The Ramones are finished. Over. Unlike their peers from the 1970's, there will be no reunion tours. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee have passed on. That's three out of the four original members. Tommy's playing with Uncle Monk, a bluegrass duo bringing full-circle the original mission statement of CBGB's. Marky's in and out of the Misfits. Ritchie's now brought up a lawsuit for royalties and CJ's apparently now either finishing the long-in-the-works Bad Chopper album or working in a lumberyard, depending on who you believe.
Since the band's final show on August 6th, 1996, show number 2,263, there has been more than a plethora of posthumous releases. Some good, like the brilliant End of the Century documentary and some not so good (Greatest Hits Live, anyone?). At the forefront of pretty much the only post-Ramones releases has been Rhino Records, providing us with the Hey! Ho! Let's Go! Anthology and the beautifully packaged Weird Tales of the Ramones box set. Both redundant releases in that most fans would have the majority if not all of the songs included, but nonetheless made them an almost essential purchase. Lest we forget, Rhino is also responsible for reissuing the first eight albums with bonus and rare tracks galore. For those unfortunate bastards who had the first run CD's, you know how brutal the transfer was.
So now here we are. Over eleven years after the final show was played and Rhino has given us (and I do not use this term loosely), the definitive live encapsulation of a band that began a movement, watched others get or take credit and become more successful, and yet keep on plugging away for over twenty years never really truly getting the success they deserved.
This two DVD set starts us at the beginning - where it all began. At CBGB's in the Bowery. The year was 1974, and a new band called the Ramones were playing one of their first sets. To call it "raw" would be the understatement of the year, but nonetheless, the potential was there for all to see. Cut to the next set of songs at Max's Kansas City two years later and the potential has now been replaced with growth and confidence. It's Alive 1974-1996 was done in a chronological order to great effect. Through it all you see a band change from nobodies to somebodies to legends. Even in their later years, they do it all without ever resting on their laurels or riding the coattails of their infamy.
The first disc covers the years of the original line-up from 1974 through 1977, long considered by purists to be the only "real" or quintessential era of the Ramones culminating with the full fourteen song It's Alive set from the Rainbow in London. Disc two covers the later years, the change of drummers (though sadly, no footage of Clem Burke as "Elvis Ramone") and the change of bassists as well. This second disc can be found more of the fun one-offs. This includes classic appearances on Top of the Pops, Sha Na Na and The Old Grey Whistle Test. While the first disc showcases more of the familiar songs we all came to know and love throughout the years, the second disc is more of a treat for fans with the inclusion of songs not normally seen in a typical Ramones setlist but classics nonetheless, such as "Garden of Serenity," "Crummy Stuff," and "Weasel Face." A particular highlight is footage from the Provinssirock Festival, in Finland, 1988 - finding the band in sublime form and a particularly animated Joey Ramone just killing it all. Also, one of Dee Dee's final shows before leaving to pursue (don't laugh) a rap career. Okay, you can laugh. And once you've heard delicious ditties like "Commotion in the Ocean" and "Mashed Potato Time," you'll find it hard to stop. Another funny (albeit, most likely unintentionally) clip is from Rochester Institute of Technology, where it would appear that at stage right is someone hired to translate the show to sign language for the audience. The perplexed-turned-into-frustrated body language says it all as the poor bastard attempts to sign the lyrics to "Warthog."
If there's one criticism that can be said, it would be that there wasn't quite enough of the final years for my liking, surely there was some footage of the Loco Live shows that could have been included - a tremendous show for CJ, the most underrated Ramone of all. After all - the man stepped into an impossible situation - filling the shoes of the most famous/infamous bassist in punk rock history. What's that? Sid who, you cry? Check your history, my friend - Dee Dee was the man Vicious always tried to be, but just couldn't do it. CJ came in and gave the band another few years of quality music, doing it with effortless attitude and integrity and really getting little in return. Easily one of the most thankless replacements in music history.
This is an essential, and I mean essential purchase for fans of the band, and a great primer for those who wish to dabble but be forewarned - this isn't a "concert video" with production values and whatnot. A lot of footage would be considered to be "bootleg" quality, but for a bunch of punks from Forest Hills, Queens, who could expect more?
Editor's Note: Rochester Institute of Technology is home to The National Technical Institute for the Deaf and has one of the largest populations of deaf students among its student body. This should put the mention of the footage into context. Still, signing the word for "warthog" is probably a funny thing to watch.
Reviewer's Note to Editor's Note: Unfortunately, I did not know that fact about the institute at the time of writing - as such, I would imagine that it would indeed be standard practice to include such a person translating into sign language at any show on campus. The mention was not in any way a slight against the hearing impaired, but stated only for the fact that the tempo of the song coupled with the incomprehensible delivery of the lyrics (provided by a no-doubt inebriated Dee Dee) probably had this poor translator ready to hand in his resignation shortly after completion of the show.