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Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
by Jim Steel
The Ramones always wanted to be known as a singles band but history decreed that they were to be measured by their albums. Their live shows, especially in the early days, were also the stuff of legend.
But we’re not going to look at any of them. Let’s face it, with all of the classic frontline on the other side the only way you’ll get to see them now is on the screen. The choice is wide. Some are worthy and some are less so. Let’s see what’s out there.
First up is Rock’n’Roll High School, their sixties school rebellion pastiche. Regarded as a bit of a wrong step at the time since their contemporaries were pushing into hard core or post punk, this is now rightfully viewed as a landmark. It’s a Roger Corman quickie, so right away you know you’re guaranteed fast entertainment and accidental art. Corman had originally wanted to make Disco High School but was persuaded that this would be a foolish thing indeed. Cheap Trick was one of the bands they looked at before settling on the Ramones who were big fans of Corman’s oeuvre and would have had no illusions about what they were getting into. It’s a witty, cheeky teenage rebellion film that works on its own level but, since we’re dealing with the Ramones, we’ll look at their contribution. They’re no great shakes as actors but that just adds to the charm. End of the Century lays bare the reasons for their acting styles, but we’re jumping ahead of ourselves. Let’s just say that Johnny was the only one who was naturally wooden and leave it at that. At the time of the film the Ramones had just come off four killer albums and new guy Marky was well established as their drummer. They were at the top of their game. The plot of the film is pretty basic – high school student Biff (a superb P.J. Soles) is trying to get to a Ramones concert but the Fascistic head, Mary Worovitch, is determined to prevent her. The Ramones don’t make an appearance until well into the film but it is a spectacular one. In a ...um... homage to the Monkees, they arrive on the open-top Ramonesmobile playing ‘I Just Wanna Have Something to Do’ which was one of the most cynical songs that they had ever written. They arrive at the theatre and march past the queue of fans and inside the theatre, still playing. This obviously presents a challenge for Marky, but he’s a trooper. There’s a dream sequence where the band serenade Biff in her bedroom and the only way they could squeeze Marky into that one was to have Biff look out her window and see him playing his kit on the lawn. In the dark. The live concert is a delight – the production crew put a shout-out to the LA punks and they arrived in droves. The Ramones re-recorded the set to get a cleaner sound but apart from that, and the comedy plot shenanigans running throughout the twenty-minute set, it’s a pretty good recreation of a Ramones gig. Would it be a spoiler to state that the kids overrun the school at the climax and the Ramones show up to demonstrate their support and play some more numbers? Nah. You can guess the way this is going – it’s note-perfect.
One of the reasons for the rock film was in order that fans could see their heroes. Never mind Youtube: this was in the days before MTV. But only just. Arguably the Ramones’ best years were already all behind them by the time that the whole music video thing got its over-directed arse into lumbering momentum, but it’s not an argument that this scribe ascribes to. The Ramones took to the medium pretty happily. Their music videos are collected on Lifestyles of the Ramones and More!, a DVD that came with Weird Tales of The Ramones, which was itself a triple CD compilation that was a hardback Ramones comic book. It could take several guesses before you found the right section in the store, but it’s only the DVD that concerns us here, though. It appears to originally have been a one-off television show with little clips from band members and some famous fans linking the videos in chronological order. First up is the video for ‘Rock’n’Roll High School’ which, song apart, has nothing to do with the Corman opus. It’s set in a classroom with da brudders as the pupils and is hilarious, as are plenty of the other videos. ‘Something To Believe In’, a heart-achingly beautiful song, is sabotaged by a hilarious pastiche of the contemporaneous ‘We Are The World’ – here called RamonesAid. Mercifully, the highly-disturbing video for ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’ is the only obvious absentee. The film was put together in the early nineties and the band’s videos that post-date the production are included as extras. Look out for characters such as Lux Interior and Lemmy amongst the lunacy.
Ramones Raw is a collection of television footage and home (or tour, rather) recordings from Marky Ramone’s own archive. Tommy and Ritchie, the other drummers, are completely absent from this documentary which gives it a lop-sided, revisionist feel. The band is portrayed as a bunch of fun-loving loons and much of the tour footage is not the kind of stuff you’d sit through twice. The televised performances have since been released in better quality elsewhere. However, there is one bonus item that makes this an essential purchase. It’s a 1980 open-air concert that was filmed for Italian television. There’s some footage shot on the bus as the band makes their way through Rome and that’s followed by a run-through of ‘Cretin Hop’ during the sound-check. Then the concert itself. The atmosphere is electric as they take the stage after nightfall and they turn in a storming set. This is a band at the peak of their power and this is the best you’ll ever see the Marky-Dee Dee line-up. Truly awesome.
