Tommy Ramone: The Ramones’ drummer and songwriter who became the last original member of the pioneering punk band
Tommy's contribution to The Ramones shouldn’t be under-estimated, especially since he co-produced Leave Home, Rocket To Russia (both 1977) and Road To Ruin (1978)
Monday 14 July 2014
The last original member of the Ramones, Tommy Ramone was a crucial component and the most reliable element of the dysfunctional New York group who took rock back to basics and changed popular culture history with their eponymous debut recorded for $6,400 in 1976.
The Ramones contained the seminal singles “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, both written by Tommy, though the material was credited jointly to all four principals in order to present a united front commensurate with the group’s look of torn jeans and leather jackets and their minimalist, backs-to-the-wall approach.
The original vinyl album lasted less than 30 minutes and took 38 years to sell 500,000 copies in the US but it became a year-zero moment, a tabula rasa statement, the punk blueprint that inspired several successive generations of musicians, including the Sex Pistols, The Clash, U2, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Green Day.
The more together and focussed Tommy was often overshadowed by his band-mates Joey, the beanpole vocalist with a compulsive-obsessive disorder, Dee Dee, the drug-addled bassist, and Johnny, the guitarist with the pudding-bowl haircut who drilled the band into a formidable unit. Yet Tommy’s contribution shouldn’t be under-estimated, especially since he co-produced the next three Ramones studio albums, Leave Home, Rocket To Russia (both 1977) and Road To Ruin (1978), the first to feature new drummer Marky, as well as It’s Alive, the 31 December 1977 concert recording from London’s Rainbow Theatre issued in 1979.
American punk rock group The Ramones. Left to right: Johnny Ramone (1948 - 2004) Tommy Ramone, Joey Ramone (1951 - 2001) and Dee Dee Ramone (1952 - 2002). All these made the UK charts, as did the 1984 set Too Tough To Die, again co-produced by Tommy with “fifth Ramone” Ed Stasium, and featuring drummer Richie Ramone. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky in 2002, Tommy also produced landmark releases by two Ramones-influenced alternative US groups, Tim for the Replacements in 1985, and Neurotica by Redd Kross in 1987.
He was born Erdelyi Tamas, or Thomas Erdelyi, in Budapest in 1949 to Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust. In 1957 the family moved to the US and he grew up in the Forest Hills, Queens area of New York. In high school he played guitar in the Tangerine Puppets, a garage band featuring his friend John Cummings, later Johnny Ramone, on bass, and developed an interest in record production which led to an assistant-engineer contribution to Band Of Gypsys, the 1970 Jimi Hendrix album assembled from two live performances that underwent radical post-production.
Four years later he teamed up with Johnny again, as well as Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee Ramone) and Jeffrey Hyman (Joey). The Ramone name was supposedly inspired by the Ramon alias Paul McCartney used to check into hotels incognito when touring with the Beatles, Tommy’s favourite group. “I wanted to put a band together with quirky, interesting personalities – some people who were intense and talented and slightly different. I just thought they would be perfect,” he said in 2003.
They drew on the pioneering art-rock of the Velvet Underground, the trash aesthetic of the New York Dolls, the glitter rock of Slade and the bubblegum pop of the Bay City Rollers, as well as Sixties girl groups and the subversive Detroit bands MC5 and the Stooges, but their roles were far from defined. Joey struggled behind the drums and moved to vocals while Tommy, the one with the managerial and musical nous, took over the kit. “When Joey was playing drums, it sounded very disjointed,” he said. “When I started playing drums, I gave it kind of its smoothness,” he explained.
They made their live début at Hilly Kristal’s club CBGB’s in August 1974, playing 10 songs in less than 20 minutes and yelling at each other. But the champion of alternative music asked them back, and eventually they signed a deal with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records in 1976. Cartoonish material like “Beat On The Brat”, “Judy Is A Punk” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” rubbed US radio programmers up the wrong way but the Ramones found an eager audience in Britain when they supported Sire labelmates the Flamin’ Groovies for a 4 July bicentennial concert at the Roundhouse in London, followed by a Dingwalls gig that attracted the Pistols, the Clash and the Damned and became the catalyst for punk in the UK.
Tommy made sterling contributions to the Ramones albums he co-produced which included the UK hit singles “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker”, “Swallow My Pride” and “Don’t Come Close”. Yet he often felt belittled by the other three, despite being spokesperson. “If you’re cooped up in a van with the Ramones, it can eventually get to you,” he said of the group who sold more T-shirts than albums. “I don’t recommend joining that ship for too long,” he said of his decision to take a back seat from 1978. “There was all this tension between me and Johnny. I was trying to release the pressure, to keep the band going ... I told them we had to do something, because I was losing my mind.”
He oversaw his replacement by Marc Bell, aka Marky, but was surprised to find the three others insisting he surrender his publishing share on the Road To Ruin album. “They probably resented me leaving the band,” he said diplomatically, before conceding that “there might have been some greed involved too.”
He still attended Ramones shows in New York and proved a natural fit to co-produce Too Tough To Die with Ed Stasium in 1984, though, unlike Dee Dee, he wasn’t asked to take part in their farewell concert at the Palace in Los Angeles in August 1996. However, he was effusive in his praise at the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002: “It proved that we were special.”
He contributed to End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones, the 2003 warts-and-all documentary. He also developed a juke-box musical, Gabba Gabba Hey, after the Ramones trademark chant from “Pinhead” on the Leave Home album.
Over the last dozen years he played bluegrass and folk with his partner Claudia Tienan in the duo Uncle Monk, drawing parallels between the music of Hank Williams and Flatt & Scruggs and the punk revolution he had helped inspire. He died of bile duct cancer.
Thomas Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone), drummer, guitarist, songwriter and producer: born Budapest 29 January 1949; partner to Claudia Tienan; died New York 11 July 2014.
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