Sunday, August 10, 2014

Tommy Ramone And His Legacy - A Conversation with Ramones Tour Manager Monte A. Melnick!

"They had something going, and they stuck to it."

Monte A Melnick and Tommy Ramone
The Ramones were a raucous sort. They famously disliked each other, they traveled their entire career in a cramped van shuttling them from city to city, and their disparate personalities drew them further and further apart - even as the demands of their music required that they work together on an almost daily basis.

At the center of the storm was Monte A. Melnick, who was the Ramones' tour manager for 22 years - their entire career. Monte kept the operation running on time and made sure that, to the extent he could, the demanding touring schedule did not overwhelm the band.

Monte was a high school friend of Tommy Erdelyi, aka Tommy Ramone. Tommy was the original Ramones drummer and producer and was critical to the band's success. Tommy died of cancer on July 11, 2014. He was the last of the four original Ramones. Now they're all gone - three (Johnny, Joey, and Tommy) from cancer, and one (Dee Dee) from an overdose.

I love the Ramones. I saw them perform many times and met my wife in the mosh pit at one of their shows. As a drummer, I thought a lot over the years about Tommy's drum style and its importance to the Ramones sound, and Monte and I discussed this at length.  Monte, who is the 3D Theater and Audio Visual Supervisor at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York, is the author of On The Road With The Ramones, the definitive book on the band and their life on the road. You can learn more about (and order!) the book, which I love to read over and over, on Monte's Facebook page

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Tommy and the drumming style he created, the other Ramones drummers, and the Ramones' legacy. And a note of thanks to Monte A. Melnick for his generosity of time!
Me: I love your book.  I’ve read it a few times. It’s such an interesting and endlessly entertaining book to just sit down with and enjoy!

Monte: Thank you.

Me: As I read the book, I came to appreciate how close you were with Tommy. 

Monte: I grew up with him. I went to junior high school with him, I was in the chorus with him, I went to high school with him…he was into music early on. He was a guitar player, not a drummer. He had a few groups. I saw one he had at a Forest Hills High School talent show, and I saw a group he had that John was in – John was playing bass at the time. Later he said to me, why don’t you pick up the bass, and we were in a few groups. I got into a group called Thirty Days Out. We got a record contract with Warner Brothers Reprise.

That was 1971-1972 and the group split up. Somebody (I knew) had a loft and they wanted to build a rehearsal and recording studio, so I brought Tommy into the project. We designed the place and built it, and we got free time for our projects. I had my own band at the time. Tommy just wanted to produce and engineer.

The Ramones were just a three piece group at the time – Joey on drums, Dee Dee singing lead and playing bass, and Johnny on guitar. Dee Dee was having a hard time singing and playing bass, and Tommy had heard that Joey had a really good voice so he pulled him off the drums, and then they started to look for drummers. But the Ramones are such a unique experience.  Nobody could quite get what they were doing, but Tommy was such a great musician, he sat down (and became the drummer) and developed that style.

Me: From all accounts, Joey wasn't the greatest drummer, so it was a pretty logical thing to make that move, I’d assume?

Monte: Yeah, definitely.

Me: Tommy really brought the Ramones together, didn't he?

Monte:  Oh yeah, he consolidated the whole concept of the group.

Me: Did he help write the songs?

Monte: On the first couple albums they didn't take individual credits – the songs were just written by the Ramones. Tommy had a lot to do with those early songs – Blitzkreig Bop, I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, he had a lot to do with them. They all wrote them together then, they gave their band credit.

On Virtuosity….

Me:  I’d like to share a quote from Tommy that’s in your book (p. 55), as I think it’s a brilliant description of the Ramones and I’d like to know what you think. He said that “what we had was an idea that it’s not the virtuosity that counts, it’s the ideas themselves that are important, which was revolutionary at the time…Virtuosity is not only not important, but might get in the way.”

Monte: Exactly! When they traveled all around the world, kids saw that and said “hey we can do that! I don’t have to be a master guitar player!” Things were going on in the music at the time with the long guitar solos and the drum solos, and the virtuosity in the music…the guitar players like Clapton, a lot of people couldn't do that, but they saw the Ramones and they started all these groups!

His legacy was not only the great drumming that he came up with, but the foresight he had that something like this could really happen.

Me: Do you think he gets enough credit for that?