The whole happy-family shtick was demolished soon afterwards when End of the Century was finally released. This documentary was jinxed in the making; Joey died just a week after finally agreeing to take part (quite a few of the other interviewees have passed away since then), and since it never occurred to the filmmakers to obtain permission to use the songs, lawyers have ensured that they have been unable to make any money from a project that ate years of their lives. But, against the odds, the film is a masterpiece. Joey and Johnny did not speak to each other and hadn’t spoken since the early eighties when Johnny had stolen and married the love of Joey’s life. Joey’s severe OCD probably was no help in coming to terms with this, but a code of silence meant that, throughout the remaining lifetime of the band, no-one spoke of this to outsiders. Joey wasn’t the only one with problems. Johnny was, by all accounts, a real shit and very right-wing into the bargain; Dee Dee had severe substance abuse problems; Marky was originally sacked because of alcoholism; Tommy had a nervous breakdown and quit; and so on. There’s no denying that it’s dark, but it’s also hilarious as it winds its Spinal-Tap-ish way through the band’s adventures. The thousand-yard stare of the road manager speaks volumes. This is the film you show to someone who’s not a Ramones fan.
Shortly after End of the Century finally came out, Ramones – The True Story appeared. Sticking “At last – the true story of the Ramones” on the case suggests the packagers were probably hoping that fans would mistake it for End of the Century and pick this up by mistake. Hopes weren’t high. However, it’s a little gem of a doc; If Raw was Marky’s take on da brudders then The True Story is Tommy’s. This documentary pretty much stops after the first three albums (when he left ). Monte Melnick, the road manager, also reappears here as do several of the others (but no other Ramones – Tommy is the only survivor from this time). There are occasional references to End of the Century with comments such as “Did I really say that? Well...”. Surprisingly good but thoroughly redundant, this DVD can sometimes be found as part of Punk Icons, a triple pack which also contains weak Pistols and Clash docs.
One to avoid is The Ramones’ Pleasant Dreams. No one connected with the band was connected with this film and it looks as if it has been assembled from the Classic Rock editor’s phonebook. All of the commentators are British or Irish but there are no Joe Strummers here. Some of them are seriously out of their depth and some of their facts aren’t exactly factual. Let’s put it this way; the other bands in the series include Sabbath, Zepplin, the Stones, Deep Purple and the Beatles. And the USP of this documentary? Why, it’s all about the Ramones’ best album! Uh... no. Their first four are perfect. Their fifth, the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century (not to be confused with the film) was their best selling album. All five therefore have a valid case, one way or another, for being considered their best. They would go on to create another eight albums after Pleasant Dreams, many with flaws, but a very good case could be made for considering it to be their worst. The personality clashes already mentioned had kicked in by this time and the song-writing was no longer a communal activity. There are some gems, but much of it is far below their usual standards. And, as the band was still trying to break the US charts, a name producer – Graham Gouldman - was again used to give the material a gloss. The Ramones were not 10cc and the resulting sound was far too thin and smooth. Why am I writing about the album instead of the DVD? Well, despite all of its faults, I can still sit through the album in its entirety and enjoy it. I’ve never been able to get through this DVD more than once.
There are, as you can imagine, quite a few live DVDs out there. The earliest is Blank Generation, a 1976 compilation film by noted New York underground film-maker Amos Poe. Poe filmed a dozen or so of the up-and-coming New York acts in black-and-white super-8 and dubbed the silent footage with the bands’ demos. The result doesn’t really sync up but it does have a certain charm. Amongst the legends such as Television and Talking Heads there are the also-rans such as the Marbles and the Miamis. The Ramones’ ten-minute set contains footage that you won’t see elsewhere in the DVDs reviewed here, and there’s also a Wayne County set featuring Marky ‘Ramone’ Bell on drums.
