Fast and furious – that was the modus operandi of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy Ramone when they hit U.K. concert stages in December 1977 in the wake of the November release of their third studio album, Rocket to Russia. The New Year’s Eve gig at London’s Rainbow Theatre provided the basis of It’s Alive, issued in April 1979, with 28 songs comfortably packed onto less than 54 minutes of vinyl. Now, that singular document of the Ramones’ electrifying performance has been revisited by Sire and Rhino on a new 4-CD/1-LP box set. The 40th anniversary edition of It’s Alive presents the remastered, original album plus the remaining three concerts that were professionally recorded during the band’s December tour of the U.K., three of which are making their first release anywhere: Top Rank, Birmingham (December 28, 1977); Victoria Hall, Stoke-On-Trent (December 29, 1977); and Friars, Aylesbury (December 30, 1977). The original It’s Alive is also pressed on two 180-gram vinyl platters, marking its U.S. vinyl debut.
The four concerts back-to-back are a jolt of pure adrenaline and gleeful punk furor…there’s nothing subtle here. The band drew upon all three of their albums, with “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy Is a Punk,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “Havana Affair,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,” “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” “Chainsaw,” “Listen to My Heart,” and the cover of Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance” all reprised from 1976’s Ramones. 1977’s Leave Home yielded “Glad to See You Go,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” “Suzy Is a Headbanger,” “Pinhead,” “I Wanna Be a Good Boy,” “Commando,” “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl,” and The Rivieras’ “California Sun.” From their most recent album, the Ramones played “Cretin Hop,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” (which had also appeared on the second pressing of Leave Home), “Rockaway Beach,” “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” “I Don’t Care,” “We’re a Happy Family,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “I Wanna Be Well,” “I Can’t Give You Anything,” and spirited covers of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” and The Trashmen’s papa-oom-mow-mow-ing “Surfin’ Bird.”
The setlist of the Rainbow show heard on the original It’s Alive is nearly identical to that of the other three shows, though the Rainbow audience heard 28 songs vs. the 27 from the other gigs. The Birmingham and Staffordshire shows lack “Havana Affair” and “Judy Is a Punk” but add “I Can’t Give You Anything.” Buckinghamshire has “Havana Affair,” but not “Judy Is a Punk.”
The Ramones were remarkably consistent throughout the four shows, too, with high energy levels and palpable joie de vivre as they ripped through their primal yet poppy punk rockers. Their simplistic yet undeniably catchy, ’60s-influenced melodies played at high speed, combined with the irreverent yet envelope-pushing, Mad-inspired lyrics, left no barrier between the band and audience. Tearing through the material with white-hot intensity at a rapid-fire pace, they left no breathing room in the setlist.
The growled patter is a treat throughout, offering occasional respites from the wall-to-wall songs, some of which segue directly from one to the next. Whereas the Ramones’ studio LPs had some overdubs, producers Tommy Ramone and Ed Stasium let the Rainbow concert speak for itself on It’s Alive in all its blazing, unvarnished glory. The same goes for the other three shows here, all of which have been newly mixed by Stasium with as much clarity as can be given to a four-person punk band with just guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Sure, part of the appeal of the Ramones was their lack of pretension and sophistication – their effortless, stripped-down approach was accessible enough to kids listening, and abrasive enough to alienate the adults in the room – but there’s no doubt upon listening to this quartet of shows that they were a seasoned live band. They exploded pop music from the inside out, taking the audience along for the nonstop ride in true rock-and-roll spirit.
Sadly, It’s Alive proved to be the final album from the original Ramones line-up. As of 1978’s Road to Ruin, Tommy had left the performing group to concentrate on production duties, and Marc Bell a.k.a. Marky Ramone had joined in his place. 1980’s End of the Century would see this line-up go far out of their comfort zone as they teamed with producer Phil Spector and emphasized the melodic pop sounds that had always existed at the core of their songs, however goofily outré the lyrics might have been and however quickly the songs might have been played.
Rhino’s expanded edition of It’s Alive, produced by Ed Stasium and Bill Inglot, is a definitive document of one of rock’s great live albums. It’s housed in the same 12 x 12 hardcover book-style format as the deluxe 40th anniversary reissues of the band’s first four studio LPs. The 16-page oversized booklet has liner notes by Steve Albini and Ed Stasium, with the latter recounting some of his wild adventures with the band on the U.K. tour. (Hint: Elton John shows up!) The superb remastering has been handled by Greg Calbi with Steve Fallone and Jay Franco.
In an era of extremes where the Ramones have become rather “safe” – hell, even The Beach Boys’ Mike Love covered “Rockaway Beach” with no irony on his latest album, a fact that would likely have tickled Joey Ramone immensely – the 40th anniversary edition of It’s Alive is a potent reminder of just how powerful the band could be. Hey, ho, let’s go!