Tommy Erdelyi, aka Tommy Ramone, played drums in in the 1960s with the future Johnny Ramone (born John Cummings), and in 1973 Erdelyi encouraged him to start a new band, and was more of a manager figure during the Ramones’ early days who helped define the band’s image.
When Beatlemania shook the city in 1964, its reverberations could be felt deep in the downtown underground. “Even those of us on the Lower East Side without a television set had to notice that something called the Beatles had come to town,” Ed Sanders recalled. “It was the youth explosion,” Bibbe Hansen said. “So whatever vestiges of the old, we were gonna just blow right away because there were just too many of us, and we were all fairly enlightened. With the Beatles and all these things, these cultural explosions absolutely captivated the world and put my generation at the forefront.” The Beatles even inspired her to form a short-lived girl group, the Whippets—with Janet Kerouac (Jack Kerouac’s daughter) and another friend, Charlotte Rosenthal—which released one single. As with many boys their age, future Ramones frontman Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and his little brother Mickey Leigh (Mitchel Lee Hyman) wanted to join a band when Beatlemania erupted in the mid-1960s. “By the time I was twelve,” Leigh said, “I had a little guitar and a little amp and a microphone that I’d take around to like kids’ birthday parties—playing Beatles songs and Dave Clark Five with friends.” He continued to play in bands around Forest Hills, Queens, where he met two older teens who, with his older brother, later cofounded the Ramones. Before John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi played guitar and drums as Johnny Ramone and Tommy Ramone, they performed in a 1960s garage band called the Tangerine Puppets. “Tommy was really nice, really intelligent. We were friends ever since that time,” Leigh said. “John never really changed. Even back then, people said, ‘Watch out for that guy. He gets a little nasty sometimes.’ He was just kind of grouchy and barking to the rest of the other guys. But he was cool.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“The people that were at Club 82,” Clem Burke said, “Lenny Kaye, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, myself, Gary Valentine, Debbie and Chris, Johnny Thunders—essentially, everybody took their platforms off, cut their hair, walked around the corner, and wound up at CBGB. That’s basically what happened, because everyone was living in the neighborhood. It literally was around the corner from CBGB.” Hilly Kristal didn’t change his Bowery bar’s name until late 1973, but it’s not as if he did any significant renovations when it became CBGB. “It was pretty much the same when it was called Hilly’s,” Suicide’s Alan Vega recalled. “The bathrooms were already horrific, even before it was renamed CBGB.” After Marion Cowings’s band Dance broke up following the Mercer Arts Center collapse, he was in a band named Squeeze that occasionally played at CBGB. He recalled that Hilly’s dogs used to run loose and defecate on the floor, so people had to watch where they stepped. “He was like a wild Bowery guy,” Cowings said, “just wild and dirty. At that time the Bowery was the Bowery. There were lots of bombed-out buildings and fleabag hotels, and lots of people sleeping on the street.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By the early 1970s, the future Joey Ramone began playing drums (using the name Jeffrey Starship) for the glam band Sniper, which performed at Mercer’s and Max’s Kansas City. Meanwhile, Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh joined a short-lived band with two future Ramones—John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi—which practiced in the basement of his mother’s gallery, Art Garden. “We put the PA down there, so it had already been turned into a rehearsal place,” he said. “And when my brother got into the Ramones, of course they were all allowed to rehearse there as well.” Erdelyi encouraged Cummings to start a band, and was more of a manager figure during the Ramones’ early days. “Tommy’s role became increasingly more important and pivotal in an organizational and artistic way,” Leigh said. “Tommy really helped the whole thing gel and kind of helped it define itself.” For Craig Leon, who produced the band’s first album, the Ramones were like a performance art piece. “Tommy knew how to create this image of what they became,” Leon said. “He originally studied to be a film guy, and he saw things in that visual sense. Even though the Ramones were definitely rock ’n’ roll, they reminded me a lot of Warhol. The four of them had that deadpan Andy Warhol persona. They were, like, straight out of the New York art scene.” Joey Ramone started out as the band’s drummer until it became clear that he was a much better frontman, so Tommy took over on the drum stool. Joey, Johnny, and Tommy expanded to a quartet when another neighbor, Douglas Colvin (later Dee Dee Ramone), joined on bass, and by 1975 they were regularly playing at CBGB.
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“At first the Ramones just had one long twenty-minute song, with different riffs running through,” said Craig Leon, who was tasked with transforming the group’s live sets into an album that was recorded at Plaza Sound, above Radio City Music Hall. “They were all written as individual songs, but they never thought about it from a recording point of view—you know, ‘How is this song gonna end?’ They’d just play and then ‘One-two-three-four,’ they’d start the new one.” Most punk histories maintain that Sire Records paid a paltry $6,400 to record Ramones, but Leon said, “We never paid the full studio rate. It was actually cheaper than $6,000.” The album cover had similarly modest origins. Sire hired a music biz pro to photograph the band, but they hated the results and instead chose an outtake from a more informal photo shoot with Punk magazine contributor Roberta Bayley. “We just went over to Arturo [Vega]’s loft and everybody was there,” Bayley recalled. “We went outside, and first we found this playground, and then did a few different setups there against that brick wall.” The Ramones likely sold more T‑shirts than records—especially in the 1970s, when mainstream listeners couldn’t decode the catchy pop songs that lurked just below the surface guitar noise. When they opened for blues-boogie arena rocker Edgar Winter, the Ramones were met with a hail of bottles and boos. “There were people who wanted to burn the Ramones records and stuff like that because they were horrible, in their opinion,” Leon said. “Ramones songs are now played at sports arenas and on commercials, so it’s hard to understand how extreme they sounded at the time.”