramones album, with the classics on it. The band had reached its peak both in the studio and live. This one has one great song after another... From here on, we played pretty much this whole album live."
Hard to argue with the master. A classic.