When the Ramones Rode a 'Rocket to Russia'

Ramones in 1977
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Roberta Bayley/Redferns

You'd be a fool to assume that any two Ramones records sound alike - but when the Queens punk legends got together to record their third album, Rocket to Russia, they especially felt they had something to prove.

When the Ramones checked into Mediasound - a Manhattan recording studio that used to be a church - in the summer of 1977, guitarist Johnny Ramone came with a copy of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" - not to praise it, but to bury it. To his ears, the British-born Pistols were doing a lesser version of the kind of in-your-face style the Ramones perfected on their early albums, heavy on style but lacking in substance.

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"These guys ripped us off," Johnny recalled conveying to engineer/producer Ed Stasium, "and I want to sound better than this." Mission accomplished: Rocket to Russia kept all the energy of prior Ramones efforts while signifying growth in writing and production. The songs were still all around the two minute mark, but the melodies were catchy enough to sing along while you were rockin' out.

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The seeds of Rocket to Russia were planted even earlier that summer, when the Ramones released a defining single of the punk movement. "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," written by frontman Joey Ramone and inspired by the comic heroine Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, was issued as crowds at New York clubs like CBGB and Max's Kansas City were reaching capacity. "Sheena" was one of the first songs to reflect the musical movement the Ramones helped usher in, and the group even got their first (of only three) showing on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 81. Follow-up "Rockaway Beach" continued Joey's love of '60s-style bubblegum hooks in a thrashing package, at No. 66 on the Hot 100, it remains their highest-charting single. (The album also features two covers of classic '60s pop/rock songs: Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance?" and The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird.")

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Despite its incredible quality among the group's discography, Rocket to Russia did not sell as well as expected - a consequence critics and the band believed had to do with the very group they were looking to outdo. "Everyone flipped out," Joey alleged after the Sex Pistols were profiled on 60 Minutes, "and then things changed radically. It really kind of screwed things up for ourselves." Rocket to Russia would be the end of an era in more ways than one: frustrated with the grind of touring clubs, drummer Tommy Ramone would not play on another Ramones album, staying on to produce their next album, Road to Ruin (1979) and returning in the same capacity on 1984's Too Tough to Die.

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