Saturday, June 19, 2010

June 19: The Ramones, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"

Artist: The Ramones
Song: "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"
Album: Rocket To Russia
Year: 1977

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One must be careful when attempting to categorize the bands that defined genres, as often times, a simple one word classification omits much of the talent and sound of the band.  Even bands and performers that have become synonymous with their particular genre have some songs or nuances of their music that seems to defy the sound with which they are most closely associated.  Whether it is Miles Davis and the psychedelic movement or Freddie Mercury and opera, these instances run across all styles of music and throughout the entire era of recorded music.  There is perhaps no more clear an example than when people attempt to write of The Ramones as "just a punk band."  While they were unquestionably THE band that kick-started the punk movement, and they certainly laid out the best way to play simple, frenzied music, when one looks closer at many of their songs, one can find a wide array of sounds and influences within their music.  Released less than a year after their groundbreaking 1976 self-titled debut, the band gave the world another fourteen songs totaling just over a half hour with their 1977 album, Leave Home.  A few months later, the group dropped their Rocket To Russia album, proving beyond a doubt that they were "the real deal."  It is within these three records that one can hear everything from the "classic" punk sound to surf rock to experiments that are slightly heavy metal, and this ability to blend so many influences in such a subtle manner is one of the many reasons that the music of The Ramones remains so vibrant and fresh after so many decades.  Though it appears on versions of both their second and third record, there is perhaps no song that better defines The Ramones' ability to blend these styles together than one finds in the song, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker."

The song was actually recorded during the sessions for Leave Home, but it was initially left off of that record and pushed onto Rocket To Russia.  However, after controversy around one song on Leave Home, and then a switch of distributors, the song was released on the "third" version release, as well as on Rocket To Russia. Regardless of the version, the power and sound of "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" remain the same, and it is easily one of The Ramones' catchiest and most "poppy" tunes of their entire career.  From the moment the song begins, it is like no other in their catalog at the time, as the great Johnny Ramone brings a brilliantly simple guitar progression, yet with it brings a swagger and mood that immediately evokes the spirit of surf rock, and it could have easily been a song from that genre.  The rhythm section of Dee Dee on bass and Tommy on drums follow right along with this tone, and the hand clapping finishes off a pop appeal that drove the song to moderate placement on the singles chart.  By the time the song came out, punk had gained a reputation for being angry, dark, and aggressive, and yet it is songs like "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" that proved that punk is about how you approach the music as opposed to how you try to portray your music.  Regardless of whether you're a fan of punk or not, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" is irresistible, and the effect remains the same even after countless listenings, proving the overall greatness of this simple composition.

While there is perhaps no other voice that more defines punk rock, it is also within the words Joey Ramone sings on "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" that he spells out the "story" of so many youth of the time.  Though the argument can easily be made that Joey Ramone doesn't exactly have a "singing voice," the manner with which he delivered his vocals are absolutely unique, and it is on "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" that the group employs harmonies with the full band, further making the link to bands like The Beach Boys.  Most people do not make any connection between these two bands, but after hearing this song, the similarity and influence is undeniable.  This relationship between punk and surf rock is further reinforced within the lyrics, as the first verse speaks of a group of kids and, "...they've got their surfboards, and they're going to the discotheque a-go-go..."  Painting a picture of "wholesome" youth at the time, Joey quickly introduces an at-first unnamed member of the group who, though they are her friends, can clearly no longer stand that sort of lifestyle.  Putting lyrics to the pilgrimage that so many continue to make to this day, Joey sings of her plight with the lines, "...but she just couldn't stay, she had to break away...well New York City really has it all..."  Not only does Joey give "props" to his hometown here, but he was basically saying, "if you want punk rock, come to New York."  The song implies that Sheena found her "home" once arriving in New York City, and the chorus of "...Sheena is, a punk rocker..." begs for sing-alongs and remains one of the finest of all of Joey's lyrical contributions to the band.

Overall, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" has a more direct pop appeal, and though one can easily make the case that all of the songs of The Ramones have such an appeal, there are few that have it so directly and so strong.  Keeping the punk ethos of simplicity firmly in place, The Ramones make their love for surf rock and catchy tunes abundantly clear, and in many ways, the song made it "ok" for other bands to pursue similar musical ventures.  Though it is a bit slower than a majority of the rest of their catalog, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" still contains the high energy drive that defines The Ramones as a band, and one can easily argue that it is songs like this that turned a completely new group of music fans onto both The Ramones as well as the punk style in general.  The fact that the band "call out" disco as the "anti-punk" on the song also speaks to the times, as at the time the song was recorded, disco was fading fast, and the youth were looking for "the next big thing."  In many ways, The Ramones' character of "Sheena" is the archetype of the punk rock lifestyle and can easily be seen as a rebel, yet few songs of rebellion have been recorded with such pop appeal and simple brilliance.  Bands from across the world have covered "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" over the years, and it remains one of the groups' most beloved songs, likely due to the fact that is has such wide ranging appeal, and to this day keeps its "sing along" quality.  Summing up everything he saw in the "punk scene" of 1977, there are few songs that so perfectly define the genre, yet simultaneously incorporate a number of elements rarely associated with the punk sound than one finds in The Ramones 1977 classic, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker."

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