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Rocket from the Tombs  

If you were trading live punk tapes through the classified ads in Flipside fanzine in the early 1980s, you were unlikely to find anyone who didn't already have the awesome Rocket from the Tombs demo that makes up the first half of this newly released CD. (With each new issue of Flipside, I would anxiously scan the classifieds to make sure that mine had been included; there was always a moment of confusion in which I mistook the name of fellow tape trader Dave Grohl for my own.) Having taken it as a historical fact for the last two decades that Rocket from the Tombs was a true monster of a band all but on par with the glories of the Stooges and the MC5, I can't quite get used to the idea that this CD represents the group's first non-bootleg release.
     If the name Rocket from the Tombs doesn't ring a bell, I should mention that its members went on to form Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, those dialectical poles of the Ohio punk/wave scene. Rocket from the Tombs existed for a scant year, debuting in the summer of 1974 and taking a bow the following July. The group consisted of Ubu founders David Thomas (a.k.a. Crocus Behemoth) and Peter Laughner, future Dead Boys Gene O'Connor and Johnny Madansky (a.k.a. Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz), and bassist Craig Bell, later of the Mirrors. Laughner died of an overdose in 1977, aged 24.
     The group's sound, as evidenced by a handful of live tapes, varied from month to month and recording to recording. The legendary demo mentioned above was recorded live to two-track in February, 1975 and broadcast shortly thereafter on Cleveland's WMMS. And oh, how it burns! The most objective reference point is the MC5's Kick Out the Jams, both groups sharing the red-meatiest of guitar sounds, a go-for-the-throat disavowal of subtlety, and -- maybe most importantly -- the big lungs of those, uh, behemoth frontmen. But you know what? The Rocket from the Tombs songbook wins hands-down, best-of-both-worlding it (art-punk plus metal) with future Ubu classics like "30 Seconds over Tokyo," "Final Solution," and "Life Stinks" not to mention soon-to-be Dead Boys chestnuts like "Sonic Reducer" and "Ain't It Fun." You may not see any of these in a Nike commercial (pace "Search and Destroy") or an ad for a cruise line ("Lust for Life"), but that doesn't mean that these aren't compositions for the ages.
     I know that it's decidedly unpunk to say so, but I almost wish that the WMMS demo material were released as its own flawless forty minutes -- or better yet, had been released in 1975. Then you'd have a for-real Rocket from the Tombs record that people could talk about they way they talk about Funhouse and Horses. You'd have that dialectical Ubu and Dead Boys result, but magically before the fact. For the sheer steamroller effect of not interrupting these forty minutes, The Day the Earth Met the . . . improves upon bootlegs of this material that interleaved tracks from different recordings.
     The remaining material comes from two live performances in May and July, 1975, in which David Thomas plays a considerably smaller role. I'll confess to being dumbfounded by reports that the band split over the question of Thomas's vocal abilities, with Laughner being his only partisan. By the time of the July recordings, Thomas had been exiled to saxophone, organ, and backing vocals -- which thankfully doesn't keep him from making a racket worthy of Our Solar System-era Half Japanese on a Laughner-led version of "Final Solution." This was from the penultimate show, opening for Television. The final one ended with Laughner and Thomas dejectedly yielding to a bum rush by Akron native and future Dead Boys singer Steve "Stiv" Bators. Ouch. It really is painful to contemplate. Bators was snottier and skinnier and more of a danger to himself and certainly more Iggy-like (the clincher), but his voice resolutely pales in comparison to Thomas's howl. How could they have missed that?
     The final live recordings sound like any of a number of scrungy, pretty good rock bands covering "Foggy Notion" and "Sonic Reducer" -- except that they did write the latter. Laughner's widow Charlotte Pressler once said that his lack of confidence turned him into an "underground jukebox" whereby he favored others' songs. Suffice to say, it's a drag to hear this band reverse gears and devolve towards facelessness.
     In Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous, his 1973 teenage alter ego enlists the aid of Creem writer Lester Bangs in a quest to take to the road with the fictional rock band Stillwater. Led Zeppelin-style hijinks abound, groupies somewhat predictably blow the kid's mind, and there's a group singalong to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." Several phone calls are placed to Michigan for Lester's moral support. After recording the demo for WMMS, Rocket from the Tombs piled into a car and drove to Birmingham, Michigan -- also in search of Lester Bangs's moral support. (Thomas and Laughner started out as rock critics, and Laughner still wrote for Creem.) Lester dug what he heard. I imagine him listening to it as he's dispensing long-distance advice to the kid on tour with the out-of-control, schlocky rock band.
     It's not recorded whether Rocket had their Elton singalong moment.

Rocket from the Tombs, "The Day the Earth Met the...", (Smog Veil SV37CD)


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