It's Alive 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition - The Ramones (Rhino)
It's better than I thought it would be. Sort of.
Once upon a time I lived in a share house with a New Order fan.
Don't you dare pity me.
Anyway, this muffin collected live tapes of New Order. Every time he got one, he'd play it. Loud.
Like I said, don't pity me. I can do that for myself.
So. I learned several things:
1) New Order were as boring live as they were in their studio outings.
2) In fact, live, New Order were repetitious as fuck. Not even a glance at a paper note on the floor and "Hello, Springfield!".
3) If you didn't agree with a New Order fan that New Order were better than life, endurance is a hard and stony road.
4) I needed to move, and never move in with a New Order fan ever again.
That said, when I started to collect live tapes of bands I was more interested in, I discovered a significant truth: not every gig sounds the same. Some bands work hard to do every gig identically (step forward, Hoodoo Gurus). Some bands work hard to do this, and can't always do it, lending a visceral reality and an aspect of human frailty to their sets. Step forward Hunters and Collectors, and The Scientists, and Bloodloss, The Lizard Train (stop me, someone, I'll be listing my favourite bands for the next two weeks...)
Okay, I'm back. Sober this time.
Really. Now, listen up. Almost everyone reading this website is an old coot. We know we can't go back to treasure that moment when the needle hit that special piece of vinyl at that precise, twisted moment in time, with such a unique perspective.
So we revisit the past, as if it's today. Which is one reason so many bands regurgitate themselves - or cause cover bands to emerge (come on, CJ and Marky Ramone's outfits are covers bands; doesn't matter how good they are. I'm glad they're doing it, and I'm glad people get to hear the songs live by people who know what they're doing. We've all seen Mach Pelican, and Kosher Salami, haven't we? Fuck, they're great fun! But.,.)
Another reason is that we're old coots, but reluctant to admit it. Me, I don't mind going out if I can. But I simply can't always do that. So, going back to treasured moments ... and living them as if it was right now... that's still special.
The first music which really made an impact on me were outfits known as the loudest in their day; my dad bought the Reader's Digest multiple-LP box set "Swing Hits" in 1970, and two years later, "The Swing Years" (both sets covered, roughly, the period 1936-1946). Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was a lot harder to get hold of old records, so these box sets were often the first time many people were able to own the records themselves instead of hearing the songs on radio - these box sets also gave a broader picture of the scene, too. Also, radio tastes had changed dramatically; by the late 1950s, swing was no longer the thing.
So was my dad an old coot? Well, put it this way, he was just like we is now, 'cept we're older than he was then. 'Ramones Alive!' was first released in 1979, and 40 years on those first few Ramones studio LPs have had the deluxe (weeps) 'it was 40 years ago today' treatment too. Releases made after, as we all know, all the original Ramones have died.
Back at my house in the early 1970s, then, swing was the thing. And it was played very loud. Little old ladies complained. Even so, while my love of big bands and jazz has stayed with me, my taste got modernised thanks to my transistor radio (I must've been what, 8? 9?) which kept me up late at night, hidden under the blankets. Just like the Ramones song, which hadn't been written yet.
By 12, thanks to a friend, I was discovering a much, much broader musical landscape than that offered by mainstream radio. This included hearing The Ramones LPs as they appeared, one part of a slowly emerging and much broader underground. I bought this live set when it was released, and it also kept me up late, headphones welded to my ears, volume up to the limit.
Now, The Barman caved in and bought the four deluxe sets of the first four Ramones studio LPs, and concluded that the package was worth it. And who, frankly, can blame him?
However, the Barman also reckons you don't need this box set as it is essentially the same as the already-released and sometimes available edition. And that there are hundreds of live tapes out there. Which there are. But this is the old 'I have it already' argument; apparently the set was never issued in the USA (a bonkers decision, if you ask me), so the US fans are going to be plenty pleased. I'm told the Barman also considers this set to be a rip-off, exploitation,even. But I bet a lot of cootish Ramones fans, and even younger fans, don't have the set (except on download LOL) so they may be interested.
After all, vinyls are so 'in' right now. One reason those Reader's Digest Swing and Jazz box sets and the current crop of excellent Cherry Red specialty compilation sets are so popular is because not everyone has everything. And at last we can have a lot of songs in a decent package.
