If it’s true, as punk band the Slits have argued, that “in the beginning there was rhythm,” then Tommy Ramone’s drum pound marked a new day rising. The original drummer for seminal New York punk band the Ramones, Tommy, born Erdelyi Tamas, died Friday at age 65 after a long battle with cancer, but his basic, urgent contribution to popular music over the course of the band’s first three albums remains wildly alive.
Any time you hear a punk band tearing through a three-minute jam, the drummer in the back is likely echoing a no-nonsense beat that Tommy helped codify. If you’ve ever sung along to the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” you’re repeating lines that Tommy wrote. Struck by the sonic force of the Ramones? The drummer co-produced those early records and more -- including Redd Kross’s “Neurotica” and the Replacements’ “Pleased to Meet Me.”
FOR THE RECORD
A previous version of this post said Tommy Ramone was born Tommy Erdelyi. He was born Erdelyi Tamas. It also misspelled “Paulene” in an X song title as “Pauline.”
Born in an age of endless solos and weird prog-rock time signatures, the Ramones ditched the mid-'70s pretense and ego-heavy musicianly indulgence in favor of face-punch brevity in three-minute, fast-paced sprints such as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Beat on the Brat” and “Judy Is a Punk."
On these tracks and more, what’s notable about Tommy’s drumming is how vital yet invisible he remains. You can’t imagine the songs without him, but he so effectively vanishes to become the rudder that few would have pegged him as essential to the Ramones’ sound.
The same could be said about Tommy’s role in the band’s early success. He wrote the Ramones’ first press release, in which he verbalized their simple but ingenious philosophy.
“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,” he wrote in their first missive to the press. “The Ramones are an original Rock and Roll group of 1975, and their songs are brief, to the point and every one a potential hit single.”
Plus, they didn’t look like stars. They looked like thugs.
“It wasn’t just music in the Ramones, it was an idea,” Tommy said in an interview quoted on the band’s official Facebook page. “It was bringing back a whole feel that was missing in rock music -- it was a whole push outwards to say something new and different. Originally it was just an artistic type of thing; finally I felt it was something that was good enough for everybody.”
That thump-snare-thump-snare sound is as old as rock & roll itself, it’s true, but wrapped amid the urgent, distorted chords of Johnny’s guitar, Dee Dee’s bass and Joey’s voice, it was punk’s big bang. Tommy’s steamrolling beat resonated with the poppy British punk of the Buzzcocks and was a founding text of the Los Angeles hardcore movement: in the Germs’ “What We Do Is Secret,” X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” there’s that pace, that steadfast, unpretentious rhythm. Ditto Green Day’s early work, where Tre Cool took the bones of Tommy’s idea in service of a bigger sound.
Guitar tunings and haircuts may change. Commercial punks such as Sum 41 and Fallout Boy might land it on the charts. Young breakout miscreants such as White Lung, Metz and Fidlar can revisit old ideas and inject them with fresh spirit. The beat that Tommy Ramone pounded out, though, remains the nail that holds it all together.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit.