This album [The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs] is more than just an artifact of a specific time and place. It offers a tantalizing glimpse at one of the greatest albums never recorded. Many of us - fans of this arcane sub-chapter in the history of rock music - are convinced that had Rocket From The Tombs survived long enough to record "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Sonic Reducer," and "Final Solution," as well as lost classics like "Muckraker," "So Cold" and "Amphetamine ," the resulting record would, today, be ranked alongside the MC5's Kick Out The Jams, Patti Smith's Horses and the Stooges' Raw Power as seminal albums of the punk era. This collection of demo and live material is the closest we can get. Still, after 26 years worth of mythologizing, it provides ample proof that during their all too brief existence few bands rocked harder or closer to the edge.
RFTT debuted June 16, 1974 at the Viking Saloon, a rock club downtown owned by Thomas' friend and housemate Dick Korn. The lineup was Thomas (vocals, bass), Zonneville (bass, vocals), Glenn "Thunderhand" Hach (guitar, vocals) and Tom "Foolery" Clements (drums). The set consisted of nearly all the Kick Out The Jams album. Some of the originals, inherited from the Bow Wahs, were farcical or satiric in nature. The addition of singer / guitarist Peter Laughner several months later focused and then transformed the group.
DAVID THOMAS - I think I met Peter at the Grapes of Wrath (a folk and blues club opposite the Viking Saloon) and he knew who I was because of my column in The Scene. We would run into each other and have some drinks and pass the time and one day he asked to play in RFTT. Somewhat dumbfounded I, of course, agreed.
Laughner probably tried harder than anyone to turn the dysfunctional loners of the Cleveland "underground" into a cohesive "scene." Along with Mirrors founder Jamie Klimek, he was at the ground zero of Middle America's punk explosion, the series of Velvet Underground concerts at Cleveland's La Cave Club in 1968 and 1969. Klimek and Laughner were among the earliest and most vocal, local proponents of Total Velvetization. Ironically, Laughner's catholic tastes left him open to almost everything, it seems, except his own very great abilities, and while he included a selection of his own songs in every band he fronted, insecurities caused him, in the words of ex-wife Charlotte Pressler, to become an "underground jukebox." Joining RFTT only a few months after the final break up of his own Cinderella Backstreet, he found in Thomas someone who shared his enthusiasms, who shared his need for a serious band, but, maybe more importantly, someone who did not share his doubts.
A period of restructuring, of expansion and contraction, yielded the classic RFTT lineup. It survived less than eight months yet it was responsible for some of the greatest and most influential punk songs of all time.
Guitarist Gene O'Connor (Cheetah Chrome) and drummer Johnny "Madman" Madansky (later Johnny Blitz) were kids from the city who shared a love of overdrive groove rock and general chaos. They played in bands called Slash and Sarah Blue, covering the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper and other glam/hard rock acts. Laughner met them a couple years earlier when they answered an ad in the paper.
Bassist Craig Bell, an original member of Mirrors, and who also wrote for local 'zines, knew Laughner from his visits to Mirrors rehearsals. He brought to RFTT a catalog of sharp-edged songs in a Kinks-meets-Velvets style. For a few weeks he held his position in both bands before Klimek fired him for wanting to play with "the enemy."
CRAIG BELL - After I returned from the Army in 1974, I took a job driving a taxi in Cleveland. I took a call to go down to one of the worst tenements on the West Side one evening and as I pulled up to the building, out walked one of the weirdest guys I had ever seen. He was dressed from head to toe in a silver suit and silver boots, with long, bright red hair, and chrome aviator sunglasses (although it was about nine o'clock at night). He hopped in the back seat, and told me to take him to Twiggy's, a trendy eastside bar. Once we arrived, he fumbled around in his pockets to pay the fare and came up ten cents short. I told him not to worry about it and we both went on our separate ways. Some months later, when I was asked to audition for RFTT, it was my first introduction to Gene O'Connor. We all ended up at a coffee shop afterwards. Something had been bugging me all the time we'd been playing together. Finally, over a cup of coffee, and some get-to-know-you conversation, I looked Cheetah dead in the eye, and said 'Hey, you son of a bitch, you owe me ten cents!" Rehearsals began in earnest in early December of 1974.
CHEETAH CHROME - I had the music for "Down In Flames," "Transfusion," "30 Seconds," "Never Gonna Kill Myself Again" and "Ain't It Fun," and we started matching them to Croc and Pete's unfinished lyrics. I think the first thing we tried was probably "So Cold," as it reminded those guys of Alice Cooper and they wanted us to feel at home! It became apparent quickly that we had a bunch of pretty damn good songs! Plus, Peter was a great band leader, listened really well and caught a lot of good things. He really drilled us at practice, doing it over and over till it sounded like something. Everybody pitched in ideas, all five of us, we tried 'em all, and we got along well back then. It felt like a real team.
