Most people call this the best Ramones album ever. But that's because people generally just can't believe -- and never will -- that a band can, you know, have its first album as its best. How come? They're still so raw! And inexperienced! And insecure! No, let these kids suck in a few years of studio experience before they can release their best. After all, it can't be that different from a successful business career, can it? Do you start at the very top if you're in business? Of course not... So unless a band just releases one good album in its entire career as its first and all the rest turns out to be prime shit, the first album is always "flawed" and "raw" and "immature." Besides, it makes for a great start when you're still gnawing your pencil and can't decide upon the first sentence.
My drift is that Rocket to Russia can in no way live up to the expectations. This is the third time in a row that the Ramones redo their "joke" album (and it was a joke -- what else do you call blatant minimalism?), and it sort of starts getting stale at times. At least three or four of these songs do not affect me in any way -- even the riffage is getting generic and tired, and while the nasty sense of political humor seems to be back (the saving grace of the album), the godly melodies are on their way out. It doesn't help that they're going for cleaner and more refined production either; just like the stereo production on Leave Home, it only takes away from the fun.
Take a song like "Locket Love," for instance. Stylistically, it's pure Ramones. But what's up with the guitar? It really plays, like, two chords without any interesting twists whatsoever. There's no big riff here, as on "Chainsaw" or "Blitzkrieg Bop" or, well, anything on the first album. And what's up with the vocal melody? Is it catchy? Never in my life. "Lovely lovely locket love?" I don't get it. In the past, they used to have all kinds of shimmering refrains sung out loudly and brashly -- here, Joey just wallows through the lyrics as if he didn't care. This is a filler piece if there ever was one.
Never mind, though, here are the highlights for you. "Cretin Hop" is just an epochal update of "Blitzkrieg Bop," but is hilarious anyway. "Rockaway Beach" is another in a line of excellent Beach Boys send-ups, and the happy-day lyrics have ensured its position as a perennial favorite in the band's catalog. "I Don't Care" rips off Black Sabbath's "N.I.B." for the riff melody and is surprisingly metallic for the general lightweight style of the Ramones, not to mention this particular record which is even lighter than its two predecessors.
"We're a Happy Family" is a classic, but mostly because of the lyrics ("I'm friends with the president, I'm friends with the pope, we're all making a fortune selling daddy's dope") and the super-solemn way in which they're sung; the only riff actually used in the song dates back to as early as...hmm..."Beat on the Brat," I guess. And remember -- on the CD, it is immediately followed by the immortal "Teenage Lobotomy"! The only complaint I can voice here is that Joey starts going a bit overboard with references to mental problems. Yeah, we know, the music is supposed to be idiotic, you don't need to provide us with further pointers.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the most immediately pleasing numbers on Rocket are the two covers. "Do You Wanna Dance?" updates the `60s original with jarring guitars, chucks complex harmonies out of the window and emerges as a total winner nevertheless -- with a vocal melody that beats everything else. But the focal point is still "Surfin' Bird." Sure, the Trashmen conceived this goofy fusion of "Bird Is the Word" and "Papa Oom Mow Mow," but it's the Ramones' version that will be remembered -- Johnny beating out the incessant power chord like a jackhammer and Joey going nuts over the endless "bird is the word" refrain.
In this way, I can even overlook the two relatively unsuccessful ballads. "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is the first song in the band's catalog that I truly consider overlong. If you're gonna make a ballad, guys, don't try to make it sound really sentimental -- what happened to the genius of "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend"? More or less the same goes about "Ramona." Who needs it? Even Mark Prindle doesn't, and he's the biggest Ramones fan in existence.
So I hope you can understand my amazement at people calling this the Ramones' best. It is not. It's terrific, but a clear retread compared to what came before, and -- running ahead -- a real stagnation point compared to what would immediately follow. The Ramones are at their best when they're at their worst, metaphorically speaking. Not to mention they were intentionally "slipping it" a bit on the album, vainly hoping it would eventually sell. It didn't.