In honor of the Ramones, Judge Erich Asperschlager wrote this review in less than two minutes.
Ramones music isn't hard to find: greatest hits, best-ofs, remastered reissues, box sets—and now Ramones: It's Alive (1974-1996), a video collection of live concerts, in-studio performances, and TV spots, ranging from the band's earliest years to the mid-'90s (the last performance on this set was recorded less than five months before they played their last show).
The Ramones (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy) ushered in the late '70s punk rock movement by channeling their frustrations about popular music into playing songs they way they wanted to hear them: fast, loud, and short. The influence of bands as eclectic as the Stooges, Buddy Holly, and The Beatles can be heard in bite-sized tunes like "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," "Teenage Lobotomy," and "Cretin Hop," giving their music a sound that must have seemed both harshly alien and strangely familiar. Their melodies hearken back to early rock 'n' roll, while the well-worn themes of girls, dancing, and teen angst are twisted into tongue-in-cheek lyrics about beating brats with baseball bats, getting shock treatment, and hitching rides to "Rockaway Beach." They played their music at dive bars like New York's CBGB, songs fitting one into the other like Lego bricks, separated only by the nanoseconds it took Dee Dee to shout "one-two-three-four!." In many ways, the band's catchy, explosive, three-chord music captures the bare-bones spirit of rock 'n' roll better than anyone else. Love 'em or hate 'em, they deserve to be on the same short list of rock heavies as Dylan, the Stones, Beatles, and Beach Boys.
It's Alive, which shares its name with the band's 1979 live album, collects performance footage from throughout the band's career—video which varies widely in audio and video quality—held together by chronology and the band's unrelenting consistency. Some of the performances look and sound great, presented in a 5.1 surround mix that captures the live-show feel. Others, shot as shaky home videos, look and sound muddy despite attempts to clean them up. Though the band's brilliant studio albums have a crisp sound these performances lack, this DVD proves the Ramones were at their energetic best when they played live.
First off, points for actually having read through the entire track list. It's massive. It's also fairly repetitive, which for any other band would be a problem. For the Ramones, seeing them play the same songs throughout their career just shows how fully formed they emerged back in '74. Looking over the track list, I'm struck more by how good of a job producer/director George Seminara and Music Supervisor Tommy Erdelyi (the band's original drummer) did in spreading tracks around and representing as much of the band's music as possible. Hardly any of the band's early material is missing (only ten songs out of the fifty-four that appeared over the first four albums), and I don't know how much more comprehensive you can get than releasing four hours of a band performing songs that are basically around two minutes each.
Watching the performances on these DVDs has a feeling of discovery. Each set, ranging from as few as one song to as many as fourteen, feels like it's been hauled out of a box in the attic and dusted off. The performances feel evolutionary more in audio-video fidelity than artistic growth. Though the earliest shows have an amateurish quality, the band quickly snaps into shape, and once they've perfected their high-adrenaline onstage presence, it's nearly impossible—except for the length of Dee Dee's hair and the changing of drummers—to tell the difference between a show from 1977 and one from the mid-'80s: Joey hanging on the microphone, leaning forward like a figurehead on the prow of a ship; Dee Dee, to the right, thumping madly at his bass and singing back-up; Johnny looking eerily like Nigel Tufnel, standing spread-legged to the left with his low-slung guitar; and Tommy (then Marky, and Richie) holding the whole thing together with a furious, rock-solid drumbeat.
Disc One captures the band from their earliest performances through their New Year's Eve 1977 show at London's Rainbow Theater. Though there are several exceptional sets, including a lengthy one recorded at CBGB in 1977, and studio performances from Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and The Camera Mart, much of the early home video material suffers in quality—some of it borders on unlistenable. The Rainbow Theater show, on the other hand—recorded and released as the double live album It's Alive—is the centerpiece of the first disc, and might well be the centerpiece of the whole set. It's the longest grouping of songs from a single performance—collecting some of the best material from the Ramones' first three albums, Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia—and an immersive new 5.1 surround mix makes this classic performance even better. The only problem with the Rainbow footage is that only half of the original album's fourteen songs are present. The liner notes explain that, while footage of three additional songs existed, it was lost in 1978—making me wish they'd come out with an audio-only DVD 5.1 version of the live album. The tease of including a shortened version of the Rainbow show highlights this DVD set's most annoying limitation: as good as these performances are (and can be made to sound and look through restoration), they're completely dependent on the quality of the video source material.
Disc Two picks up around the release of 1978's Road to Ruin album, and marks the departure of original drummer Tommy. The material ranges from their earliest songs to their latest, and thanks to an increase in professional production, has much higher quality audio and video than the first disc. It's interesting to note that twelve out of eighteen sets on the second disc were recorded somewhere other than the United States, highlighting the band's popularity overseas. As opposed to the club and small venue shows on Disc One, more than half of the performances on Disc Two are in front of TV studio audiences, most of which just sit politely (beyond a few bobbing heads in the first row). If the quiet crowds affected the band, I couldn't tell. The Ramones perform as though playing their music requires too much energy to worry about something as minor as audience response. In fact, as the disc moves through the '80s, the only thing that seems to change is the make-up of the audience: punk rockers replaced by bored looking non-English speakers and swimsuit-clad California festival-goers. By the final few performances, the band (though no less energetic) feels tired and somewhat out of place. Songs like "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and "R.A.M.O.N.E.S." just don't have the gut-punch impact of the early material, making the inclusion of performances from the band's final years feel like a necessary concession to presenting the "ultimate" Ramones live experience.
As with everything it does, Rhino put a great deal of care into this set, from the video and audio restoration to the silver-and-pink slipcase art. Though they could easily have skimped on bonus features, Disc One has around 45 minutes of fascinating extras. "Interviews" explores the band's early years through the recollections of Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, Tommy, and manager Danny Fields, while "Extra Bonus!" collects footage of the band on their first trip to Argentina and additional television footage from the band's appearances on Sweden's Mandagsborsen and the Sha Na Na variety show (in a fake game show sketch called "Greaser's Feud"). The (mostly low-budget) "Super Rare Music Videos" feature three of the band's later songs: "It's Not My Place (In The 9 To 5 World)," "The KKK Took My Baby Away" (with rather disturbing imagery of Joey's black girlfriend being dragged roughly out of her car by an unseen attacker), and "Somebody Put Something In My Drink." Rounding off the extras are photo galleries—music-backed slideshows featuring collections of photos taken by Danny Fields, Ian Harper, Jenny Lens, Robert Matheu, and fans.
Unlike End of the Century: Story of the Ramones, It's Alive isn't a behind-the-scenes look at the band. Though the bonus feature interviews cover some basic history, the purpose of this set is to present the Ramones as they presented themselves during their more than 2,200 concerts. Undeniably influential, they struck their own musical course and never wavered. Even as their relevance waned in later years, they performed with the same urgency—watch these DVDs and you'll see how little they changed from 1975 to 1995. If the Ramones were the ultimate live band, this set is the ultimate tribute to their onstage genius. Though some of the earliest (and most interesting) material suffers from technical limitations, this double-disc set deserves shelf space in every music fan's den, apartment, dorm room, or carpeted tour van.
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