Almost 30 years ago, in a downtown Cleveland loft, five characters ran through the nine songs they knew with a borrowed reel-to-reel tape recorder oblivious to and unconcerned with how influential the recording would become.
Rocket From the Tombs lasted as a band for less than a year playing only a handful of shows. In the long run, though, their impact has been massive. After their breakup, members of the band split into two camps: Singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner formed Pere Ubu, whose atonal squawking rock aesthetic is still alive and kicking today. (The band released its 18th album, St. Arkansas, last year.) Guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Madansky started the Dead Boys, Cleveland's infamous contribution to U.S. punk. Each band took some of Rockets' best tunes and turned them into career-starting anthems--"Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" for Pere Ubu and "Sonic Reducer" for the Dead Boys.
Until recently, few have had a chance to hear the recording that started it all--a trebly, distorted document of the band's fiery reaction to Rust Belt boredom. Last year saw the release of The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs, which compiles the aforementioned rehearsal recording with a few live performances. This year the band began playing again, with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd filling in for Laughner, who died of a drug overdose in 1977.
In recent interviews, Thomas, Lloyd, and bassist Craig Bell spoke about their excitement and pride in the opportunity to bring Rocket From the Tombs to the masses for the first time.
Who initiated the reunion, and what precipitated it?
A couple years ago, I was in Cleveland the same time as David, and he informed me that he was thinking about putting together some of the tapes we made and adding some live stuff that I didn't even know had existed. After that, David thought that since there still seemed to be some interest in us, we should [play some shows]. We said OK, but who's gonna be Peter? Cheetah came up with Richard, and I thought to myself, "Wow, that's a perfect fit," so we did that, and it seemed to work, and we went out and did a little mini-tour in June, and other clubs called from other places, and they said, "We want to book you too," so next up comes this tour here.
How were the initial rehearsals...did you have to do some serious relearning? What was it like for you playing the songs again?
It depended upon the song...for me, some songs like "I'm Never Gonna Kill Myself Again"--the last time I played it was the last time Rockets played, but "Final Solution", and "Muckracker," and "So Cold," those were fine. Richard made a very good point, it's not very hard, it's all in E. The toughest thing was learning the stuff from The Day the Earth Met..., cause that thing is so out of tune. We would tune by one guy saying "I'm in tune" and we would tune to him.
What's it like not only playing with these guys again, but also having Richard in the band?
If you're in a band and on the road, Richard's the guy you want to have, cause you never know what's gonna happen. It's been super...I just remember when we were doing the tour last June and there was this one night-- we're playing and things are going well, and I look to my right and I was like, "Wow, there's Richard Lloyd," and to my left--"There's Cheetah Chrome," and up front--"There's David Thomas," and I was like, "It doesn't get much better than this."
I'm sure it's crossed your mind--RFTT's influence is far-reaching but somewhat unknown to a lot of people. Is it vindicating now to have The Day the Earth Met...CD out and to be touring, or is it just plain fun, no agendas attached?
It's like that famous quote about how The Velvet Underground didn't sell many records, but everyone who heard them went out and started a band...I'm glad that we're getting our proper due because we were a pretty good band and it didn't work, for some reason. I feel vindicated that not only did [the CD] come out, but it affected people--for instance, we were playing in Columbus this past summer, and this particular venue is where Trashfest [an annual garage-rock festival that Bell is involved with] happens every year, and people who knew me through Trashfest were just knocked out by Rocket From the Tombs...This guy comes up after the show, my age or younger, and he's got this young woman with him, and he points to her and says, "I've been telling my daughter about you for years," and she was like, "Oh my god you guys are great!" You can see that people have waited for this, that when they saw an ad saying Rocket From the Tombs was playing, they were like "This can't be happening," so in that way I feel vindicated and I'm happy we get to do this.
Listening back to the stuff from the RFTT rehearsal loft on The Day the Earth Met..., did you have any specific memories of that day pop up? Or of any of the live shows on the CD?
We had one level that we played at, and that was pretty loud, so we had to find some way to set levels. I remember we took Cheetah's amp and put it all the way in the back facing the wall, and Peter as far as we could over there, and me over there, and the drums somewhere else, and we just started playing, and it turned out that we ended up with that tape. This [Cleveland] radio station said, "If local bands make tapes, we'll play them on Sunday nights"--that was why we made the tape in the first place. One of the memories I have from when we played the show at the Picadilly [from July 24, 1975]--I'm driving to a friend's house to where everyone is listening to it on the radio, and they play the version of "Seventeen", and when the song starts I hit the most bum note I could have hit, and the bass was mixed really loud, and for a second I was like, "Why don't I just take a left off this bridge?" [laughs] From that recording, Cheetah jokingly would say the tape was by the "Craig Bell Bass Band."
What instigated RFTT playing again? Was it something that you had been thinking about before? Did you ever imagine you would be playing together again?
It followed on from the [Day the Earth Met.. ] release. UCLA was putting on a 3-day festival of my music, and on the last day was Pere Ubu and we were going to get someone to open, but the guy from UCLA wanted someone to open who had to do with me, so I said, "What about an RFTT reunion?" Gene and Craig were really into it...that's how it started. I never thought it would go beyond that one show.
How did you feel about doing this without Peter? And about having Richard involved?
