It was rocker Neil Young who sang the lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” but few groups embodied that concept better than the Ramones.
They played fast – very fast, almost too fast – and eschewed musical luxuries for the basics of two guitars, drums and a vocalist.
The last original member of the Ramones, Tommy Ramone, died Friday at age 65, essentially closing the book on a remarkable bit of rock history.
Despite their stripped-down style, anti-establishment look and the fact that to the untrained ear the Ramones’ sound, described as a “wall of noise,” could come across as little more than a jumble of yelling and musical anarchy, they influenced not only a generation of musicians, but of music aficionados, even as mainstream radio ignored them for decades.
The group was formed in the New York City neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, in 1974. All four members adopted pseudonyms ending with the surname “Ramone,” although none were related. They took the name Ramone from an alias Paul McCartney used to check into hotels.
They group wore ripped jeans, black leather and bad haircuts, and came to embody American punk rock with tunes such as “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “The KKK Took My Baby Away” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Tommy Ramone, 65, was born Thomas Erdelyi in Budapest, Hungary, to Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust by being hidden by neighbors. He died of bile duct cancer.
Erdelyi was supposed to be the band’s manager, but instead took over as its drummer when Joey Ramone became the lead singer after finding that he couldn’t keep up with the group’s increasingly fast tempos. Tommy remained as drummer from 1974 to 1978, playing on and co-producing their first three albums, Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia, as well as the live album It’s Alive.
Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Ross Hyman) died of cancer at age 49 in 2001; bass player Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Glenn Colvin) died of a drug overdose in 2002 at age 50; and guitarist Johnny Ramone (John William Cummings), 55, died of cancer in 2004.
“Their concerts were a bolt of energy, songs tumbling upon one another,” according to an Associated Press story detailing Tommy Ramone’s death. “’Hello, Schenectady!’ Joey shouted upon taking the stage in Syracuse, N.Y., one night in the late 1970s, before Dee Dee let loose with the familiar, rapid-fire “1-2-3-4” call that signaled the music’s start.
“Upstate New York city. Starts with an ‘S.’ Close enough.”
I don’t know if rock bands are reunited in the afterlife, but if they are, one particular corner of the hereafter is enjoying a heck of a show right now.
(Top: The Ramones covering the 1960’s hit, California Sun.)