Nick Hasted: 'Tommy Ramone’s rock’n’roll legacy should not be underestimated'

Every punk band in London bought a copy of Ramones, and most attended their two gigs in the capital in July 1976

Tommy Ramone’s contribution to rock’n’roll was as brief and as fundamentally potent as his band’s songs. Three albums, released over 17 months, were the sum of the real-life Tommy Erdelyi’s time as a Ramone. By 1977, he was done. But if he had only drummed on and co-written “Blitzkrieg Bop”, the opening track of the band’s 1976 debut, Ramones, he would have made an indelible mark.

Recorded at Plaza Sound Studios, in the bowels of New York’s Radio City Music Hall, a metronome jammed to its maximum 208 bpm gave Erdelyi’s drumming hands their guide. Played now, “Blitzkrieg Bop” no longer shocks. But its relentless momentum still sweeps you along. The group are already in motion as the record starts to spin, impatient to begin.

Fuzzed distortion clings to every note as Tommy’s bass-beat and blunt cymbal-smashes pummel the music forward. “Ey-oh, let’s go!” Joey Ramone commands, 22 seconds in, like a demented member of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs, the wall of sound behind him suddenly reduced to just Tommy’s drum tattoo.

The lyrics that follow, Erdelyi’s work as much as anyone’s, are a checklist of pulp paperback and B-movie poses: “What they want, I don’t know/ They’re all revved up and ready to go… shoot ’em in the back now.”

It’s the sound of Phil Spector being mugged by the Stooges in a Bowery back alley, or, in Erdelyi’s preferred description: “The Beatles on speed”.

Every punk band in London bought a copy of Ramones, and most attended their two gigs in the capital in July 1976, the month of the LP’s release. As with other bands making their name in the Bowery’s filthy CBGB club then – the Patti Smith Group and Television among them – the Ramones offered a moonshine-potent, cheap and nasty antidote to millionaire rock stars and virtuoso musicians who had lost touch with the music’s primal origins.

Reporting back to NME readers from New York in November 1975, before anyone in the UK had heard the band, Charles Shaar Murray saw them as saviours: “so funny, such a cartoon vision of rock and roll, and so tight and powerful that they’re just bound to enchant anyone who fell in love with rock and roll for the right reasons”.

There were, though, only 27 people in the crowd, one-third of them photographers, when Murray watched them play. They would remain prophets without honour in their own land.

Ramones became a gold record in the US when its half-millionth copy was sold, just a few days before Erdelyi’s death. The Ramones’ initial, abysmal incompetence shocked audiences when they first played CBGB in 1974. This absence of a forbidding degree of talent, along with the sheer squalor of their lives in stinking, bankrupt Seventies New York, made them an appealing, replicable punk rock prototype.

Erdelyi, though, was the necessary exception to such amateurishness. An engineer at New York’s Record Plant studio before he joined the band, he helped produce them even after quitting in 1977, following one gruelling tour too many.

Producer Craig Leon told Uncut magazine: “I was very conscious I was interpreting [Tommy’s] vision.” In one of his last interviews, Erdelyi agreed. “What we were doing was almost like a concept,” he told Uncut. “I realised that what you needed wasn’t musicianship. What you needed was ideas… You had to have intellect to get the Ramones. We had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and all forms of culture.”

His part in the band’s genesis became a matter of rancorous dispute after he quit playing with them. “We could never recapture that classic punk sound after Tommy left,” Dee Dee Ramone confessed.

But singer Joey dismissed their ex-drummer as “the late Tommy Ramone” at gigs, aggravated at the extent of his claims of creative authorship. By outliving Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny, all dead by 2004, Erdelyi had the last word on his part in shaping their individual brilliance into such a diamond-hard invention.

Age and illness are taking an epidemic toll on the New York punk scene’s once brattily youthful founders. Iggy Pop is the only surviving original member of the Ramones’ first inspiration, the Stooges. Their more direct progenitors, the New York Dolls, have also been decimated, with only Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen still alive. Lou Reed is dead. And now the original Ramones are no more. But every black-leather-jacketed garage band that riots through a set far too fast, or works to strip rock back from bloated excess, honours their blueprint.

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