In the late 1970s, the airwaves and record stores offered a mix of mainstream pop, disco, and so-called classic rock with hits ranging from Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.” Some of the era’s bestselling music was good, but nearly all of it was a million miles from rock’s roots, and the new wave and punk bands that sprung up in response were having none of it. Outfits like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Talking Heads, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols opted for a much rawer, back-to-basics sound.
But nobody took rock back to basics more than the Ramones, whose concise, beat-driven tunes hit you over the head with elemental bursts of sound. There are no extended guitar solos to be found anywhere in their catalog and, as for the words, a typical lyric is the one on “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,” which consists of a few repetitions of the title followed by, “So why you wanna walk around with me?” That’s the entire lyric—unless you include the shouted “1, 2, 3, 4!” that kicks things off.
Shakespeare it ain’t. To some, in fact, it initially seemed like a joke—especially since the group favored titles like “Beat on the Brat,” “Blitzkreig Bop,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” and “I Wanna Be Sedated.” But if there was a joke, it was on anyone who has missed this music, which is as vital and irresistible as anything that issued from the punk/new wave movement. That’s why the Ramones still have a large fan base (not to mention a whole museum in Berlin devoted to their work) decades after they disbanded and years after all of them have died.
Thanks to that fan base, the band’s first four albums—Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Road to Ruin—have already reappeared as lavish, greatly expanded 40th anniversary collections. And now we have a similar treatment for It’s Alive, their 1979 concert LP, which has the distinction of being the last record to feature all of the group’s original members. Disc one of this numbered limited edition presents a remaster of that LP, which captures a gig at London’s Rainbow Theatre on New Year’s Eve in 1977, just after the release of Rocket to Russia. Three additional CDs contain previously unreleased recordings of shows performed in other U.K. cities just before the Rainbow gig, on December 28, 29, and 30. Also featured in this package are a pair of vinyl LPs that duplicate the material on the first CD.
The Ramones were always best live, and they were never better than in these four exuberant concerts, which include most of their best-known numbers—all the ones mentioned above, plus “Rockaway Beach,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” and more. Also here are blistering covers of four early rock hits that shed light on the sort of music that influenced the group: the Rivieras’ “California Sun” (1964), Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance” (1962), the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” (1963), and Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” (1958).
Things move quickly in these performances, to put it mildly. The London show crams 28 tracks into 54 minutes—and that includes applause and stage patter. (Are you listening, Guinness Book of World Records?) No number is as long as three minutes and most are considerably shorter. “Judy Is a Punk” is the shortest at one minute and 13 seconds, but quite a few other performances come close to that. In fact, only four of the 109 tracks on these CDs hit or exceed the three-minute mark, and they manage that feat only because of extended applause.
Unfortunately, the concerts in this anniversary collection have more in common than the length of their songs: the set lists are nearly identical, and so are the performances. The box delivers four versions of nearly all of its numbers, and that’s not counting the duplicated tracks on the LPs. (The exceptions are “Havana Affair” and “I Can’t Give You Anything,” which show up in two concerts, and “Judy Is a Punk,” which appears in one.) Essentially, then, you’re buying two copies (on CD and LP) of the same show, plus three more shows that are nearly identical, which may be a bit much for anyone but the most rabid Ramones fans.
That said, these performances are great—and well-equipped to start your adrenalin flowing. Having trouble waking up in the morning? This music will get you out of bed, into the shower, out of the house, and dancing down the street. If you can learn to think like a Ramone, it might even help you to do all that in less than three minutes.
Lost Bayou Ramblers, Asteur/On Va Continuer! Louisiana’s Lost Bayou Ramblers celebrate Cajun music and their own 20th anniversary with Asteur, a rollicking, hour-long live album recorded over the past few years at such famed New Orleans venues as Preservation Hall and Tipitina’s. You’re not likely to understand any of the Ramblers’ lyrics—they perform exclusively in Cajun French—but you’ll have no trouble picking up on the spirit of this well-sung, accordion- and fiddle-based program. It mixes traditional material with originals and manages to remain true to the styles promulgated by artists like Clifton Chenier while incorporating enough rock elements and high-tech embellishments to sound completely contemporary. The set comes packaged with On Va Continuer!, a DVD documentary whose bonus features include a clip of the Ramblers performing at Preservation Hall. The video does a good job of conveying the band members’ personalities as well as their commitment to their region and its music.
Janiva Magness, Change in the Weather—Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty. Cover versions should add something fresh to the original—otherwise, why bother?—and this set from soulful singer Janiva Magness delivers. The CD, which profits from excellent backup (especially by several guitarists), includes her takes on some of John Fogerty’s biggest hits with Creedence Clearwater Revival, including “Bad Moon Rising,” “Fortunate Son,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” “Lodi,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Someday Never Comes” and “Wrote a Song for Everyone.” Also here are some lesser-known tunes from Fogerty’s solo records, the best of which is probably the charming “Don’t You Wish It Was True,” where Magness duets with Taj Mahal.
Nilsson, Losst and Founnd. Pop singer Nilsson, who died of heart failure in 1994 at age 52, managed to record a lot of excellent performances in his too-short life, including a hit cover of Fred Neil’s classic “Everybody’s Talkin’” and his own “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.” Now a quarter-century later, it turns out that there was more: at the time of his death, Nilsson was working on his first new album to feature original material in 15 years, and his producer, Mark Hudson, has finally readied it for release late next month. One suspects that if Nilsson had lived to finish the record, he might have replaced a couple of the weaker tracks, but the best of this is good indeed. His own “Lullabye” is a sweet gem, and he also does well with Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow Is Falling.” The high point, though, is the self-penned “UCLA,” which melds sublime vocals, great guitar work, a ton of clever wordplay, and lyrical and musical references to Nilsson’s pals, the Beatles.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.