By the usual pop-music standards, Cleveland’s Rocket From the Tombs barely even counted as a band during its first incarnation, from 1974 to 1975. The group never officially released any music at all, never recorded anything beyond a handful of demos and scrappy live performances, and never played outside its hometown.
But some of the members of Rocket From the Tombs’ final lineup went on to form two of the classic American bands of the punk era: guitarist Gene O’Connor, aka Cheetah Chrome, and drummer Johnny “Blitz” Mandasky joined wildman Stiv Bators and moved to New York as the Dead Boys; singer David Thomas (known during his Rocket days as “Crocus Behemoth”) and guitarist Peter Laughner formed postpunk “avant-garage” rock band Pere Ubu. Both bands borrowed Rocket From the Tombs material for some of their most emblematic songs—the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” “What Love Is,” and “Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth,” and Pere Ubu’s “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Final Solution,” and “Life Stinks.”
In 2003, a new version of the band—Thomas, O’Connor, original bassist Craig Bell, Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman, and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd—got together. (Laughner died in 1977.) Their first project was re-recording the music from The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs, a 2002 collection of demos and live tracks that constituted the entire RFTT catalog. The result, 2004’s Rocket Redux, was an admirable, if ultimately unnecessary and redundant, effort.
The reincarnated Rocket From the Tombs’ second official album, Barfly (Smog Veil), released in September, is just as admirable as Rocket Redux—an honest effort from committed musicians to breathe life into a project that never really got the chance it deserved. It is also, unfortunately, just as unnecessary as its predecessor, and even more forgettable. The disc starts strong, with the loose-limbed flame-out “I Seel Soul,” but descends into arty bar-band rock. There are flashes of the kind of primal grandeur displayed on The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs, but good luck wading through everything else to get to them—the barrage of bluesy riffs and anonymous solos is more exhausting than exhilarating.
Part of the problem with both Barfly and Rocket Redux is that these middle-aged men have no chance competing against the ghosts of their own youth. But both albums also make plain just how essential Laughner was, as both a guitarist and a songwriter—which makes the mostly overlooked December re-release of The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs on Fire Records that much better news.
The sound quality is just as crummy as it was in 2002, but it fits the material—raw, angry, lacerating proto-punk/hard rock influenced by the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. The best songs stretch out to five minutes and beyond, showing the band’s capacity for ferocious guitar jams. On these primitive recordings, a bunch of 20-year-olds with nothing to look forward to give voice to their rage and despair and turn it into something else, something rough but triumphant. The long, tense build-ups and corrosive guitar solos on the album’s best songs, like “Ain’t It Fun” and “Amphetamine,” exemplify the transcendent possibilities of rock music.
Laughner has acquired a reputation as a punk martyr. He was just 24 when he died from acute pancreatitis, brought on by extensive drug and alcohol abuse. Lester Bangs offered him a harsh eulogy in New York Rocker magazine: “I could not trust myself to be around him and not get drunk or take drugs, so I had no choice but to never be around him. To tell the truth, being his friend at all had gotten so harrowing and ugly that I was looking for an out anyway.”
Rocket From the Tombs will never escape from its mythology. The band will always be surrounded by an aura of possibility and regret, of lost chances and Laughner’s too-short life. But what they left behind is brilliant. It is probably good news that Cheetah Chrome and Lloyd have both dropped out of the band since the release of Barfly. Maybe the best thing to do is let the original recordings stand on their own.