Ramones/Social Distortion - Live in Big Rapids (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Ramones / Social Distortion

Live in Big Rapids (1992)

live show

If I could magically go back and see any show again, this would be the one. No question about it. Ramones and Social Distortion with Overwhelming Colorfast in the Williams Auditorium at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan on November 4th, 1992. I run into a lot of people who caught this tour at one stop or another. It seemed to bring together a couple generations of punks. All have fond memories.

I had first heard the Ramones about five years earlier, when I was maybe 14. Some rogue Milwaukee DJ had played “I Wanna Be Sedated” after midnight, and I was hooked. I immediately ordered Ramones Mania from the record club and listened to it about a billion times. I might be slightly exaggerating, but I did literally wear that copy out. This was my first time seeing them live.

I had discovered Social Distortion more recently, and had seen them for the first time earlier that same year at one of my favorite venues, the State Theatre in Kalamazoo. We were right down front and were blown away by a (relatively) young Mike Ness and company. At that point in time, they were one of my very favorite bands. They still are really, despite the fact that they’ve fallen from favor in recent years.

It’s funny the things you remember and the things you don’t. I went with my oldest friend, who I still go to shows with today. (Or at least I would if there were still fucking shows!) The other guy I didn’t know well, but would grow to, as he would end up drumming for my band a couple years later. I have zero recollection of the hour long trip to Big Rapids and back. (Two of the three of us were underage and I don’t believe there was any alcohol involved in this particular instance.) I clearly recall the huge, open reception area outside the theater. It was by far the nicest merch area of any punk show I’d ever been to.

I had never even heard of the opening act, Overwhelming Colorfast, but they were quite good. I later picked up a couple of their albums, which confirmed this. I would describe the sound as grunge meets The Beatles. They kind of looked like a bunch of ragged hippies, but rocked sufficiently hard anyway. Overwhelming Colorfast never really “made it”, and for me at least, they only really exist as this musical footnote.

It’s crazy to think that by the time this show rolled around, Social D had been alive and kicking, at least off and on, for something like 14 years. Guitarist/vocalist Ness was the epitome of cool. (He still is, haters!) Guitarist Dennis Dannell wasn’t far behind. (I had a brief encounter with Danell at this show, and it has only taken on more meaning since he died in 2000.) Ness was wearing his standard wifebeater, and was already well on his way to be covered with tattoos. He had the sideburns and his hair slicked back just right, and carried himself with an undeniable swagger.

I can’t find the exact setlist from this date, but other shows from this era help fill in the blanks. They were touring for Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, so they were consistently playing “Bad Luck”, “Cold Feelings” and “When She Begins”. Of course, there were other Social D standards like “Mommy’s Little Monster”, “Prison Bound”, “Ball and Chain” and “Ring of Fire”.

The presidential election had been the day before, and I remember Ness mumbling something about being glad that Bill Clinton had won. They also played a song that most of us had never heard called “I’m In Love With My Car”. (Ness would finally record it on his 1999 solo album Cheating At Solitaire.) Ness introduced it by saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “We love coming to Michigan because people drive old Chevys and Fords, not some fucking piece of shit Hyundai.” I’m sad to report that nearly 30 years later, there are lots of fucking piece of shit Hyundais. I’ve now seen Social Distortion more than 10 times, but on this night, they played a set for the ages.

Leading up to this show, I was probably most looking forward to seeing Social D. Once the giant Ramones NYC backdrop was unfurled, I knew we were in for something special. It all came back to me. I got that familiar chill down my spine. Up to this point, the rowdy crowd had been pretty well behaved. Once the first notes of “Durango 95” sounded, all hell broke loose. In some sort of an old school punk throwback, the fancy, formal theatre took a pretty good beating. The boys from Queens also looked cool as hell with their longer hair and leather jackets. Their silhouettes against the fake brick tapestry were epic.

Once again, I can’t find the exact setlist from that night, but other adjacent shows help fill in the blanks. They were typically doing 32 or 33 songs including the encore. Between 20 and 25 of them were what you’d call classic era Ramones. Songs like “Teenage Lobotomy”, “Psycho Therapy”, “Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”, “I Wanna Be Sedated”, “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, “Rockaway Beach”, “I Wanna Be Well”, “Cretin Hop”, “Judy is a Punk”, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World”, “Pinhead”, “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do”, “We’re a Happy Family”, “Chinese Rocks”, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down in the Basement” and “Beat on the Brat”. You know, some of the greatest punk songs ever written.

There were also mid era songs like “Wart Hog”, “Animal Boy” and “Somebody Put Something In My Drink”. There was some newer stuff too. “I Believe in Miracles” and “Pet Sematary” from Brain Drain were pretty standard. Ramones were touring behind Mondo Bizarro, so the minor hit “Poison Heart” and the anti Tipper Gore/PMRC song “Censorshit” were both being played nightly. C.J. sang lead vocals on a couple songs too. (“Strength to Endure” was probably one of them.) There was very little small talk between songs. They just blasted from one to the next. Overall, the setlist was close to perfection.

It must be stated that the Ramones in 1992 did not sound like the band captured at the end of 1977 on the greatest live album of all time, It’s Alive. Tommy had long since left and been replaced by Marky, then Richie, then Marky again. Marky was a fine drummer, but either on his own, or by command, he always pushed the tempo. The subtle nuances were lost with the increased speed. The C.J. for Dee Dee swap was less noticeable. C.J.’s playing was probably more consistent, but he obviously wasn’t the songwriter Dee Dee was. Joey’s voice also changed over the years, likely due to heavy touring. The tenderness of the early years was replaced by a harsher bark.

All that being said, they were still a great live band. You might say a well oiled machine, as they should have been after nearly two decades. Still, it didn’t feel like they were just going through the motions, even in bumfucked Michigan on a Wednesday night. We sang and danced like madmen, with zero thought about how early we all had to get up the next morning. I would only see the Ramones one more time. That was a weird show too. Ramones played for a mostly metal crowd, sandwiched between opener Supersuckers and headliners White Zombie in a small arena.

It’s strange - I can’t think of another show that makes me as happy or as sad to remember as this one. Happy because it was an amazing experience that I probably didn’t appreciate enough at the time. When I was young, it felt like everything good would last forever. I had a hell of a lot of fun, but rarely truly ‘stopped and smelled the roses’. Sad because Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy are all gone. (Insert metaphor about my youth here.)

I struggled to put this show into words. It felt like a book report - too sterile and academic. The truth is, the best punk shows are felt as much as heard. I felt this one. When I close my eyes, I still can. I can still see the faces of friends I’ve lost, and others that I still hold dear. It makes me appreciate how lucky I am to still be directly involved with punk stuff almost 30 years later. Anyway, when they finally invent an affordable time machine, you know where I’ll be.