There are a handful of albums that document legendary live acts at the peak of their power: Live at Leeds by the Who; Blue Öyster Cult's On Your Feet or On Your Knees; No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith by Motörhead; Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke.
It's Alive, recorded by the Ramones at the Rainbow Theatre in London on the last evening of 1977, should be listed alongside those historic, window-rattling, heart-shaking live recordings. However, because of its limited availability (until 1995 it was available only on import) it has remained a cult classic.
That's about to change.
On Friday (Sept. 27), Rhino releases a deluxe edition of It's Alive to mark the 40th anniversary of the original live recording. The package will not only feature the previously released live album, but it will also include three additional complete Ramones shows: It turns out that producer Ed Stasium recorded the trio of performances immediately preceding the Rainbow gig in order to test microphone placement and work out technical quirks.
"Their studio records were great," remembers Stasium, who helmed six Ramones albums, including Rocket to Russia and Leave Home, "but there was nothing like a live Ramones show. England was a perfect place to do it, because the British audiences loved them and the Ramones loved to play there."
The new It's Alive features 109 tracks of Ramones magic, four complete performances that testify to the consistency and the power of the Ramones rock n' roll machine, just a month after the release of their third album, Rocket to Russia, and shortly before founding member and drummer Tommy Ramone left the legendary group. Instead of feeling repetitive, this collection reveals the intensity of the tightly wound, staccato downstroke metronome that was the Ramones during the era when they were both defining an era and making some of the most enduring music in rock n' roll history.
"The sets are similar," Stasium notes, "but they all have different levels of performance, and also the venues that they played in all had completely different sounds. The first one we did on December 28 at the Top Rank in Birmingham was a quite a small place, so the sound of that is like a tight club; and then the Victoria Hall show the next evening in Stoke-on-Trent was in a large hall, so you have the ambience of the room in there. The Friars club up in Aylesbury on the night before New Year's Eve was kind of in between those two. What struck me was that because of the ambience of the clubs and the way the boys adjusted to the sound of the rooms, it doesn't sound like the same show three times."
Monte A. Melnick, the Ramones' long-time road manager, aide de camp and soundman, says that even though he saw over 2000 Ramones shows, the Rainbow show on It's Alive was special: "That was one of the best shows they ever played. Everything went well; they sounded great, and they were together, and the venue was terrific, and the crowd was great. It also sticks out in my memory because the crowd destroyed the first ten rows of the theater there, which was amazing at the time. Everybody was freaking out — they didn't expect the mosh pit in a seated theater. It was basically a hundred percent show, in my mind."
What led to this vital piece of rock history finally getting its due?
"We managed to convince the hierarchy at Rhino that this should be done, because there'd never been a proper release of It's Alive here in the United States," says Stasium. "There was never a vinyl release, and the CD release in the '90s was very under the radar. Then we realized we had all these other shows as well that had never been listened to or mixed, so those two factors gave Rhino the impetus to actually release this thing. I think this is the best representation of The Ramones live that we're ever going to get. This is the Ramones at their peak, with Tommy on drums, the whole vibe is just fantastic."
"There's a feel that Tommy has that nobody else has," Stasium continues. "After all, he was the architect who conceptualized The Ramones, and he created that beat they had, that pure, leading beat — BOOM ba BOOM BOOM ba BOOM ba BOOM BOOM ba – that's him! Marky (Marc Bell, who replaced Tommy Erdelyi a few months after It's Alive) is a great, tight drummer, but he took what Tommy started and made it more precise."
Monte Melnick, who knew the Ramones perhaps better than anyone (an experience he documents in his book, On the Road with the Ramones), marvels at the enduring appeal of the band from Forest Hills, Queens.
"The Ramones are bigger now than when I was working for them. They just keep getting bigger. This is the thousandth time I said this, but if the Ramones were this big when I was working for them, I would've gotten a big raise."