Legendary producer Ed Stasium recorded The Ramones It’s Alive 41 years ago at the Rainbow Theatre in London – a recording that many regard as one of the best live albums ever. This is his story.
All photos by Danny Fields – from December 31, 1977
“Given leave to enter the United Kingdom for six months, Immigration Officer 724, 26 DEC 1977 Heathrow.”
My passport was stamped 41 years ago as I deplaned a Pan Am flight from JFK to rendezvous with the Ramones in order to record four shows on the last leg of their U.K. tour in the final days of winter 1977. It was a banner year for the band, having seen the release of their second and third LPs, Leave Home and Rocket To Russia, both of which I was privileged to record.
It was Sire Records’ head, Seymour Stein, who longed for a live recording of the Ramones. “Their records were great,” he said, “but there was nothing like a live Ramones show. England was a perfect place to do it, because the British audiences loved them and the Ramones loved to play there.” This may have been true the majority of the time, but, ironically, the Ramones were not loving England around Christmastime 1977.
“We were at our peak. We were still young, and with all those years of playing together, we were in top form. It was the last show of the tour
and it was New Year’s Eve.” – Tommy Ramone
I procured a taxi at Heathrow, met up with the band at their London hotel, where they had spent four days off (December 24-27). According to Tommy (Erdelyi) Ramone, “It was a real gloomy tour, because England pretty much closes down for Christmas. There was nothing to do but hang out in the room; I think that’s when Joey wrote ‘I Wanna Be Sedated.’ It was just so boring there; they literally close everything down for, like, two weeks. It was just weird! It was freezing and it was depressing.”
This was the third trek of the U.K. for the Ramones, the first being July 4 and 5, 1976, for two very successful shows at the Roundhouse and Dingwalls (both in London), which were played to enthusiastic crowds and introduced the band to the country. The second was a grueling month-and-a-half tour from April 24-June 6, 1977, which included most of Europe and the U.K., with the Talking Heads as the opening act.
Ramones lighting director Arturo Vega stated, “By December of 1977, it was the second time we were in the U.K. in seven months, and that year turned out to be the busiest touring year ever for the Ramones.” This visit was a short jaunt of ten shows that started in Carlisle on December 17, and culminated on New Year’s Eve at the Rainbow Theatre in London.
The plan was to record four consecutive shows at the end of the tour, December 28-31: Birmingham, Stoke on Trent, Aylesbury, and The Rainbow Theatre. The facility that I utilized for the recording was the Basing Street Mobile Truck (Island Records), which had a Helios console, fantastic outboard gear, and a great reputation.
I traveled with the band and road manager Monte A. Melnick on the “tour” bus, which was not anything like the luxury liners that one sees today. This bus was more of a coach with large windows and rows of seats. Monte would always be busy with paperwork, figuring out every logistic of the trip. Former co-manager Danny Fields (with the late Linda Stein) informed me that at every U.K. venue the Ramones played, Indian curry was served at soundcheck to ever-complaining band members. Monte, I’m sure, was trying to alleviate this and other hazards of the road; he was the real “Fifth Ramone,” an unsung hero, the glue that kept the band together.
It wasn’t mentioned, but I immediately noticed that the practice of having “assigned seats” was mandatory on this trip. Dee Dee’s allocated area was right across from mine, and he kept himself well entertained with a stack of Scandinavian pornography (the likes of which I had never seen) and his knife collection. Apart from Dee Dee enjoying his switchblade stockpile, Johnny, Joey, and Tommy did not seem to have an interest in any hobbies; they would sleep, read magazines, and gaze out of the huge windows at the English countryside, probably dreaming of being back in the States. It was apparent that they were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and the tension of a lonely Christmas away from home would add a peculiar energy to the shows that would transpire over the next few days. The first three dates we recorded were in clubs. Nothing special. The Ramones, the Basing Street Mobile crew, and myself looked at these shows as a run-through for the recording of the New Year’s Eve gig. The band was performing virtually the same set every night, honing the tunes and playing tighter and tighter, with military precision.