Me? My copy of "It's Alive!" got nicked many years ago. I bought a secondhand CD which is now unplayable. I don't have the video of the gig - I've never seen it.
So, along with the remastered New Year's Eve 1977 on 2 x LPs (which
was how the original set was issued) we get 4 x CDs with three other
(untouched-up) gigs a few days earlier.
Some bands, they're good live, but the studio is where they make the magic. Other bands, they're essentially live bands, and the studio is where they flounder. The Ramones... well. It's up to you. The band had several different threads (pop v. fast rock) coursing through them, so their path wasn't straightforward. Me, after hearing this live set ... I loved both those first three LPs ... and the live one. I feel the same way about the Stranglers, by the by... those first three studio albums are fabulous, but the 'Live X-Cert' LP (and the CD extended reissue) are wonderful, giving a better, broader understanding of the band.
But let's get to the point. Why are we here?
Because The Ramones were better live than in the studio.
Sure, the studio LPs were fabulous, especially the first three. Turned a lot of people around.
But the live shows were legendary. Why? What people who've only heard the studio LPs either forget, or don't know, is that this band was built on attack. They drilled themselves like soldiers, over and over, professionally, running through the entire set without instruments backstage before they performed. Every time they played. They were, at this point in their career, at a pinnacle. Loads of bands have hit pinnacles: not every band have been fortunate enough to be recorded properly at that peak. That live experience, with the guitars basically an extension of the drums, all rippling rhythm and
stop-start-stop-start-hammer onwards, altered the way music was made for thousands of bands.
So let's listen.
The first show I play is from the Top Rank, Birmingham, 28th December 1977. Somewhere between leftover turkey and Hogmanay, it's a strange time. The rubbish collectors were still on strike (there were huge piles of garbage in the streets which lasted, on and off, until Thatcher gained power in 1979). Just like I'm 17 again, headphones on, the world is elsewhere. The gig roars and hurls itself forward like some sort of tequila'd freight train.
Several things immediately leap out. First, Johnny's guitar isn't as straightforward as you'd expect, nor as I recall from the original live set. He mixes it up, he does not keep it simple, finding space in several songs for swift stabs of skronk (and reminded me a little of how Steve Diggle sometimes does a gig where he yanks his guitar to and fro' from the expected breaks and chords and turns the sound into a brief spectral holocaust.) Makes me wonder why Johnny never made a solo LP; you can certainly hear him taking "liberties" with these "iconic" songs.
Joey's voice, and his timing, is not as seamless as it is on the original live set. Second, there's a real vulnerability to some of Joey's vocals, his occasional muffled or missed vocal; while the band are utterly on fire. More: Tommy's drums (apart from the first couple of tracks where the kick is too high in the mix) is just fantastic. What a hugely under-rated musician. He drives the band like fuel into lightning. Put it this way, if I hadn't heard the original set, I'd be damned happy with this one. It is, in a nutshell, fucking exciting.
Just thinking about it, the original live set, as I recall hearing it, was very, very seamless. Without as much emotion, nor as many fluffs and squeaks. Speaking of seams, Ed Stasium (the band's original main engineer) has deliberately hit the "stop record", and "record" buttons throughout these three gigs, presumably so as to split the songs, so we don't get that consistency I recall (again) from that original set - most songs don't quite have the ending, and a few of the beginnings.
The Stoke and Friars gigs particularly suffer with these abrupt silent clunks, but hey. These gigs were never expected to be released; they were the lead-up to the New Years Eve gig. To be frank, I prefer the Birmingham gig to the Stoke gig, but there's plenty to capture your attention.
The insert in the new box has Ed Stasium blathering on about the different sound in each of the rooms the band played in during these few sets. If that sounds a bit like he's clutching at straws to sell the set, I wouldn't disagree. I mean, he's one of those over-focused sound engineer types, isn't he? I bet you could play the bugger four bars of any given Ramones gig that he was at and he'll be able to tell you which venue it was. But - this also sounds a bit like Ed's not listened to the three gigs preceding the main event. In the Birmingham gig ... well, it's up close and personal, more than the original set.
We can hear more clearly where the band walked off and the crowd bayed for an encore, for example. We also hear how much they were fed up with English curry, for which I am not remotely surprised.
