[25 January 2013]
“…perhaps boredom is often the mother of invention, eh?”
– Mike Rep
1. Point of Origin Unknown
A whistling pierces the air outside your farm house in Harrisburg, Ohio, followed by a muffled thud. You look through a window in time to see the dust from this long summer’s drought hanging in the air. Something has landed near the cornfield, near that 1964 Chevy you no longer drive but can’t find a buyer for. Out you hustle while the radio belches BJ Thomas’ “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” for the third time today. The dust still hangs in the air like a swarm of gnats. Steam rises from an oblong, football-shaped chalice half-buried in the ground.
An hour later, it’s cool enough to touch. Your screwdriver pries it open with a hiss. Inside: a 45. A damned piece of vinyl.
Earl Jenks is playing tricks on you again. And this “meteor” has streaked your Chevy with a nasty, corrosive burn. No one’s going to buy that thing now.
You put the 45 on the turntable. First, crowd noise, thin and distant, like a good party some alien species is having on another planet. What you recognize as guitars kick in, but they, too, sound like transmissions from beyond Pluto, though you suspect that if you’d been at the party, the guitars would’ve blown out your ears. The crowd noise dies down and the guitars stumble for their balance. Someone is hitting a drum, and if there’s a bass guitar, you can’t hear it.
“WE’RE ON A ROCKET TO NOWHERE!” a man screams, his voice smashed and belligerent as the other sounds. You imagine an emaciated alien clinging to the microphone stand, or whatever it is they use. He sounds thinner than Iggy. “Our destination’s unknown,” he promises, going on:
So stand back and watch us take a
Course nobody else has ever known
We’re on a rocket to nowhere
Strollin’ up to the towns
We’re now passing right over Straight City
Where there’s no shooting allowed
The guitars stand up on end, flexing. Someone in the crowd whistles through the din. “Nono!” the singer adds. “No survivors! No survivors!”
Have you got your seatbelt fastened
And your oxygen on?
Hold your head and get ready for take-off
In just a few minutes we’ll all be gone
Say you wanna get off now?
It’s not that easy to try
This rocket has an automatic suicide pilot
We’re gonna get the ultimate high!
The crowd squeals in agreement, like children. Take us! The song seems about to stop until the singer screams again. Barely over two minutes at this point, the song’s nearly burned through its fuel just as the crowd surges toward the stage, their screaming unhinged while the guitarist stands his ground until he’s consumed.
Forget what you’ve heard about the MC5 or the Stooges. There’s enough glamour in this thing to remind you of Bowie, but his alien inspiration was never this raw. Neither was whatever Ozzy was ingesting.
It’s 1975. To get good records you have to at least drive into Grove City, but the really good records are in Columbus. Someone there could tell you what this is.
But to hell with them.
You’re Mike Hummel, soon to be Mike Rep. For the next few weeks, after you place the oblong space capsule in the basement of your farm house and disguise the 45 inside an old Drifters single, you teach your band this “new song” you’ve written: “Rocket to Nowhere”. When it comes time to record the song, you trick them into thinking the tape’s rolling and tell them what’s already on the record is what they played. They don’t ask questions, and you hope whoever the record belonged to doesn’t come looking for it.
2. Destination Unknown
Unlike my sci-fi version of the creation of “Rocket to Nowhere”, the truth is more mundane. Mike “Rep” Hummel recorded the song in an upstairs apartment in Grove City, Ohio, just south of Columbus, performing all the instruments himself. No barn, no cornfields—though they weren’t far away—and for all I know, no Earl Jenks, no 1964 Chevy. Just an exasperated kid with some recording equipment.
Maybe the truth is a drag, but then again, it’s heartening to know a human being actually was capable of making this screaming document of exile and nihilism.
Attributed to Mike Rep and the Quotas once it was pressed in 1976 and eventually released by the Berkeley, California label Moxie in 1978—the single is available again on vinyl, thanks to the good people at Mighty Mouth—“Rocket to Nowhere” is as good a place as any to start a history of Columbus underground rock ‘n’ roll. By the time “Rocket to Nowhere” was unleashed, Rep was playing in the True Believers with musical co-conspirator Tommy Jay and Jay’s brother, The General. Whatever alien inspiration Rep had received, he’d hammered into his own sonic aesthetic, and its influence has seeped into the byways of American rock.
You can hear it in the robust, late ‘70s Columbus punk scene that was probably overshadowed by what came out of Cleveland (think: electric eels, Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu, the Pagans). Then there’s the music Rep put out on his labels, first New Age Records and then, once that moniker took on sappy undertones, Old Age/No Age, which between them pushed forward some of the best Columbus rock between 1980-1990: Screaming Urge, Jim Shepard’s Vertical Slit, Great Plains (which Rep joined for a short time), The Gibson Brothers and his own Quotas. During then, and since, Rep’s production work has been marked by the tag “LFW”—“lovingly fucked with”—on great and obscure records like the Cleveland band Prisonshake’s Roaring Third, great and seminal records like Guided by Voices’ Propeller and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments’ Bait and Switch, and most recently a trio of albums by Times New Viking.
No one would ever accuse Rep’s style of having slick “studio production values”. You and I might mistakenly call it lo-fi. Rep calls it “mega-fi”. As opposed to the minimalism or lack of sound associated with the former, mega-fi lets all the noise in. “Our recordings from back then usually had lots of sound saturation,” Rep told me in 2011. “It’s just a matter of whether or not the listener likes the radio un-friendly frequencies, the distortion, etc. It’s like the difference between trained painters who strictly use canvas, and folksy artists who paint on wood or other non-conformist mediums.”
