Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996

Ramones - It's Alive 1974-1996Synopsis: Pioneers of punk the Ramones are one of the most celebrated rock acts of all time, and their place in music history is undeniable. As the quintessential garage band, the Ramones made their earsplitting mark with electrifying live concerts. This historic release — chock-full of more than hours of previously unreleased performance footage — covers it all, from early appearances at the legendary CBGB to sold-out stadiums across the globe.

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Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996 8.25

eyelights: RAMONES. the sheer amount of concert extracts.
eyesores: the poor quality of some of the footage.

Clearly, I’m an avowed Ramones fan. And yet I never got to see them live. Call me a late bloomer but, by the time I finally came around good and proper (after years of selected exposure to ‘Mania’, the compilation which, outrageously enough, was their only Gold-certified platter until recently), the band was no more – having retired in 1996.

So it’s a good thing that ‘It’s Alive 1974-1996’ exists. Released in 2007, this 2-DVD set compiles extracts from a variety of Ramones concerts and television performances over the years. Over the course of well over four hours, it shows the Ramones playing 118 songs at 33 different performances in various countries around the world.

Plus a few extras.

In all honesty, as much as I’m a fan of the band, I can only take so much of them in one sitting – they’re just too raw, too energetic. For instance, I could never listen to more than half of ‘Mania’ at once (I had the CD, not the vinyl). I also found listening to their concert CDs overwhelming, given that they were jam-packed with 30 songs or so.

So ‘It’s Alive 1974-1996’ is the perfect release for me. Since each segment is broken down by date and venue, I could watch each one leisurely without feeling like I was putting a wrench into the overall feeling (unlike, say, a full concert, or a feature film). I decided to watch them in sequence, since they were mostly put on the set in chronological order.

I figured that this would give me a sense of their growth as artists and performers.

Interestingly, the set’s namesake concert film is a 26-minute set that shows up in two places: as the main entry on the first DVD’s main menu, and also at the tail end of that DVD’s series of performances. I didn’t realize this until much later but, as luck would have it, I was having a difficult time accessing it through the main menu. So I saw it in its proper place.

It’s virtually impossible to comment on the set globally, given the variety of sources, so here are a few notes on each of them, as they appear in the main body of the programme (for a full track listing, please check here or follow this link http://www.discogs.com/Ramones-Its-Alive-1974-1996/release/2002597):

Disc 1

1. CBGB – New York, New York, USA  (September 15, 1974): This is a low budget video, in b+w and with poor audio. In it we find the Ramones at a very early stage, not quite as refined as they became with time. It’s a bit chaotic: Joey looks messed up, and they argue between the first and second song about which song to play – even though Joey’s already announced it. As far as their presence, Johnny and Dee Dee are immobile, while Joey’s always swinging his arms in the air or kicking. The intensity is there, but they don’t have the groove yet; they’re awkward between songs. But they make an impression anyway. 8.0

2. Max’s Kansas City – New York, New York, USA (April 18, 1976): Another b+w film, but this time with really fuzzy picture and poor audio. The short set starts with a traditional “1-2-3-4” and then they stop for a technical issue. Aside for that, though, their stage presence has improved; they’re more static, but more professional (for instance, Joey’s not falling all over). 7.5

3. The Club – Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (May 12, 1976): This is a colour film, shot on super 8mm. It’s very shaky, very punk. It’s just one song, but they’ve got it going on. 7.5

4. Max’s Kansas City – New York, New York, USA (October 8, 1976): Shot in colour, with a less static camera this time. Sadly, there’s some ringing in the audio portion. The band is energetic and more vibrant here. It sure looks like the previous Max show was a fluke. 7.75

5. My Father’s Place – Roslyn, New York, USA (April 13, 1977): Back to b+w. And, this time, from the back of the crowd. Not great, and the audio gets muddy at times. It’s a solid performance, though, with Johnny and Joey more into it – so it explains its inclusion here. 7.75

6. CBGB – New York, New York, USA (June 11, 1977): This is a more substantive piece, with 8 songs being performed. It’s shot in colour, from near the stage, but it looks like it’s filtered; the video has a mesh-like quality to it. The band is stellar, making up for any video idiosyncrasies: they’re bouncy, fueled by “Blitzkrieg Bop”, which is anthemic. The crowd is totally digging it: they’re hopping and dancing. This is the first time that we see Johnny doing his spins, which is a move that sometimes works, but not always. Here we find the Ramones in full swing AND, to top it off, their songs are fantastic, better than ever. Unfortunately, it’s edited: halfway through, between “Rockaway Beach” and “Cretin Hop”, Johnny loses his jacket. Damn. I hope they release a full show of this someday. 8.5

