The live album in the 70s was a real statement. Especially when it was a double, and the artist in question was hard rock. Think of Kiss' Alive and Alive 2, Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent. For some artists, a double live album brought a long career into the sharp focus of now: Thin Lizzy’s Live & Dangerous included tracks from the band’s last few albums and ignored anything earlier, including their first hit, as a statement of where they were now at. For others, like Kiss and the Blue Oyster Cult, bands who’d struggled with radio play and album sales but who’d made a name for themselves in the live arena, the live album served to relaunch their best material into the market with new recordings that captured them in their favoured environment, in the hope that those hysteria-producing live performances would finally translate to album sales.
For the Ramones and/or their management; however, the concept of a double-live LP seemed something of an afterthought. Recorded at the end of 1977, not released until mid-1979, and then not even released in the US, the Ramones’ first and best live album It’s Alive was a tragic waste of potential. The Ramones weren’t a straight hard-rock band of course, but they certainly had the potential to appeal to hard rock fans, as was confirmed 10-15 years later, when everyone from Motorhead and Metallica to Kiss and Guns N’ Roses were singing their praises. By late 1977, they had released three studio albums, which was as many as Kiss had released when they put together Alive. They had had some chart success in the UK, where they had provided a catalyst and focus for the nascent punk movement, and they were a popular live act in the States whose records had received much attention and sold respectable numbers. Even if they hadn’t yet had a ‘Rock’n’Roll All Night” or “The Boys Are Back In Town”, they were much loved, and the music scene, in general, was turning in their favour.
It’s Alive could’ve been the Ramones’ big moment but it was never given a chance. Which was a tragedy, because, as I’m about to argue, it’s the most excellent live album of them all...
Indulge me while I explain where I’m coming from... It’s Alive was the first Ramones record I ever heard, and hearing it for the first time was most unforgettable rock’n’roll experience of my life. I was 13, going on 14. My musical love was Kiss, who had replaced Ol ’55 as my #1. I’d read about the Ramones, and they sounded cool – loud guitars, like Kiss; and songs inspired by early rock’n’roll, like Ol ’55. I loved the look – leather jackets, torn jeans. They looked geeky and awkward, but wild and dangerous – which is, of course, what every geeky and awkward kid wants to be.
I can still remember the time, after school at Doncaster Shopping Town, headphones on at the Brashs store, where I’d spotted It’s Alive in the racks and asked the girls behind the counter if I could have a listen to it.
The album starts with a loud chord from Johnny, then Joey – ‘Hey, we’re the Ramones, this one’s called Rockaway Beach...’. Dee Dee barks’ 1-2-3-4’ and it begins. I reckon the hair on my head must’ve stood up – “Rockaway Beach” came on like an electric shock. Pure energy, an irresistible beat, the most insistently catchy tune ever. The greatest guitar sound ever. The greatest sound ever. “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” came next. Fast and furious. The most magnificent 3-song beginning to any record ever.
I can still remember the particular sound of the record through those Brashs headphones. It sounded different then than how I would come to know it; the shock of the new was absolute. Actually, that might not be true: it was the sound I think I’d always wanted to hear, even though I didn’t know what it sounded like or if it existed. But it was a sound that meant more to me than anything before or since. And they had it turned up nice and loud too – whoever that Brashs’ girl was, she served up the Ramones for me just right.
I doubt whether I was conscious of it at the time, but in hindsight it’s apparent, and it’s probably why my ears and brain were so primed for it: the Ramones of It’s Alive is the Kiss of Alive 2 sped up, turned up, and cracked out so tightly that every downstroke of guitar and bass and every beat of drum is perfectly in time. And with every song as memorable as “Rock’n’Roll All Night” or “Shout It Out Loud”. Naysayers have always said that the Ramones weren’t great musicians – well let me tell ya, the Ramones mightn’t have been virtuosos, but on It’s Alive they play like the most finely tuned muscle car you can imagine. That fine-tuning enhanced their power no end. I had never heard anything like it, and I now believe categorically that there never had been anything like it. Johnny Ramone later claimed Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” was an influence, but even that downstroke of Jimmy Page genius sounds flat next what’s on offer here.