Monte: Well nowadays. Unfortunately you have to pass away to get the credit! What a sad situation that is. So now, people are starting to realize (the extent of) his influence on the whole thing.

Me: I think Johnny also got the potential power of the concept.

Monte: Definitely. They had something going, and they stuck to it.

Me: What was Tommy’s relationship like with Johnny?

Monte: He wasn’t really an easy guy to get along with, really…he was the General, no nonsense. But he developed a guitar style like nobody else’s. With Tommy developing that kind of drumming and Johnny developing that kind of guitar style, nobody else was doing anything like that. It was all new.

Tommy’s Style

Me: How would you describe Tommy’s drumming style?

Monte: It was so raw at the beginning, that no one knew what they were doing. But Tommy had some real insight on the whole thing.  He just developed that style along with them. He was a great musician. 

Me: In your book, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein comments that Tommy had a light style, and provided a contrast to the others in the band. I've noticed that too and always found that to be fascinating.

Monte:  He had to play very basic, simple stuff. I guess you could call it light. He wasn't a drummer so he had to do simple stuff along with their music. Simplicity, right on the beat, just staying with it through the song. He developed the style specifically for the Ramones – period. It fit right in.

When Tommy decided to leave the group (as the drummer), they were looking around and you know, (Tommy’s successor) Mark Bell, he’s a great drummer, he’d been in pretty major groups, but Tommy took a couple months to teach Mark that style!

Now, when Richie (Richie Reinhardt, who succeeded Mark for a time) quit the band, they had a bunch of dates booked and (manager) Guy Kurfist said, “oh don’t worry, anybody can just hop in and play the Ramones, it’s simple!” and (Blondie drummer) Clem Burke was around, he was a friend, and he wanted to be in the group. He had a totally different style than the Ramones but Gary said “jump in, it’s easy.”

It ain't easy! Clem didn't have enough time to get into the whole rhythm of the Ramones. It’s very strict. If any little thing is out of place, the whole thing sounds bad. He only played two shows with them.

Now he’s a great drummer, but he didn't have enough time – Tommy taught Marky the whole thing, and Richie had enough time to rehearse with the band. It’s not simple.

It’s a whole different style of drumming more than anything else. He’s a great drummer. But the Ramones, it’s no fills, no solos, or anything like that. It’s just that whole thing that Tommy just kind of developed.

Me: Richie threw in a few fills here and there.

Monte: He had more time to get into it than Clem did. I’m sure Clem would have fit in if he had more time.

Me: That’s what Burke says in your book – with more time they could have made it work.

Monte:  I guess it worked out OK though because he had Blondie to go to after that. And Marky was around and he fit right back in. He straightened his life out so that worked out all right for everybody.

Me: How do you feel about the drummers going out there today, and keeping the music alive? A good thing?

Monte: Absolutely. The more people hear about the Ramones, the better.  Marky’s doing his thing. He’s been doing it for some time. And Richie after many years is kind of saying “hey, I’m Richie Ramone now.”  CJ (Ramone, the bassist who succeeded Dee Dee) has a great band.

The First Four Records

Me: How would you describe those first four records (which featured Tommy on drums)?

Monte: It’s pretty pure punk rock in the beginning there. On the later albums, they decided…you know they couldn't get on the radio so they went through all these producers. They went through a plethora of producers over the years, just looking for the hit song. They evolved into different kinds of music toward the end, but in the beginning it was just pretty much raw punk rock, basic stuff.

Me: Though they also always had a pop sensibility…

Monte: That’s what they grew up listening to and they infused that into their music. It wasn't hard core punk, it was pop punk, you could say.

Me: In his book Johnny mentions that they weren't looking to repudiate rock and roll – if anything they were trying to bring it back.

Monte: They were big music fans. Tommy and I used to go to the Fillmore East, we saw the Who, Cream, Jimi Hendrix…Johnny went to see the Beatles (at Shea stadium) and he hated them and threw rocks at them. He liked the Rolling Stones better. So they grew up listening to lots of music. And the radio was different in those days. They were influenced by lots of different music, and Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny, they put that into a lot of their songs.

Staying Sane

Me: You saw these drummers come and go, and in Marky’s case come back; you toured with them for over two decades; you saw the inner turmoil of the band – how did you keep your sanity?

