Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

We’re a Happy Family: The Story Behind the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia

on November 04, 2017, 1:20am

A typical 40-minute live set would include almost 20 songs. Not when the band first formed, of course. At the beginning, “they kept starting and stopping — equipment breaking down — and yelling at each other,” recalled Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGB bar where the band called Ramones premiered their first songs back in 1974. “They’d play for 40 minutes. And 20 of them would just be the band yelling at each other.” 

But by 1975, they’d cut the rock show down to its essentials. And all the showmanship they considered frivolous — the onstage tuning of instruments, the guitar solos, the banter with the audience, the use of more than three chords at a time — could fuck off back to the ’60s. This was rock with all the water boiled out; this was a syrup of aggression. As soon as they’d finish a two-minute song, bassist Dee Dee Ramone would start the next, calling, “1-2-3-4!” before the audience had time to applaud. Almost 20 songs packed into a 40-minute set. To do that, all the fighting had to be accomplished backstage.

The New York band who called themselves Ramones weren’t related and weren’t named Ramone. Lead singer Joey Ramone was born Jeffrey Hyman. Guitarist Johnny Ramone was really John Cummings. Bassist Dee Dee Ramone was actually Douglas Coleman. And drummer Tommy Ramone was Tamas Erdelyi, originally of Budapest, Hungary, where his Jewish parents successfully hid from the Nazis before fleeing with Tamas from Stalin. It was Tommy who encouraged Johnny and Dee Dee to start a band, with the idea that Tommy would be manager. Joey was  originally recruited to play drums. 

This iteration of the Ramones was a disaster. Dee Dee couldn’t play bass and sing at the same time, and Joey was awful on drums. Tommy suggested a reshuffling. Joey would be lead singer, and when all the drummers they auditioned were too bombastic, too flashy, Tommy took the drumsticks himself.

Their first album, Ramoneswas either a revolution or just plain revolting, depending on who was asked. One review described it as, “The sound of 10,000 toilets flushing.” Which I sort of get, especially if you imagine melodies from doo-wop, girl pop, bubblegum and the Bay City Rollers pounding around the U-bend. Because for all the relentless crunch of the guitars — the wall of sound built out of Johnny Ramone’s eighth-note downstrokes — the top-line melodies were essentially pop. Ramones were influenced by The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones, but also by the newly syndicated American Top 40. That was the standard by which the Ramones would measure their success.

(See: How 1977 Broke All the Rules and Changed Music Forever)

“We started off just wanting to be a bubblegum group,” said Johnny Ramone. “We looked at the Bay City Rollers as our competition. But we were so weird. Singing about ’53rd and 3rd,’ about some guy coming back from Vietnam and becoming a male prostitute and killing people? This is what we thought was normal.”

Ramones were groundbreaking, and their sophomore follow-up, Leave Home, is undeniably great although sonically similar to their debut. Even their biggest fans will admit that in the first two albums, there isn’t much variety in tempo or rhythm. Rocket to Russia is more varied without being more forgiving, and that’s why it’s their masterpiece. 

The first single off Rocket to Russia dropped in July of 1977. “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” is a rollicking surf-rock homage to comic book heroine Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. The tone is half-joking while framing punk as heroic self-reliance. It’s also perhaps the first song to explicitly reference that term, “punk music.”

The idea of “punk” having something to do with music was a relatively new idea. Before that, it was a bit of slang that had a very different connotation. It appears in beat poet William Burroughs’ 1953 book Junkiein reference to two young men, and as Burroughs has said, “I always thought a punk was somebody who took it up the ass.” Dictionary.com traces the etymology to the 1600s and believes it derives from prostitute. The change of meaning from “prostitute” to “homosexual” to, roughly, “worthless young person” is sadly unsurprising, but it seems clear that by the 1970s, it meant the latter before it meant the music.

1977 was the peak of punk. The Clash and Sex Pistols both released their first albums, and Ramones came out with not one, but two classics of the genre: Leave Home and then Rocket to Russia. “We wanted to save rock and roll,” Johnny wrote in his memoir, Commando. “I thought the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash were all going to become the major groups, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and it would be a better world.”

But two albums into their world-domination plan and the Ramones were still more written about than listened to. Perhaps this explains the decision to cover a proven hit and release it as a single. Their previous two albums included one cover each. On Rocket to Russia, they did two: “Surfin’ Bird” and “Do You Wanna Dance”, and it was this last one that was released for radio play. 

These covers served an important purpose for a band obsessed with crossover success: They frame the punk sound in a pop context. Did you like Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance”, a hit with a compact 2:46 running time? Then try “Do You Wanna Dance”, and get the same song in less than two minutes!

