Saturday, October 26, 2019

THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE: Sheena Is A Punk Rocker (revised chapter)

A print by Todd Alcott, conjuring a phony pulp paperback. THIS is awesome.
As a recurring feature at Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do), my series The Greatest Record Ever Made! celebrates its third anniversary tomorrow. All this year, I've been working on translating the concept into a book, The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1), combining some previous entries with brand-new chapters written for the book.

The Ramones' "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" was covered as a GREM! blog post on November 22, 2017. I have slightly revamped and expanded the original piece, adding material from a separate essay to form the new version as it will eventually appear in my book. Here it is.

An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

THE RAMONES: Sheena Is A Punk Rocker

Dangerous. Deplorable. Degenerate. The Ramones were supposed to be dirty, filthy punks, likely to slit your throat for spare change, or just for kicks. They were loud. They were sloppy. They were beneath contempt.

And they were one of the greatest pop bands in the world.

That seeming incongruity has never quite resolved itself. In certain circles, one risks immediate scorn for the sin of considering The Ramones a power pop band. But it was never a sin. It was a revelation.

Perhaps it shouldn't have been such a surprise. If we hadn't been so distracted by the noise, the sheer velocity, and the off-putting lyrics about recreational glue-sniffing and chainsaw massacrees, we would have noticed that even The Ramones' earliest records carried influences beyond the obvious sturm und drang of The Stooges; many (if not most) of The Ramones' short 'n' sharp album tracks believed they were 45s. Definitely most. Maybe all. A few of them were released as singles--"Blitzkrieg Bop," "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,""I Remember You," "Swallow My Pride"--but if Ramones records could talk, the bulk of their LP track brethren would have likewise self-identified as 7" slabs o' vinyl destined for playback at 45 rpm.


It's not about the format; it's the spirit, the attitude, what's in the grooves even if there aren't any literal grooves, from mp3 air to compact disc to cassette, eight-track, and of course vinyl. If we had listened more deliberately to The Ramones, even as they declared their preference for huffing Carbona Spot Remover rather than glue, we would have heard singles. Pop singles. Fodder for jukeboxes and transistor radio, meant to be played alongside girl-group 45s and British Invasion 45s and bubblegum 45s and MotownThe Monkees, and Jan and Dean. The Ramones specialized in 45s; most of those 45s just happened to be album tracks instead.

But it was an actual 45rpm single--"Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"--that I still regard as the record that changed my life.

We've already talked about Phonograph Record Magazine, how that tabloid's coverage of punk rock permanently shanghaied my rockin' pop consciousness in 1977. PRM seemed to me like a communiqué from another world, and its descriptions of The Ramones captivated me. They seemed like they must be horrible, frightening, almost criminal.  They also seemed like they might be the most exciting rock 'n' roll band imaginable.  I was scared of them, and I was hooked on 'em body and soul before I ever heard a note of their music.

Off to college that fall, I heard The Ramones on campus radio and I bought my first Ramones record, that 45 of "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," a song I still had not heard. I didn't even own a stereo at the time, so I had to wait until I was home for Thanksgiving break to finally hear the damned thing.

It played.  And I stared at the record, watching it spin as it played.  The record ended.

And I got up and played it again.  And again.  And again.  And several more agains after that. The damned thing is less than three minutes long, but I listened to it for at least twenty minutes, maybe more. No other single song, before or since, ever had such an immediate and durable impact on me. Nothing else ever came close.

I swear to God, I suddenly felt taller. Colors seemed brighter. The confusing world of a seventeen-year-old all at once…well, nothing can make sense of a seventeen-year-old's world, but clarity seemed within reach. I had never heard anything like this record! I played it again. And I played it again.

It sounded like The Beach Boys, like the AM pop music that I always loved, and continued to love. But it was faster, fuller, innately louder even at low volume. 

And the world changed. Everything was different. Nothing was the same.  

About a month after first hearing "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," I wrote my first essay on rock 'n' roll music, extolling the virtues of punk rock in general and The Ramones in particular.  It was published as an emeritus contribution in my high school newspaper.  My essay became the focal point for the nascent punk scene at my alma mater.  A few months later, Bomp! magazine published a special issue devoted to power pop, a label that seemed to perfectly describe the type of music I loved the most; Bomp! even listed "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" as one of power pop's definitive records.

In between, in January of 1978, I saw a local punk/power pop group called The Flashcubes, and my fate was sealed. I'd found my music, and I would preach its virtues forevermore. Many factors led to this point, from the British Invasion and its aftermath in the '60s, to my vicarious fascination with punk via Phonograph Record Magazine.  But it was "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" that accomplished the change. 

Looking back, the pristine pop of "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" shouldn't really have been any kind of shock. Nonetheless: in 1977, no one was prepared for it. No one.

When Joey Ramone first demoed the song for Sire Records boss Seymour Stein, Stein freakin' flipped out. We have to record this song NOW!!! Stein knew a hit when he heard it.  The Ramones were dispatched to the studio, and the "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" 45 was rush-released in July of '77. Its seemingly effortless evocation of an urban East Coast version of The Beach Boys was indescribably catchy, effervescent, and fun. 

The single's real-world Billboard chart peak of # 81 was probably a disappointment to Stein--it certainly sounded like a Top 40 smash, or better--but it did chart. No previous Ramones record had done that, nor had any other previous punk or new wave or label du jour artist managed it either. One suspects the perceived image of those dangerous, degenerate punks scared away the superstitious and cowardly lot we know as radio programmers. It was a missed opportunity to reclaim the glory of rock 'n' roll radio at its very best. It wasn't the slick corporate product against which punk rebelled, nor was it the angry nihilism that punk was known for; it was something else altogether: it was pure glee. For those who heard "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" with open ears in 1977, it was a magical welcome from a brighter, better pop world. 

It was for me, anyway. 

The other day, I heard someone on the radio refer to "I Wanna Be Sedated" as the definitive Ramones track. Some would argue passionately on behalf of "Blitzkrieg Bop" instead, and either would present a compelling, convincing case. But only one record changed my life. The Greatest Record Ever Made? Oh yes. The kids are all hopped and ready to go. New York City really has it all. And Sheena is the queen of the urban jungle. Pop music conquers all. 


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Fans of pop music will want to check out Waterloo Sunset--Benefit For This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, a new pop compilation benefiting SPARK! Syracuse, the home of This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & CarlTIR'N'RR Allstars--Steve StoeckelBruce GordonJoel TinnelStacy CarsonEytan MirskyTeresa CowlesDan PavelichIrene Peña, Keith Klingensmith, and Rich Firestone--offer a fantastic new version of The Kinks' classic "Waterloo Sunset." That's supplemented by eleven more tracks (plus a hidden bonus track), including previously-unreleased gems from The Click BeetlesEytan MirskyPop Co-OpIrene PeñaMichael Slawter (covering The Posies), and The Anderson Council (covering XTC), a new remix of "Infinite Soul" by The Grip Weeds, and familiar TIRnRR Fave Raves by Vegas With RandolphGretchen's WheelThe Armoires, and Pacific Soul Ltd. Oh, and that mystery bonus track? It's exquisite. You need this. You're buying it from Futureman.

(And you can still get our 2017 compilation This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio, Volume 4, on CD from Kool Kat Musik and as a download from Futureman Records.)

Hey, Carl's writin' a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 100 essays (and then some) about 100 tracks, plus two bonus instrumentals, each one of 'em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).