farewell Tommy Ramone : an appreciation of the genius behind the Ramones

 

 

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So farewell then to the last of the Ramones- Tommy has left us and the original Ramones are no more. There is always something heartbreakingly sad about bidding farewell to a musician who once gave you the electric shock of life beyond the banal and the beige and made you feel really alive who has died and the Ramones underline this more than most.

 

The Ramones early albums were treated as a joke by the media and as a jolt to a wonderland of creativity by sporadic lunatic teenagers at the time and for decades since then. They were glued to our turntables and into our DNA to the point where if you don’t get da brudders you don’t get rock n roll.

 

At some point on the floral and florrid seventies when rock n roll tried to get all grwon up and conceptual Tommy had a dream and created the most perfect pop band ever- the first generation gap in a culture that thought it was eternally teenage hip.

 

The Ramones were a buzzsaw to convetion and their four headed monster, brothers in noise appraoch hid their dysfuncional genius. They were the most upside down band ever- they wanted to be pop stars- they even arrived in the UK in 1976 with a fan club magazine and were set up like some sort of gonzoid glam band on the helter skleter of the end of that trip- like some kinda faster version of the Arrows or those later glam bands that bridged the gap between glam and punk but the tripwired and created punk and became the template for rock n roll purity.

 

They pretended to be be a goofy boy band but were too bizarre looking to be pin ups and they were not even brothers. They were the perfect band who were the most dysfunctional band ever- their singer and guitar player would not speak to eachother for decades and their bass player was a loose canon, they are held up as an example of the purity of the rock n roll vision but they didn’t always play on their own records, they were taken as the byword for fast and dumb when they were heartbreakingly romantic, they acted stoopid but were pretty smart, they were the template of punk but were never a punk band, their manager played drums for them and their drummer ended up being the singer whilst their bass player wrote a bulk of the band’s songs and sold them to the band for a few hundred dollars apiece. They were suburbanites who became synonymous with the garbage comic strip of mid seventies Manhattan and they took rock n roll to its ultimate stripped down holy goof.

 

They were the perfect band- the gonzoid rush of distortion and heartbeat drums that changed music forever. Everyone copied them but no-one managed to get close to their genius because, despite that simplicity they wrote songs of heartbreaking beauty or gum chewing cartoon black humour that have become rock n roll staples.  When they played the Roundhouse in the UK in July 1976 supporting the Flaming Groovies nearly every band in the UK speeded up overnight and leather jackets became the punk staple.

 

They talked the talk and they walked the walk – dressed in Lewis leathers and ripped jeans and posing against the brick walls and vaudeville trash of broken hearted mid seventies New York they looked like how they sounded. And the whole concept had come out of their drummer’s fevered imagination-  Tommy Ramone created the perfect pop band out of of his goofy mates from out of town- an unlikely looking crew of suburban misfits and freaks who he moulded into a band that we all actually believed were real brothers.

 

This was the Beatles through a fuzzbox, the Beatles that shared a house in the Help film recreated with leather jackets and hustler ripped jeans and transposed into the mid seventies that was desperately seeking a fix of pure rock n roll- the music without all the university boffin frippery and stripped back to its primal beauty.

 

Shut you eyes and you can still see him now, Tommy- the slight figure behind the drum kit with the almost childlike pop kid presence who was much older but who somehow enscapulated the pure joy of the weirdest and most genius of rock n roll bands. Tommy Ramone was the engine room who reinvented rock roll drumming to its most perfect heartbeat and that was his musical genius.

 

Instead of the overwrought flurries of seventies drumming he boiled it all back down to the basic backbeat that makes him the most perfect drummer of all time- the thump bang of the human heart which was so perfect for the band’s wall of sound and so perfect that drummers will be copying it for a hundred more years at least.

 

Rock n roll is about the primal- a primal that everyone forgets as they complicate the simple and it turns out that this genius simplicity is the hardest trick of them all to pull off with too much meddling getting in the way of perfection. Tommy knew this- it was his idea to create a band out of bubblegum and have the drummer play the perfect thump bang with the hi hat on the sixteenths and when Joey Ramone could not manage it in his bizarre initial role as the band drummer they auditioned for drummers who could surf the heartbeat. They could not find anyone who could not resist adding the superfluous to the perfect. Every time Tommy had to step up to show them how to and eventually became the band drummer by default.

 

For a band who stripped rock n roll down to its most basic building blocks a lot has been said about the Ramones. They were the perfect band at the perfect time whose impact on rock n roll has been endless. Tommy was not just the drummer of the band he was meant to be the manager and he also produced their early salvo of records that set the template for a million bands worldwise since then. Those raw productions that sound like they were recorded ina cardboard box were a v sign to the complex super stereo polish of the encroaching middle age of rock n roll that was mixing records for the new coffee table stereos. The Ramones sounded hot, sticky and live and utterly primal but there were studio tricks picked up by Tommy from his years spent in recording studios with Joey’s vocals double tracked, perfect crystalline pop harmonies sitting on top of the primitive guitars and the Spector echo slapback on the drums.

 

Tommy had a music biz background and was more hooked into the music scene than his bandmates even being the assistant engineer for the production of the Jimi Hendrix album Band of Gypsys. He had seen he rise of the pomp of the seventies from the inside and the Ramones were his own personal quest to get the rock and roll back into focus.

 

The Ramones may have kick started punk rock but they were never a punk rock band. They were a romantic classic band, far more enthralled and in tune with the Beatles and the Beach Boys than the about to arrive punk rock brawl. They were the Beatles if they had stayed in Hamburg and they were Spector with a chainsaw.

 

Their debut album may have had the thrilling rush of distorted guitar and Dee Dee’s one note bass genius but it also had perfect harmonies- crystalline pop classic harmonies and was doused with Spector magic dust and the girl group melodies of tragedy and romance as well  as Joey’s vocal that was one part goofy and one part the voice of heartbreak- these were the details that no-one ever copied from the band when they filched their trademark buzzsaw genius. It was easy enough to take the ramalama racket of the Ramones but almost impossible to take the parts that were pure genius. Tommy knew this  and the band that he created were deceptively simple and deceptively gonzoid and like his drumming they made the complex seem simple and that was their genius.

 

They played D.U.M.B. dumb but were smart pop operators.

 

Born in Ontario Tommy had Jewish parents who had survived the holocaust and you sometimes wonder if the band’s sick dark humour was a reaction to their parent’s tragic backgrounds in the war. He grew up in Forest Hills and formed a band called the Tangerine Puppets with Johny Ramone in the mix sixties. Ten years later when he created the Ramones he was meant to be the manager but ended up on the drums, in a sense waiting for the perfect drummer who got the concept to come along- he had to wait a good few albums before Marky Ramone arrived and let him step into a background role.

 

Tommy wrote most of Blitzkrieg Bop from a title that Dee Dee had typically made up- for that alone he is worth a million. Thank you for the ride Tommy- you saved rock n roll from itself and you created one of the greatest bands ever and you are still one of the greatest drummers ever who understood the heartbeat- for that we will salute you eternally.

 

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