The Great (Live) Albums is our new bimonthly column taking a look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
It’s Alive! The Ramones (1979, Sire)
The difference between good artists and great artists is this: good artists make what they do look hard; great artists make what they do look easy. It’s the difference between a “good” writer like Jonathan Franzen—whose complex prose seems hugely effortful—and a “great” writer like David Foster Wallace, whose no less precision-calibrated wordplay somehow seems plucked from the air with ease, so perfect and clear and lucid are its observations and descriptions.
Or look at painter Piet Mondrian, Dutch pioneer of De Stijl, whose minimalist, black-bordered multi-color squares are instantly recognizable despite their simplicity. On a technical level it’s not that hard to paint flat red-and-yellow rectangles. What is hard is painting red-and-yellow rectangles in such a way that no one would ever mistake your red-and-yellow rectangles for anyone else’s.
These two elements—A) making things look easy and B) forging a distinctive artistic vision within a limited palette—are immensely relevant when discussing the work of The Ramones, the Queens-bred punk rock godfathers who all but singlehandedly invented one of pop’s most enduring subgenres with little more than the E5 power chord and a quick “1-2-3-4!” And for the definitive Ramones primer, aspiring Judys and Sheenas need look further than the band’s 1979 Sire records release It’s Alive! featuring 28 drop-dead Ramones classics packed into one succinct 53-minute blur, at an average track length of 1:45.
“We’re The Ramones and this one’s called ‘Rockaway Beach…’” growls the otherwise cuddly-seeming Joey Ramone just before the group lurches into the band’s turbocharged sugar-bop show-opener, wrapped up in a tidy 1:54 segueing instantaneously into “Teenage Lobotomy” (1:55). There’s approximately four seconds of stage banter, followed by “Blitzkrieg Bop” (2:05), a quick joke about chicken vindaloo, “I Wanna Be Well” (2:11), “Glad to See You Go” (1:37), and “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” (1:37).
Now, I’m not going recap the entire set list here. That’s what Allmusic.com is for. The point I want to make is that the material on It’s Alive! represents the Ramones’ very best stuff, culled from the group’s eponymous 1976 debut and 1977’s Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. And while there are certainly Ramones gems post-1978’s Road to Ruin, what you hear on this album is the band at its absolute American Bicentennial peak. Rarely again would the band seem quite so lockstep, or like they were having nearly as much fun.
All the songs here are all highlights, more or less. It pretty much just boils down to what your favorite Ramones tunes are in general. Which, if I had to pick five, would be: “Havana Affair,” “Commando,” “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” “Judy is Punk,” and “Oh Oh I Love Her So.” The final track list is pulled largely from the Rainbow run’s final night, and represents (I’m guessing) a fairly complete snapshot of the typical circa-‘77 live Ramones concert experience, minus the acrid milkstink of sweaty British punks pogo-ing into each other like pub billiards.
The Ramones are an important band sonically and aesthetically, duh, but there’s one other key defining aspect to the group that I think goes under-discussed: the fact that they’re the music industry’s first 100% all-dead high profile rock band. Obviously we’ve all spent decades watching famous musicians die, prematurely or otherwise, in all sorts of different ways. It’s an inevitable phenomenon, and a trend that has noticeably accelerated within the past few years—RIP David Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty, etc.
But remarkably, apart from The Ramones—whose every original member is, as of January 2018, long(ish) gone—this mass culling of rockers has yet to fully decimate any other really, really important rock band. The Beatles are still 50% kicking. Same for The Who. Key members of The Beach Boys are still around, as are most of Led Zeppelin and all of the original Black Sabbath, improbably.
It seems odd that a band that wasn’t even part of rock’s first two decades should be the first to bury each and every one of its definitive lineup. But perhaps it’s fitting. The Ramones always carried themselves as the ultimate born losers who somehow found a way to survive—until they didn’t. But the genre they helped birth—punk—continues, undiminished, all by dint of its brilliant design: fast songs, easy to play, performed with minimal skill and maximum attitude, giving voice to the frustrations of the young and restless.
The Ramones’ songs often boiled down to a simple catalogue of stuff Joey either did or didn’t want to do. What’s greater than that?
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)