‘Like a fast drill on a rear molar,’ that Tommy Ramone was a 56er

There are so many Hungarians to be found around the world that seemingly no matter where you go you’re likely to bump into one. That’s thanks in part to many tough years in Hungary’s modern history, which prompted so many to leave the country. The first large wave of Hungarians emigrated at the turn of the 20th century from the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the United States. Many more followed them after the Treaty of Trianon (1920), as a result of which Hungary lost more than two-thirds of her territory. With the communists preparing to take over power after World War II, another large group of people left Hungary to get out while they still could. For some the reason was simply a desire to live in the free world, while others were afraid of prison sentences or worse for “crimes” as small as belonging to the wrong political party.

The 1956 Revolution began as an attempt to reform communism before becoming a movement to overthrow it. Following the Soviet invasion that crushed it, nearly 200,000 people fled for the West, and this number does not include those who lost their lives during the fighting or who were executed afterward. Many of those who left Hungary in 1956 would go on to successful careers in their new countries, but only one of them would go on to be the drummer for the world-famous and genre-defining punk rock band the Ramones. Thomas (Tamás) Erdélyi left Hungary and her Soviet oppressors at the age of seven (some sources say he was four) together with his parents for New York.

In America, Thomas quickly gravitated toward the world of music, and worked as a sound engineer’s assistant on Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys album in 1970. When he founded a punk rock band in 1974, he took up the last name Ramone along with his bandmates, which is how he became Tommy Ramone. The band adopted the last name Ramone as a tribute to Paul McCartney, who had used the pseudonym Paul Ramon while touring with his old band the Silver Beetles in Scotland. Just like their musical hero, the Ramones wrote short and to-the-point songs with pop influences. Tommy, who started off as the band’s manager but also ended up as their original drummer had this to say: “The Ramones all originate from Forest Hills and kids who grew up there either became musicians, degenerates or dentists. The Ramones are a little of each. Their sound is not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar.”

The Ramones were the first in the U.S. to write a punk rock record and it was released with a shoestring budget on April 23, 1976. Their self-titled record was 28 minutes and 14 songs of punk rock energy. As a result, the band became the trendsetters for all the punk bands that came after, including the Sex Pistols, whose bassist Sid Vicious allegedly learned to play the bass by listening to their music. Tommy spent four years drumming for the band, but packed away his drumsticks before their fourth record. He stayed on as a producer, however, and remained on good terms with his former bandmates. Tommy, who passed away in 2014, is one of a handful of musicians of Hungarian background to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The popular bands in Hungary under communism had no chance of becoming world famous, but for Tommy Ramone, the refugee who left for the West and freedom, it all came together.

Following Tommy’s death, a memorial plaque was erected on the façade of the apartment building where his family had lived, which today houses the Toldi Movie Theater on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Road in downtown Budapest.

(Bence Csatári)