7. The Second Chance – Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA (June 26, 1977): Back to b+w and with a static camera, no less (at least in the beginning – it moves a little bit later on). But the band’s energy translates anyway. They have much improved over their early days. In particular, Johnny and Dee Dee move more. 7.75

8. The Ivanhoe Theater – Chicago, Illinois, USA (July 6, 1977): More b+w footage, with muddy audio, and from the back of the crowd. But where it’s weak from a technical standpoint, it totally makes up for it performance-wise: Joey and Dee Dee have got their moves down for “Cretin Hop”, pointing at each other as they sing “D-U-M-B”. The roadie also gives Joey a “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign to wave about at the end. Nice – just like in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School‘. However, in a weird move, the film cuts to the encore, “Suzy is a Headbanger”. 7.75

9. The Armadillo – Austin, Texas, USA (July 14, 1977 – early show): Filmed in a static shot from the back of the crowd, this b+w footage is clearly edited from a longer show because the band members dress down between edits. The audio is muddy, but despite all this the Ramones rock. 7.5

10. The Armadillo – Austin, Texas, USA (July 14, 1977 – late show): This is very similar to the above footage except that Dee Dee’s got a different shirt on. Strangely, they only played a 30-second extract of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World” (the final chorus), and then said their farewells. Due to the quality of the footage, I couldn’t tell if it was an editing issue or if the band did that on purpose. 7.5

11. Liberty Hall – Houston, Texas, USA (July 15, 1977): The b+w footage is shot on some sort of blurry camera. But the audio is better. This one starts with an intro by an MC before the band bursts into song. They kick the show into gear quite energetically. It’s a great set, except that, during “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”, Johnny has technical difficulties; they have to stop and start over. This is a show I’d have liked to see in full – they were really rocking it. 8.0

12. Liberty Hall – Houston, Texas, USA (July 16, 1977): This is at the same venue as above, but the following night. It’s a nice bookend because it ends with their set closer and a farewell. And yes, they’re still blistering – I just didn’t like these songs as much. 7.75

13. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert – Los Angeles, CA, USA (August 9, 1977): This starts with a TV host introducing them. He’s a bit bland, static, and uncool (even if he tries to be “hip”). Then the Ramones burst into the picture. It’s in colour and the stage is adorned with sparkling lights. It’s much more exciting than usual, but that’s partly due to the show’s set. Given that it’s for television, it’s professionally shot, with multiple cameras. Unfortunately, it sounded like the crowd was canned (There were people bopping at the front of the stage, so maybe it was a mix?). It looks like it was edited for ads as the footage was from different performances; the band member were suddenly wearing their jackets – instead of taking them off. Great performances though. ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ was a 90-minute show, but I don’t know if it was all just one artist each time. If so, I’d love to see the full footage of this episode. 8.25

14. The Camera Mart Stages – New York, New York, USA (September 3, 1977): I don’t know what ‘The Camera Mart Stages’ is, but it looks like a staged television performance to me: the stage is in a studio, there doesn’t appear to be an audience, there’s an insert above stage of a close up of various band members, and it’s clearly not live – it’s the studio versions, including background vocals. Intriguing. Where was this broadcast? In any event, these are energetic performances worth seeing. It’s really just the stale set that spoils it. As a side note, there are more and more visual effects used as the set goes on. It’s rudimentary, but it changes things up. 8.0

15. The Rainbow Theatre – London, England (December 31, 1977): Also known as ‘It’s Alive’, this 26-minute colour film is shot with multiple cameras and uses lots of cutting. It’s energetic, though, a proper concert. The huge crowd are all bopping along (evidently, the Brits got the Ramones). It led me to reflect that there was no other band like them then. I wonder how people first responded to this assault? Johnny has referred to this show as one of his all-time favourites, as the band at their peak. I’m glad they got it on film, then. Since it was a New Year’s show, confetti and balloons come down at end of “Pinhead” (which isn’t even the last of this 14-song set). I’d love to see the full show. 8.5

