A brand new box set expands upon the perfection of punk’s greatest live album
Let’s face it, live albums are pretty useless.
After the initial excitement of the idea – especially from explosive live bands that can’t always seem to capture it in the studio – you buy it, play it once, and it goes back in the shelves only to be looked at once in a blue moon for the pictures, while sifting through to get to a studio album. Tracklist-wise, they’re usually basic “Best Ofs;” and if you already have the albums and like the band to the point that you ponied up for the live record, chances are you have long come to love those “couldn’t capture it in the studio” versions, and the live ones can sound off. Mainly because we all know it’s even harder to capture a band’s sound in the live setting.
The best ones are either those that are released as new albums, with a majority of unreleased songs (Cheap Trick – At Budokan; MC5 – Kick Out the Jams); or, in that rarity equal to finding a Picasso at a thrift store, are actually well-recorded and ripping (Cramps – RockinNReelinInAucklandNewZealandXXX, Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at Star Club; Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; The Who – Live at Leeds, James Brown – Live at the Apollo, Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison).
For my moola, the Ramones’ It’s Alive – taken from the New Year’s Eve, 1977 show at The Rainbow in London, England, London, and released in 1979 – is the best of those rare exceptions. A double-album that–incredibly–had never been officially released in the States until now, it’s loud, blazing, and nabs the Ramones at their initial, first three albums height, in front of a wildly appreciative audience. I have numerous Ramones live bootlegs from the same era, but the crowd sometimes sounds lackadaisical or just buried. That ain’t totally crucial to a live recording, but if half the reason you grab a live album is because you might never see that band live, then you kind of want to feel like you’re there and the joint is buzzin’. And that’s what It’s Alive does like crazy.
That said, once It’s Alive was born (the last album featuring all four original members), most other Ramones live records seemed sort of still-born. We know what the Ramones are good at: 1-2-3-4, BAM BAM BAM! Yes!! And if you can’t be there watching Johnny glare at Joey, or Dee Dee get pissed at his bass, Tommy laughing and shaking his head, or Joey gangly-ing all over the place, well, the Ramones ain’t exactly known for witty between-song banter–the only other potential bonus from a distinctive live album (Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners; Devil Dogs – Live at the Revolver Club). So, bootleg after bootleg, past-prime mid-1990s live CDs, whatever it might be, Ramones live albums usually pale in comparison to It’s Alive.
Another in the utterly essential Ramones reissue series that Rhino has doled out in the last few years, this one does the fine remaster job on the original, and adds three previously unreleased shows from that same UK tour, recorded in the same vein. You get 4CDs/2LPs, and of course, an incredible pix and info-packed booklet to go along with it, all in the nice hardcover shell utilized throughout this reissue series – designed for the posterity these classics deserve. But, first glance at the tracklist of the previously unreleased shows here is pretty hilarious.
The Ramones being their road-hog selves, their lack of between-song banter was rivaled only by their disinterest in mixing up the setlist. So you’re basically getting the same show three more times. And, as any Ramones fanatic will tell you, that still ain’t enough! It took balls for Rhino to ask $75 bucks for this set (limited to an 8,000 pressing), but it also took a deep understanding of the band’s fanbase who can never get enough. And all three previously unreleased shows are of that perfect period when the band retained some accidental action, but was tightening up from all the touring and constant promotional work. Plus, in latter 1977, the wider concert-going public was only recently getting hip to what “punk” was, so the audiences at these midsize theaters have a virgin excitement in their cheering.
As far as the three new shows included, at the Wanwickshire, December 28 gig, Joey sounds particularly pissed, like he didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas. Staffordshire, December 29, Dee Dee really punches through the blur. And during the Buckinghamshire show, December 30, somewhere in the increasingly speedier playing as the show goes on – Joey barely getting his breath on the last tune, “We’re a Happy Family” – is a seed of hardcore, the band and crowd bristling so hard with the excitement of the crest of that first wave of punk.
But those are haphazard grabs at trying to snatch standout details from what is really a monolithic testament to a moment where the Ramones’ project was exploding on all sides. You can almost envision the ghost of an old hippie nodding his head in resignation, as he walks out the back door of the club during the third version of “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.”
The sheer pile-on pummeling (109 songs!) across this set creates a kind of Sunn O)))-like cumulative power that drives through all the classics and proves once again – after years of imitative pop-punk sapping and the fact da brudders are now settled canon, background for diaper commercials or what have you – that the Ramones weren’t just inspired by the Stooges, but equaled their visceral muscle.
That might be why Rhino surprisingly nabbed Steve Albini for some liner notes. There are only so many Ramones stories Seymour Stein can tell, and getting the maven of 1990s grunge producers to weigh in was a wise move to add some fresh perspective to the punk founding fathers’ tale that is reaching “Night Before Christmas” ubiquity.
Ed Stasium’s recollections in the liner notes are essential, of course, because he produced and engineered all the music on It’s Alive, and remastered everything on this set. That is the ribbon that wraps this whole package together, and makes the prospect of another Ramones live album exciting again.
AUDIO: The Ramones’ It’s Alive (full album)