“Rocket to Nowhere” itself may be considered proto-punk by record collectors and rock critics, but that doesn’t do enough justice to its primal, destructive glee. It’s as if the person who did those field recording-like sessions for the Fugs and the Godz showed up at an early Black Sabbath basement party and taped the whole damn thing on a crusty Dictaphone. Throw the MC5 and the Stooges in there and you get the stylistic lineage, but if we’re talking proto-punk, “Rocket to Nowhere” makes Rocket from the Tombs’ “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”, recorded the same year two and a half hours north in Cleveland, sound like high tea.
Maybe that’s because the Tombs’ seminal song is pensive, stalking around the aftermath of its disaster, while “Rocket to Nowhere” sounds young and eager. And because of that, the place it’s so ready to escape sounds like it must be home.
Like other rock songs in an endless pedigree, “Rocket to Nowhere” begins at the end of a story: the circular, plotless boredom of being an adolescent with limited means, of feeling like an infant in an adult’s body and clothing, is over. You can go anywhere. And you sure as hell don’t want to end up in Straight City. And so the song offers you a choice, and like a good salesman, sells the sizzle before you’ve tasted the steak. It describes the promise of what’s to come by first talking about how awesome the narrator and his crew are. They’re already on the rocket, talking back to you somehow. Their report, or re-creation, becomes a sales pitch: “These two lanes can take us anywhere”—rock and roll had been telling that story for decades, and in 1975, Bruce Springsteen was about to make a killing with it on Born to Run. “Anywhere”, it implies, is better than “here”.
But “anywhere” isn’t the same as “nowhere”, and in the second verse of “Rocket to Nowhere”, maybe you start to get a sinking feeling. You’ve gone from spectator to a passenger readying for take-off. You’re getting uncomfortable, fidgeting in your seat. Wasn’t that guy muttering, “No survivors”? You ask if it’s too late to get off. Well…, the narrator says with a wink. These final lines, this second ending to what’s going to be a brief story, drop down like the twist at the end of a good Twilight Zone episode: thanks to the “automatic suicide pilot”, you’re headed for oblivion. The “ultimate high”. Listening to the music, you’re inclined to agree. The barrage continues, the crowd cheers, and as you shake your behind in the seat, a surge of immolation takes you with a smile on your face.
3. No Survivors
“I loved the U.K. ‘first-wave’,” Rep said, “because Lydon and Co. and Tommy Jay and I were feeling the same frustration with the world around us. Feeling like, ‘There’s nothing here for us, except getting high, getting fucked. What else is there? Why should I care what else is going on?’ There was no reason to care. Yes, it was fun in a nihilistic and hedonistic sense. But mainly it was about the feeling of ‘no future’. And we were pretty much right.”
“Rocket to Nowhere” is one of the best distillations of punk’s nihilistic side, recorded a few years before Johnny Rotten sang, definitively, “No future”. It’s not like ol’ Johnny was the first to stumble across the idea, anyway.
Robert Johnson was plagued by it, Dylan mocked it in “Like a Rolling Stone”, and the aforementioned Fugs… well, I’m not exactly sure what they were doing to it on “Nothing” from the 1965 album The Village Fugs, a.k.a. The Fugs’ First Album. A wee bit of mockery, a bit of embracing… but always in resistance to the status quo, even if it was just their own particular, subcultural status quo (Harry Smith, Allen Ginsburg, Folkways).
But listeners who equate that full-blooded embrace of nihilism with the Sex Pistols and nothing else need to hear “Rocket to Nowhere” for its truer inspiration, early ‘70s so-called proto punk and hard rock. “The concept of ‘No Survivors’ really didn’t come from the influence of punk rock contemporaries,” Rep said, “we hadn’t heard that yet. It came from bands like Black Sabbath and others of that ilk, who were maybe feeling disenfranchised by the coming of the disco era, and from the inability of small-time bands especially to find places to play and venues that would accept what we were doing: original, non-entertainment material.”
Decades down the road from the punk explosion of the late ‘70s, it’s easy to forget that punk was about ordinary people, by which I mean working-class, low-income, no-income individuals. Or it claimed to be, anyway, in the way rock, blues, country and folk all variously made those claims before it. In an interview in 2005 with Agony Shorthand, Rep noted that “[p]eople tend to think the 60’s was the generation of social change, but I think the mid-late ‘70s was much more… out of control, and reality for the common man was altered more significantly.”
Post-‘60s, a lot of rock ‘n’ rollers who had preached social change had gotten rich, gotten famous, gotten fat, but for kids who grew up in the rural Midwest idolizing them, life seemed the same: lots of ambition, lots of corn fields, and few resources. “What really seemed evil,” Rep said, “was not being able to hear the really good rock of the era on the radio. By the mid-‘70s major radio play was totally dominated by disco and fashion and a more conservative approach just like it is today. So we were fairly naïve about what was out there worth hearing from the big wide world here in the central Ohio suburbs. We were reading about Iggy and the Stooges in Creem magazine but you weren’t hearing Iggy Pop on the radio and you weren’t finding Stooges records in the record stores. Even by ‘74, ‘75, Fun House and the first LP were already way out of print. They didn’t come back into print until the punk rock era when the Sex Pistols & other U.K. punks/wavers reintroduced non-conformist sound.”
It’s easy for a person to pontificate one way or the other about small towns: being nowhere, of course they hold no future; on the other hand, the small town’s nowhereness means anything can happen there. Maybe naiveté joined to ambition can result in something as raw, uncultured and seemingly unmediated as “Rocket to Nowhere”. In that way, at the same time “Rocket to Nowhere” preaches oblivion and destruction, the song is also creative and constructive. If anything, it sounds like a woodcut block, the engravings bold and ragged. Embracing sound, it embraces resistance and self-determination. Destroying one world, it creates its own.