Monte: Well, who says I kept my sanity? But here’s an interesting fact. I’m the only one alive now that was with the band from the beginning to the end. (Lighting and Art Director) Arturo Vega and I were the only two left, and he died last year. So I’m the last one left. I saw everything. It was quite an interesting ride. Being tour manager you have to know what’s going on, and you have to roll with the punches. You can’t be thin skinned. You have to take what’s coming out and work with it.

I liked what I was doing or I wouldn't have stuck around for 22 years. It had its ups and downs, but I was there.

Me: What was Tommy’s involvement toward the end? Was he around?

Monte: Not really. He’d come to the shows, and John would ask him his opinion about different records, and this and that, but no, his influence was more in the early years. He was doing his own thing, and they were doing their own thing. Nothing as influential as the beginning.

I always kept in touch with him. We had a good thing going. On my birthday he’d take me out, and on his birthday I’d take him out, so I’d see him at least twice a year, which is nice because I’d known him for 50 years. I was his friend.

It’s a sad thing to see what happened to him…someone you know for a long time like that. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have gotten into the whole music business, or the Ramones, or anything like that. Who knows what I’d be doing.
Monte and Tommy, 1968

Me: It’s a shame they never got the recognition they deserved during the career. It seems like they really wanted that.

Monte: Well they retired in 1996, and then they got into the Hall of Fame, and then Joey died, and Dee Dee died, and Johnny died, and they got the lifetime Grammy award – though they never were voted a Grammy in their lifetimes. And now, they’re so big it’s unbelievable. It’s an iconic status they have now. It amazes me.

Here’s what I think happened: all the kids that were listening to the Ramones before they retired got into positions, all of a sudden, where they could put them in commercials, put them on soundtracks they could never get when they were together. They got them on the radio and got them played more. So everybody finally caught on, you know?

In 1996 they did Lalapalooza. Headlining is Metallica, there’s Soundgarden, and Rancid, and we’re fourth on the bill there. But the Ramones would go on stage and there were all of the bands! They were huge Ramones fans and were thrilled to meet the band! Bono gives credit to the Ramones, and all these bands give credit to the Ramones for inspiring them to make music, and that’s why they got that iconic status.

Me: I know…and getting ready for this interview I listened and drummed to that first album for the umpteenth time, and you just listen to it and say “wow, what a way to start your very first album – a song like Blitzkreig Bop.

Monte: That’s another thing – you go to baseball games and that’s what you hear – “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!” It’s amazing! And have you seen that Cadillac commercial?

Me: Let me ask you about that. In that commercial they describe them as a “garage rock” band and I don’t think that’s right!

Monte: It’s wrong! It’s so nice – Hewlett Packard, Amazon, the Wright Brothers – holy crap, look who they’re lumping the Ramones together with! But no, they didn't start in a garage! They played in a basement. That’s why they wrote the song “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement!”

Me: Thank you for clearing that up!

Tensions – and Music

Me: Some have said that their greatness came from their inability to get along, and you don’t whitewash that in your book. Do you agree with that – that the tension in the band led to some of the great music?

Monte: No. They worked around their tension because if they didn't they’d fight and kill each other, and break the group up. They realized that the band, and going on stage, was really special. They had tensions off stage, but on stage, in the studios, they were the Ramones. They realized that and they kept it together.

Me: On stage they were a complete unit – or at least that was the appearance – and whatever else was going on, when they went on stage, they went to work.

Monte: There was something special they had together on stage. Off stage they couldn't (talk to each other), but they realized they had something special, they didn't want to break the group up.

I don’t think tension caused the Ramones music. They avoided the tension on stage, and they stuck to music. You go on stage and the feedback you get – it’s an incredible high. I think that’s why a lot of musicians turn to drugs when they get offstage – to keep the high going. They had a special thing and they kept it going.

Me: So thank you, and any last words?

Monte: Gabba Gabba Hey!

Me: Gabba Gabba Hey! 

The Ramones started out raw - but they polished their craft quickly. Contrast these two videos. The first is a classic from CBGBs in 1974. They famously argue between songs, and are clearly still figuring it out:

And here they are rocking London just a couple years later in a classic performance:

1 comment:

  1. The meeting of the Montes. I remember seeing the Ramones at Dingwalls in London in about 1976 or '77; the entire set (of about 15 tunes) seemed to last no more than 20 minutes, so fast were the tempos. It was a revelation.