By the end of 1977, “punk rock”—formerly, if briefly, a catch-all designation for the diverse new sounds brewing in the trans-Atlantic undergrounds—was little more than a marketing shorthand for buzzsaw guitars, pogoing rhythms, and inventive new uses for safety pins. The Sex Pistols, whose epochal debut album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, was released that October, were dead on arrival: They limped ahead for another three months before imploding, leaving a fractious movement scattered in their wake.
None of this, of course, was the fault of the Ramones—at least, not directly. Formed in Forest Hills, Queens in 1974, the Ramones simply were what Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren tried to package as postmodern art: a volatile blend of 1960s garage, surf, and Brill Building pop, placed in a blender with the Stooges's tongue-in-cheek nihilism and delivered as loud and fast as mid-'70s audiences could stomach. When their first album came out in 1976, they sounded like no one else on the planet. It's thus a testament to the magnitude of their influence that by the time of the release of Rocket to Russia, their third album in less than 19 months, their sound was in danger of dilution by a sea of first- and second-generation imitators.
Rocket to Russia is a pure punk album, in the late-1977 sense of the word—which means that it's a pure Ramones album, the post-Pistols codification of punk having made those two categories synonymous. In the subtly varied spectrum of the early Ramones sound, it rests near the precise midpoint between their debut's monochromatic blitz and the more melodic, bubblegum stylings of their follow-up, Leave Home. More than a few of the tracks are direct echoes of past Ramones songs: opener “Cretin Hop” resembles “Blitzkrieg Bop” in both title and structure; “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” is a more fleshed-out sequel to “Judy Is a Punk”; “Teenage Lobotomy” makes a fine double feature with the earlier “Pinhead.” Even the album's cover art, a black-and-white shot of the group leaning against a brick wall, could pass for an outtake from the photo sessions for the Ramones.
Yet it's to the Ramones's credit that their music remained so vital, even as the formula was beginning to show its age. Of the 14 tracks on the original album, newly remastered and reissued by Rhino Records, only a few feel dispensable: “Locket Love” is a half-baked girl-group song on amphetamines, while “Ramona,” a love letter to an imaginary female Ramone, perhaps inevitably fails to justify its dumb concept. But “Rockaway Beach,” “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” “I Don't Care,” “We're a Happy Family,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” and even the brilliant covers of Bobby Freeman's “Do You Wanna Dance?” and the Trashmen's “Surfin' Bird” are stone-cold classics: as likely to put a smile on one's face and a bounce in one's Chucks in 2017 as they were 40 years ago. The new remaster isn't revelatory—it sounds, to this reviewer's ears, more or less identical to that on the album's “Expanded Edition” from 2001—but it's crisp and clean, capturing both the muscle and the polish (by Ramones standards) of the 1977 original.
The Ramones’s Rocket to Russia is a pure punk album, in the late-1977 sense of the word.
The rest of Rhino's 40th-anniversary package is as lovingly assembled as one would expect from the venerable boutique label. Disc one includes both the more faithful remaster and a new “Tracking Mix” (by original engineer Ed Stasium) that roughs up some of the album's smoother edges and replaces “I Don't Care” and “Sheena” with alternate versions of the former and B-side “It's a Long Way Back to Germany.” Whether it's an improvement or not depends on one's level of punk purism; either way, it's interesting to hear Rocket to Russia reimagined as something even more closely aligned with the Ramones's debut. Disc two, meanwhile, includes even rawer mixes and alternate takes from Mediasound Studios and the Power Station, where the album was mastered; though these tracks will primarily be of interest to fanatics, they're still worth hearing for a glimpse of the Ramones' raw power live in the studio.
For more casual Ramones fans, though, the biggest draw is the third disc, a multi-track recording of the band live at the Apollo Centre in Glasgow, Scotland. Packing 25 songs into less than an hour, it's in this setting where the Ramones, and 1977 punk, really come alive. Complaints about punk's encroaching formula crumble before the band's sheer, steamrolling fury: one perfectly crafted blast of aggression after another, with little more than a bellowed “onetwothreefour!” to separate them.
Forty years on, punk is now twice as distant from us as the birth of rock n' roll was from it; one wonders if a contemporary teenager would even “get” the Ramones now that punk has been splintered and scattered into tiny fractions of its aesthetic and ethos reflected in everyone from Julien Baker to Lil Uzi Vert. Contemporary teenagers, in any case, aren't the target market for this reissue. This is strictly for those of us old enough to remember when loud guitars could still sound new and fresh and dangerous (and, frankly, for those of us wealthy enough to blow 65 bucks on a deluxe box set).
As a document of those final days of the relevance of punk rock proper—before the endless mutations that gave us the last 40 years of “alternative” music, before ur-punks like the Ramones gave in to commercialization, self-parody, and diminishing returns—it's a vibrant and refreshing listen. Punk is dead, and has been since before most people knew it was alive, but for a few hours, at least, this set may help convince you otherwise.