R.I.P. Tommy Ramone 1952-2014
R.I.P. Tommy Erdélyi, the last remaining member of the original Ramones line-up. He passed away last Friday (11/07/14), aged 62. He had been suffering from bile duct cancer.
The drummer and producer (he also played a mean guitar) was very decent to me when I was writing my Ramones biography Hey Ho Let’s Go: talking extensively to me during my trips to New York to research the book, and also during many conversations on the telephone later. He made me feel welcome, part of the gang. In memoriam, I would like to reprint a section of my book concerning the recording of the first Ramones album (recently reprinted on my editor Chris Charlesworth’s Just Backdated blog).
I – like many others – feel that Tommy was absolutely crucial in the initial stages of the Ramones’ formation. Indeed, without his drive and vision and ‘managerial’ skills (filling in on drums because he couldn’t find anyone else who could replicate the sound he wanted – a temporary position that stretched through the first three Ramones albums), I believe Ramones simply wouldn’t have existed. Or at least existed in a very different form.
And Bangs alone knows, my life would have been entirely different.
Incidentally, in the book I have his birth year down as 1949.
On February 2, 1976, the Ramones went into Plaza Sound, a radio broadcast studio on the eighth floor of Radio City Music Hall that featured a Wurlitzer pipe organ, the rehearsal room for [famed female dance troupe] The Rockettes, and an authentic art-deco décor straight from a Thirties musical with synchronised water routines. On February 19, they finished. It cost them $6,200 to record the 14 songs that comprised their debut album – or $6,400, depending on which account you believe, the odd $200 hardly making a difference in an era when major albums could cost $500,000. It took two days to lay the basic tracks down (live), and another two for Joey’s vocals. The mixing itself lasted 10 hours, enough time to record an alternative mix that sometimes pops up accidentally on CD reissues.
Ramones clocked in at 28 minutes, 53 seconds. Craig Leon and Tommy [Ramone] Erdelyi produced.
“I used to deliver film to Radio City when I was a messenger,” Arturo Vega says, “so I knew my way around the secret passageways and stairwells – I liked to walk along the ramp above the stage. I’d slip into the Rockettes’ dressing room and steal their costumes, like the gold lamé pants and satin cloaks. It was great. I thought the band would be in there for ages, but after three days they’d finished.”
“I can remember going to the studio and [the Ramones] had got there three hours earlier,” Seymour Stein recounted on Lifestyles Of The Ramones. “I said, ‘How’s everything going?’ and Johnny says to me, ‘Things aren’t going so great, we only got seven tracks down’. If everyone was like them, record companies would have no worries.”
It wasn’t that the band was cutting corners, not really: it took so little time because Tommy knew what he wanted. Most of the ideas had been worked out via the original demo: all that remained was to add a few extra sounds to the original blueprint – a genuine chainsaw at the start of ‘Chainsaw’, 12-string guitars and a glockenspiel to Tommy’s teary-eyed love song ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’, the pipe organ, supplied by Leon, on a frenetic version of Chris Montez’s ‘Let’s Dance’ – and experiment with the stereo sound.
“It’s like early Beatles or Cream records, where the guitar is in one channel, bass is in the other, drums in the middle,” explains Tommy. (The alternative mix was more conventional.) “But it wasn’t like James Joyce modelling Ulysses on The Odyssey. Meet The Beatles was an influence, not a model.
“I had trouble communicating with the engineer,” he continues. “They’d never seen anything like us, and didn’t have much respect for us, either. I wasn’t very pleased with the vibe. Everything was rushed because it was low budget, and I had a bad cold. It was hard for me because I was playing the drums and I couldn’t go back and forth to the control room because it took a minute to get there, and we had a limited budget.”
In between takes, the band would order up cheeseburgers and French fries from the local luncheonette, or maybe a chicken Parmesan hero. There wasn’t a lift in the building, so the band had to carry the Marshall amps up eight flights of stairs.
“The studio was massive, halfway in size between the two at Abbey Road,” Leon recalls. “They don’t make them that size anymore. Johnny’s amp was in the Rockettes room, and we set up a metronome with a flashing light in Tommy’s booth in the centre because we couldn’t get a click track to go that fast. It was like, ‘What’s the tempo of this one – 208’, as fast as it would go. ‘What’s the tempo of this – 208.’ ‘Let’s do a ballad – 176!’ Tommy wanted the swirling hi-hat sound that went through everything The Beatles recorded.”
According to Craig, Hawkwind [the Seventies acid rock band, featuring a pre-Motorhead Lemmy] were a big influence on the Ramones guitar sound – “That relentless drone, like a loud version of the Velvets”.
