Having heard many versions of the Ramones creation myth, I have come to believe that every member of the original quartet was a necessary component to its success. Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman) had the rock ‘n’ roll gift of being utterly derivative and unique at the same time; Dee Dee Ramone (Doug Colvin) had, under the crud, the soul of a songwriter; Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) was driven and tyrannical, which kept the train on the rails and going full speed.
What about Tommy Ramone (T. Erdelyi), whose death has just been announced? He was the first to leave, resigning the drum seat after Rocket to Russia, so it’s hard to say he was indispensable as a drummer. And Marky Ramone (Marc Bell), who replaced him, had superior chops. But Marky didn’t really get to show them off much, because the idea of Tommy’s drumming was so important to the sound that it couldn’t be totally abandoned. On those early records, the drums are simple, precise, even stiff (the Ramones famously did not swing), but they’re not an arty, minimalistic experiment; they’re still rock drums, employing the patterns and syncopations and all the glorious noises from the bell of the ride to the thud of the kick that have signaled “rock” to audiences since the days of sock hops — but Tommy played and mixed them with what in other artistic fields is known as taste. I think his style relates to his prior experience as a sound engineer; he knew the mechanical function of the drums (“driving the music like a sonic machine,” as he told Timothy White in 1979) but also their emotional significance to listeners, and titrated the doses to get the desired effect — for example, the flat, lonely hi-hat strikes between verses in “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” were sadness itself, and all you needed. Imagine the early Ramones with a dumber, more effusive drummer, one who thinks he’s saying something but is just running at the mouth, and you’ll see how great Tommy Ramone was.