Disc 2

1. Musikladen – Bremen, Germany (September 13, 1978): This is an excerpt of an episode of this classic music TV show that ran for a couple of decades under various names. This one’s in colour, with multiple cameras. Each of the eleven songs is presented with a cursive, colour subtitle. It’s performed in front of a live studio audience, that’s sitting around small café tables. It seems so discrepant for the Ramones and, unsurprisingly, at first the audience is not that into it; they’re just watching passively. But, by the end of the second song, “Teenage Lobotomy”, they begin to cheer. For this performance, Marky has replace Tommy on drums and the band has a backdrop of their logo and name. Unlike TOTP, it’s definitely live and there’s lots of reverb on Joey. These are excellent musical performances, although the Ramones’ stage presence seems contrived, forced. 8.0

2. The Old Grey Whistle Test – London, England (September 19, 1978): Another studio performance, in colour. It’s also clearly played live because of the fury with which the band delivers these tracks. It’s too quick; it couldn’t be pre-recorded. Amusingly, it ends with a female host shaking her head (likely in disbelief), and naming the songs. 7.5

3. Top of the Pops – London, England (September 28, 1978): TOTP is infamous for their pre-recorded performances, but this one sounds live – at least Joey’s vocals, which are imperfect. It’s a strange set for them, though, and the people in the studio audience are dancing like robots. Adding to the artificiality of the moment is the mixture of real and canned clapping. Bookending the performance is a bearded and sweatered host – he’s just the hip kind of dude this band attracts, it appears. 7.5

4. Oakland, California, USA (December 28, 1978): The internet suggests that this show was actually at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. In fact, it appears that they only played in Oakland once in their whole career (2280 shows in total!), on October 27, 1979. So I’m not sure why the DVD listing says Oakland. Anyway, it’s in b+w and shot with multiple cameras. There are strange choices of focus by the camerapeople and editor, like showing Marky while Joey is singing. Otherwise, it’s a fairly professional recording. The audio is unusually clear for a live set. I’d certainly watch more. 7.75

5. Civic Center – San Francisco, California, USA (June 9, 1979): This one’s taken from an outdoor concert that looks like it’s in a parking lot. It’s hard to say because the camera is propped up across the way, on the other side of the crowd, so we don’t get much scope. Sometimes it zooms in but it’s mostly a long shot. I know the listing says “Civic Centre”, but maybe it was in the centre’s parking lot? It looks very DIY. Anyway, it’s a pretty big crowd and they seem to be digging it. It made me wonder how come their albums didn’t sell. I mean, if they could get crowds like this by 1979, what was the problem? Why didn’t they make it big? Anyway, it’s a good show but the camerawork creates a sense of disconnection from the event. 7.75

6. The Old Grey Whistle Test – London, England (January 15, 1980): Here’s another super blistering two-punch on the The Old Grey Whistle Test. The band’s in top form. They’re on a small concert stage, but there’s no audience. The crowd’s energy is missing; it’s weird watching the Ramones without people to bounce off of – and with a host beforehand. 8.25

7. Top of the Pops – London, England (January 31, 1980): This one’s hilarious. For starters, it’s a rendition of “Baby I Love You”, which was the single from ‘End of the Century’, but which is a song that Johnny absolutely loathed. Then there’s the fact that it’s performed to the original studio track, with all sorts of strings and production – but there’s only the four of them there. My, that must have been embarrassing for them to do (unsurprisingly, it’s one of their weakest deliveries of this whole collection). Add to this a cheesy set, MCs and a dorky crowd and you get extra points for the unintentional camp. 7.0

8. Sha Na Na – Los Angeles, California, USA (May 19, 1980): I didn’t know this but, Sha Na Na was not only a band, but a comedy show featuring the band. In any case, the Ramones did a cameo on their last season. It’s really goofy, kind of à la SNL. They’re on a street set in a courtyard and some of the cast dance silly and act out. It’s corny but amusing. But, you know, it features “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”, making it awesome. 8.0

9. Mandagsborsen – Stockholm, Sweden (October 26, 1981): This one finds the Ramones in front of a live studio audience that’s all seated. It doesn’t seem like the right setting for them. Plus it’s in Sweden. Did the audience know what they were in for? Were they expecting punk music? The band played “We Want the Airwaves”, a great track, but it loses some of its punch without all of the studio production. 7.75

10. TVE Musical Express – Madrid, Spain (November 17, 1981): This one is super low-def, with a very fuzzy picture quality, but the producers used multiple cameras and the editing is good. It looks like they simply shot two songs from a concert, although you can’t see or hear an audience anywhere. 7.5