“If you could pin Ramones down to two records,” he suggests, “it would be [Hawkwind’s] ‘Silver Machine’, and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ [the Ramones were rumoured to soundcheck with The Beatles’ song early on], with a little Phil Spector and Beach Boys and Herman’s Hermits thrown in. There was no conscious MC5 or The Stooges, the Ramones sounded close enough to them as it was. Anyway, who would want to reference those records – they’re rotten sounding.”
“I think Joey wrote like me,” recounted Dee Dee in Poison Heart. “I don’t think he knew anything really about guitar chords, or the verse, chorus and intro. Somehow he just banged out these songs on two strings of a Yamaha acoustic guitar and then Johnny Ramone would struggle his best to interpret it. Johnny would show me the bass parts to my own songs because I had no idea how they went. Tommy Ramone wrote ‘Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and we could have made a million dollars on it, because the Bay City Rollers wanted to do it. But that’s another story.”
According to a Trouser Press interview in 1982, the band actually rehearsed Buddy Holly’s ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’, Tommy Roe’s ‘Sheila’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ early on – the latter was even considered for inclusion in the live set as a slow song because, “We didn’t see how we could play so fast for 35 minutes” (Johnny).
There were no outside players. There wasn’t time. Instead, the engineer Rob Freeman and Leon sang backing vocals for ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’: “We tried it with Doug [Dee Dee],” laughs Leon, “and he’d get spit all over the microphone, he was so aggressive. After a lot of torture – it was supposed to be sweet – we did it.” The band would come in after seven pm, so they’d get the cheaper rate, and work through till five in the morning. “Rehearsal and discussion took quite long, but actual recording was about a week. It didn’t feel rushed.”
“Craig would bring the tracks back to the office and play them so loud the windows would shake,” recalls publicist Janis Schacht. And it wasn’t like the band weren’t aware of the album’s potential.
“We used block chording as a melodic device,” Tommy toldRolling Stone’s Timothy White in 1979, “and the harmonics resulting from the distortion of the amplifiers created countermelodies. We used the wall of sound as a melodic rather than a riff form: it was like a song within a song – created by a block of chords droning.
“I’ll tell you what else was distinctive,” he went on, “the hypnotic effect of strict repetition, the effect of lyrics that repeat, and vocals that dart at you, and the percussive effect of driving the music like a sonic machine. It’s very sensual. You can put headphones on and just swim with it. It’s not background music.”
“Wait a minute,” White countered. “Johnny told me the first LP sounded so primitive because that was the best you guys could play at the time.”
“Yes,” Tommy conceded, “but there was always intelligence behind it. If every untrained musician doing the best he can decides to make a record, he’s not going to get a Ramones LP out of it.”
Ramones was released on April 23 to partial critical acclaim but disappointing sales (it reached Number 111 on the US charts). “The first album only sold 7,000 copies,” recalls Schacht, “even though I had a two-level horizontal file cabinet: one for the Ramones’ press, and one for all the other Sire acts.”
A preview party was held at the labels’ West 74th St. building that, Melody Maker journalist Chris Charlesworth recalls, didn’t last long because “the album was over pretty quickly”.
“If it had been Atlantic launching the new Led Zeppelin album,” Charlesworth reflects wistfully, “it would’ve been all up-market with huge speakers and a wide variety of food… lobster, heaven knows what. This was fun, but scruffy. We were served this dreadful, sweet red wine, the worst I’ve ever tasted: bottles of it were pressed on us as we left. Two bottles of it stayed in my kitchen undrunk for months afterwards, real last resort stuff.
“I had yet to be attuned to this cosmic change in styles,” the writer explains, “so I thought it was a big joke. No one could believe these 45-second songs. It was so brief. I went to see them a few weeks later at The Bottom Line with Dr. Feelgood and came away thoroughly bemused.”
Photograph of the draft of the original Ramones press release: Richard Melville Hall
‘I Want To Be Your Boyfriend’ – I mean, that’s kind of classic 60s… unrequited love?
Tommy: “No, it was just basically a song about liking a girl. The song itself was… I was trying to write a Beatlesque song. Songs like 8 Days A Week, they have a certain kind of jangly sound. I came up with the chords and liked them. You know, there were a lot of ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘I don’t want to be that’ songs, so I thought it would be interesting if I did an ‘I want to song’ because the only ‘I want to song’ we had was ‘I Want To Sniff Some Glue’.”
They kind of go hand in hand, don’t they? I want to sniff some glue and I want to be your boyfriend.
Tommy: “Yeah, so it just occurred to me. This was on the way to the grocery store, I came up with the lyrics and the whole concept of the song. The chords I had, I came up with when I was just trying to come up with some Beatles thing. The lyrics came up that way also. It was basically just a love song to a girl.”
(Excerpted from original interview by author for Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of the Ramones)
You should also read: Ramones: the band who captured the sound in my head