In the cold London night outside of the truck, you could practically feel the electricity in the air as the Ramones were about to claim their throne.
December 31, 1977: The Rainbow Theatre, in the Finsbury Park area of North London England: 02:30 GMT
As with the other shows that we’d recorded over the past three days, we arrived early at the venue to set up. This was the show, and we needed to make certain that all of the microphones were placed and functioning properly, the multi-track tape machines were aligned, and that there was no hum or radio stations being picked up by the thousands of feet of microphone cable that connected the stage to the mobile truck. Fans were already meandering about, poking their Mohawk-adorned heads into the truck and asking if the show was going to be recorded. When I answered the question with a “Yup,” they started yelping, “Hey-Ho-Lets-Go!,” proceeded to punch each other, and Pogo’d off down the street. This was going to be a memorable night.
The Rainbow Theatre has quite a history: On September 29, 1930, it opened as the Astoria Cinema and was used predominantly to show movies. In the ’60s, rock concerts began taking place at the venue, when it was named The Finsbury Astoria. On March 31, 1967, Jimi Hendrix poured lighter fluid onto his Fender Stratocaster and lighted it on fire for the first time, changing the dynamics of live rock & roll forever. In the ’70s, the venue was renamed The Rainbow Theatre, and on November 4, 1971, The Who was the first artist to perform a concert under the new moniker. Tonight it was the Ramones’ turn. When Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy arrived for sound check, they looked around in amazement, a big wow written all over their faces. According to Monte, they had never played in such a large hall before. This was a beautiful theater with a capacity of approximately 3,000 and a foyer with a dang fountain in it! At this juncture, the group had played only small clubs and theaters; this evening, the Rainbow would be filled with several thousand Ramones fans.
“I was mixing front-of-house back then,” Monte recalls. “I remember the venue and the show. It was great being in this huge, beautiful theater. We hadn’t played a show in a place that big before, and it was especially thrilling with all the New Year’s excitement. It was an adventure, and the fans were unbelievable!”
Arturo Vega added, “After a boring and lame Christmas, we all thought, ‘What the hell is Boxing Day?’ All I was thinking about was the last show, which was to be recorded for a live album, so I wanted to do my part and make sure that the lighting for the show was as exciting as possible.”
The night’s set list would consist of songs from their first three albums, arguably the best LPs of their career; in other words, it was basically a greatest-hits set list. Which was fitting, considering that the Ramones’ original incarnation (with Tommy on drums) was about to play the most important show of its existence— the culmination of being on the road and honing their craft since the group’s inception in March of 1974. “This show was a big deal,” Tommy says. “We were at our peak. We were still young, and with all those years of playing together, we were in top form. It was the last show of the tour and it was New Year’s Eve.”
The Rezillos and Generation X (featuring a young Billy Idol) were the Ramones’ opening acts. “I was mixing for Generation X, and they sucked!” my pal Frank Gallagher says. “Although, my mix was great. But the one thing I do recall about the Ramones’ gig was that I had seen the band in America and in Europe, and the fact is that the English audiences were way more receptive and into them than anybody in America was at that time.”
In the truck, I could hear the chant, “Hey-Ho-Lets-Go!” between the songs and sets of the opening acts. As the last chords of The Rezillos’ final song faded into the ether, the crowd sensed that the Ramones were about to perform and the chant grew louder, from just the front few rows to the entire theater rallying in unison.
I ran inside to wish the band good luck and noticed the smell of curry in the air as I raced back to the truck. The “Brudders” from Queens were about to take the stage.
The din in the hall was overwhelming, not so much for us out in the truck, because I had the audience microphones muted in my monitor mix, so that I could carefully listen to the sound of the close microphones. In the cold London night outside of the truck, you could practically feel the electricity in the air as the Ramones were about to claim their throne.
