Tommy Ramone dies at 65; last original member of namesake punk band
If ever an opening song on a debut album could set the tone for the entirety of a band’s career, it was “Blitzkrieg Bop,” off the 1976 self-titled album by the Ramones. Lean, fast and propelled forward by a low-to-the-ground-beat and no-fuss lyrics (“Hey! Ho! Let’s go!”), the 2-minute, 13-second song doesn’t waste any time in putting the listener on high alert.
Today, it’s a rallying cry at sporting events the world over. Almost four decades ago, however, it served for many as the introduction to four leather-wearing men who looked as if they had emerged from a gutter in New York (in reality, from a well-kept neighborhood in Queens).
The anchor of that song — the first of many underground flags that the Ramones would cement in mainstream America — was Tom Erdelyi, better known as Tommy Ramone. The Ramones’ drummer on only its first three studio albums, Erdelyi served later as the band’s producer and was forever a principal in shaping the sound of one of America’s most beloved punk rock outfits.
“We thought we were the best band in the world,” Erdelyi said in 2004. “Everyone else would have to catch up with us.”
Erdelyi, 65, the last surviving original member of the Ramones, died Friday at home in New York, where he was receiving hospice care, said his longtime friend Andy Schwartz. Erdelyi had been battling cancer of the bile duct for more than a year.
“Tommy was the architect. He put the records together. The other guys were the band — they would do the live thing — but Tommy put the records together,” said Ed Stasium, who co-produced or engineered a number of early Ramones works. “He came up with songs, he rehearsed the band, he came up with the concept and he was there for every minute in the studio.”
Or as Marc Bell, the friend and drummer who succeeded Erdelyi as the rhythmic anchor of the Ramones, put it: “He was the authoritative figure in the group. He was the original manager. He’s the one who called everyone up to come see the Ramones at CGBG.”
He was born Erdelyi Tamas in Budapest, Hungary, on Jan. 29, 1949. He came to the U.S. with his family in 1957 and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens.
His music career began long before the Ramones. Around the age of 20, he worked as an apprentice engineer to Tony Bongiovi at the Record Plant recording studio, affording him the opportunity to sit in on sessions with Jimi Hendrix in 1969 and planting the seeds for his preference of the studio over the road.
Bongiovi, who co-produced the Ramones’ 1977 albums “Leave Home” and “Rocket to Russia,” said Erdelyi’s drumming was not the flamboyant, attention-calling style favored by Led Zeppelin.
“He wasn’t a drummer like a John Bonham, where the drums were way out in front and part of the personality of the band,” Bongiovi said. “It was the way Tommy played drums that kept that sound together. You had no choice but to follow him — no choice. He was commanding, but he was subtle because you didn’t know what he was doing until he stopped playing.
“His goal was to create a solid beat that everyone had to follow. That was not easy. That made the band sound the way they did.”
A friendship with bassist John Cummings, later Johnny Ramone (all the band members took the same last stage name), would eventually lead to the formation of the Ramones with lead singer Jeffrey Hyman (Joey Ramone) and bassist Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee Ramone).
The band’s early works would take a Beatles-like hook and speed it up, turning the songs into a paean to urban malaise and inner-city frustration, albeit with a little silliness mixed in. It’s a sound that would become the backbone of American punk, taken into the suburbs by Screeching Weasel and Green Day in the 1980s and ‘90s, and then to Broadway by Green Day in 2010.
Ultimately, Ramones songs such as “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and “Beat on the Brat” were more personal stamps on forceful individualism than the politically charged U.K. punk later made famous by the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
Erdelyi toured with the band in 1977, performing during the concerts that would comprise the Ramones’ 1979 double live album “It’s Alive.” He later turned over the drumming duties to Bell (Marky Ramone) and began focusing on production work. In addition to continued work with the Ramones, his production credits include the Replacements’ scrappy 1985 album “Tim” and 1987’s “Neurotica” by local glam-punk band Redd Kross.
“Tommy was the happiest at that time,” Stasium said. “He was at ease in the studio.”
Survivors include his partner, Claudia Tienan, with whom he had an acoustic duo called Uncle Monk; and a brother, Peter Erdelyi.
Staff writer David Colker contributed to this report.
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