They Didn't Invent Punk, Though They Could Have
by Jon Pareles, New York Times, July 31, 2006
The standard story goes that punk rock was invented in New York by the Ramones. They distilled the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, plus one-shot mid-1960's singles and the Detroit ferocity of the MC5 and the Stooges, into the formula that came to define punk: short, fast, catchy, unstoppable.
But in some alternate realm, punk might have traced its genesis to Rocket From the Tombs, which headlined the Dot Dash Festival of punk rock at Southpaw in Brooklyn on Saturday night. The initial Rocket From the Tombs was a Cleveland band that lasted less than a year (1974-5) and never made a studio album. One of its songs, "Sonic Reducer" - with lyrics like "don't need no human race" - was as straightforward a punk song as anything the Ramones were devising in 1974.
Rocket From the Tombs split into the bands that would become the Dead Boys, playing straightforward punk rock, and Pere Ubu, playing noisy, arty songs it described as "avant-garage." Peter Laughner, a guitarist in Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu, died of pancreatitis in 1977.
In 2003 three surviving band members ó the singer David Thomas from Pere Ubu, the guitarist Cheetah Chrome from the Dead Boys and the bassist Craig Bell reconvened Rocket From the Tombs with Steve Mehlman from the current Pere Ubu on drums and Richard Lloyd, from the New York punk-era band Television, on guitar. They did a brief reunion tour and made the first full-fledged studio album of Rocket From the Tombs' songs, "Rocket Redux" (Smog Veil). Now they have reunited again.
Hindsight inevitably colors reunions, and Rocket From the Tombs started and ended its set on the fast and punky side. But Mr. Thomas has said he doesn't consider Rocket From the Tombs a punk band. In the mid-1970's Rocket From the Tombs drew on 1960's styles - the Stooges, early psychedelia and garage-rock - and sang about adolescent frustrations and destructive urges with a mixture of bluntness and savage irony that was very punk.
The current band sounds hardly less volatile than the group on the rehearsal tapes and live bootlegs that are all the original Rocket From the Tombs left behind. The stinging, quivering phrases of Mr. Lloyd's guitar solos change the overall sound but leave it just as barbed; Mr. Lloyd wrote and sang a new song, a garage-rocker named "Amnesia." Mr. Thomas's high, reedy, cracked croon is more familiar now after 30 years of Pere Ubu, but it's still one of rock's most willful vocal styles, both loopy and insolent.
Rocket From the Tombs carried "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," a song about a bombing mission, from ominous psychedelic vamp to punk detonation; "Final Solution" flared up fiercely between each doleful complaint. While Rocket From the Tombs could bash away at punk speed, it could also do unpunk things: particularly ballads like "Ain't It Fun," a song about junkie life that, sung by Cheetah Chrome, now sounds as much like a memorial as a report. On Saturday night, as in 1974, Rocket From the Tombs fit into no genre and sounded just right.
Village Voice, Howard Hampton, 5/14/2
History is unmade at night: In 1975 Rocket From The Tombs had all of the ingredients, from the coolest name (shades of Edgar Allan Poe fronting the Shadows of Knight or 13th Floor Elevators) to the darkest, most desperately unforgiving sound. With the Stooges and Velvets as role-remodels, a payload of achingly funny-brutal-mortifying songs and Cleveland's rust-belted heart/wasteland as ground zero, Rocket From The Tombs were the little engine that exploded. Breaking up without releasing so much as a single, the band molded its legend from debris and fallout, raining down the years in the form of rumor, fable, and ultra-scarce bootlegs... With as near to decent sound as homemade recordings and the band's distort-o-rama performances will allow, The Day The Earth Met is a napalmland cornucopia of lost and found claims to immortality... The Rocket Saga stands as a story of what might have been: a mix of riotous elements (populist, dadaist, teen-revanchist) that coulda-shoulda resonated beyond the fringes of subculture.
Musik Express, Frank Sawatzki, March 2002.
"The definitive document of a short-lived, but seminal band... wrestling with something which is not punk yet, but goes far beyond the rock of the New York Dolls, a Metal Monster for which the world had no name."
