The king is dead. Yeah, he may have been a bit of a punk. But a royal punk he was. The July 11 announcement of the death of Tommy Ramone at age 65 was about more than just his untimely passing. The loss of the last surviving original member of the Ramones marked the passing of an era.
There are no doubt countless ill-informed music fans out there that were surprised to find out that a member of the iconic New York punk band was still alive. Those are probably the same people that were oblivious to the fact that the middle-aged dude playing a mean mandolin for the last six years in Uncle Monk was actually a founding member of one of the most influential bands of the last 40 years. Only a Ramone would discern the similarity between punk and bluegrass as “a certain cool in old time music that is found in the best alternative acts.”
Ramone – born Tamás Erdélyi in Budapest, Hungary 65 years ago – may have spent the last few years of his life making rock tinged string-band music. But long before he was strumming guitar, banjo and dobro for the bluegrass duo with Claudia Tienan, he was making his music-shaping mark drumming for the legendary band, acknowledged by many as the “inventors” of punk rock.
According to the original blueprint, Erdélyi was to have been the trio’s manager. But original rhythmist Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman) struggled to keep up with the band’s blistering pace and the other two didn’t want to beat the skins, meaning Erdélyi had to step up – and the Ramones had to become a quartet. Of the band’s 14 albums, the “accidental drummer” only played on the first three, co-producing the second and third. But you’d be hard pressed to name a trio of albums that had a bigger impact on the punk movement than Ramones (1976), Leave Home (1977) and Rocket to Russia (1977).
Erdélyi and the original three “brethren” – vocalist Hyman, guitarist Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) and bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin) – enjoyed only limited chart success with blistering hits like “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Beat on the Brat” and “I Wanna be Sedated.” But then who needs gold records when you can be the driving influence behind the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and Green Day? Particularly when the power of the band’s music is enough to make Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and gain induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Yes, music has lost much more than a great artist and a hall of famer – it has lost a member of royalty. The king is dead.