Tommy Ramone, the last surviving member of the original line-up of The Ramones, died of bile duct cancer last Friday, aged 65. Tommy was the band’s drummer from 1974 until 1978; he also co-produced four Ramones albums, including their debut, The Ramones.
On The Ramones, The Ramones set out their big idea: make it minimal. This meant repetition rather than elaboration. The Ramones also played with pop cliché – their songs were a compressed collection of clichés – in the same way that Andy Warhol had already been playing around with mid-twentieth-century corporate marketing.
If a countercultural concept artist had taken over the Brill Building (the New York pop-song writing factory), The Ramones would have been the result. To fit in with the cliché-concept, every member of The Ramones was obliged to become, literally, a Ramone (‘Tommy Ramone’ was really Thomas Erdelyi, the Anglicised form of Erdelyi Tamas, the name he was born with in Budapest). Wearing jeans, sneakers and leather jackets, appearing like a toughened-up version of The Beatles, The Ramones cast themselves as dumbed-down moptops transported to Last Exit To Brooklyn; they looked like The Monkees on Skid Row.
It was a great idea – particularly in 1974, when pop had split between pap and prog. Having worked as assistant engineer on the Jimi Hendrix live album, Band of Gypsys, Tommy Ramone knew all about playing it long. But in the summer of 1976, when The Ramones was released, The Ramones kept things sharp and short – and they did so before the Sex Pistols or the Clash had anything to show on record.
In the mid-1970s, The Ramones broke away from the dominant style. But they also maintained its cerebral aspect, replacing the concept album with the concept band. Since playing dumb was their anti-prog concept, they also initiated what has since become one of the recurring – now tedious – refrains of Never Mind The Buzzcocks culture: who is playing dumb and who doesn’t really have to?
The Ramones: file next to Andy Warhol’s screen prints and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, with a note that says ‘one time only; do not re-employ’.