The chant developed into a tremendous roar as the band arrived onstage. Johnny strummed an E-chord, Dee Dee tested the limits of his microphone with a healthy German “Eins,” and Tommy did some final adjustments on his drum kit. And then, heeeeeere came Joey . . . “Hey, we’re the Ramones. This one’s called ‘Rockaway Beach.’” Dee Dee belted out the infamous . . . “ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR!”
And so the assault began. The Ramones’ machine was in top gear, driving on full velocity until a short pause after the second song, “Teenage Lobotomy,” when Joey declared, “Well, it’s good to be back in England, and it’s good to see all ya again. Take it Dee Dee!”
And they busted into their anthem “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The punters were basking in the glory of their heroes. After “Blitzkrieg,” Joey mentioned that he didn’t feel well after ingesting some Chicken Vindaloo.
The gig concluded after 53 minutes, 48 seconds of simply the best punk rock there ever was or ever will be. It was New Year’s ’77-78 and the Ramones had played an unparalleled show, which, fortunately, had been recorded for all to enjoy for centuries to come.
The pent-up emotions and energy of the U.K. tour had paid off in more ways than one, this was the final gig and the band would be heading home soon, feeling as though they had, indeed, conquered the world.
The backstage scene was of the sort that I had never seen before; then-co-manager Linda Stein had invited her friend Elton John to the show. Elton was dressed in a shirt and tie, denim, a leather military hat, and an eagle pendant with a spoon, which hung around his neck. I had been of huge fan of Elton’s and was extremely excited when Linda grabbed me and said, “Ed, come over here and meet my friend Elton!”
I was even more thrilled when she continued, “Hey, Elton, c’mon, give Ed a toot!”
Elton conceded, pulled out a bag, and scooped the eagle well into my schnoz. Well, it was the ’70s!
Danny Fields’ photos really cover the backstage story, featuring images of attendees like Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, Elton, and various members of rock royalty.
“The Ramones were the hottest band in the world and everybody wanted to see them live. Everybody was there,” Arturo adds. “The show was a perfect fast-and-furious punk attack. The party after the show was over-the-top and everybody was in a festive mood, feeling this was only the beginning of the punk revolution. The Ramones were at their prime and the album that came out of that night captured a cultural phenomenon at its peak.”
Following the backstage bash, Linda and Seymour Stein had arranged a dinner for the band at John Reid’s restaurant; Reid was then manager of Elton John and Queen. The Ramones, Linda, Seymour, Danny, and myself piled into a limousine, all of us beaming with the outcome of the Rainbow Theatre experience.
That exuberance would soon be quashed when the driver decided to take a route directly through Trafalgar Square, on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s like Times Square,” Danny says. “I didn’t know that, and I don’t know how the driver didn’t know that! I was freaking out, it was like a movie. We were surrounded; we were in the middle of a teeming mob of English thugs and merrymakers.”
It took over an hour to negotiate the trip through Trafalgar Square, and all of us were starving. Danny continues. “Linda had called ahead and said to John Reid, ‘Please have hamburgers,’ because they always served curry on the tours. Linda made a special order for hamburgers and ketchup.”
We finally arrived at the restaurant at around 2:30 am. Fortunately, John kept the place open for us, and, yes, there were hamburgers.
On a technical note, I would like to say that, back in the summer of ’78, Tommy and I spent quite a while with the mixing, paying microscopic attention to this recording’s sound and balance. The mixing took place at the great Mediasound in New York City, at the same time that we were working on Road To Ruin. For reasons unknown, the LP was never released on vinyl in the United States, and the U.K. and European versions continue to be desirable collector’s items to this day. Those LPs and the subsequent 1995 CD release were made from second-generation copies, and never has there been a release from the master tapes.
– Ed Stasium
*Danny Fields photos extensively document the show and the backstage party in his fabulous book My Ramones.