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Back to the Future

Rocket From the Tombs re-returns from the dead.

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Rocket From the Tombs: The sound is way more menacing than the look.
  • Rocket From the Tombs: The sound is way more menacing than the look.

For a band that lasted just eight months, during which it never released an album, Rocket From the Tombs casts a long shadow.

In the 30 years since the group's breakup, its legend has grown to dwarf its local legacy. Not just because the breakup led to the creation of the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, but because Rocket's music -- surviving on rare, bootleg recordings -- was so primal, furious, and ahead of its time.

"If Rocket wasn't such a hot rock band, I wouldn't be interested -- and neither would anyone else," says singer David Thomas (pictured, center).

The band formed in late 1974, channeling the alienation and disaffection of five young guys in a dying Rust Belt town. Their raw, visceral sonic onslaught and onstage theatrics drew inspiration from the Stooges and MC5, but band members hardly saw themselves as part of a larger movement. They were just bored and pissed.

"It wasn't until the CBGBs thing started to break that everyone realized, 'Whoa, there's somebody else like us,'" recalls guitarist Cheetah Chrome (right).

After a visit to New York to see the punk explosion firsthand, singer-guitarist Peter Laughner returned with news that Television guitarist Richard Lloyd had agreed play a date with Rocket in Cleveland. The show would be Television's first out-of-town gig -- and the last performance by Rocket From the Tombs, as the band's unstable mix of personalities finally imploded shortly after the shows.

"The volatility was simply because we were very different people," Thomas says. "We all more or less agreed what rock and roll should be; that wasn't the problem. The problem was there were various levels of maturity -- and there was a significant amount of drug usage."

That was the end of the band until 2002, when Smog Veil Records released The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs, a collection of old source demos and live recordings. A year later, Thomas reunited the band for a show in L.A. with Pere Ubu.

"We came off the stage feeling 'That was pretty messy, but boy, it sounded good,' and it's just gone on from there," Thomas says.

The show sparked a tour and an album, Rocket Redux, for which Thomas rerecorded the old classics with a new lineup consisting of original bassist Craig Bell, Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman, and Lloyd, replacing Laughner (who died in 1977) on guitar.

Along the way, they discovered that the personality conflicts dogging Rocket's first incarnation had dissipated.

"We haven't had an explosion or anything in quite a while. Everybody gets along just great," says Chrome.

The tour went so well, in fact, that the quintet spent the last few months writing its first new material in three decades. "We're all pleasantly surprised at the quality of the writing," says Thomas, who indicates that a new full-length is probably in the offing.

As anyone who has witnessed one of their live shows can attest, Rocket generates more heat than Dominion's gas lines. Because the band members are better players and songwriters than they ever were, there's a lot of anticipation for the new songs.

"[We] came in with the barest scraps of ideas, like 'I have a chorus,' but all of a sudden it would just get fleshed out," Chrome says, adding that the musical complexity poses a new problem: "It's like, 'Boy, that sounds great. How do I do that?'"

With Thomas in England and the other band members dwelling in different U.S. cities, there's not a lot of time to rehearse. They all flew in yesterday, with minimal time to tighten the bolts on the new songs.

And just as the band has evolved, so has its fan base. "I've seen us go from [a crowd of] people our age in 2003, to now we have more college kids than anything," says Chrome. "It's very strange to see all these little punkers. It's just like the old days."

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