Tommy Ramone, the last surviving member of The Ramones, sadly passed away on July 11th. As the original drummer of the Ramones, Tommy died as a musical icon who helped to bring the punk-rock scene to the world’s forefront. The Ramones’ blasphemous lyrical content, their wild antics and their very very fast songs (the paces of which were in Tommy’s control) not only challenged the standards of rock n’ roll established in the “Golden Age” of the 50s, but created an entire scene of adolescent cynicism, rebellion, and irreverent fun that has remained relevant to musicians and fans alike to this day. The extent to which the Ramones have influenced the musical scene as a whole can never really be measured. If You Like The Ramones by Peter Aaron creates a vision that helps to capture the vast importance of this foursome. In light of Tommy’s death, Peter wrote this article for Chronogram. You’ll be missed, Tommy!
I Remember You: Tommy Ramone (1952-2014)
Peter Aaron on Tue, Jul 15
Forty years ago, a simple action that lasted less than one second and took place within a physical space not much bigger than a shoebox changed music forever. At that precise instant, Tommy Ramone’s sneaker-clad foot pressed down on his kick drum pedal for the very first time as he sat behind his band mates, Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny Ramone, and the four played their first song together as the Ramones. The very instant Tommy hit that initial beat on his bass drum—an act that would provide the absolute nexus of the Ramones’ songs—he sent a shock wave through the universe that not only lit the fuse of the punk rock explosion that launched thousands of subsequent bands (and the bands that, they in turn, inspired), but also led to the creation of a D.I.Y. climate that has empowered people of myriad backgrounds and walks of life to go for it , and pursue their dreams. Over the weekend we got the crushing news that Tommy Ramone (AKA Tommy Erdelyi), a Phoenicia, New York, resident since 1993 and the last surviving original member of the Ramones, had died at the age of 65.
The moment cited at the start of this post took place in 1974 in the basement of the Art Garden, a Queens art gallery owned by Joey Ramone’s mother. At first, Joey had been the group’s drummer and Dee Dee was the lead singer as well as the bassist; Tommy was the band’s manager. But after it was determined that Joey was a lousy drummer and a much better singer than Dee Dee, things were shuffled. Joey stepped out front and Tommy, who had never before played drums in his life, got behind the kit to demonstrate the sound he had in his head. It all clicked immediately. History was born. In 1978, after five albums with the band Tommy left the quartet to concentrate on his career as a producer (in addition to the Ramones, he produced Talking Heads, the Replacements, and Redd Kross, among others), and was succeeded by Marky Ramone, Richie Ramone, and, very briefly, Blondie’s Clem Burke (as “Elvis Ramone”), all of whom did their best to adhere to the unwavering four-on-the-floor template laid down by Tommy.
I got to interview Tommy twice, once for Roll magazine for a piece about Uncle Monk, the bluegrass duo he had with his companion Claudia Tienan, and once for a Chronogram feature on Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. On both occasions, he was incredibly thoughtful, very introspective, and super sweet. “Historically, I knew the Ramones would eventually be recognized,” he said when asked about his old group’s late-blooming recognition in the former article. “Because the band was just so different than anything else at the time [it began] and we influenced so many other bands. But how it’s just gotten bigger and bigger in terms of commercial popularity and how it keeps getting bigger all the time—that’s a really unexpected phenomenon.”
In 1979, I went to a Ramones record-signing event at Looney Tunes Records on Route 23 in Wayne, New Jersey (a pivotal place for me). In my haste, I forgot to bring a record for the Ramones to sign. Of the albums they had out at the time, Leave Home (1977), was the only one I didn’t own, so I bought a copy at the store and took it up to the table the Ramones were sitting at as they autographed records and posters for lines of kids. I didn’t think about the fact that although Tommy had played on that album, it was Marky who was actually the band’s drummer at the time of the in-store. (Who’s the pinhead now?) But Marky, gentleman that he is (or maybe he just didn’t care), went ahead and signed it anyway. I still have it, and had planned to seek out Tommy to have him sign it at last. But after cancelling an acoustic show he was supposed to play with the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock in Albany a couple of years back due to illness, he dropped out of sight; presumably, it was the same bile duct cancer that eventually took his life. Although reality now dictates that Tommy’s scrawled signature will never grace the tattered cover of my copy of Leave Home, his sonic and spiritual signature remain indelibly imprinted on it regardless, as they do on all of the Ramones’ music (even the stuff he doesn’t play on) and that of so many others.
