About Me

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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

LOVE AT FIRST SPIN: Rocket To Russia

This is the 500th published post on Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do).

Love At First Spin looks back at albums that I immediately loved, from start to finish, the first time I heard them. The concept was suggested by Steve Stoeckel, and was detailed here.

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THE RAMONES: Rocket To Russia (Sire, 1977)

By the end of 1978, I was well and truly a fan of The Ramones. I'd heard "Blitzkrieg Bop" on the campus radio station at Brockport State College, I'd absolutely flipped out when I heard "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" for the first time, I'd purchased all three of their most recent 45s, I owned a copy of their eponymous debut album, and had even seen a live Ramones show (with The Runaways and The Flashcubes) over Easter break. If The Ramones weren't quite my favorite band yet, they were on their way, at typically breakneck speed.

There were times when it may have seemed like my first three semesters at college passed just as quickly as that, and other times when everything felt like it was moving at the glacial pace of a Grateful Dead jam. That is not meant as a compliment. But here I was as Christmas break '78 commenced, a young power-pop punk about a month shy of his 19th birthday. And furthermore: a young power-pop punk in love.

I met Brenda in October. I had kept all of my previous relationships short, never staying with one girl for more than two months at the most. The previous year, the fall semester of my freshman year had been a brief parade of distorted passions and discarded promises, leaving a trio of broken hearts in my well-meaning but hapless wake. It wasn't that I was such a prize catch--plainly, that wasn't true--but nonetheless, I burned three bridges in short order, without ever meaning to play with matches in the first place. Their disappointment with my selfish, clueless actions was justified, and I knew it; I was just as disappointed in me as they were. But I tried to learn from my (many) mistakes. As '77 became '78, as the calendar pages flipped from cold winter to dreary spring to Syracuse summer and finally back to the season of the fallen, I tried to be better. Just...better.

My past faults and failures were still in my mind as Brenda and I set to sparkin' in late '78. I liked her. A lot. Like, immediately. Although not a specific special moment, I remember her sitting next to me in my dorm suite, falling asleep on my shoulder as WCMF-FM in Rochester played The Ramones' latest album Road To Ruin in its entirety. I didn't want to hurt her, like I'd hurt the others. Better. Somehow, I wanted to be better. But, as Christmas break approached, I remembered my good intentions from a year ago. I'd liked that girl, too. Broke her heart anyway; I'd panicked, gotten scared of things moving too fast. I wrote that girl a letter over the break, and told her goodbye. I hadn't heard The Ramones' "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" yet, but its lyrics were prescient: Someone had to pay the price....

I didn't want to do that again. I for damned sure didn't want to do that to Brenda. So no promise, no guarantee. We hoped to meet again in January.

Couldn't stop thinking about her over the break. Granted, part of this was because she'd left me with a particularly nasty stomach bug, which hit me square in all of my insides just as my parents and I were leaving Syracuse for the drive to Cleveland and then Southwest Missouri, where we'd be spending the holidays. God, that was a rough trip. But we finally arrived in Aurora, Missouri. And my thoughts of Brenda were fond. I missed her. I wished we were together.

This Christmas in Missouri, at the house where my grandparents lived, also included family from Florida, and more family from California. The California contingent included my cousin Mark, one of my best friends since childhood, the continent between us notwithstanding. Although our tastes differed, we were both music fans. My Dad drove us both to a fantastic little record store outside Joplin, its shelves filled with offerings by The Flamin' Groovies, The Rezillos, and other hip acts one might not expect to see in a tiny shop in a small suburban Missouri shopping center. We also made a trip to Battlefield Mall in Springfield; while there, I used Christmas money to buy myself two LPs I'd wanted for a long time: Live In Japan by The Runaways and Rocket To Russia by The Ramones.

My parents didn't want us to disturb the placid atmosphere of my grandparents' house (and I don't remember whether or not there even was a turntable set up there), so listening to my new acquisitions would have to wait until my return to Syracuse. My stomach was still feeling sensitive, but Mark and I decided to go for a walk.

Visually, we didn't quite fit in with our surroundings in Aurora, Missouri at the end of 1978. Mark had long hair and a mustache; I was decked out in what could best be described as disco clothes; I was a punk, sure, but a fashionable punk. As we walked along a busy road near our home base, a passing car seemed to slow down, and a kid in the back seat just stared at us, open-mouthed, while the adult driver scowled and looked ahead. As the car went by, I said to Mark, "You know what the conversation inside that car was, right? The kid said, Daddy! What're those...?! And the father said, Them's Communists, son. Now hush up."

