The unlikely rebirth of Ohio Punk pioneers Rocket From the Tombs
What’s the most important Rock & Roll ever to come out of Ohio?
A tough question, but a consensus is emerging that it was the Punk/Post Punk created by northeast Ohio bands in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Underground at the start, but then finding a foothold at indie (and major) labels, the wildly inventive and idiosyncratic scene proved Punk wasn’t just a British/New York hype. Rather, it was a new, modern and progressive attitude toward Rock that would eventually reach everywhere and change everything. It just happened especially early in Cleveland and nearby Akron.
Today, the northeast Ohio bands who made records — Pere Ubu, Devo, Human Switchboard, Dead Boys, Tin Huey and others, including Akron native Chrissie Hynde, who moved to England and started The Pretenders — are rightly celebrated. But as interest in that era grows, there’s been greater attention paid to the lesser-known acts, including the very first ones.
And with it has come the remarkable resurgence of Rocket From the Tombs, who play at Southgate House on Thursday. This is a historic band reunion, one that comes with classic old material plus a brand-new album, Barfly. It also brings to town two legends of Punk/Post Punk who now play in Rocket — Pere Ubu’s David Thomas and Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome. Thomas and Chrome were in the original Rocket (as was another current Rocket, Craig Bell), which lasted for only about a year (1974-1975) in Cleveland and predated the group’s fame and notoriety.
“We were all focused on making the best and hardest Rock sound that could be made,” Thomas says via email (he refuses to do telephone interviews). “We were all up to date on the evolution of Rock at that point and were interested in pushing it along its way. Though we had a wide range of interests individually, we found common ground. None of us wanted to do something ordinary. We sensed that there was something happening in Rock and knew that we were part of it, and were determined to do our bit to move it forward. We shared a sense of mission.”
The original Rocket From the Tombs played some local gigs, most notably opening for New York’s Television and then disbanded, never having officially released any records. But members Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner (who died in 1977) went on to form the great Pere Ubu, progenitors of Avant Garage, and took with them some Rocket songs that became Punk classics — “Final Solution” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.”
Guitarist Chrome and Johnny Blitz brought the equally exciting “Ain’t It Fun” and “Sonic Reducer” with them to The Dead Boys. While The Dead Boys’ impact was at first big, the band didn’t last. But Pere Ubu, through countless personnel changes but always focusing on Thomas’ remarkable voice, has become an ongoing institution.
Although he died young, Laughner had a considerable cult following, partly because of his friendship with writer Lester Bangs. A 1994 Tim/Kerr Records release of his archival material, Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, had a Rocket track, “Ain’t it Fun.”
In 2002, Thomas helped Smog Veil Records officially release some old Rocket live-performance and rehearsal tapes as the well-received The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs. In 2003, when Thomas was curating a two-day UCLA festival of his various music projects, he decided to have a reformed Rocket — featuring Chrome, bassist Bell, Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman — open for Pere Ubu. This writer was present; it was an exhilarating, redemptive show. (That lineup, with guitarist Gary Siperko subbing for Lloyd, are doing the Southgate House gig.)
“During the process of putting (the archival release) together, we all re-established communications (and) healed some old wounds that had been allowed to fester,” Thomas explains. “Someone suggested an RFTT reunion as being natural to the theme of the festival. We considered second guitar players and Cheetah was adamant that Richard Lloyd was a perfect fit.”
That started tours over the years, when time allowed. And this newly reconstituted Rocket (including Lloyd) was able to release Barfly on Fire/Smog Veil, a record of new studio recordings — its first! — in September. It was recorded during 2009-2010 in Painesville, Ohio.
“Ever since we got together in 2003 and discovered that the band was good and deserved to continue working together, new material was on the agenda,” Thomas says. “Various factors made the process of writing slower than was desirable. Remember, all of us have other projects. Scheduling among other things interfered. Finally in 2009 things came together. And by then we had assembled enough new songs that we were ready.”