Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996 appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. (Note that the Rainbow concert from 1977 and the 1988 “Provinssirock Festival” went to 1.85:1.) Put bluntly, Alive sometimes looked like crap, but given the nature of the source material, that became inevitable, and much of it presented pretty positive visuals.
Actually, some parts of Alive came as a pleasant surprise. The earliest footage – from September 1974 – offered pretty decent visuals, as the black and white material showed perfectly acceptable definition and clarity. Unfortunately, the picture immediately went into the toilet with the murky, blurry video from April 1976. Those two songs represented some of the DVD’s worst imagery, as they were an awful mess.
From there we continued with a mix of good and bad. It should come as no surprise that the earliest material looked the worst, and the quality improved as time progressed. Even so, some other early shots were surprisingly good – within the limit of my exceedingly low expectations. In addition to that 1975 material, While the colors looked pale for film from October 1976, the clarity was pretty good, and the shots offered a nice multi-camera representation of the band. None of these moments excelled, and plenty of ugly bits still appeared, but I thought that the decent outweighed the weak.
For the first genuinely attractive visuals, we have to 13 venues into DVD One for the band’s August 1977 appearance on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. While not without some flaws, these pro-shot images seemed pretty solid. They certainly offered a great step up in quality after the mediocre material that preceded them, and that trended continued through much of the rest of the set.
Sure, I still found iffy sharpness, a mix of source defects and other concerns through the end of DVD Two, but these issues diminished considerably once we got to the Kirschner show. That’s because most of the remaining material came from TV broadcasts or other pro-shot enterprises. (The major exception stemmed from the amateur shots for a 1987 show in Argentina and a 1988 concert in Rochester; they stood out like a sore thumb, as they took us back to the problematic mid-Seventies footage in terms of both audio and visuals.) Although the clips showed their age, they still seemed fine for the most part. Once the set got past the amateur footage of the early club shows, the picture quality became more satisfying.
That said, I still couldn’t muster a grade above a “C” for the visuals of It’s Alive. Objectively, it simply didn’t look very good most of the time. Subjectively, however, I felt perfectly happy with the picture quality of this set. I expected atrocious visuals and occasionally got them, but most of the set was completely watchable. It’s a good representation of the original material.
Since the visuals were up and down, I expected the same lack of consistency from the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Alive. Since much of the audio came from one-channel sources – especially early in the set – a lot of the time the soundfield essentially presented broad mono. Some audio came from all five speakers, but the front center dominated, as was appropriate. I’m glad they didn’t attempt some sort of truly half-assed faux stereo, though I think true mono would’ve been most desirable for the songs from single-channel sources.
Nonetheless, those examples of wide mono didn’t distract, and the imaging went to solid stereo when those sources became available. This first occurred with three songs – “Swallow My Pride”, “Pinhead” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” – from a September 1977 session on the Camera Mart stages. These TV tunes were lip-synched, so the DVD used the original studio tracks. After that, decent to good stereo imaging popped up with decent frequency, though the TV appearances still brought us mono much of the time. Even live footage like the Rainbow show from 1977 showed pretty nice separation and spread. Granted, the sparse instrumentation of the Ramones didn’t require a lot to make it work, but I still felt pleased with the way the audio opened after we got to late 1977.
The surrounds remained pretty passive. Some gimmicky material appeared with tunes like “Pinhead”; the sped-up lines at the end emanated from various spots around the spectrum. The back speakers usually just concentrated on reinforcement of the music and/or crowd noise, though, so they didn’t distract.
As with the visuals, the sound quality of the earliest material fared the worst. Actually, that 1974 footage didn’t sound too bad despite a messy mix; vocals became barely audible beneath the guitar and drums roar. The ugly April 1976 clips also sounded the worst. Distorted and exceedingly rough, they were essentially unlistenable. That meant that the shots were good for historical value but tough to actually watch/hear.
In these pieces, the visuals tended to come along more quickly than the audio. That’s because it was easier to get a half-decent cheap film camera than something that would record sound in a moderately high-fidelity manner. In fact, Alive didn’t provide a single good-sounding tune until the Rock Concert performances, and even those were a bit spotty. Matters improved with the studio recordings used for the Camera Mart stuff, and the live material from the Rainbow sounded pretty good. I wouldn’t refer to it as stellar quality, but the different elements were perfectly acceptable.
Most of the rest of Alive continued in that vein. This wasn’t audiophile-quality material, but the tunes usually showed reasonably positive fidelity after the Rainbow, which meant DVD Two provided superior audio when compared to DVD One. Really, most of it seemed fine once the band got away from those homemade club recordings; they caused the only flaws on DVD Two, as we occasionally went back to the amateur stuff. Those were usually atrocious, but the poor quality was inevitable.
Once again, I didn’t feel I could give the audio a grade above a “C”. Like with the visuals, I simply encountered too many problems for the soundtrack to merit a higher mark. However, I still felt relatively pleased with what I heard. This was a good representation of the recordings, and I expect the DVD made the tunes work as best as they could.
If you want to find the visual and auditory high point of Alive, I’d recommend the nine tracks from the September 1982 US Festival found on DVD Two. Joey has some mic problems, but the performance still works. It looks and sounds quite good, so it represents probably the best we get across these two discs in terms of picture/sound quality. I’d still take the 1977 Rainbow show as the best combination of production quality and musical performance, though.
All of the set’s extras appear on DVD One. Interviews provides 10 clips that last a total of 11 minutes, 25 seconds. These are archival elements that feature Dee Dee, Joey, Johnny, Tommy and manager Danny Fields. We get some notes about the band’s origins and early days, influences, various songs, punk rock and “messages” in the music. Nothing terribly revelatory appears here, so if you want real info about the band’s history, head to End of the Century. Nonetheless, these clips are moderately interesting.
Under Extra Bonus!, we find three film clips. “Argentina: The First Time” (5:15) shows the Ramones as they arrive for a 1987 performance in South America, “Mandagsborsen” (5:26) presents a 1981 appearance on Swedish TV. Joey chats with the host and then the band plays “KKK”. Finally, “Sha Na Na Shenanigans” (1:41) lets us see a brief comedy skit from the Sha Na Na TV show. It’s hilariously bad. The other two are a little less ridiculous, but not by much. I especially enjoy the interview in Argentina’s semi-futile attempts to get Johnny to endorse his show.
Three more pieces show up under Super Rare Music Videos. We find clips for “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)” (3:27), “The KKK Took My Baby Away” (2:33) and a rough cut of “Somebody Put Something in My Drink” (2:44). The first two are very low-budget affairs that follow the early 1980s music video model. They show performance footage and badly acted vignettes to illustrate the lyrics. “Drink” is a more standard live montage typical of the 1990s. They’re not good but they’re fun anyway.
Finally, we find some Photo Galleries. Presented by photographer, we get pictures from Danny Fields (24 shots), Ian Harper (29), Jenny Lens (131), Robert Matheu (50), and various fans (68). All of these include nice images, though the Lens shots are easily the best. Not only does that collection present more photos than the others, but also it presents captions to give us more info.
If you’re a fan of the Ramones, you’ll absolutely adore the breadth and depth of the live material on It’s Alive. The set throws out scads of great performances and makes a strong case for the band’s greatness. The DVD suffers from erratic picture and sound, but both appear pretty solid given the deficits of the source material. Extras aren’t extensive, but to gripe about that seems petty given the treasure trove of footage that comprises the two discs. This is an absolutely terrific release that earns a glowing recommendation. I hope more acts take their cue from it and put out similar career-spanning packages.