Tommy and Claudia were Phoenicia part-timers and still kept a place in Queens, which, fittingly, is where Tommy passed last Friday. When I met him at an Uncle Monk show in Woodstock a few years back, as I consciously try to do when I meet other artists who have impacted my life, I made sure to look straight into his eyes and tell him thank you, for what he had done. Now that Tommy’s joined the other original Ramones at that ultimate punk gig in the Great Beyond, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to do that.
Guest Blogger: Peter Aaron, author of If You Like the Ramones… Enjoy Aaron’s post about another band who, like the Ramones, were on the front lines of the punk rock movement.
In Chapter 3 of If You Like the Ramones there’s a sidebar about pub rock, the street-level, old-school-R&B-based movement that thrived in the sweaty barrooms of early 1970’s England and provided the launch pad for punk’s explosion across the pond. And naturally a sizeable chunk of the entry is devoted to Dr. Feelgood, the Canvey Island-bred quartet whose tough sound informed the music of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, Gang of Four, Eddie and the Hot Rods, and legions more. While I was working on the book I learned that Dr. Feelgood guitarist and co-founder Wilko Johnson had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The news hit me hard.
Although I never got to see Dr. Feelgood or Wilko play live—being a twelve-year-old suburban American boy during the Feelgoods’ prime 1975-1976 period, I was blissfully unaware of much that happened beyond the walls of my model kit-building garret—my eventual discovery of their LPs via used-record bins was revelatory. Besides being blown away by the band’s hard energy and overall coolness, Wilko became one of my all-time favorite guitarists. Strike that—I’m inclined to say he is my favorite.
Looking like a simmering, bug-eyed thug behind his trademark Telecaster, that’s exactly how Wilko plays on Dr. Feelgood’s defining early albums—1975’s Down by the Jetty and Malpractice, 1976’s Stupidity, 1977’s Sneakin’ Suspicion—and his similarly fine later solo releases and those with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Skittering, scraping, and bursting percussively out of the speakers like rabbit punches to the chest, Wilko’s lead-eschewing attack is a method of musicianship you wish more six-stringers would embrace, rather than chasing the soulless noodlings of Joe Satriani and similar masturbators. No wonder the Ramones were tapped to open for Dr. Feelgood’s appearance at New York’s Bottom Line in May 1976. Director Julien Temple’s riveting, award-winning Feelgoods doc Oil City Confidential (2010) is mandatory viewing for all music lovers.
But despite his grim, it’s-just-a-matter-of-time prognosis, Wilko has continued to be a divine inspiration in other, far bigger ways. He’s opted to go out swinging—one might say swinging his axe, in the face of his own mortality. Refusing chemotherapy, after the diagnosis he promptly booked tour dates and has vowed to keep performing as long as he is physically able. And from all reports the shows have been excellent. Something to think about the next morning you’re lingering in bed, dreading that limp to the shower and that mind-numbing commute.
So, as a musician, a music lover, and a human being who strives daily in small ways to better himself, thank you, Wilko Johnson, from the bottom of this battered heart. You and your vibrant art have made the universe a better place. Irreversibly so.
With that quick count-off, four hoppin’ cretins from Queens who called themselves the Ramones launched the 1970s musical revolution known as punk rock. And ever since, popular music hasn’t been the same. Perhaps the most imitated band of all time, the Ramones stripped rock ‘n’ roll down to its bare bones and beating heart and handed it back to the people, making it fun again and reminding everyone that, hey, they could do this, too.
But “da brudders” didn’t just influence their key comrades in the original punk explosion. Their raw, tough sound and divine gift of enduring, melodic songcraft has power-drilled its way into musical styles as divergent as college rock, power pop, hardcore punk, thrash metal, grunge, and the avant-garde, and continues to be felt in newer waves of young acts. And what about the music that influenced the Ramones themselves – early rock ‘n’ roll, surf rock, British Invasion sounds, garage rock, girl groups, hard rock, bubblegum, proto-punk, and glam rock? Or the nonmusical stuff that also warped the skulls beneath those trademark bowl haircuts – weird movies, cartoons, trashy TV shows, comic books, and other cultural jetsam? It’s all here, just waiting for you to discover and dig. Hey Ho, Let’s Go!