The Ramones 1977: Rocket to Russia
As Hendrix said, “we’ll never have surf music again…until the Ramones!” But here the surf music is joined to the Spector Ronnie and the Ronnettes “wall of sound” to imitate and dramatize a wave of elemental emotion. Dance music returns to rock here at the origins of Punk, just before the Pistols messed it up with safety pins and all. The Ramones are deceptively deep minimalist artists. They reduce the lyric emotions to their elements, making their ballads surprisingly beautiful. With a bite of sarcasm mixed with just fun pop dance music they begin the recovery of the right wing politics previously rejected. With Lou Reed and David Bowie, we have begun to move beyond the hippy rock of the Sixties and early Seventies. The stunning album cover, produced by a member and a friend, is done in a cartoon style borrowed from a child’s geography book we had in the sixties, before PC prevented such uncouth caricatures. But the Ramones are almost all in good fun. Our favorites are the Rasta man in Jamaica and Fidel, with his cigar. The Rocket would seem to refer to the conquest of the world for liberty through music: the album is such a thing.
The Cretin Hop is named after a street, in turn named after a French Priest Creti’an where the Ramones fans would dance. It also sounds like a race of man from the past, in the glory days of ancient Crete. From the video’s on U Tube of the German concerts, those guys are asleep! Have we no pictures of Hoppin Cretins? At Royal Oak Theater in 1977, we hopped like wildkids. We borrowed the Suburban from the parental units that night and drove a load of Punks, seven in all, down for the show. We were the class of 78, and the class or 77 had some famous artists who introduced Punk to our High School. We all know who they are, too, one wore a jacket and looks just like DD, there in the High School Yearbook. Another, we were just talking about that concert in his driveway the other day, almost forty years later!
Rockaway Beach too is a fun dance song, about a local beach. The Punk beat is well adapted to tapping teeth, so he is “chewin’ out a rhythm on my bubble gum.” It is the Bus Ride that is too slow, and besides they blast Disco, so they will take another rout, and hitchhike. There follow three sad love songs, a break-up song, “Locket Love,” and then a despairing breakup song. These are Punk ballads. “Locket” is just beautiful poetry, if it is a bit harsh. Sheena is an archetypal groupie. The Whiskey Au Go Go is where the first hippies turned from surf music to psychedelic rock. Now Sheena is returning to New York. Side one then ends with “We’re a Happy Family.” This is a sarcastic song about themselves, exaggerated into a commentary on the generation growing up to parents of the sixties. “Thorazine” is the first word in a commentary on modern psychiatric medicine. Thorazine (chlorpromazine) was introduced in the late fifties to treat schizophrenia by inhibiting dopamine receptors. This lead to the revolution in psychiatric institutions, where a safer, more human environment could be made by suppressing the brains of the mad. Side effects include “tardative dyskenesis,” a twitching similar to punk rhythm gutar. This commentary on modern psychiatry continues in “Lobotomy” and “Well” on Side Two. A lobotomy is the removal of the front of a guys brain, as occurred to McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The best medical advice that money could buy persuaded the Kennedy family to have this done to Rosemarie back in the Fifties. There is no scientific knowledge on which lobotomies are prescribed, and no ethical reasoning either, but the subjects do indeed stop saying funny things and causing trouble. “Tell ’em” and “cerebellum” are another ironic joke. DDT is a poison pesticide sprayed on everyone in the fifties and sixties, until we began to realize that we just cannot do such things and be well. “Well” is of course psychological health or happiness, the goal of psychology. The pesticide is playfully his remedy for keeping happy while the slugs and snails are after him. As the Americans tried to cure the problem of garden pests with DDT, so modern psychiatry treats garden variety psychosis with drugs that are worse than the original pests. Psychiatric medicine is poison, and the Americans fall for it just like they did DDT. Cha-ching! The American way. The American concern with slugs and snails is a psychosis. Nor is Thorazine the proper prescription for being a Punk. Punk here is a rejection of psychiatry, the modern authority regarding the health of the soul. Punk anger is expressed through sarcastic comedy. “Future’s Bleak / Aint it neat?” and “No Future” become punk themes. There is something to the punk rejection of the authority in their world that is based on common sense, and a liberty-securing defiance that will fight if one does not leave them alone. Their bleak future is the result of the world they have been given, not one of their making. “Neat” is a word from the beatniks, meant as a sarcastic glance backward. Holy smoke. Daddy’s broke.
Ramona is the word written on the shirt of the rider on the rocket, and the song “Ramona” was once titled “Rocket to Russia.” No one has even attempted to account for this. The lyrics seem to be about a flirtatious groupie with whom the writer fell in love. She seems to be the essential Ramones groupie, a pilgrim punk chic. But there is more to her than Sheena. The key lyrics seem to be:
I let her in, if your wonder’in why
Cause (or: when) she’s a spy for the BBI
I let her in and I started to cry
And then I wanted to die
We do not know what BBI means, but there are those who spy for them. The Ramones are an American band, from New York, of course, eating re-fried beans in Queens. If it is the British Bureau, it may have occurred on tour, or the U. S. may have used the British to get around that little thing in the Constitution once interpreted to mean they cannot spy on us, especially for cultural and artistic reasons. The effect of falling in love with one who turns out to be a spy is first that he began to cry, and second that he wanted to die. Indeed, as for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is very disturbing, even to the roots of one’s citizenship, to have love used to enter ones soul in spying. No one has ever been held accountable for such an act. Yet, since the idea that it is fine if we prostitute our citizens for the purpose of spying on them has recently become assumed, and after all, “what have we to hide” – if we ever did stand up and hold these governments accountable for what was done, achieving meaningful recourse and firing those responsible for such a blatant and complete violation of our Constitution, then it might be understandable why “Ramona” the song is the rocket to Russia that secures liberty. Otherwise these parts of the meaning are incomprehensible.
Ramona may be the subject of Locket Love. The latter could not be a Sheena. “I Don’t Care” follows “Locket” in the arrangement of Side One, so like Ramona, it is one that took him to the edge. She had a lovely locket, a badge or picture, one that never does try to expose her for what she put him through. “I can’t give you anything” may show that he has recovered or become “well.” He is offering himself in courtship, but like the lyric love, has nothing to offer.
“Why is it always this Way” is the tragic conclusion that shows that Punk humor is gallows humor. He just saw her, who seems just a girl in the neighborhood, going to the laundry mat and waving to him, and now she is- again chemo-metaphorically- encased in formaldehyde, like the anatomy subjects from High School class. He just does not know why he cannot let her go. The implied criticism of the psychology-governed modern world, evoking the Punk reaction, is a profound statement or musical accompaniment of the anti-psychiatry movement. This voice has quietly and steadily gained momentum ever since.