If it's true, as punk band the Slits have argued, that "in the beginning there was rhythm," then Tommy Ramone's drum pound marked a new day rising. The original drummer for seminal New York punk band the Ramones, Tommy, born Tommy Erdelyi, died Friday at age 65 after a long battle with cancer, but his basic, urgent contribution to popular music over the course of the band's first three albums remains wildly alive.
Any time you hear a punk band tearing through a three-minute jam, the drummer in the back is likely echoing a no-nonsense beat that Tommy helped codify. If you've ever sung along to the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," you're repeating lines that Tommy wrote. Struck by the sonic force of the Ramones? The drummer co-produced those early records and more - including Redd Kross' "Neurotica" and the Replacements' "Tim."
Born in an age of endless solos and weird prog-rock time signatures, the Ramones ditched the mid-'70s pretense and musicianly indulgence in favor of face-punch brevity in 3-minute, fast-paced sprints such as "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Teenage Lobotomy," "Beat on the Brat" and "Judy Is a Punk."
On these tracks and more, what's notable about Tommy's drumming is how vital yet invisible he remains. You can't imagine the songs without him, but he so effectively vanishes to become the rudder that few would have pegged him as essential.
That thump-snare-thump-snare sound is as old as rock & roll itself, but wrapped amid the urgent, distorted chords of Johnny's guitar, Dee Dee's bass and Joey's voice, it was punk's big bang. Tommy's steamrolling beat resonated with the poppy British punk of the Buzzcocks and was a founding text of the Los Angeles hardcore movement: in the Germs' "What We Do Is Secret," X's "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" and Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown," there's that pace, that steadfast, unpretentious rhythm. Ditto Green Day's early work, where Tre Cool took the bones of Tommy's idea in service of a bigger sound.
Guitar tunings and haircuts may change. Young breakout miscreants such as White Lung, Metz and Fidlar can revisit old ideas and inject them with fresh spirit. The beat that Tommy Ramone pounded out, though, remains the nail that holds it all together.