The retooled Rockets debuted at the first "Special Extermination Music Night," December 22, 1974 at the Viking Saloon. The headliners were The Electric Eels. The Mirrors opened. This was first and last time the three bands s hared the same stage. The Rocket set included the originals they had just worked up, including Thomas' "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," a psychodramatic retelling of the Doolittle Raid on Japan. Add the all-needles-are-on-red sonic overdrive of "Down In Flames" as well as "What Love is" and the Beefheartian "Life Stinks."
CRAIG BELL - We recorded it in our rehearsal loft on West 4th St. It was a large space, maybe 20 x 50, which suited our purposes considering the volume we played at. I recall we put Cheetah's Orange amps all the way at the back of the room with a mic facing them so the rest of us could hear what we were doing. I was in charge of the Sunn 6-channel mixer along with turning on and off the 2-track tape machine to which it fed. Considering the primitive acoustics and limitations of our situation, I think we got quite a great tape out of it.
It was broadcast the following Sunday with commentary from Laughner.
CRAIG BELL - Peter, being in high spirits, and never a shy man, was very verbose before and after the playing of the tape. But I'll always remember, in his closing statements, how he basically told everyone out in the listening audience not to be afraid, and don't care what anyone else thinks, and in his words keep, "doing it for yourself."
PETER LAUGHNER - The reason we did this tape, and the reason that WMMS is gonna broadcast this stuff, is to tell you that YOU CAN DO IT TOO! I mean, anybody can make a tape as long as they've got a little bit of stuff together, and it should be original. Because records today are made by formula; they shove the right Pavlov impulses down your throat and into your ear, and if you don't hear that formula, and if you don't feel the way producers of records today want you to feel, and you want to make a record, you gotta do it for yourself! Which is what we did with this thing, you know? It's not studio stuff, but it's a valid statement we made about what we were doing one night at our loft, just going crazy...
Rockets had their largest audience ever, and with Thomas' club connections, particularly at the Agora where RFTT opened for the recently reformed Iron Butterfly, they were getting few but steady gigs. There was even a one shot Rocket From The Tombs Mutual Admiration Society Newsletter. More importantly, the new songs kept coming - among them two of the most important anthems to come out of punk rock's first wave, Final Solution and Sonic Reducer.
"Final Solution" was written by Thomas as a response to the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Final Problem. "I had the flu and I was reading Sherlock Holmes between bouts of fevered hallucination," Thomas said. "All I could think of for what seemed like days was that if there's a final problem there's got to be a final solu tion." Over the years there's been much speculation as to who the song is about...
DAVID THOMAS - It's not ABOUT anyone. If anything it's more like an autobiographical angst-projection. My mom did throw me out because I wouldn't wear pants that fit - I used to wear them so that the legs rode high above my ankles. I wanted to write a song as a followup to Blue Cheer's version of "Summertime Blues." Tim Wright was the band's soundman sometimes and he had huge Voice of The Theater speakers in his living room. I remember hearing it over and over at cranked levels. I wrote the words to that tune. I went to Craig and described what I wanted musical y - "Summertime Blues" reduced (sonic reduction!) to the minimum - a throb and then a big burst of noise and then back to a throb.
CRAIG BELL - I was at the rehearsal loft and David was the second to arrive. He said, "I have this new song, let's see if we can work something out" and started reading off the lyrics while pounding his hand on top of an amplifier. As we worked it out, I started playing a bass riff timed to his tempo, and by the time the rest of the band arrived, we had worked out the basic structure of Final Solution. After some more tweaking that day, Peter had added the outro and that pretty much was it. As for who it was about, isn't it about all of us?
Still propelled by the momentum of the WMMS broadcast, Laughner determined to generate attention from a record label and set out to enlist the aid of Lester Bangs. Then editor of Creem magazine (for which Laughner had begun to write), Bangs was a champion of all that was unacceptable, obscure and just plain out of control in rock 'n' roll. With tape in hand, and Bell in tow, Laughner headed for Detroit.
CRAIG BELL - The trip to Michigan was quite an experience. We drove up in a rented van from Cleveland and stayed with Lester at Creem's offices in Birmingham. By this time, Peter and Lester had gotten to know each other quite well, and Lester was very enthusiastic upon hearing our tape. He told us that he would forward it to Murray Krugman, who at that time was one of the producers of Blue Oyster Cult. All of this subsequently happened despite the fact that during one of the evenings we were driving around in the van, while making a sharp turn, I managed to roll Lester around the back of the van like a ping-pong ball. All I remember about the trip to John Sinclair's home is that the White Panther bread truck was in the garage and I don't recall if we met John or not.
Rockets rehearsed several times a week and played out when they could.
CHEETAH CHROME - The shows were usually pretty intense, Crocus could work himself into a pretty good frenzy back then, occasionally doing the "gator", rolling around on the floor, wearing that judges robe, or graduation robe, or whatever the hell it was. Peter used to say some pretty off the wall stuff, leaving the audience shaking their heads. Craig used to say we needed to buy him a leather gag!
CRAIG BELL - I also remember Cheetah coming out wearing a dog collar on a chain. Part of Crocus' stage apparel was a long choir robe, which was immediately drenched in sweat. Between that and his sopping-wet hair, I was assured of it never being a dry night, since I always stood behind him.