UNCLE PUNK: Uncle Monk may not be your dad’s idea of CBGB-era punk, but at the very least they’re a continuation.
Punks in the know will tell you that the club where the music started, CBGB, is an acronym for “country, bluegrass, and blues.” They also will likely claim that aside from the first few months it was open, the club never hosted a band who were country, bluegrass, or blues in the slightest.
In the second case they’d be wrong. At least one outfit — one largely responsible for the creation of punk — was steeped in the stuff. According to a very inside source, the Ramones could almost have been called the Ramone Family Singers. And the four “bruddahs” from Queens — Tommy, Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee — could just as easily have been named Little Tom, Joe-Bob, John-Boy and . . . well, Dee Dee.
The insider in question is Tamás Erdélyi, a/k/a Tommy Ramone, the band’s first drummer and their manager and eventual producer. Coming to the Cantab Lounge on Tuesday as part of the duo Uncle Monk, this last surviving member of the Ramones’ original line-up is explaining why his current group will feature not eardrum-piercing speed guitar but original compositions in a country/bluegrass format. “Dee Dee always liked what we now call Americana, and Joey, too, to a lesser degree. And Johnny was a huge fan of the early, more folk-oriented Bob Dylan. We had many different influences in our music.”
As hard as it might be to envision these founding fathers of punk as fans of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Tommy Ramone of Uncle Monk, in a work shirt rather than his trademark leather jacket, playing mandolin along with his partner Claudia Tienan, looks anything but out of place. And a quick return to the Ramones’ back catalogue reveals that the rest of the band shared this affinity for country. On the Ramones’ fourth album, Road to Ruin (which Tommy produced, having recently quit performing), two country songs — “Questioningly” and “Don’t Come Close” — sit nestled among the usual fast ’n’ loud fodder. Tommy claims there’s also a bit of country embedded in the frenetic classic “Cretin Hop” on the band’s previous album, Rocket to Russia. “If you listen to the beginning, you can hear a little of the influence. It was more explicit when we first started recording it, but it’s still there.”
Of course, according to Tommy, even when the country sound itself isn’t audible, country’s still there in the Ramones’ music — and in punk in general: “Both Americana and punk are stripped-down and basic.” He adds that both avoid solos and blue notes, preferring the quick-picking, fun-strumming nervous/exhilarated sound of group performance.
At the Cantab, Tommy warns, there won’t be any Ramones covers or punk-inspired riffs, but there will be something closer to punk than to mainstream bluegrass. And a quick listen to Uncle Monk’s recently released homonymous debut reveals lyrical similarities to the Ramones that should make many an aging punk smile (or at least spit): anger against the kind of gentrification that’s overtaken CBGB’s old Bowery neighborhood (“Urban Renewal”), comic takes on getting revenge against an oppressive boss (“Mr. Endicott”), and out-and-out happy songs (“Happy Song”) that might lead one to bop.