We laughed the giddy laugh of teenaged co-conspirators. When we got back to the house, I added the anecdote to the letter I had been writing to Brenda. Man, did I ever miss her.

Back in Syracuse by New Year's Eve, I called Brenda at her home in Staten Island to wish her well. She was surprised, and pleased. She hadn't received my letter yet. But the phone call and the eventual arrival of that letter made my intentions clear. I could be better. I would be better. We would be better together.

Within this rush of teen emotion and nascent young adult wishes, a year-old Ramones record might seem anticlimactic. Please. As pop fans, our hearts live within the grooves of the music we love, and the people and things and places we love are all immersed in that music. It's connected. It's all connected, inextricably, as it should be. The Runaways' live album was fine, really good. The Ramones' record was love at first spin.

I already knew (and owned) five songs from Rocket To Russia on 45: "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," "I Don't Care," "Rockaway Beach," "Locket Love," and a cover of the Bobby Freeman/Beach Boys/[Bette Midler?!] classic "Do You Wanna Dance?" (The B-side of "Do You Wanna Dance?" had been the terrific, non-LP "Babysitter.") In retrospect, I wonder if the fact that I possessed nearly half the album on singles before I bought the LP may have fed my de facto decision to delay its purchase. If so, well, no matter--I got it at the right time.

Rocket To Russia opens with the smashing ka-pwing! of "Cretin Hop," which careens pinhead-first into "Rockaway Beach," which surfs into the ballad "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow." Bomp! magazine's Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza! had waxed rhapsodic over that tune, and I recalled hearing Joey Ramone introduce it in their live set the previous spring. It's a gorgeous little pop gem that implies--no, hints at--a greater depth and maturity hidden beneath The Ramones' leather jackets and Carbona-huffin' sensibilities. The album side hits the familiar single cuts--"Locket Love," "I Don't Care," and the magnificent "Sheena"--before barging into the domestic chaos of "We're A Happy Family." Side Two commences its own blitzkrieg with "Teenage Lobotomy" and the irresistible, over-the-top candy treat "Do You Wanna Dance" (perhaps the greatest cover ever made), and then just shimmers with the full-bodied punk-pop of "I Wanna Be Well," "I Can't Give You Anything," and sweet sweet little "Ramona." TheTrashmen are channeled (and absorbed) in a cover of "Surfin' Bird" (the first version of that song I ever knew), and the fatalist bop of "Why Is It Always This Way?" brings Rocket To Russia to its toe-tappin', wrist-slittin' conclusion. Hey, hey, hey/Why is it always this way?/Last time I saw her alive/She was waivin', waivin' bye bye/She was contemplating suicide/Now she's lying in a bottle of formaldehyde. Profound!

The cumulative effect of this combination of downbeat lyrics and upbeat, bubblepunk rock 'n' roll was like being mugged by an amphetamine-driven incarnation of The Archies, chewin' out a rhythm on their bubblegum. There's no stoppin' the cretins from hoppin'! Do you wanna dance? It was transcendent. It was nothing short of magic. It was The Ramones.

I was speechless, amazed. I loved The Ramones anyway, but this? This album was flawless. I already had Ramones, and I would add copies of both Leave Home and Road To Ruin in short order. Sensitive, artistical soul that I was, I may been an eensy bit squeamish about some of the cartoon violence and (presumably, but maybe not) faux depravity found in abundance on those other albums. I grew to love 'em all anyway, but Rocket To Russia? Rocket To Russia was the only one I fell for, start to finish, on first spin.

Just like I'd fallen for Brenda.

Brenda and I survived Christmas break '78. We're still together, nearly thirty-nine years later. There were times when our future was bleak (Ain't it neat?), but we've remained a happy family, and we've continued to count off 1-2-3-4! and power our way through. I wound up seeing The Ramones nine times, getting all of their records, reviewing 'em all for Goldmine, and even interviewing the 1994 lineup in marathon sessions of over-the-phone conversations. Johnny Ramone himself told me that he agreed that Rocket To Russia was The Ramones' greatest album. Better. Pop music is better because of The Ramones. I'm better because I allowed myself to become better.  I wanna be well. I do care. Hey, hey, hey--why isn't it always this way?