Once upon a time in a far off kingdom lived four young princes all called Ramone. Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy lived in the principality of Queens, and like all young stalwarts dreamed of performing great feats of daring-do. They decided they would take up arms in the war for the hearts and minds of the people of their fair realm and become rock and roll musicians.
Now, in the dark days of the early 1970s, rock and roll music and those who played it were committing the cardinal sin: taking themselves seriously. Instead of playing for their audiences, regressive, progressive musicians acted like the audiences should be grateful they were allowed to listen to them.
The Ramones saw this and knew it was not right. Their path was clear; they would take up the cudgel of the "less then three minute pop song" and beat the oppressive, regressive progressives roundly about the chops and send them packing. The people would rejoice and freedom would reign once again in the world of rock and roll.
The Ramones knew their battle would not be an easy one. Their road would be fraught with difficulty and they would face many challenges they could not anticipate. Drunk sound men intent on rendering their vocals incomprehensible and making their instruments sound like mud; devious bar owners who would hold back on their fair recompense; and blinkered record executives who wouldn't understand what they were listening to was only some of what they could expect to deal with. But deal with it, they did.
So it came to pass that in 1974 the four princes of punk donned their armour of black leather, ripped t-shirts, and black stove pipe jeans. They armed themselves with guitar, bass, drums, and attitude and set forth on their crusade. Over the next two decades, in concerts spanning the known world, they spread the gospel according to the Ramones: 1) There is no speed but fast, except maybe faster; 2) Why play two chords when one will do; and 3) When in doubt play louder and faster.
It seems like only yesterday you couldn't turn around without seeing a Ramone clone. Those young men and women slavishly adhered to the dress code espoused by their heroes as a mark of their devotion to the tenets of the band could be seen on the streets of every major city in North America. But those days are past and until recently all we had were our memories and CDs to remind us of the days when punk was young and fun.
Those of us who wish to recapture some of those moments of glory, and those who may have missed out on the power and, dare I say it, beauty of the Ramones in full throttle with overdrive, finally have the opportunity. Rhino Home Video in conjunction with The Ramones have released a new two disc DVD set Ramones: It's Alive 1974 –1996 commemorating those years of mayhem.
From their earliest days at CBGB's to stadiums in Argentina and stops in between, the two discs of this set provide an amazing record of the band's performance history. Dubious sound and picture quality notwithstanding on some of the early tracks, the atmosphere is more than enough compensation. How much footage is there of any band playing CBGB's in 1974 let alone the Ramones at that early stage of their career?
The first five chapters on disc one are really no more than historical archives. So bad are the sound and video quality, they are almost impossible to watch or listen too. (Ironically of the five, the first gig at CBGB's from 1974 is the best of the lot) It's not until chapter six, eight songs recorded at CBGB's in 1977 are we able to see the band, as they deserve to be seen.
Not only that, those eight songs are also probably some of their best known; "Blitzkrieg Bop", "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker", "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue", and "Rockaway Beach" are four tracks that show the band at their finest, minimalist selves. "Blitzkrieg Bop" is a full frontal, rock and roll assault that takes no prisoners, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" and "Rockaway Beach" are pure nonsense, pop fun, and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" is summed up by the title – don't you think?
Of course, in as long and checkered career as the Ramones have enjoyed, there are bound to be some bizarre anomalies in their concert history. For me the biggest of these, as represented on these discs, are both from television appearances. Disc one's moment from the twilight zone was their appearance in 1977 on Don Kirshners' Rock Concert. The contrast between Kirshner's complete lack of vocal expression, the zombies in his studio audience, and the Ramones having a pulse, couldn't have made it more obvious that Kirshner was part of what the Ramones were rebelling against.
Disc two's moment from television's land of truth being stranger than fiction was their appearance on the musical – variety show Sha Na Na, hosted by the band of the same name. Sha Na Na had always been a bit of a parody band, who can forget their star turn at Woodstock, and by the time of this filming in 1980, the joke had worn thin. The Ramones sharing the stage with these pseudo-greasers almost made the Kirshner appearance look normal.
But those two spots were all part of the Ramones experience, and this collection is nothing if not exhaustive and all-inclusive. Where possible the producers have brought the sound quality up to 5.1 digital surround sound and done their best to restore the poorer quality footage into something that's at the very least a valuable historical record.
Even though the Ramones may never have broken through to mass audiences, they changed the face of popular music when it desperately needed a face-lift. Preceding the Punks in England by a couple of years their influence can't be dismissed. Ramones: It's Alive 1974-1996 is a wonderful documentation of their performance history, and anybody who claims to have a passion for rock and roll needs to own this record of the seminal punk band of the early 1970s.
The Ramones were the first champions to take up arms in the name of rock and roll's soul, and for that they deserve a place on the honour roll of music history. The fact that their music was a hell of a lot of fun just makes it that much more appropriate.
(Originally posted October 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.