I had enough time this evening to go with one more of the four gigs; the 29th December gig was at Victoria Hall, Stoke-on-Trent (yes, there really is a place called Stoke-on-Trent (don't interrupt - and stop picking your nose). The Stoke gig is damned exciting as well. Again, you can hear Joey's altered inflections (as if he's trying out new ways to sing the same thing), his occasional fluff or bonked mic, the crowd's baying "Hey-Ho, Let's Go" at the encores (a different type of chant to the first night) - it really brings home, if you needed reminding, that a lot of punk had a terrace mentality, with large groups of men bellowing in time.
You can even hear the difference between the Birmingham and the Stoke rooms (listen to the chants in "Cretin Hop"); not that that should get you to open your wallet.
Critically, Stasium is correct when he comments: "What struck me was that because of the ambience of the clubs and the way the boys adjusted to the sound of the rooms, it doesn't sound like the same show three times."
Guitar nerds: Johnny still finds ways to twist some of his guitar away from the stark simplicity and it's a joy to hear.
Folk online have commented that the night before the New Year's Eve gig - Friar's, Aylesbury - was actually better. Can you tell from the recording? Not really. Actually, Joey seems to be altering his vocal styling even more on this night, working harder perhaps - "geek" is pronounced three different ways, though "well" in "I Wanna Be Well" still sounds like "whipped". There are more vocal fluffs than in the previous two recordings, but this adds to the immediacy of the recording - you don't really know what's coming.
According to Ed Stasium - in Everett True's "Hey Ho, Let's Go" (Omnibus Press, 2005)) - "occasionally Joey would have to stop singing because he ran out of breath or skip words because they were going so fast".
And yes, Ed, you can sort of tell the difference in the room - again, particularly during "Cretin Hop".
So. What's interesting is that you can hear mic problems in every one of these initial three gigs, and a few equipment problems. Yet the NYE gig seems utterly seamless; despite 10 rows of chairs being torn out by the roots. This is why other live LPs often use live tracks culled from different gigs.
Which brings me to the obvious query: did The Ramones embellish the original NYE gig? Looking at the list of gigs the boys did from 1977 through 1979 alone is ... well, it's terrifying. How the hell they found time to write any new songs, I cannot imagine. There are, however, a few days in early January 1978 where the LP might have found time to add a few overdubs.
And now, to the piece de resistance: the New Year's Eve gig. How's that remastering going? Is it any different to how I remember it?
The first thing is that I seem to have forgotten that even on this recording, the beginning and ends of songs are cut somewhat awkwardly - not as abruptly on the preceding gigs, but enough to surprise me this time. Shit, the things we think we remember. Must be an old coot thing.
Also, after listening to the first three discs, I realise that the mix here is somewhat smoother and... the bass isn't buried, but it ain't as prominent as the previous discs. In fact, after a quick listen back, my conclusion is that when I want my live Ramones fix, I'll be heading to the first three discs, rather than the drawcard disc here.
This is not a conclusion I expected to make.
Oh, yeah, there's a bit of wuff by Steve Albini in the insert, which I'm afraid left me cold. I would've preferred something by road manager Monte Melnick, myself. After all, he was more important to the band than Albini. Or, hell, the late Pete Shelley, or one of The Undertones. On the other hand, I'm rather glad the piece wasn't provided by Rollins. Or Bono.
In the same way that those Reader's Digest box sets gave my dad, and myself, so much pleasure, this box set spins me back, digging the same sort of joyous music I discovered so many years ago. True, there are no clarinet solos, and I have yet to play this Coot Rock to the grandchildren (or, indeed, on the gramophone)... but your decision is clear.
If you don't have the original 'It's Alive' set, it's likely that you need this. However, with the digital world what it is, you may already have four gigaflips of Ramones live gigs. If, on the other hand, you don't like The Ramones, I can put you on to a few decent Reader's Digest box sets ....
Look. The Ramones have left us, but what they achieved, without meaning to, and what they left us, is wonderful.
Even so, like me you're still an old coot. So just have another sip of your milky cocoa, lie back, shove the volume up, wait for the weird time-travel sensation ... and take it like the old buzzard you are.
What you do about the inevitable visit by the police is, of course, entirely up to you.