Rocket to Russia is the best American rock & roll of the year and possibly the funniest rock album ever made. Not that the Ramones are a joke — they’re more worthwhile than almost anything that’s more self-conscious because they exist in a pure and totally active state.
Rocket shows substantial progress in the group’s sound — it has opened up so that hints of Beach Boys harmonies float among the power chords, kind of like moving with the Who from My Generation to Happy Jack. Certainly, there is nothing resembling the lock step of the first two albums holding them back. The guitars still riff relentlessly, but they are freer within the murky sound, and the songs give them much more to work with. It is some kind of tribute to suggest that the least effective songs on the album are the oldies, “Do You Wanna Dance” and “Surfin’ Bird.” And if this is a hilarious album, it is also astute: “We’re a Happy Family” and “Why Is It Always This Way” are extremely funny just to the extent that the situations are horribly typical.
Despite the title, the Ramones aren’t about escape. Reductionist aggression never is — conquest is more like it. And if you’re alienated by it, that’s because you’re supposed to be. The Ramones explore the dirty truths that pop music and rock designed to “entertain” have to cover up. This is truly the land of “No Fun” — none asked for, none given. Just action, constant and unyielding, pleasant or miserable.
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Most contemporary music — yeah, even the New Wave stuff — asks why we’ve slowed down or complains about the fact. The Ramones consider this irrelevant. The question they pose is more interesting: why can’t you keep up? I dare you to try.