The ultimate – and purest - expression of the Ramones is to be found in the It’s Alive double-disc set. It seems to have most of their performances that were professionally filmed on stage or television as well as quite a few early amateur ones. Their last concert and the Italian concert on Raw are obvious exceptions, and there are one or two other performances that pop up here and there that aren’t on it, but you can’t go wrong here. It starts off with a very early 1974 performance in CBGBs where, in a symbolic passing-of-the-torch, they are introduced by David Johansen. Their look hasn’t quite gelled – it’s obvious that Johnny was a big Stooges fan – but the sound is there. The early years – maybe the first hour or so – isn’t always the best quality of film – mono soundtracks, sometimes black & white footage, a bit scratchy – but it builds into something wonderful. The beating heart of the collection is a live concert from the London Rainbow on New Year’s Eve 1977. This will be familiar to Ramones fans as the soundtrack was released as a double album at the time. It’s Alive is widely regarded as one of the best live albums of all time, but the band tried to block its release since Marky had just joined and they felt that, since it featured Tommy, it was no longer a true representation of their sound. There were obviously plans for much more than just a double album. A concert film? Retail video was in its infancy but maybe that was another possibility. Regardless of causality, the result is rock’n’roll perfection. Dee and Johnny turn and leap with a vigour that is rarely seen these days and is certainly absent from the corporate behemoths that shamble across our stages in an unnatural mockery of youthful rebellion. Disc one takes us from ’74 to the end of ’77, and the remaining years – ’78 to ’96 – are covered by the second disc. It may seem imbalanced but it makes sense. Many of the appearances on the second disc consist of television performances on programmes (such as The Old Grey Whistle Test) where they only performed one or two numbers and so a wider range of line-ups and numbers are possible. Here you can find the truly bizarre Top of the Pops rendition of ‘Baby I Love You’ with the Equity-sanctioned string section, for example. The quality of the footage on this disc is generally good but here it is the flaws in the band that start to show. It is even possible to spot the exact moment when it stopped being fun - the San Bernardino Festival in 1982. The bounce has gone out of everyone and the slog to the finish has begun. Marky was sacked just after this and his replacement, Richie, injects some much-needed venom into the band and they’re off again. Then Dee Dee starts to look visibly bored. His replacement, CJ, brings back some youthful vigour (and helps prove that if you follow your favourite bands for long enough eventually some of them will be younger than you...) but he didn’t have the force of personality that the others had and this left the group feeling unbalanced. Marky had already returned by this time, but in shedding his demons he had also lost his carefree demeanour. Apart from CJ who was living the dream, no-one was smiling much towards the end.
Broadcast Rarities is mercifully rarely seen these days, but avoid it if you do spot it. If you can’t avoid it, snap it in half. It merely takes twelve tracks from the It’s Alive set and reissues them without any annotation. The cheap cover claims that they’re iPod ready, by which it means that there is a terrible-sounding CD of the same twelve tracks included with the DVD. It makes the Pleasant Dreams documentary look like value for money.
We’re Outta Here! is the Ramones’ 2263rd show – their last one. For the full LA show from 1996 you will have to listen to the CD as the DVD swaps some of the numbers with vintage recordings of the band, some of which can now be found elsewhere. There are also plenty of interview clips with famous friends (predating the revisionism of End of the Century) interspersed between the numbers. Plenty of guests appear on stage during the gig as well, including Lemmy, members of Pearl Jam and Rancid, and even Dee Dee. The last concert itself, especially of the earlier numbers, sometimes shows that the band’s tendency to speed up over the course of the years may have made for a fun time in the pit, but it didn’t do the songs many favours. Overall, though, it’s good and some of the guests add a zing to the numbers. The look in the eyes of the band-members as they approach the end of the gig, though, is just heartbreaking.
If the end of We’re Outta Here! is sad, then Too Tough To Die is real slash-your-wrists stuff. It’s a tribute concert for Johnny Ramone that happened the night before he died of cancer. Johnny was too ill to attend but the MC called him and the audience cheered him over the phone. As is by now familiar, there is a wealth of interviews spread throughout the action. Johnny may have been a real SOB, but he generated a genuine loyalty and many people turned out to make this an occasion and it almost seems like a punk Woodstock at times out there. Most folk do versions of Ramones songs, and most make a fair fist of them; the Dickies are excellent but the Red Hot Chilli Peppers go on too long, for example. Then there is what could be regarded as the last ever Ramones performance (yes, I know what I said earlier...). Remember when you used to play ‘fantasy band’ and tried to imagine how to put together a line-up of your favourite band from all the surviving members? Normally bands foil this by reforming in real life and using a Finnish bass player instead of the guy who played with them for three months on their last tour. Well, the Ramones did it for real. By this time Joey and Dee Dee had already predeceased Johnny, so their options were limited. Marky and CJ took to the stage with Daniel Rey. Daniel was the Ramones’ long-term producer who had worked on most of their albums from Leave Home onwards, and he had also played on them when needed as Johnny had an ideological objection to playing lead guitar. The band had asked Rey to join at the end of the seventies but he was too sane to say yes. Anyway, the three of them took to the stage with haunted eyes and – yes – they are the Ramones. It’s like watching a ghost. Guests gradually start to join them and the stage fills up with celebrity rockers such as Steve Jones and Joan Jett. Henry Rollins turns up, of course. When your singer’s dead and your guitarist is dying of cancer, he’s the man you call – he’d do the exact same for the Ruts a year or two later. Occasionally you can forget the lump in the throat and enjoy this as a gig, but note that this comes in two parts. The biggest portion consists of the tribute gig, but there’s a second part that takes place a week later. It’s Johnny’s funeral. No music, but plenty of heartfelt speeches, plenty of tears.
And there you have it. There are a few other bits and pieces out there on compilation DVDs and Youtube but not much.
We’ll never see their like again.