Tommy Ramone, who died Friday of cancer at 65, was the last surviving original member of the Ramones, and also perhaps the most low key and least-known. But he was essential to shaping the pioneering punk quartet's sound and image.
As early as 1975, a year before the Ramones made their first album, Tommy Ramone knew what the band was all about. As the quartet's de facto manager and publicist, he typed up a one-page band biography that he mailed to a few clubs and record-industry contacts. It read in part:
"The Ramones are not an oldies group, they are not a glitter group, they don't play boogie music and they don't play the blues. The Ramones are an original rock 'n' roll group of 1975, and their songs are brief, to the point, and every one a potential hit single. … The Ramones all originate from Forest Hills, and kids who grew up there either become musicians, degenerates or dentists. The Ramones are a little of each. Their sound is not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar."
That uncompromising sound was completely realized on the band's self-titled 1976 debut. As seen in the iconic black-and-white cover photo, Tommy Ramone stands barely 5 feet tall in an ill-fitting T-shirt and sunglasses. Yet he's nearly the equal of towering lead singer Joey Ramone, who is slouching slightly while Tommy boosts himself a few inches by planting his dirty shoes on some chipped concrete jutting out from a wall behind him.
It was symbolic of Tommy Ramone's stature in the band. He played a background role publicly as drummer and producer, while Joey, guitarist Johnny and bassist Dee Dee Ramone got most of the attention. But the band would not have been the same without his vision and skill as a studio technician and drummer. Tommy also contributed to the songwriting, including one of the band's signature tracks, "Blitzkrieg Bop."
Born Tamas Erdelyi in Hungary in 1949 to a Jewish family that survived the Holocaust, young Tommy met John (Johnny) Cummings in high school in Forest Hills, N.Y., during the '60s. They formed a rock band, later joined by neighborhood kids Douglas (Dee Dee) Colvin and Jeffrey (Joey) Hyman. Initially the band was a trio with Joey on drums, Johnny on guitar and Dee Dee on bass and lead vocals.
Tommy had picked up some experience in the music business, working on recording sessions in New York, including Jimi Hendrix's "Band of Gypsies" album. He was a guitar player, but he initially was enlisted to manage the fledgling Ramones. "They were sort of a concept of mine," he said in a 2007 interview. "I had seen the New York Dolls … (who) were not very virtuosic, but were the most exciting band I'd seen in a long time. … I encouraged (Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee) to get some instruments and do that."
Their first rehearsal was a shambles, but the "strange, bizarre songs" set the band apart, addressing subjects such as dysfunctional families and teenage boredom with dark comedy and bubblegum melodies revved up to 150 miles an hour.
"Johnny wanted to be a baseball player and he'd throw fastballs," Tommy once said. "His virtuosity on the guitar became speed. Joey was trying to keep up on drums, but his drum kit would fall apart after every song."
Tommy took over on drums, even though he had never picked up the sticks before. His style was different, but it suited the band's speeding subway train sound. He played eighth notes with no let-up, not allowing for any fills or fanciness. "I knew what I wanted to hear, which I couldn't get other drummers to play," he once said. "I came up with something that matched Johnny's forward drive."
Marc Bell (aka Marky Ramone), who later replaced Tommy as the band's drummer, once credited his predecessor with completing the Ramones "wall of sound." It was "all mass and no space," Marky said. "Playing fast with eighth notes constantly – a lot of people try it, but they just get sloppy and can't keep up."
With their leather jackets, torn jeans, high-velocity sound and no-nonsense delivery – often cramming two dozen songs inside a 40-minute set – the Ramones caused a sensation on New York's dead-end Lower East Side in the mid-'70s. The hippie '60s were officially dead, something new had arrived, and almost every band that would matter in future decades took note, from Sonic Youth and U2 to Nirvana and Green Day.
The Ramones' reputation spread to England, where a 1976 tour was attended by current or future members of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned. Punk rock became all the rage in England, but never grabbed a foothold on American commercial radio despite the band's earnest attempts at writing a hit single. The now-classic "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" only rose to No. 81 on the U.S. charts, though it hit No. 22 in the U.K.
Tommy became increasingly involved with shaping the band's studio sound as its modest recording budgets increased. The band's 1977 masterpiece, "Rocket to Russia," was recorded for $25,000, a paltry sum by today's standards but four times higher than the budget for the quartet's debut. It enabled Tommy, as coproducer, to spend extra time in the studio tinkering with arrangements. Mostly, he said, his job was to edit songs until only the essential elements were left, but occasionally he would add a distinctive color or texture, such as the brief, arpeggio-heavy guitar solo he played on "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow."
He left the band soon after to focus on production. "What made the guys so great, so talented, also made them hard to be with 24 hours, seven days a week traveling in a small van," Tommy Ramone said in the '07 interview. "They made great music, had great ideas, but they were all a little insane. I needed to keep a little more in touch with reality."
The softspoken musician went on to produce acclaimed albums by the Replacements ("Tim") and Redd Kross ("Neurotica") in the '80s, as well as what many consider the last great Ramones studio album, "Too Tough to Die," in 1984. In the last decade, he worked with his partner Claudia Tienan in a bluegrass duo, Uncle Monk.
Meanwhile, the Ramones crumbled in the '90s, when the band members were barely speaking to one another. Joey died in 2001 of cancer, Dee Dee of a drug overdose in 2002, and Johnny of cancer in 2004. They lived long enough to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and to see their legacy extended, their accomplishments praised and their songs covered by countless bands.
"We were very competitive," Tommy Ramone once said as he reflected on the band's late-arriving recognition. "We liked the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen,' and we also knew where they got it from. We listened and said, 'Hey, we gotta beat that.' But were just a little over people's heads, I think."