I didn't think about it very much. The only concern I had was finding the right guitar player. Gene suggested Richard, who was immediately the obvious choice because of Peter's connections with Television...If we hadn't gotten Richard, I don't know if we would have done the reunion. Things are going very well so far. It's a great band. I had no intention of going beyond the one show. I knew it would be interesting and fun to do it once, but it was a really hot band, it was obvious after the show...It had a vitality and a cutting edge that was quite clear to the audience and to us. We all thought, "We can't walk away from this, it's too good," so we tried some more dates in June, and that was great. This [tour] is the final dating process before we get married.
How have the shows so far been for you? Has it been hectic adding another band to your schedule?
I'm a musician who's got more to do than he can handle, which means I'm lucky. I'm getting to do what I want to do. I'm not going to complain about it. The two major writers for the major Chicago papers were running around [after one of the June shows] saying [RFTT] was the best band they'd ever seen, and the editor of Rolling Stone said we were one of the greatest bands he'd ever seen and didn't think there could be one like us. We're doing this because it's such a powerful, unique band that we can't walk away from it without giving it a chance to see what it could become.
Do you have any specific memories of the day you recorded that rehearsal tape? Does anything stand out for you?
We had a very large loft, and I remember we had managed to borrow a four-track recorder but couldn't get two of the tracks to work...It's very bizarre listening to the source tapes, because before that everyone just had the bootleg from the stuff that was played on the radio. On all of our own tracks, there was just one take...then for the cover of [the Rolling Stones'] "Satisfaction," Peter went through about ten takes, but one take was good enough for our own material, which pretty much sums up the recording [laughs]. I don't think we even had a way of playing it back--Craig was listening on the headphones, or one of us would listen on the headphones and say, "Ok, that's good"...It was all very fly by the seat of our pants.
Do you want to write new material with this lineup?
I'm not sure yet that we can write material as a band. There's no point getting all whipped up about it until it happens...It's a foregone conclusion that we'll try it, but what's not foregone is whether we'll be able to. I'm not being pessimistic, but we'll see what happens when we start writing. One thing we don't want to do is be another dumb band. That's RFTT's strength and backbone, that's why the material demands to be played with a very hard edge...The rage we had was because we didn't want to be ordinary, just another rock band cranking the stuff out for the hell of it.
I asked Craig this--do you feel vindicated being able to tour with RFTT and bring the band into the public eye, having been an extremely influential band that, for whatever circumstances, hasn't always been credited with that influence on three decades of rock music?
No. [laughs] I've spent my entire career doing things that are underappreciated, so what's one more thing I'm unappreciated for? What's good is that it's a hot band and we're getting to play. The audiences are really good; almost all the shows make more money than the guarantee, and things are exciting, people are excited and vibed about it, and some people get extremely carried away. I don't feel vindicated--that's not my problem. There should be some of those Christian Science Monitor reading rooms where people can go and feel vindicated for whatever they want to feel vindicated for. I'm used to always being right and having no one appreciate it.
How did you get involved with this reunion? Do you know the Rocket guys from your days in Television?
Cheetah Chrome e-mailed me, said they were doing this reunion and they realized they needed another guitarist to replace Peter. I wrote him back, said "Yes, absolutely, I'm interested in doing it anytime." Rockets opened for Television in Cleveland; Peter got us our first show there. I met them at the soundcheck, and they were young kids, exploding with energy, and they were fighting during soundcheck, and then they played and I was like, "Damn, that's really good." They were almost mainstream but they weren't prettyboys, and they were out of their minds with energy, like the Stooges or the MC5, but with more pop hooks, well, not pop, but hard rock. Each of the bands that came from them took those elements with them, but the chemistry they originally had is something that's very unique...If I can act as a catalyst at all that's great. I feel like I'm in a band of the caliber as any great hard rock band, and they should be as popular as Ozzy meets Led Zeppelin. But I don't know if we can do that, cause we're not pretty. There's no Robert Plant.
Was it difficult to figure out how to fit into this band now?
Absolutely not. The opposite--it's a hard rock band, and I love that shit. You have no idea how excited I am. I could punch my way right out of a cement bag about this.
How much musical freedom do you have with their songs?
They sent me the [Day the Earth Met...], and I said to David, Peter's using a wah wah, but he's using it kind of like a tone control, from bright to fuzzy [explains technical ramifications of such a maneuver...]" and David said, "No, don't copy him, just do what you want." I'm good with existing material. I learned some Matthew Sweet, and I'm [at one of his shows] in the crowd, not on tour with them, and he's got this guitar player who was doing all of my solos, note for note. So with Peter, I take what he presented, and I don't throw it out the window, I just do my thing with it.
What's the musical challenge, if any, involved in working with this band?
It's tremendously fun. Challenging? Umm...I guess, cause Cheetah's really good at those downstrokes, all with the wrist, like [makes chugga-chugga sound] so it's new to me. I only know A ... you remember Dee Dee Ramone, he had those dots on his neck with the letters of the notes written by them? [laughs]
How have the shows you've already played been like?
[This summer] we did like 11 dates, and that worked out; every one was sold out, I think...People were frothing at the mouth, which is another lovely thing with this band--everyone wants to be in something that causes a ruckus.