Rest in peace Tommy Ramone, the original drummer, architect and backbone of the Ramones, the most gloriously uniform punk band in history. His drumming on the first three Ramones records, “Ramones,” “Leave Home,” and “Rocket To Russia” (he co-produced the latter two) set the template for the band’s driving sound. It was lean, fast and insistent, with a floor tom-and-snare drum combination that sounded like the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker on speed.
He was born Tamás Erdélyi in Budapest, Hungary, and died Friday in his home in Queens, New York, at age 65, following an unsuccessful treatment for bile duct cancer.
Erdélyi began playing with John Cummings (Johnny Ramone) in high school, in a band called the Tangerine Puppets. Before he was 18, Erdélyi worked as an assistant engineer for Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys album, recorded live at the Fillmore East over two consecutive nights, New Year’s Eve and Day, 1969 and 1970. When the Ramones formed, lead singer Joey (Jeffrey Ross Hyman) initially played drums, but he couldn’t handle the breakneck tempos. "Tommy Ramone, who was managing us, finally had to sit down behind the drums, because nobody else wanted to," recalled guitarist Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Glenn Colvin). Dee Dee characterized Tommy as “normal” with as much resentment as admiration, as Erdélyi was generally free from the substance abuse issues and psychoses that characterized some of his band mates.
As Tommy Ramone, Erdélyi wrote the singles “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” He often played lead guitar on the records he produced. For live performances, Erdélyi would mix the band during sound check while Joey’s brother played drums, telling the soundman not to touch the settings.
If there is one song that most defines the Ramones, it’s “Blitzkrieg Bop.” It’s Tommy’s song, although Dee Dee came up with the title (it was originally called “Animal Hop”). It was the band’s first single and the first song on their first, self-titled, album. It “was a sort of call to arms,” said Joey Ramone, “for everyone to start their own bands.” The song’s breakdown – just drums and spoken vocals chanting “Hey Ho, let’s go,” before the insistent, one-note bass line comes in – is as magnificent and idiotic as anything by The Stooges or The Sex Pistols. It defines an era in four bars, handily deflating as it did the bloated stadium rock that had become popular music. It is garage rock after garage rock. It is punk rock before punk rock. It is bottled lightning, and it will continue to refresh the souls of the disenchanted for generations. Tommy is beating those drums like they owe him money.
The Ramones started playing shows in 1974, cutting their teeth in a seedy Bowery club called CBGB. They were signed to Sire Records along with other notables Talking Heads and Richard Hell and cut their first album in seven days. "Doing an album in a week and bringing it in for $6,400 was unheard of,” wrote Dee Dee, “especially since it was an album that really changed the world.” The band, dressed identically in jeans and biker jackets, is lined up against a brick wall on the album cover. They’re glowering. “Ramones” doesn’t even make it to 30 minutes. It’s longest track is two-and-a-half minutes. The album didn’t sell very well at all. But it is immortal.
Tommy left the Ramones in 1978, although he continued in his management and producer role. That’s him playing drums on 1979’s “It’s Alive,” recorded on New Year’s Eve 1977. This was deemed the best performance of the four nights captured, in part because the first ten rows of seats were thrown on stage by the audience at the end of the show. He drummed for the band once again in 2004 for “The Ramones Beat Down On Cancer” concert (Joey died of lymphoma in 2001).
"They gave everything they could in every show,” Tommy said of his former band mates in 2007. “They weren't the type to phone it in, if you see what I mean."
Tommy Ramone continued to distinguish himself as a producer, working on classics like The Replacements’ “Tim” and “Neurotica” by Redd Kross. In the last decade he teamed up with The Simplistics’ Claudia Tienan to form Uncle Monk, an “indie-acoustic duo.”
"There are a lot of similarities between punk and old-time music,” Tommy Ramone wrote in 2006, basically summing up the last century of American vernacular music. “Both are home-brewed music as opposed to schooled, and both have an earthy energy. And anybody can pick up an instrument and start playing."