Remembering Tommy Ramone

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 07.14.14 in Features

“The Ramones all originate from Forest Hills and kids who grew up there either became musicians, degenerates or dentists,” wrote the band’s something-like-a-manager Tome Erdelyi in a press biography sent out from his company Loudmouth Productions in 1975. “The Ramones are a little of each. Their sound is not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar.” Erdelyi was born in Budapest as Erdélyi Tamás in 1949 (he adjusted that year to 1952 for most of his career); on the handful of Ramones albums he coproduced, he was generally T. Erdelyi. But he was best known, of course, as Tommy Ramone, “the drummer whose pulsating playing launches the throbbing sound of the band” (as the same press bio declared), and the man without whom punk rock would have been very, very different.

‘For their first four years, he was more or less [the Ramones'] leader, although that wasn’t evident to most people outside the band.’

Tommy, who died July 11, was the least visible of the four original Ramones. (Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee all had outsized personalities; he didn’t.) Still, for their first four years, he was more or less their leader, although that wasn’t evident to most people outside the band. He was also the person who assembled the band in the first place. He’d played with guitarist John Cummings in a high school band called Tangerine Puppets, and once he got to know his Forest Hills neighbors Douglas Colvin and Jeff Hyman a few years later, he convinced the three of them that they should start a band together — without him. But Colvin (now Dee Dee) wasn’t cut out to be a lead singer, and Hyman (now Joey), on drums, couldn’t keep up with the high-speed songs the band was writing. So in the weeks before their first show, in 1974, they shuffled the lineup. Now Dee Dee was the bass player and tempo-setter (“1-2-3-4!”); Joey was the singer; and Tommy, an experienced guitarist and recording engineer who’d never really played drums before, was drafted in to be their drummer.

Nobody else had played drums like Tommy played them: no frills, barely any fills, just nonstop, ultra-fast eighth notes on the hi-hat, with kick on 1 and 3 and snare on 2 and 4. It sounds moronically simple, and technically it is, but it’s also nearly impossible to keep a steady hi-hat beat if you’re playing it at Ramones-level speeds. Holding that beat for two minutes is a major accomplishment; keeping it up for 50 minutes, with a two-second pause every two minutes (which is basically what the Ramones’ drummers were required to do), takes inhuman focus.

Nonetheless, that’s what Tommy, with no previous drumming experience, came up with, and it’s what he played on their first three albums, Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, as well as the killer live double It’s Alive, recorded in 1977. (Marky Ramone, the drummer who replaced Tommy in 1978, later claimed that Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee rerecorded their parts of It’s Alive in the studio, but that Tommy’s drum tracks are from the actual concert.) And every punk rock drummer after him has responded to his legacy from those four years, directly or indirectly.

In a 1990 SPIN interview, Dee Dee referred to Tommy as “Tommy Elderly” (Erdelyi had been all of 25 years old when the Ramones started), and argued that “Tommy had no artistic input in the group, but he definitely got us off the ground.” It’s true that Tommy’s “artistic input” in the traditional sense was limited — though he did write “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” as well as a song called “Animal Hop” that Dee Dee rewrote as “Blitzkrieg Bop” (changing “they’re shouting in the back now” to the much funnier “shoot ‘em in the back now”).

‘He had both the vision of what their style should be and the technical expertise to realize it.’

It’s also true that the Ramones wouldn’t have happened without Tommy. He had both the vision of what their style should be and the technical expertise to realize it: During the Ramones’ early tour soundchecks, Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh would play drums while Tommy went to the soundboard to get the sound right. He was convinced that they were going to be a big deal much sooner than they were; he left the band after Rocket to Russia because, as he explained in Leigh’s I Slept With Joey Ramone, “I was really into the recording process and writing the songs and making the albums, but not the logistics of touring with a bunch of very eccentric, high-strung, crazy people from one shit-hole club to another. It was pretty depressing.”

Still, he stayed in the band’s orbit, co-producing Road to Ruin and Too Tough to Die. (The crisp, dense guitar tracks on Road to Ruin are reportedly not just Johnny’s work, but enhanced with overdubs by Tommy and Ed Stasium.) He produced a handful of records for other bands, too, including Redd Kross’s Neurotica and the Replacements’ Tim, but he mostly moved out of the spotlight as the mutant children of the sound he’d helped to create matured and rose to power. As he put it in an interview in the mid ’00s, “I enjoy being Tommy Ramone when I want to be Tommy Ramone, and I’m perfectly fine with being like Clark Kent, you know what I mean?”