July 12, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

With the sad news of Tommy Ramone’s passing at age 62 from complications related to bile duct cancer, which sounds like a particularly painful way to exit this mortal coil, all four original members of Ramones—Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy—are dead and gone. Literally, Ramones are dead.

Plenty has been made of Ramones’ legacy and influence, and certainly many of those points will be reiterated here and across the internet this week. Starting in 1974 in Forest Hills, Queens, they became, arguably, the first great American punk band; they were not very good at playing their instruments, at least at first, but that was part of their appeal; they were goofy and awkward-looking, but they desperately wanted to be famous rock stars; they wrote better pop songs than any other punk band in history; and whether directly or indirectly, everyone who has ever listened to or played some semblance of punk music has gleaned knowledge and influence from them. They were this subculture’s Beatles.

The last part of that above sentence is a blanket statement to end all blanket statements, but one of the quirky things about punk and its history is that in its case, often these blanket statements are regarded as near-universal truth. Though our punk heroes have become increasingly and unfortunately fragile and mortal as the years have gone on, punk itself is still relatively young and because of that youth, it’s relatively easy to pinpoint when it began, where it began, who started it, and who is important when discussing its beginnings.

In terms of more or less inventing pop-punk, Ramones are peerless. Few can argue this with any sort of authority. The doesn’t mean their music was borne out of thin air—they were influenced by the glam and attitude of the New York Dolls, the benign weirdness of Iggy and the Stooges, the catchiness of the Kinks, among others—but they combined those elements into a package that put an entirely new facade on rock and roll, back when the wheel hadn’t been reinvented ad infinitum yet.

Tommy’s passing is especially sad, not just because of the way he died, but because of the degree of his accomplishments. He was, arguably, the most important architect of Ramones’ iconography: Before he took his seat behind the drumkit—replacing Joey, who couldn’t keep up with the band’s tempo—he was the band’s manager, and no doubt wielded considerable influence over their sound, look and attitude. Tommy, perhaps by accident, was a shrewd purveyor of talent, and seemed to sense that something—energy, speed, goofiness, or maybe all three—was missing from the rock and roll music of the day. Ramones filled the void. They were cool precisely because of how uncool they seemed. Tommy no doubt had a huge and steady hand in that.

Weary from relentless touring, Tommy left Ramones in 1978 and was replaced by Marky who in two separate stints (1978-1982, then again from 1987 until the band’s retirement in 1996) became the band’s longest-tenured drummer. Tommy continued to manage the band and help produce some of their subsequent albums, including 1978’s Road To Ruin and 1984’s Too Tough To Die, under his real name, Thomas Erdelyi. His death puts his huge accomplishments in such a short period of time, a blip on the radar of rock history, in proper perspective. None of us would be here right this second without Tommy and the rest of the Ramones. It’s easy to forget that, to take it for granted when they’re still here. We think they’ll be there forever. In a way, they will be.