Tommy Erdelyi, who passed away Friday of bile duct cancer at age 65, never forgot how thrilling it was to be a Ramone during the band's formative days. "I thought what we were doing was unique and exciting and potentially influential," he recalled last October. "I was also originally the manager, so I had a broad perspective on what was going on. I knew what the band had. It felt like we were on the front edge of something important, and something bigger was going to happen."
Something huge — the birth of modern rock & roll, in many ways — did happen, thanks to the Ramones, but it hardly happened overnight. As the band's original drummer from 1974 to 1978, Erdelyi, a.k.a. Tommy Ramone, was witness to the band's early struggles and triumphs. In one of his final interviews, he looked back on the pivotal year of 1976: the moment the band recorded its ground-breaking, self-titled first album — packed with unstoppable, beautiful-noise classics like "Beat on the Brat," "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" and others — and began spreading the word, one tiny show at a time.
In 1976, New York was kind of empty, believe it or not. It was nice and quiet. You could walk the streets at night. At first I lived at 1st Street and 1st Avenue. Dee Dee and I subleased from Chris Stein of Blondie. Then I moved into a loft on 30th Street, where we rehearsed.
First we auditioned for Richard Gottehrer and he wanted to sign a singles deal, and we didn't want that. We kept talking, and then Linda Stein came and saw us and recommended that Seymour [Stein, her husband, head of Sire Records] see us. We had a private show for Seymour at Performance Studios, a rehearsal loft and studio that I ran with the guy who became our tour manager. Seymour liked us and signed us. That's kind of what happened. The whole thing, the whole experience, was very family. So was the whole Ramones experience. It was a mom-and-pop kind of thing.
We recorded our first album in early February. That was something else. Richard used to use Plaza Sound at Radio City Music Hall. So Sire had a good deal with them or something. it was a huge art-deco radio station from the ‘30s or '40s. Very large with a built-in pipe organ. The first days of takes were lost because I had a bad cold, so we redid the takes and that took time. We decided to go for separation. Johnny and his guitar were in the Rockettes' rehearsal room. Dee Dee and his bass were in another big room and I was in the radio announcers' room or whatever it was. I had to run across a football-field-size room to get to the control room. That hindered communication.
We were limited with time. We had a very low budget and had to do things very quickly. [Instrumental tracks were completed in just a few days, with a few more days for Joey's vocals, all for less than $7,000.] There was no money. It was dire times financially. Sire was almost bankrupt, which I didn't find out until much later. [Manager] Danny Fields loaned us money for equipment or maybe gave us money, like $10,000, I think. I had a $150 drum kit. Sire wasn't able to give us anything like that.
The engineers couldn't understand what we were doing. We looked so weird. We dressed like Ramones — comfortable. I'm sure the engineer thought he was just recording one song, over and over. We added some guitars and percussion and bell chimes and pipe organ, things like that. We had a 14-hour marathon mixing. It was a little frustrating because of the time limits, trying to do too much in too little time. By the end we were so tired.
It was fun, but it was business too. We were very serious about what we were doing. Definitely a unique record with its own sound. It didn't capture the live sound, but it captured an artistic avant-garde Ramones psychosis. A fun, crazy record.
We were hoping the record would do something, and it came out and got mostly great reviews. I think we had a full-page ad in Rolling Stone. But the distribution was very bad. The record wasn't promoted at all. There was a strong resistance to radio play in the industry. We didn't know that at the time. There was a paranoia. The industry didn't want any changes. Changes are dangerous. You could lose your job when new genres come in. People were happy with what was going on and didn't want anything new. We were just touring small clubs, you know?
Our big Bottom Line show [May 10th, 1976] was important. We were too loud. But it was a big deal, and historically I sensed it. Then in the summer we went to London. We played the Roundhouse and also a club called Dingwalls. At the soundcheck for Dingwalls, all these bands showed up in the parking lot. They'd all come to the show together. We went out and met all of them and took some photos. And after the show they hung out. It was the Damned, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux. It was the U.K. music scene for the next decade.
We went and played California later, and a lot of people came to check us out and went home and started playing music, and it was the birth of alternative music or new wave or indie or modern rock, whatever they want to call it. Most of them wanted to be in bands but weren't virtuosos. They saw us and said, "Maybe there's something more to this than being a virtuoso." And alternative music was born.
Things were happening so fast. We made the second album [Ramones Leave Home, cut in the fall of 1976 and released in early 1977] before we knew the first one wasn't doing so well. It didn't even occur to us that we might be dropped by the label. It was the perfect year for new things to be born and develop. It was a winding down of the '60s. That just petered out. By 1974 and '75, it was time for something new. It really was like that.