Sunday, January 20, 2008

How the Ramones Changed the World
Tracing the roots of punk rock is a popular pastime among rock critics and genealogists. The usual proto-punk suspects—MC5, the Seeds, Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith—are invariably cited. I could go on, but it would be fruitless. We’d end up breaking it down to my favorite obscure garage band when I was a kid, and you’d counter with these guys you knew who were smoking everyone at the time—at least on your block. And finally, we’d have to grudgingly admit to each other that that wasn’t really punk, but it sure as hell influenced it. And we’d both be right, no matter how we knew in our individual heart of hearts that you were wrong and I was right, or vice versa.

None of it really matters. Punk is one of those languages that have existed since our prehistoric ancestors first banged sticks on skulls. It’s the stuff of anarchy, sure, but it’s a tribal anarchy that only found sputtered voices here and there through the years—a stuttered lyric here, a buzzsaw chord there—before those voices opted to pursue loftier ambitions. If not that, the anger consumed them, and they left this world too soon. That’s how rock and roll tosses the dice.

Still, there has to be that one moment where something coalesces, and it can be defined, as anti-punk as that may sound. It happened in 1974 in Queens, New York, and it was called the Ramones. Once Jeffrey Hymans, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin and Thomas Erdelyi transformed into Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone, they unwittingly transformed rock and roll forever. They put rock back into its adolescent roots—Joey couldn’t play drums and sing at the same time, Dee Dee couldn’t play bass and sing at the same time, and Tommy, who was the band’s manager, had to resort to doubling as the band’s drummer once nobody who auditioned for the gig could get the chops down the way the band wanted. Joey ended up being the singer, Dee Dee stuck to playing bass and Johnny continued to play guitar.

That’s how the revolution began. At a time when rock had become bloated and complacent to the point it couldn’t even recognize itself, the Ramones performed an intervention. Playing loud, fast and hard, they bitch slapped the rock establishment from its somnambulistic stupor. The Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996 documents the evolution—if you can call it that—from their earliest shows at CBGB in 1974 to one of their last stadium performances, at the River Plate Stadium in Argentina. In those 22 years, they never veered from rock’s primal instinct. They kept it short, they kept it simple and somehow, they kept it relevant. And in all those years, nothing really changed about the Ramones. There were minor personnel changes—Tommy relinquished the drums to Marky in 1978, followed briefly by Richie, while Marky went through rehab before returning to the band in 1987. CJ replaced Dee Dee on bass in 1989, even though the latter continued to contribute songs until the band’s dissolution in 1996.

The Ramones never scored a top 40 hit in America, although they fared a bit better in the British charts. Their legend lies rooted in their live performances—all 2263 of them. It’s Alive highlights some of their more noteworthy (and notorious) performances. Think of them as snapshots in a scrapbook—you won’t find any complete concerts on this package. That’s not a bad thing, either. Ramones concerts were short, particularly in the early days, when they rarely lasted more than thirty minutes. What you do get here are sketches that offer a perspective of the band that a polished documentary could never provide. There are nuggets here—band members arguing between songs, ancient Super-8 videos of their earliest CBGB performances, an extended clip of the legendary 1977 Rainbow concert in London. There are also embarrassing moments—slickly produced TV appearances on Top of the Pops, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, even a cameo on the short-lived Sha Naa Naa variety TV series.

At over four hours in length, It’s Alive lives up to its billing as “the ultimate double live DVD.” There is no narration of any sort—only performances separated by simple title cards to give a reference point. The one truth that emerges as a result is the Ramones were the first—and I mean the first punk band. When they played London’s Roundhouse 4 July 1976, they fired the shot heard ‘round the world, and ignited the British punk movement, inspiring future members of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. And all through their career, the Ramones kept the spirit of punk alive. It’s Alive appropriately honors the Ramones through its minimalistic approach. It’s presented in 5.1 Dolby, with a 2.0 Stereo option. Extra features are kept to a minimum, consisting of interview snippets, “rare” videos and various filler flotsam.

Mostly, though, it’s about the music that, no matter how you spin it, altered the face of pop culture forever. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee have passed on. Tommy is more or less gone, too, though he’s resurrected himself as bluegrass artist Uncle Buck. It’s Alive reminds us that rock was never meant to be pompous or bloated. It was, and is, the voice of the malcontent in all of us. The Ramones weren’t looking for a revolution-- they just wanted relief from the ennui that the rock establishment had come to worship. It’s Alive shows how the Ramones shook that temple to its foundations.

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