On New Ramones Album, Even Death Can’t Slow Them Down!
Ramones, Rocket From Russia (Lobotomy Records, 2022)
To say that no one would have expected this is an understatement. Rocket From Russia (the title, of course, balances out the band’s classic 1977 album Rocket to Russia) is not only the first Ramones album since Adios Amigos in 1995, but the first since 1978’s Road to Ruin to feature the original lineup of the band: Joey Ramone on vocals, Johnny Ramone on guitar, Dee Dee Ramone on bass and Tommy Ramone on drums.
The fact that all four members are dead (Joey passed away in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004 and Tommy in 2014) is alluded to in the cover art—the traditional Ramones logo is remade with a phoenix instead of an eagle—but not remarked upon in the liner notes. The omission, while strange, can be forgiven. Why? Well, no one here sounds worse for wear. Johnny’s guitar has lost none of its buzzsaw power, the rhythm section maintains the breakneck tempos, and Joey’s vocals manage to find the sweet spot between adolescent naivete and sneering irony that made the band stand out from its dozens of imitators. The touchstones, from girl-group to surf, remain intact. What’s dead, anyway?
ROCKET FROM RUSSIA – THE TRACKS
As for the songs, the band’s most distinctive material was written by Joey and Dee Dee, and both seem aware that a new Ramones album in 2022 has to deliver more than an exercise in empty nostalgia. Joey’s “I’m Cancelled” is a canny opener, with the comfortingly familiar “1-2-3-4” count giving way to typically hilarious lyrics (“I said it on the platform / I said it on TV / Now no one that I talk to / Wants to talk to me”) and a chanted chorus. “I’m Gonna Be Late,” also by Joey, is mostly a mundane list of delays (“Doorknob broken / Stuck at home / Can’t find my keys / Can’t find my comb”) that reveals its joke in the chorus (“Gonna be late….for the rally!”). Dee Dee’s way with pop melodies and clever lyrical hooks elevates his contributions, from“Still Going Mental” (“It’s not accidental”) to “No Idea” (“Who’s singing this song / No idea / It goes how long? / No idea”). He also goes in for some straightforward romance on “Crying Without You.”
Other songs, written by various combinations of Ramones and credited to the entire group, include “Left Field” (a surprisingly subtle statement about political evolution in which Joey sings “They say I’ve changed / But I’m the same / Peel off the labels / To win the game”), and “Stick Up” (“Walking to the corner? / Don’t say I didn’t warn ya”). In their glory days, the Ramones never forgot to cover a classic dance tune, whether “Surfing Bird” or “California Sun.” This time they reach back not to the early sixties but to the early eighties, covering Falco’s “Der Kommissar” in the original German but accelerating it to a jackhammer tempo that lends the song a menacing air. (The band’s flirtations with fascist signifiers and/or warnings about the dangers of flirting with fascist signifiers also surface in a pair of Joey songs, “So Much Time In Berlin” and “Collaborator Baby.”) The only other cover is a self-cover, an update of the band’s classic “I’m Against It” that replaces the original list of punk peeves (politics and Communists, “Jesus freaks” and “circus geeks”) with modern equivalents (social media, deepfakes, polls, trolls, and price controls).
There are 16 songs in 36 minutes, but since that includes the four-minute “Story of the Ramones,” a relatively straightforward history of the band that supplies neither more nor less than its title suggests, that means that there are few blink-or-you’ll-miss-‘em highlights: “Take It In the Heart (I Did),” “Did You Fall Or Did I Push You Down,” and “Make Carbona Great Again,” especially. The record closes with “Open Season,” a searing sixty-second anthem of resilience (“You won’t get me off the stage / If death can’t stop me / Why should age?”). It’s not clear how long the Ramones will stick around this time through, but on this fully realized comeback, they’re not sedated—or outdated.