And that's it; they're all gone. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and now Tommy. Even "the fifth Ramone", Arturo Vega, is no longer with us. It seems so unfair: not only did the Ramones never achieve the commercial rewards to match their staggering influence upon the trajectory of rock'n'roll, none of their principals was even granted a long life – at 62, Tommy was the Ramone who reached the greatest age.
He played drums on just three Ramones studio albums. The ones everyone, but everyone, knows are the three best: Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. He's on the first live album, too, It's Alive, and between those four records you get the complete summation of why the Ramones mattered, and why they continue to matter. Over the 42 tracks on the three studio albums, lasting barely an hour and half, rock'n'roll is reduced to its undiluted essence: a count-in, a riff, a verse, a chorus. Very occasionally there's a middle eight. But anything unnecessary – anything that distracts from the rush of excitement – is excised. The aim of a Ramones song is not to make you admire the musicianship or the arrangement. It's to take you from a standing start to fever pitch in 120 seconds or less. And at the back of it all, playing the unfussiest drum patterns you'll ever hear – he made AC/DC's Phil Rudd sound like Keith Moon – was Tommy Ramone.
He wasn't meant to be the drummer. He was meant to be the manager. Joey was the drummer. "What happened was, they just kept playing faster and faster, and I couldn't keep up on the drums," Joey remembered in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me. "Tommy Ramone, who was managing us, finally had to sit down behind the drums, because nobody else wanted to," Dee Dee told McNeil and McCain.
For a while, the Ramones were the most chaotic group in the world. "They counted off a song – 'ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!' – and we were hit with this blast of noise. You physically recoiled from the shock of it, like this huge wind, and before I could even get into it, they stopped," McNeil himself recalled. "Apparently they were all playing a different song. They were just so thoroughly disgusted with each other that they threw down their guitars and stomped off the stage."
They got better. Of course they got better. They got so much better that for me (and for others, not lots of others, but enough of us) the Ramones were the best group rock'n'roll ever produced. Not the most inventive, or the most versatile, or the most skilful, or the most emotionally resonant, or the most lyrical – but the best, because every time I put on one of the Ramones' best records, I was reminded of how I felt the first time I heard it. And the first time I heard it, I felt: this is the sound I've been hearing in my head and here it is on 12 inches of black vinyl; this is what I have been waiting for since the first single I ever bought. The Ramones were the sound of juvenile excitement, expressed with such breathtaking singlemindedness that nothing could kill the excitement.
And they were never as exciting without Tommy. Partly that was because those first three albums were such perfect statements of intent that there was very little left for the Ramones to say, and so each new album became another turn around the circuit rather than a manifesto. But partly because it was Tommy, as much as Joey, Johnny or Dee Dee, who made the band truly Ramonic. Marky, his replacement, was a more skilled drummer, perhaps, but the slight increase in sophistication meant the purity of the message – and the medium was the message, in the case of the Ramones – was compromised. Marky's successor, Richie, was simply too fast: in the tragic Ramones documentary End of the Century, he boasts about shaving several minutes off the set by playing everything with such velocity. With Richie on drums, Ramones shows were a blur of noise – you'd be recognising the song, finally, as it came to an end. When what you wanted was to wallow in those glorious harmonics.
But now that's it; they're all gone. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and now Tommy. The band that unlocked the door for me.