11. US Festival – San Bernardino, California, USA (September 3, 1982): The US Festival was a huge outdoor event that took place over three days. Interestingly, the Ramones were second in a line-up of seven acts that day. It’s set on a large festival stage and it’s a strange crowd because they’re all blonde, tanned and dressed down for the beach. Marky says otherwise, stating in an interview that people were all dressed in leather. Bizarrely, it doesn’t even look like Marky on drums. Maybe it was and he didn’t look quite like himself, but I actually thought it was someone else. He was a couple months from being fired due to alcoholism-related issues, so i assumed this was a fill-in drummer. This 21-minute segment is shot by multiple cameras – to generic effect. By “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”, the second song, Joey’s having mic problems, so it was instrumental for a bit. I was surprised to see that the Ramones performed well and looked great at large venue as well as small. Aside for some nonsensical rambling, Joey had a great stage presence. 8.0

12. The Old Grey Whistle Test – London, England (February 26, 1985): This Old Grey Whistle Test segment is strange for a few reasons: For one, it’s in colour for the host’s segments between tracks, and then it’s in b+w for the performances. Secondly, it begins with a Dee Dee song, so Joey has nothing to do – he just twitches, holding on to his mic stand. Thirdly, each song is titled, as well as the band name and show title. I understand why they put the song, but who’d forget the band or the show? It’s not the greatest double feature, but it’s interesting to watch anyway. Notably, it’s the first of the set with Richie Ramone on drums. 7.25

13. Obras Sanitarias – Buenos Aires, Argentina (February 3, 1987): This one looks like bootleg footage, shot on video, in colour, and with muddy audio (heck, even the great songs sound bad!). Joey’s really not in shape here. Was he drunk? He isn’t as vigorous; he moves a lot, but sluggishly. There’s terrible editing between the songs and, during the last song, the camera shook as though the person carrying it started jumping along. Yikes. At least the crowd seemed to be having fun. 6.5

14. Provinssirock Festival – Seinäjoki, Finland (June 4, 1988): This is 16 minutes’ worth of footage from a nighttime outdoor festival. Marky’s back in the band by this point. It must have been cold out, because Joey’s generating smoke. No joke. After “Weasel Face”, Joey gets upsets because someone’s been throwing stuff at him. The selection of songs doesn’t gel due to the new ones; they’re good, but they just don’t blend with the older ones. To make matters worse, the band doesn’t have the same hunger and ferocity anymore. Combined with the set list, the Ramones feel like they’re on the wane here. 7.25

15. Rochester Institute of Technology – Rochester, New York, USA (October 8, 1988): This is bootleg footage shot from the side of the stage. The audio is distant, submerged in the crowd. For the second track, the camera is on the other side of the stage, and, for some inexplicable reason, is focused on some guy singing along in the gallery, alone. Sad that he’d be more interesting than the Ramones at this juncture. 5.5

16. Rolling Stone Club – Milan, Italy (March 16, 1992): This 17-minute excerpt is an Italian production with titles, …etc. It’s very professional but it seems strange for the Ramones. The stage set up is simple but very effective. On the audio side, Joey’s very present in the mix, while the rest sounds thin. This is the first piece of the set with CJ on bass. The band shows a renewed vigour, if not actual vitality. If you can imagine that, they actually played the classics faster than before. It makes up for the slower songs at least. Interestingly, Joey’s begun his “metal” phase at that point, with the super long straight hair, all black clothing, including gloves, …etc. 8.0

17. Top of the Pops – London, England (June 29, 1995): For this TOTP performance, the set was made to look like a concert. The kids look like they’re having fun, but they’re painfully white bread types – totally a Ramones crowd. By then it’s 1995 and TOTP is still doing silly lip-synching. What a weird format in that day and age. 7.75

18. Estadio Antonio V. Liverti – Buenos Aires, Argentina (March 16, 1996): This is a large nighttime festival concert, with a massive crowd. The camera work is terrible, really random. Joey seems out of breath or tired. Thankfully, CJ gives him a break and sings Motörhead’s tribute song “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.”. At this point, they were still playing the classics super fast (as evidenced by their late-period live albums). Either they were in a hurry, wanted to fit more songs into their set, or wanted to prove a point – well, intentional or not, they sure did. 8.25

Obviously, I had to watch all of this over the course of a few sittings – it’s too much for me. But I’m really glad that I finally took the time to: it totally fleshed out my impression of the band, having only seen select live excerpts before. Now I have a sense of the band’s ups and downs outside of its historical accounts. Sometimes, images speak louder than words.

