Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960-2016 is a new book with the kind of succint title that I can get behind. Written by music journalist Corbin Reiff, the book covers a variety of genres, including the cosmic glam rock of David Bowie, the rustic Americana of The Band, and the melodic Britpop of Oasis. Reiff provides in-depth coverage for these shows—often including interviews with the participants—and if you're like me, you'll find yourself going to YouTube trying to find video evidence after reading each entry.
In this No Echo feature, the folks at Lesser Gods (My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory, Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains) have hooked me up with a chapter from Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960-2016 I think readers of this site will especially appreciate.
According to both late guitarist Johnny Ramone, and road manager Monte Melnick, the Ramones' finest concert performance happened 40 years ago this week, in London's Rainbow Theatre. Check out the chapter below to get the skinny.
Hey! Ho! Let's go!
Rocket to the Rainbow
The Rainbow Theatre—London, England
December 31, 1977
New York punk progenitors the Ramones were consummate road warriors. Across the 22 years they held it together, the band managed to play a staggering 2,263 shows. From dingy clubs in New York to ornate theaters in Europe and large outdoor festivals in South America, there wasn’t a stage in the world that the Ramones wouldn’t happily burn to the ground.
With the release of their self-titled debut album in 1976, the Ramones effectively invented punk rock. Though earlier groups like the Stooges, the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground paved the way, it was the Ramones that codified what it meant for music to be punk: simple, fast and loud.
As ferocious as they were on record, it was on the stage that the full power of the band was realized. The experience of hearing Dee Dee fire out that “1-2-3-4!” count into the next song, watching Johnny brutalize the strings of a Gibson Les Paul Jr., peering up at Joey and trying to make out the contours of his face through that large mop of hair and feeling the kick of Tommy’s drum wallop you in the chest was life-altering.
1977 was the Ramones’ peak as a band. They put out two albums that year, the superb Leave Home and the sublime Rocket to Russia. As the punk scene expanded, they got better bookings around the U.S., but it was in the U.K. where they enjoyed their most devoted, vocal fan base. Their debut record hit No. 1 on that country’s import charts, an incredible feat when you consider that it hadn’t even cracked into the Top 100 in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
John Giddings, a booking agent in London, remembered, “Everyone was talking about the Ramones. They were the Gods from America. They already started it. The [Sex] Pistols were quite good, but none of them could play like the Ramones.”
Underneath the admiration was a love-hate relationship between the band and the English press. “[They] treated us like clowns,” Dee Dee wrote in his memoir, Lobotomy. “At first, we went on the defensive and acted tough. Then, we stopped caring.”
Adding to the New Yorker’s ambivalence about Great Britain—beyond that country’s lack of readily available ice to cool their beverages—was a nasty habit that many of the young punkers had adopted.
“English audiences liked to spit at us,” Dee Dee said. “It’s an insult to the band,” Johnny added in his autobiography, Commando. “If they do something to anyone in the band, they’re doing it to the whole band. In England, it was twenty kids spitting. It would ruin the show for me because I wouldn’t move to the front because I didn’t want to get spit on. I’d look into the lights and try to dodge it if I could.”
Despite all that, they kept coming back. Even with the condescending writers and the loogey-hawking fans, the U.K. gave them the greatest opportunity to perform in some of the best venues in front of some of the biggest, most boisterous audiences around. VFWs across the U.S. remained their bread and butter for years to come, but something special happened when they crossed the Atlantic.
Following short opening sets from the Rezillos and Generation X, the Ramones storm the stage of the nearly 50-year-old converted movie house and ready themselves for the coming assault. Johnny blasts out a chord on his guitar as Joey steps up to make his introduction. “Hey, we’re the Ramones! This one’s called ‘Rockaway Beach!’”
Dee Dee counts off “1-2-3-4!” and the band rushes in to hitch a ride with the zealous British audience. The roughly 3,000 fans press hard up against the front of the stage, fists pumping in the air as the Ramones hammer them with as much wattage as they can push through the speakers. It’s New Year’s Eve after all, and everyone is in the mood to celebrate.
“Everything was going right for that show,” the Ramones road manager Monte Melnick told me. “The lights were great, the sound was great, they played the songs terrifically, the crowd was amazing; everything clicked. For the original four, that was their best show: Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy.”
“Rockaway Beach” turns into “Teenage Lobotomy” before segueing into their all-time greatest song. “It’s good to be back in England, and it’s good to see all of all you again,” Joey says. “Take it Dee Dee.” The bass player counts off and the band explodes into the infectious, anthem “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Joey breaks out into the song’s catchy “Hey-ho / Let’s go” refrain, which the audience echoes back at the band at twice the volume. On the left side of the stage and on the right, both Johnny and Dee Dee jump, dance and bang their heads with fervor. In the back, Tommy bashes away at his kit with an undefinable coolness, while upfront Joey’s leg twitches and shakes in place as he sings his lines. The kids are losing their minds, pulsating to the backbeat.
“Blitzkrieg Bop” comes to a climatic finish. The Ramones hardly give the audience time to lavish them with applause before moving on to the next number, “Glad to See You Go,” and the one after that, “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and the one after that “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl.” Over the next 45 minutes, they pack in an incredible 20 more songs.
Even at that breakneck pace, the energy in the room hardly falters. The band slams the crowd with one genre-defining number after another—songs like “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Commando” and “Pinhead.” Joey keeps stage banter to a minimum. There’s an allusion to some chicken vindaloo that made him sick, but that’s about it. There’s no time to talk when you gotta rock. The show ends a little after midnight with “We’re a Happy Family.”
“We’d like to thank y’all for coming,” Joey exclaims. “Good night!” After exiting the stage, the band is met by none other than a beaming Elton John, decked out in motorcycle leather and excited to tell them how great they were. Elsewhere, Sid Vicious corners Dee Dee and tells him repeatedly how much he loves his work.
With over 2,000 shows to choose from, it’s almost impossible to pick what represents the best concert that the Ramones ever performed. If you had to, this one gig at the Rainbow in 1977 is a good choice. “I think our peak, our greatest moment, is that New Year’s Eve show of 1977 into 1978,” Johnny Ramone said. “I think that’s our greatest moment as a band.”
I Wanna Be Well
Glad to See You Go
Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment
You’re Gonna Kill That Girl
I Don’t Care
Sheena Is a Punk Rocker
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Listen to My Heart
I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You
Do You Wanna Dance?
Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World
Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy
Judy Is a Punk
Suzy Is a Headbanger
Oh Oh I Love Her So
Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
We’re a Happy Family
Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960-2016 is out now and available on Amazon.