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Tommy Ramone Set The Pace For The Ramones -- Then He Quit

Music | January 29, 2020

The Ramones in London on May 19, 1977. L-R. Johnny Ramone, Tommy Ramone (front), Joey Ramone (back), Dee Dee Ramone (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns)

When punk rock progenitors The Ramones played, it was drummer Tommy Ramone who barked 1-2-3-4! to kick off tunes like "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Beat On The Brat," "California Sun," and "Commando." In many ways Tom Erdelyi, a Hungarian immigrant, created the blueprint for punk rock. He wrote many of the early songs by the Ramones and helped guide a career that had longer legs than anyone could have imagined. He was the founding drummer and the last surviving member of the band that created punk. Even after he stopped performing with the band he stayed in the fold to make sure the band held onto its spirit until their final days.

Tommy Wasn't Always A Ramone

source: Rolling Stone

Born Tom Erdelyi, the diminutive Hungarian drummer started dreaming up the band after his first group, Tangerine Puppets, fell apart. He happened to be in the band with one mister John Cummings, the future Johnny Ramone, whom he felt would be the perfect guitarist for the group. After putting weirdo Dee Dee in place as bassist and tall, barely verbal longhair Joey in place as the drummer everything was set -- well, until they heard Joey sing. Joey Ramone was nearly unintelligible.

Tommy had a flash of brilliance: Let Joey sing. It was that simple, and Joey's shortcomings as a traditional vocalist became his signature as a punk vocalist.

Now all the group needed was a drummer, something easier said than done in Forest Hills, Queens in 1974. At the time Tommy was just acting as the band’s manager and sometime song writer. He penned “Blitzkrieg Bop” with some alterations from Dee Dee and while it was great that they had killer songs, they were still incomplete without someone to hold things down behind the kit. Erdelyi explained the band’s solution to Noisecreep:

We started auditioning drummers, but they just couldn’t grasp the concept of the band — the speed and simplicity. So I’d sit down and show them what we were looking for and the guys just finally said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ So I gave it a try and that’s when the sound of the band sort of solidified.

He Loved Being A Ramone, But He Hated Being In The Ramones

source: Billboard

In addition to the whole creating punk rock thing (pipe down, Sex Pistols fans) the Ramones are also famous for absolutely hating each other. If there was something to fight about you can believe they carved out time in their day to argue. Erdelyi describes the band as being a strange space where the four members had an "'us against the world' mentality" while also really hating each other. Worst of all, he said, it wasn’t fun:

It was never fun being in the Ramones, which is the saddest thing of all, 'cause it shoulda been fun. It was probably fun when we played Performance Studio, and maybe some of the early gigs at CBGB's. But the Ramones were the type of group that had a bizarre mindset. Being in the band was so cut-off from reality. I was with them all the time — and it was very disturbing.

He Quit The Band After Johnny Threatened His Wife

source: Time

In 1977, the Ramones were making a push to become the biggest band in the world and it wasn’t working. Around the time of recording Rocket to Russia (1977), Joey hurt his foot and Johnny insisted that the band replace him with Cramps singer Lux Interior. When Erdelyi’s wife joked that the band should replace Johnny he allegedly assaulted her, an action that told Erdelyi he needed to choose the band or his sanity. He explained his exit to Legs McNeil:

Pretty soon after, in 1978, I left the band. I realized I just couldn’t win. I was losing my mind. I was under a lot of stress. I realize that I was probably suffering from clinical depression, but I didn’t know it at the time. At that point, I said, "Listen, this is no good. Why don't we bring a drummer in [to tour], and I’ll work in the studio. I can help you guys write the songs. If I stay on the road I'm going to go nuts.

Rather Than Leave The Band Completely, Tommy Stayed On As Their Manager

source: Facebook

After seeing his wife assaulted by a bandmate, it would have made perfect sense for Erdelyi to leave the band with both middle fingers in the air, but the group was his baby. He put the guys together and he wasn’t about to be the reason it fell apart. He stayed on as the band’s manager for a while, helping them secure Mark Bell, soon to be renamed Marky Ramone, and stuck around to write songs and produce the band’s fourth album Road to Ruin in 1978.

Before he was a Ramone, Erdelyi was a recording engineer, so it’s not like he was out of his element. He helped create a massive sound that the band lacked on their previous records but rather than give them the rock hit that they wanted it simply bolstered their underground status.

The Tommy-less albums following Road to Ruin saw the Ramones struggling with their identity, beginning with the surprise move of teaming up with Phil Spector on End Of The Century (1980). The band went on to make two more albums without Tommy, Pleasant Deams (1981) and Subterranean Jungle (1983). 

Tommy Returned To The Fold For 'Too Tough To Die'

source: pitchfork

After he finished his managerial duties with the band, Erdelyi did his own thing. He worked behind the scenes with other bands and stayed in touch with the group. In his absence, the Ramones tried to court the hardcore and heavy metal crowds with heavy riffage, but they weren’t gaining traction. Erdelyi returned as producer for Too Tough To Die (1984),and was excited to hook back up with the band, but that things had changed when he returned. He told Mark Prindle:

They didn't communicate with each other anymore. When I left, things were still pretty much the way they were, but when I came back, they had formed camps and stuff.

While the record didn’t turn the band into superstars, the group was able to recapture the minimalist sound of their early albums which really let their songwriting shine, that’s all thanks to Erdelyi.

After Working With The Replacements He Laid Low

source: YouTube

After the recording of Too Tough To Die Erdelyi must have felt bulletproof. Sure, the record wasn’t a hit but he survived working with a group of angry guys who would have rather been somewhere else, so why not work with the Replacements? In 1985, this band of Minneapolis misfits signed to Sire Records, the same label as the Ramones, and Erdelyi was tapped to produce the group's label debut, Tim (1985).

Erdelyi helped the group coalesce their sound into something resembling a radio friendly record without completely neutering the group. No one had fun recording this record, and the group’s lead guitarist, Bob Stinson, only showed up to record for a day. It wasn’t ideal. Even with the personality problems, the record’s great. It didn’t perform well at the time but it’s gone down in history as one of their best.

After working with the Replacements, Erdelyi continued working within the industry and he played in a bluegrass band for a while. Even though his split from the Ramones was as bad as can be, it always looked like he was the most well adjusted member. On July 11, 2014, the first Ramone in was the last original Ramone out. Erdelyi passed away at his home in Ridgewood, Queens, New York, at the age of 65 from bile duct cancer.

Tags: Drummers | The Ramones | Tommy Ramone | What Did He Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.