Andrew Johnston meets Uncle Monk, going acoustic with his bluegrass band
It isn’t every day that a rock ‘n’ roll legend plays a Belfast pub for a fiver. Seeing Tommy Ramone in the Deer’s Head, strumming a fiddle with his acoustic bluegrass duo Uncle Monk, is a bizarre experience for the assembled Ramones fans. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is plucking up a storm on the small stage, with the football playing in the corner and the dessert menu on a noticeboard above his head. It’s an incongruous setting for the last surviving original member of one of punk’s – heck, one of music’s – most important bands.
Budapest-born Tommy – real name Thomas Erdelyi, or Erdélyi Tamás in Hungarian – helped form the Ramones in New York in 1974. As drummer, he co-wrote many of their most famous songs, including ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, ‘Cretin Hop’, ‘Pinhead’ and ‘Teenage Lobotomy’. As manager and producer, he helped create the sound, style and ideology of what was to become alternative rock.
Although he still uses the Ramone surname and is proud of the group’s heritage, 61-year-old Tommy is focused on creating a fresh vibe with Uncle Monk (also featuring long-time musical partner Claudia Tienan).
‘We’re combining the instrumentation of traditional music, but our songs are very modern,’ he tells CultureNorthernIreland before the show. ‘It’s something very new, which I find exciting. To a lot of Ramones fans, it’s the first time they hear acoustic music. They don’t know what to expect, but they like it, and they’re surprised they like it.’
Bluegrass has been part of Tommy’s life since he was a young boy in Forest Hills, New York. ‘I grew up with it,’ he says. ‘My father was a huge folk music and country music fan, and my older brother would bring home records from the library and we would make tape copies of them.’ In the early 1960s, Tommy discovered rock ‘n’ roll through acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals. ‘That was very exciting,’ he says. ‘When the Beatles came over, we all got electric guitars and started bands.’
In 1974, the seeds were sown for the Ramones at a New York Dolls gig. ‘I saw how exciting they were, and I thought my friends in Queens, New York – Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee – would make an interesting band, because they were such charismatic, volatile, strange people,’ says Tommy. ‘I encouraged them to get instruments, and I said I would be their manager. They showed up with songs, and right away we were breaking new ground without even trying. Once I started playing drums, and the music coalesced, I realised this was totally unique.’
Tommy left the Ramones in 1978, after three studio albums and one double live set, but returned to produce some of their later records. He coached his replacement, Marky Ramone, who joined for 1978’s Road to Ruin album and was still a member when the Ramones split in 1996. ‘We worked together very hard developing Road to Ruin,’ says Tommy. ‘We combined his drum style with my style, and came up with something unique. It was the right thing at the right time – a nice change of pace.’
Tommy didn’t see much of his original band-mates in the ’90s, but was devastated when they died within three years of one another – singer Joey Ramone in 2001, bassist Dee Dee Ramone in ’02 and guitarist Johnny Ramone in ’04. ‘It’s hard for me to grasp that they’re gone,’ says Tommy. ‘They’re always in my thoughts. It really brings to mind what a short time we have on this Earth.’
The Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, cementing their reputation as a hugely influential group (a 2003 tribute album included contributions from U2, Metallica and Green Day). ‘It put the stamp of approval on the band,’ says Tommy. ‘We needed that.’
Many of Tommy’s punk peers – the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Misfits – have reformed, and now play to bigger audiences than they did first time round. With three of the original four gone, Tommy accepts the door is closed on the Ramones, but believes they would have got back together eventually. ‘It would have been incredible,’ he says. ‘I thought they would take a couple of years off, and they would get itchy and want to do it again. I was counting on them, but it wasn’t to be.’
The Ramones may be over, but Tommy remains passionate about music, and believes Uncle Monk aren’t too far removed from his old band. ‘The music is a continuum, an interesting progression,’ he says. ‘All the original Ramones songs were written on acoustic guitar. Really, punk is just very loud, electrified folk music – songs of anger and protest, amplified and thrown out at you.’