[4 December 2011]
When assessing the new reunion album by Rocket from the Tombs, it’s hard not to wonder what to make of it. This is a reunion by one of the most simultaneously legendary yet unheard bands in music, one whose influence ranges far and wide yet one that was never able to record a real studio album in its classic incarnation. Should listeners just be grateful to hear something from this band, or should they honestly appraise this record, which is neither a blazing return to glory nor a weird, offbeat experiment? It’s not necessarily a difficult record to analyze, except for its baggage, which, for a devoted fanbase, is enormous.
All but unknown outside the punk-rock intelligentsia, Rocket from the Tombs was credited as the leading light of the Cleveland music scene in the mid-‘70s. Singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner joined forces in 1974 to create a raw, aggressive sound that owed much to the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa’s original Mothers of Invention, the Stooges, and the MC5. When they recruited guitarist Gene O’Connor and drummer Johnny Madansky, avowed Alice Cooper and New York Dolls fans, along with bassist Craig Bell, Rocket from the Tombs became one of the most feared and beloved live bands in the burgeoning Cleveland scene. Though they recorded some demos and performed live for two local radio station concerts, the band never recorded a full-length LP and only really lasted for about a year together. Nonetheless, the band was seen as a catalyst for the Cleveland music scene that would later spawn such acts as Devo and Tin Huey. Unfortunately, the tensions between Thomas and Laughner’s arty inclinations clashed with the more straight-ahead rock attitudes of O’Connor and Madansky. The band splintered, with Thomas and Laughner founding the legendary Pere Ubu, while O’Connor (renaming himself Cheetah Chrome) and Madansky (Johnny Blitz) took a Rocket fan named Stiv Bators to New York and launched themselves as the infamous Dead Boys. Both bands would use Rocket songs heavily in their work, and those songs would be covered years later by such bands as Guns N’ Roses (“Ain’t It Fun”) and Living Colour (“Final Solution”).
That, however, was not the end of the story. In 2003, to commemorate the release of a compilation of Rocket rehearsal tapes and radio recordings, Thomas, O’Connor, and Bell reunited. Though Laughner had died in 1977 after years of heavy drug use and Madansky had retired, the remaining members still wanted to continue. They recruited Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman and, most remarkably, former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. After a series of concerts and an album of re-recorded old Rocket songs, the band finally went into the studio to write and record a real album for the first time in their history. Barfly, the result, is therefore eagerly anticipated by fans wishing to hear this band in a real recording situation. Yet ironically enough, it’s those fans that may be the least satisfied with Barfly. If you approach the album as simply a solo record by Pere Ubu’s singer with two legendary punk rock guitar players, you may find it reasonably entertaining. If you actually compare to both the legend of Rocket from the Tombs (as heard on The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs, the 2003 compilation) and the work of the two bands it spawned, however, you might be slightly nonplussed.
The reason is that some listeners will likely be taken aback at just how much like a conventional rock album Barfly sounds, to a degree. O’Connor and Lloyd have become more polished and conventional in this band than they were in their previous incarnations. Gone are the wild and adventurous guitar stylings they created when they were angry young punks. The music is fairly orthodox alternative rock, with slightly bluesy overtones on songs like “Good Times Never Roll” and “Six and Two”. For his part, Thomas’s vocals are not nearly as atonal and challenging as they were on some of his earlier Pere Ubu works. On the chorus of “Butcherhouse 4”, he all but croons delicately, and on the hard-rocking “Anna”, he delivers possibly the most straightforward rock vocal he’s ever done in his career. Don’t misunderstand—this isn’t any sort of mainstream compromise. Thomas is still singing quirky, offbeat lyrics—his rant against “greasy air” on “Butcherhouse 4” is quintessentially weird in only the way he can be—and O’Connor and Lloyd’s occasionally clanging guitars mean that even the most melodic moments have an unusual quality. Still, it’s hard not to notice just what a huge hole Laughner’s absence leaves. Laughner was a sizable influence in the band, as both guitarist and songwriter—his songs, like those mentioned above, cast the widest shadow for future artists. While Thomas, O’Connor, and Lloyd do their part, they simply can’t recreate the nakedly personal edge that Laughner brought to his songs. That’s probably because at this point, Rocket from the Tombs isn’t so much a band as it is a supergroup of talented musicians who haven’t really worked together before, resulting in music that’s intermittently riveting but never really compelling.
Maybe that’s not an entirely fair analysis. After all, it’s a long way from 1974, and if any men have earned the right to demonstrate their influence, it’s Rocket from the Tombs. This isn’t an album meant to take on the world—those days are long gone—but it does stake the band’s claim, to a degree. Nowadays, Rocket from the Tombs is nothing more and less than a very good proto-alternative rock band, one that could stand above most of those that followed it, but no longer one that could change the face of music. That’s only to be expected, of course, but it does mean that if you’ve only ever heard of the legend of Rocket from the Tombs, Barfly may leave you wondering what all the fuss is about. For that, you might want to track down recordings from the original band, although you shouldn’t expect high-fidelity listening quality. Then again, maybe you just had to be there.