After hearing how Bobby Freeman can be punk, it is perhaps easier to understand why, say, “I Wanna Be Well”, the next song on the album, is pop. The lyrics treat serious issues with the Ramones’ trademark black humor: “Daddy’s broke/ Holy smoke/ My future’s bleak/ Ain’t it neat?” And along with “Teenage Lobotomy”, it’s one of two songs on Rocket to Russia that deal with mental disorders.

As the writer Mikal Gilmore extensively detailed at Rolling Stone, members of the Ramones struggled with mental health from childhood through their deaths. Perhaps the worst sufferer was Joey, whose OCD could be nearly debilitating. During childhood, he began to hear voices and was prone to violent outbursts, even going so far as to pull a knife on his mother. One psychiatrist diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, and another said, “He’ll most likely be a vegetable.”

But even if Joey’s issues were the most severe, he wasn’t alone. Dee Dee was using narcotics as a teen, and at the same age, Johnny was almost psychopathically violent, assaulting other kids and dropping television sets off the top of apartment buildings in order to scare passersby. All three were physically abused by their fathers, and all three later claimed that it was only in rock’n’roll that they were able to find an outlet for their aggression (but not all of their aggression; as the band came together, their fights weren’t merely verbal). It’s telling that Tommy, whose family fled the brutal Stalinist regime to come to America, had perhaps the least stressful childhood of any of the Ramones. As Dee Dee put it, “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds, because it’s not that civilized an art form. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”

The horrors of childhood were gone but not forgotten, and on Rocket to Russiathey were channeled into “We’re a Happy Family”, a satirical portrait of 20th century home life. It’s not autobiographical by any means; Ramones avoided confessional music, preferring to transform their own feelings into something madder, more mocking. “Daddy’s telling lies/ Baby’s eating flies/ Mommy’s on pills/ Baby’s got the chills.”

The jaunty guitars and the gleeful way Joey sings, “We’re a happy family!” isn’t aggressive, per se. It’s passive aggressive; it’s sneering — funny and mean-spirited all at once. 

But “funny and mean-spirited” is more fun in moderation, and Ramones were spending almost all of their time together — sometimes as much as 150 performances a year. That would be trying with Mother Theresa in the van. The Ramones were temperamental, occasionally violent, and besides which there was alcohol and other drugs. “I think we were all trying to get as mentally unsound as possible,” Tommy would recall, and if that sounds exhausting to you, well, Tommy was beginning to feel the same. 

As Mikal Gilmore reports, Johnny and Tommy got into a screaming match at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in Los Angeles. “This is my band,” Johnny yelled, “and I am the star of this band, not you! What are you gonna do about it?” 

In 1978, Tommy played his last show back where Ramones had first began: CBGB bar in New York. He would produce their next album, Road to Ruin, but he’d had it with the day-to-day.

The next drummer, Marc Bell aka Marky Ramone, would last four years before quitting, although he would later return. The next drummer, Richie Ramone, didn’t even last that long. At the end of the ’80s, Dee Dee quit, and reports suggest that by the time he left, he lived in mortal terror of Johnny, who had taken over the running of the band and who had apparently picked up his father’s habit of enforcing discipline with a closed fist. The Ramones soldiered on although Johnny and Joey hated each other so bitterly that when Joey died, Johnny refused to attend the funeral. It’s interesting, however, that despite causing each other so much pain and misery, Johnny and Joey stayed together for over 20 years. The two most troubled members of Ramones had found solace in rock and roll, and no matter how bad things got, they couldn’t give it up.

And so it came to pass that Rocket to Russia was the last Ramones album featuring the original lineup. It was also the closest the Ramones ever came to achieving crossover success, with three singles getting within spitting distance of the Top 40. The best-selling of these was written by mad, violent Johnny. “Chewing out a rhythm on my bubblegum/ The sun is out, and I want some.” Not what you’d expect, but also exactly what you’d expect. 

“Rockaway Beach” is a bit of jittery bubblegum pop, like The Beach Boys doing coke off the toilet. It’s a great song but not an iconic song; it’s not what most people think of when they think of Rocket to Russia, but it sums up the period better than any other. It’s what happens when commercial desires run smack into an ironclad identity: Ramones wanted to play like the Bay City Rollers, but the Ramones couldn’t play like anyone but themselves. Above all, “Rockaway Beach” is the most secret desire of the Ramones brought to life: that rock and roll can be an escape for the troubled mind, at least for two minutes at a time.

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