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Rocket From The Tombs Live from Punk Rock Ground Zero, Cleveland 1975

By Ken Shimamoto, Contributor
Monday, March 11, 2002 @ 1:07 PM

(Smog Veil)

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The liners call this "a tantalizing glimpse at one of the greatest albums NEVER recorded," and for once, the hyperbole is justified.

A lotta people don't remember how bad "mainstream" rock used ta blow in the mid-seventies,and how big a deal it was when bands like the New York Dolls, the Modern Lovers, Dictators, et. al. came around. Calcifying dinosaurs, "prog," and the earliest inroads of the Thud of Corporate Rock ruled the charts and the airwaves, while crappy cover bands dominated the clubs (where there was even live music; in much of Clubland, deejays and disco ruled).

Things hit a nadir around '76, which was around the time I forsook rock 'n' roll for wrestling and a coupla years of jazz snobbery. I always maintained that my cohort and I shoulda been punks; we definitely had the attitude (sitting outside the deli having spitting and farting contests and wondering why the Really Neat Girls wouldn't go out with us), but in our little backwater ‘burg on Long Island, the City where the whole CBGB’s scene was taking shape, was just about an hour and a world away. Which makes this set of music by a band, who never made a "real" record, but contributed members to a coupla obscure cult bands, seem ultra-important.

In late '74 and early '75, when I was attending the State University of New York at Albany, ostensibly studying sociology but actually screwing around, taking too many drugs and playing in stupid blues-rock bands, this bunch of inspired madmen a coupla states away were making music with the correct spirit... not that anybody noticed or cared at the time.

At the epicenter of a Cleveland underground scene that also included the artier Mirrors and insane Electric Eels, these guys were staking out turf that the New York bands wouldn't begin to for another year (actually I got the same feeling recently listening to some "fan club-only" recordings from '75 by Dallas' Nervebreakers; there were little pockets all over the place, but it'd take the media buzz over the Ramones and especially the Sex Pistols to make it all coalesce into a "movement").

I'll admit to not being a great fan of either of the bands that arose from the ashes of Rocket from the Tombs - art creeps Pere Ubu and caricature punk rockers the Dead Boys (although lotsa people whose opinions I respect, swear by the latter's Younger, Louder and Snottier). A lot of the material collected here wound up in the repertoires of those bands, but I like these versions better than any of the "official" released ones. The tension between the aesthetes (that'd be David Thomas, Peter Laughner, and Craig Bell) and the punks (that'd be Gene "Cheetah Chrome" O'Connor and Johnny "Blitz"Madansky) in RFTT made them more volatile and interesting than either of their successors. Creem scribe, television wannabe, prodigous substance abuser and archetypal Tortured, Doomed Artist… Peter Laughner has become a figure of legendary proportions, largely on the basis of the obituary Lester Bangs wrote for him which was anthologized in "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung."

There's also an interesting and memorable character study of Laughner (as "Billy") in former Ubu keyboardist Allen Ravenstine's short story Music Lessons, which was included in The Penguin (later Da Capo) Book of Rock and Roll Writing. Besides the RFTT recordings released here, the only other Laughner music available is on the TK Records CD Take the Guitar Player for a Ride and The Shape of Things, a '76 Ubu live set released by David Thomas on his Hearpen label (available from his Ubu Projex website, http://www.projex.demon.co.uk/).

About these recordings: yes, they're lo-fi, but all the instruments are audible and the sound is a hell of a lot better than the cassette I got from Black To Comm editor and Cle rock scholar Chris Stigliano four years ago, and it contains five songs which weren't on that one to boot (omitting duplicate versions of as many other songs). Included here are the complete 2/15/75 rehearsal loft sessions and three other songs from the 5/5/75 Agora show that were broadcast on WMMS and have been extensively bootlegged, along with a further seven tunes from a 7/24/75 show at the Piccadilly Inn that have never been released anywhere. Sure, the playing is rough, but so fucking what? It ROCKS, and isn't that the point? I've given up crabbing about the shitty audio quality of archival recordings...dunno 'bout you, but I want to hear every note ever recorded by the James Williamson Stooges, no matter how lousy the audience cassette recording. I'll admit it: I like out-of-tune rehearsal and live recordings. They sound real to me. If the energy and spirit are there, you make allowances for some technical shortcomings. (Either that or go listen to, uh, Steely Dan or something.) Forget about bullshit-ass technical considerations and just let the glorious noise wash over ya.

Starting out with a perfunctory run-through of "Raw Power," sans vocals (and missing the J.C. Crawford/"Kick Out the Jams"-aping vocal intro from the original tape), the boys rip into "So Cold" (which Cheetah, the real-life punk Frankenstein monster, claims was the first song he and Blitz played with RFTT because it sounded like Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" and Thomas/Laughner wanted them to "feel at home"), followed by "What Love Is" (later to appear on the first Dead Boys album) with its whiplash Chrome riff.

These guys wear their influences on their sleeves with their covers (Stooges, Velvets - and hey, what's that sound like -- a cello on their version of "Foggy Notion?" - plus a snippet of Stones "Satisfaction," which fellow Ohioans Devo would later deconstruct), but the real story here is the originals, which uniformly kill. With four very diverse writers and singers in the lineup (Thomas, Laughner, O'Connor, and Bell, not to mention two lead-capable axe stranglers in Laughner and O'Connor), these Rockets moved from strength to strength. On the basis of his toons here, Laughner stakes his claim as one of the greats, right up there with his idols Lou and Iggy.

Among the Laughner classics in this set: the brooding, blasted "Ain't It Fun" (which appeared on the second Dead Boys album We Have Come for Your Children and was later the subject of an inferior cover by, uh, Guns'n'Roses), "Transfusion" (a rumination on the topic "You Didn't Bleed"), and the Beefheartian "Life Stinks." You also get to hear embryonic versions of the Ubu psychodramas "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution," along with the later Dead Boys staples "Sonic Reducer," "Never Gonna Kill Myself Again," and "Down In Flames." Only non-snazz track here: the version of Laughner's "Amphetamine" (the "Take The Guitar Player For A Ride" portion of which was appropriated by Wilco on "Being There") where Madansky plays some masterfully inappropriate Keith Moon-style fills. Hear the version on the TK Laughner CD instead.


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