[16 November 2007]
A quiet night at home, the house to myself. Sitting there with nothing to do, I decide it’s finally time to watch the Ramones DVD that came in the mail. I was unsure exactly what the DVD contained, and though the bright pink box with the silver stamped Ramones logo looked promising, I was hesitant, afraid of what merchandise might slip onto store shelves with three of the band’s original members dead. My spirits lifted when I learned the title. It’s Alive, with footage from a 1977 New Year’s Eve show at London’s Rainbow Room, is the same show featured on the live album of the same name, an album that’s served me well for over a decade.
I hit play and instantly felt the air knocked out of me. With spastic cuts from Johnny to Dee Dee to Johnny to Joey to Dee Dee to Tommy to Joey to the crowd to Joey, the camera darted around the stage, visually keeping pace with the band’s 1,2,3,4! barrage of bubble gum thrash. This pre-MTV spazz-editing remained for the duration of the show, from “Rockaway Beach” to “We’re a Happy Family”, creating a dizzying, often nauseating effect.
The Ramones were not a visual band. As impressive as they looked in their leather jackets and long hair, their stage show was about endurance, keeping up the pace of song after song, rarely pausing for banter, tuning or even to catch their breath. At times, Joey Ramone looks and sounds on the edge of collapse, breathlessly slurring lyrics or skipping them altogether, the microphone stand propping up his scarecrow’s body. One can hardly blame him.
Even with the frantic editing, the film is at times visually bland, just a simple slice-of-slice performance from a band in peak form. What’s most exciting, though, is the intensity and power, the freshness that these songs have 30 years later. They tap into the reptile rock and roll brain, tingling that center of the mind that craves buzz saw guitars and metronomic beats.
When the performance is over and the band walks off stage I could breath again, my brain reeling from oxygen deprivation and filled with images of hopping cretins and beautiful girls at Burger King.
If this were the DVD’s only feature it would be worth the price of admission. Unlike the band it celebrates, this compilation is anything but stripped down.
Collected over the rest of the first disc and another is a series of live performances from throughout the band’s career, from CBGB’s to an enormous Argentinean festival. The footage varies from shaky hand-held video recordings to professional quality, but each clip confirms not only that the Ramones were one of the world’s best bands, they were one of the most beloved.
The earliest clip, from a 1974 CBGB performance, is an amazing piece of video because it captures the Ramones before they knew what they were doing. The video is bad and the performance is awkward. Joey New York Doll-strutting, falling down and hamming it up, Johnny’s wears a leopard-trimmed, wide open shirt instead of his trademark leather jacket, Tommy and Dee Dee barely seem to know what they’re doing. The crowd is tepid and, amazingly, the band is off, missing notes, getting lost and even fighting over what songs to play. Three years later, this clunky machine was well oiled and, despite any glue sniffing that may have occurred, disciplined enough to not screw up.
Like the 1974 CBGB clip, many of these clips are Zapruder-like in their quality, but also like that famous film, important for documenting the evolution of the band. The Ramones line up, their marathon stage show and set list all change throughout the course of the DVD, but that stripped bare sound is always present, even when the look isn’t.
Highlights include an awkward interview with a Swedish television host to a grainy, unlistenable performance of “Warthog” from Rhode Island where a sign language interpreter who shrugs because the only lyric she can understand is “Warthog”. (Why there was a sign language interpreter at a Ramones show is unexplained.) Most entertaining is a 1980 performance of “Rock and Roll High School” from The Sha Na Na Show with the members of Sha Na Na dressed in drag and joining the Ramones in lip-synching the song and generally acting insane.
Extras are hardly needed on a DVD this packed with material, but there are a few low-budget videos that look like they were show on the same day, as well as interview snippets that are best left alone. For an in depth look at the people in the band, check out the 2003 documentary End of the Century. It offers the same warts-and-all approach to people as this does to the band.
The story of the Ramones is steeped in the legend of punk rock, a story in which the year 1977 is a magical hero that rescued the rock and roll princess from the vicious arena rock dinosaurs that ruled the land. Now, 30 years later, three of the Ramones are dead, their songs in car commercials and the rock and roll dinosaurs have returned, armed with tribal tattoos and blonde highlights. Where are the “new Ramones” to save us? The truth is, there will be no new Ramones. The old one still works just fine. You only have to listen.