If Johnny Ramone’s fast right hand could make Jimmy Page – let alone Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley - sound positively arthritic, then the Ramones as songwriters and as a group made anyone else still influenced by old rock’n’roll sounded decidedly square. The Ramones took all the cool bits of 50s and early 60s rock’n’roll and left all the cheesy bits and syrup behind. They were a Jordanaires free-zone; pure rock’n’roll, piano-free and stripped of schmaltz. Kiss meets Ol ’55, streamlined and turbo-charged. Pure rock’n’roll in a way that none of the hard-rock bands of the time – so caught up in histrionics and macho posing and their tedious “musicianship” – had any concept of.
Progressive and reactionary at the same time, the Ramones found a new way to recapture the joy, excitement and danger of the world-changing force that rock’n’roll had been in the mid-50s, and again in the early-to-mid 60s when the Beatles brought it all back. It was no coincidence that the band formed 20 years after Elvis made his first records for Sun, or 10 years after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. It took them a couple of years to get a record out, and they never had the success of Elvis or the Beatles, but they did change music forever.
It’s Alive surprisingly doesn’t rate much of mention these days. Live albums just don’t mean what they did at the time. And It’s Alive wasn’t the career-defining moment that Alive was for Kiss, or Budokan was for Cheap Trick. Although it did come at the same career point – three studio albums in. And as I mentioned, It’s Alive wasn’t even released in the US, just Europe. And Australia, of course. The Ramones may as well have been from Mars as far as so much of America was concerned. And this was the album that could have turned heads their way.
Forgotten it may be, but It’s Alive remains the Ramones defining moment. Those first three albums – Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia – are the ones that the fans and the critics love. And they’re GREAT records. But they’re not It’s Alive, and I don’t think there’s a song on any of those three albums – and 28 of the combined 42 tunes on those three albums also appear on the live album – that doesn’t sound better on It’s Alive. The first album is a bit monochromatic and slow by comparison. Of course, it was the gamechanger in 1976, and it features “53rd & 3rd”, which the live album does not. Rocket To Russia is the Ramones’ great pop album and includes the likes of “Locket Love” and “Ramona” which aren’t on the live album, but it’s a bit toned down sonically. Leave Home is closest in its balance of colour, volume and power, and it has the wonderful “Swallow My Pride”, but It’s Alive is definitive. The sound of the band, and the sound of the recording could not be bettered. And every track is incredible: how a group could have such consistently great songs as the Ramones did in their early years is beyond me. It was unprecedented, and never to be repeated.
It’s Alive plays like a dream.
It’s Alive was a significant punctuation mark in the Ramones’ life-span, albeit an out of place one. Drummer Tommy had already quit by the time it was released; indeed the band had already released its fourth studio album, Road To Ruin with new drummer Marky, by the time It’s Alive came out. And Road to Ruin was a departure, sometimes harder, sometimes not really Ramones-like at all. Those first three LP’s had a cohesion – they never sounded like anything other than the Ramones, even when the band was covering oldies like “Do You Wanna Dance” and “Let’s Dance” – and it’s the elements that are presented so cohesively on those records that laid the foundation – and provided the songbook - upon which the band’s legacy lies. Only a handful of later songs – “I Wanna Be Sedated” and maybe a couple of things like “The KKK Took My Baby Away” and “Poison Heart”, which became familiar to new fans via later compilations – have had anything like the impact of virtually all the 28 songs on It’s Alive.
If you only own one Ramones album, make It’s Alive the one. The band’s prime years condensed into four sides of never-bettered ballistic energy. 28 songs that will knock your socks off and leave holes in your jeans.
The 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of It's Alive is set for release on September 20. Produced in a limited and numbered edition of 8,000 copies, the 4CD/2LP 180-gram vinyl set comes packaged in a 12 x 12 hardcover book. It’s accompanied by new liner notes written by legendary record producer and musician Steve Albini and Ed Stasium, who produced and engineered It’s Alive and remastered all of the music included in this collection. This will be the first time that It’s Alive has been released on vinyl in the U.S. In addition, the set will be available through digital and streaming services. Pre-order it here.
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