What’s interesting is that the set really cements the idea that the band peaked in 1977, started to wane after 1980 and were reinvigorated in the early ’90s. This is the impression that their recorded output gives, but the live set does that as well. Was the set put together to further this impression (note the focus on 1977), or was this really how it was? I don’t know.

In any event, to top off this smorgasbord of live content, there are a few additional extras (I didn’t even think it was even possible after the amount of material found on ‘End of the Century‘, ‘Raw‘ and the updated version of ‘Lifestyles of the Ramones‘ that is found on the ‘Weird Tales of the Ramones’ boxed set, but the producers dug up 40+ minutes’ worth! Nice!).

Interviews

This 10-part section, which is taken from various sources and eras (it’s not indicated from where and when, though), lasts over 11 minutes and is pretty generic. Highlights include Joey and Dee Dee on their origins, Tommy on high school life, and Johnny on their career plans. 7.0

Extras Bonus

1. Argentina: The First Time: This is b+w footage of their first visit to Argentina. Nothing special, but the highlights are the arrival itself and an interview they gave with local media. 6.5

2. Mandagsborsen: This is an interview they gave before a performance on the TV show (presumably the same on as on DVD 2, set 9 – although this bonus is on the first DVD). It’s in English and the host translated in Swedish for the audience. Then the Ramones performed “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. 7.5

3. Sha Na Na Shenanigans: Presumably, this took place before their performance of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (on Disc 2, set 8). It’s a skit called the Creasers Feud, featuring the Sha Na Na Family vs. the Ramones. It’s feels like an intro to their performance. 7.0

 Super Rare Videos

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World): Taken from 1981’s ‘Pleasant Dreams’, an album only two mainstays and failed both critically and commercially, this was not even an official single – so why is there a video for it? It’s not even a great song: it has a Caribbean flavour underneath and it’s lightweight.

The video consists of a mix of the Ramones on playing on stage and Joey getting up in the morning, getting ready for work. There are also shots of people walking to work. It’s a really cheap video, but we’re talking 1981, here, and on a Ramones budget. 5.5/5.5

2. The KKK Took My Baby Away: This is a classic Ramones number taken from ‘Pleasant Dreams’. It has a catchy chorus, a rhythmic beat that gives it a nice vibe. Add to it some hooky harmonies and tongue-in-cheek lyrics and it’s fun. Amusingly, it was only released as a single in Benelux, of all places – probably because of its title and subject matter.

The video consists of a mix of stage performance, shots of the Ramones hanging around in a backyard next to shack, and a girl taking a road trip in a convertible. Later on, the girl gets abducted, and there’s suggested violence. Eek. It’s a such cheap video, that it even goes out of focus at one point. 8.0/6.0

3. Somebody Put Something in my Drink (Rough cut): This track is from 1986’s “Animal Boy’, while the band was struggling, and it was written by Richie – the only one on the album and the opening number. It’s considered a bit of a classic in their repertoire. I’ve always had a hard time with Joey’s “tough” vocals. Not sure what he was going for here, but it’s awkward.

The video consists of concert footage from the CJ years (1989-1996, well after Richie’s departure) and was taken from various sources – so it’s in b+w and in colour. It’s nothing special, really. 7.5/6.0

Photo Galleries

This consists of five photo galleries from various sources, including four professional photographers as well as fans. It lasts 15 minutes, with the pictures scrolling over some of the Ramones’ music. For most of it, there are no captions to situate or explain who is who or when the pictures were taken. There are a lot of them, so they whiz by, but you can always pause. 8.0

Well, given that there’s hours upon hours of material here, there’s no way that I can’t recommend ‘It’s Alive: 1974-1996’. Non-fans might find it to be too much as a first introduction to the band, and even some fans (like myself) may want to pace themselves.It’s a lot of Ramones to take in, and they’re pretty unrelenting, even at their weakest.

In any event, it’s unequivocally a terrific archival set for people who want to see the Ramones develop on stage. Frankly, I’m quite impressed with the people who produced this set, as it must have been a lot of footage to got through, edit and remaster. They did a brilliant job of it; even though most of the material is edited, this is a terrific set.

And maybe someday we’ll see unedited version of some of these shows. That would be brilliant.

Dates of viewings: September 1-13, 2015

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