On the very first day of recording sessions for their third album Rocket to Russia—August 21, 1977 to be exact—Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone showed up at the former Episcopalian Church that housed Media Sound Studios in Midtown Manhattan, bringing with him a copy of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” single. He was pissed off, complaining that his band had been “robbed” by the infamous British punk group’s ferocious buzzsaw sound. Johnny told Ed Stasium, their audio engineer, that the new Ramones album needed to have sharper production than the Sex Pistols.
“These guys ripped us off and I want to sound better than this,” he said.
Rocket to Russia was the group’s third album in less than two years, and came hot on the heels of Leave Home, released in January. Both were produced by Tommy Ramone and Tony Bongiovi, the cousin of Jon Bon Jovi. Although Rocket to Russia was the band’s highest-charting album to date, reaching number 49 on the Billboard 200, its sales were still considered a disappointment as the album had been heavily hyped, there was a massive interest in this new thing called “punk rock” and the reviews were nearly unanimously positive for its hook-laden tunes. Although the group was an incredibly popular touring act—their appearances almost single handedly starting new punk scenes overnight in cities across America—one of their best songs, “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” was only able to reach #81 in the Billboard singles chart.
The summer of 1977, when the “Sheena” single was released, was when the mainstream American media first started taking major notice of punk. Downtown New York bands were getting signed left and right by major record labels and Max’s Kansas City and CBGB were packed to the gills most nights. However, the punk stories that got the most airplay were obviously the most notorious, involving violence at shows, “gobbing,” rioting, hard drugs and so forth. Not only did the members of the Ramones see themselves as “robbed” by the Sex Pistols’ guitar sound, they even blamed the Sex Pistols for their own lack of record sales, believing the British group’s loutish behavior had caused the public to see punk as an alarming development, tanking Rocket to Russia‘s potential for breaking them in America.
In Brian J. Bowe’s 2010 book, The Ramones: American Punk Rock Band, Punk magazine’s Legs McNeil seems to agree with this notion:
“Safety pins, razor blades, chopped haircuts, snarling, vomiting—everything that had nothing to do with the Ramones was suddenly in vogue, and it killed any chance Rocket to Russia had of getting any airplay.”
Rocket to Russia was the final Ramones album to be recorded with all four original members, as Tommy Ramone would depart his drum stool in 1978 to work with the band behind the scenes.
Ferocious live footage of the Ramones at the State Theatre in Minneapolis from ‘Wylde Rice,’ a super-hip Minnesota PBS show of the time. Backstage, the boys discuss the punk scene in England, dismiss the notion of punk “politics” and the reporting of violence at punk gigs as overblown. They start off with a great “Rockaway Beach” and later rip through “California Sun” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Shot on January 21, 1978 as they toured in support of ‘Rocket to Russia.’ None other than the Runaways were their opening act!