Les Inrockuptibles, 2/20/2, JD Beauvallet.
"A record of great historical importance, envisaging the Punk-Rock revolution.....Furious songs full of tension and of a surprising modernity that deserve being regarded alongside the best songs of the MC5, Patti Smith, The Stooges or VU on the list of the seminal non-mainstream rock bands."
#1 in the On The Edge chart, Rolling Stone, 5/9/2
9 out of 10, Blow Up (Italy), March 2002
Music Week, April 2002
"A raft of tremendously nasty originals."
Belfast Telegraph, Mach 23 2002
"Trailblazing glimpse of unfulfilled genius."
Billboard, Chris Morris, 4/20/2
The early 70s music scene in Cleveland maintains its fascination, not only for its oracular take on the then-nascent punk-rock explosion, but also because the ferment there has been so slimly documented... It's flabbergasting stuff-- especially considering that these Midwestern musicians were working in geographical and artist isolation, essentially without sonic models, foraging their own curdled instincts and a few askew contemporaries to formulate a bile-spitting style without any true precedent... This is historic music that has been hidden in the shadows too long.
Record Collector, Mark Brend, April 2002
When you consider that three of American punk's most important tunes, 'Sonic Reducer' (the Dead Boys), 'Final Solution' and '30 Seconds Over Tokyo' (both Pere Ubu) were all first part of the RFTT repertoire, you can forgive the hyperbole... great songs and speaker-shredding guitar.
Time Out, Manish Agarwal, March 20 2002
Subtitled "Live From Punk Ground Zero, Cleveland 1975," this is a must-buy for fans of gut-level rock 'n' roll... Rocket's songs were seismic bouts of discontent in the face of a smug mainstream. These kids played with a desperate conviction that perhaps only comes from being stuck in the middle of nowhere during barren times. The 19 tracks unearthed on this overdue collection are all live takes or demos, but it's hard to imagine them carrying more weight if the band had made it to a studio... [Peter Laughner's] performances here exude a chilling fatalism, notably on the self-destructive blues of "Ain't It Fun."
The Wire, Bleddyn Butcher, March 2002
This is a genuine blast from the past, in impact as well as in name. Although Rocket from The Tombs are mainly remembered as a Pere Ubu prototype, the group don't sound remotely tentative: confident, yes; as experimental as mischief and, occasionally, rough as guts. But never tentative. The Tombs' takes on early Ubu achievements like "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution", here given their first official release, roar forth from the speakers fully realised. When this group were firing, they achieved sonic distinction, a searing, high octane magnificence. Blazing amazing trails, they deserve to be celebrated, not consigned to a historical footnote.
Free Times, Jeff Niesel, Feb 27 - Mar 5, 2002
Culled from three 1975 performances - a rehearsal and two concerts, one at the old Agora and one at the Piccadilly Inn - this compilation promises to be "a tantalizing glimpse at one of the greatest albums NEVER recorded," as the teaser on the back cover puts it. It's not an empty tease, either. If it had been released during Rocket From the Tombs' lifetime, it's possible The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs would have put this Cleveland band on par with the Stooges and MC5, the Detroit bands most often credited with igniting the late-'70s punk explosion. But although previous releases have circulated the underground rock circuit as bootlegs and the aura of singer-guitarist Peter Laughner has only grown since his death in 1977, Rocket from the Tombs has largely been overlooked. Compiled by Pere Ubu singer David Thomas (who goes uncredited for his efforts in the extensive liner notes), this album makes the first legitimate claim for the band's significance. Despite the inevitable layer of murk and distortion, it's really saying something that the Stooges' covers that open and close the album are no more powerful than the Rocket's own compositions. Between the self-loathing "Ain't it Fun," the bleakly pessimistic "Life Stinks" and the viciously defiant "Transfusion," Thomas and Laughner take turns exorcising their demons. Some of the songs here, namely "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Sonic Reducer" and "Final Solution," would eventually become signature tracks for Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, the bands that formed out of Rocket From the Tombs' ashes. But here in their raw form, they sound so wonderfully primal and visceral that it's no wonder the band self-destructed after only a year of playing together. A