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Resurrecting Rocket From The Tombs

Rocket From the Tombs formed 30 years ago, but the legendary Cleveland band has only just got around to releasing its debut album, Rocket Redux (Smog Veil). Of course, a lot has transpired in between the group's initial breakup in 1975 and its subsequent, entirely unexpected reformation in early 2003 to play an L.A. festival. "There was a total standing ovation," said RFTT guitarist Richard Lloyd, on the phone from New York. "It was as if it was some sort of opera, with the whole theater exploding at the end."

The original quintet — vocalist David Thomas (AKA Crocus Behemoth), guitarist Cheetah Chrome (AKA Gene O'Connor), guitarist Peter Laughner, drummer Johnny Mandansky, and bassist Craig Bell — played a ferocious brand of proto-punk that drew equally from The Stooges, the MC5, and the Velvet Underground. In the group's repertoire were three songs that would become punk classics: "Sonic Reducer" (as recorded by Chrome's next band, the Dead Boys), "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," and "Final Solution" (as recorded by Thomas' next band, Pere Ubu).

So volatile were the personalities of RFTT's principal players that after a handful of earthshakingly loud gigs in and around Cleveland, the band split acrimoniously without ever recording a studio album.

In late 1975 Thomas formed Pere Ubu, the acclaimed art-rock combo that he continues to lead to this day, while Cheetah Chrome hooked up with vocalist Stiv Bators to found the nihilistic mid-'70s punk group the Dead Boys. Laughner fronted a succession of short-lived bands before drinking and drugging himself to an early grave in 1977. Mandansky and Bell simply dropped out of sight.

Rocket From the Tombs' story did not end there, however. Over the years, the band attained what can only be described as a mythic aura, thanks to the cover versions by Thomas and Chrome's respective bands, as well as a handful of lo-fidelity bootlegs. By the early '90s, RFTT had become the ultimate "cult" act — a band more people had heard of than actually heard.

That all changed in 2002, when an official Rocket From the Tombs document was finally released. Made up of rehearsals and live recordings, The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs showed the band to be a powerful creative force, mixing an adventurous, experimental spirit with bone-crunching riffs and an aggressive performance style. The CD was met with almost universal acclaim in both the underground and mainstream press.

At least one person wasn't surprised by Rocket From the Tombs' belated success: "The songs are good songs, the performances are good performances," Cheetah Chrome stated during a recent interview.

Had he given the band much thought over the past 30 years? "It was something I had always been proud of," he said, "but as I had no tapes of the band, I did forget exactly how good we had been."

In the late '90s, Chrome found himself in the unlikely position of having to buy bootlegs of his former band on eBay. Listening to them was a revelation: "It hit me like a ton of bricks how important the band was to my musical history, how much it had shaped me in my formative years," he said.

Following the success of The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs, Chrome and Thomas re-connected and decided to reform the band for a one-off gig opening for Pere Ubu at 2003's Thomas-curated Disastodrome Festival in Los Angeles. Chrome had kept up with Craig Bell over the years, and he was up for the reunion. With Mandansky missing in action, Thomas recruited Pere Ubu's Steve Mehlman to fill the drummer's chair. Finding a replacement for the long-dead Laughner was trickier. Fortunately, Chrome had a ringer in mind. "When we needed a guitarist to do the UCLA gig, we wracked our brains to think of who could fit," he said. "Richard's name came up pretty quick, and once it did, there was no other choice."

"Richard" was Richard Lloyd, guitarist extraordinaire of NYC punk legends Television. "Cheetah Chrome e-mailed me about two years ago, and said they were having — as he put it — 'an RFTT reunion,'" Lloyd recalled during a separate interview. "When I got the e-mail, I didn't know what RFTT meant! But I think Cheetah's very talented, so I wrote back to him and said 'Yes, I'd love to do it — what's RFTT?'"

Once the acronym was explained, Lloyd recalled a few summer nights in 1975, when Rocket From the Tombs opened for Television. "Those were our first out-of-town shows, in Cleveland," Lloyd said. "Peter Laughner had seen us in New York, and he was the one who talked us into going out there, and he said his band could open up for us."

Laughner's band was clearly on the verge of falling apart, according to Lloyd. "At the sound check, they got in a huge fight. I don't know just how physical it got, but there was shouting and shoving. And then they broke up right after those shows, I think."

Still, Lloyd remembers being impressed with Rocket From the Tombs' intense commitment to their music, and followed the subsequent work of the band's trailblazing offshoots, the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu.

The 21st century version of Rocket From the Tombs that Lloyd completed turned out to be no less combustible than the original. "We were playing [The Disastodrome Festival] on Sunday, so we had Friday and Saturday available to rehearse in the afternoon," Lloyd said. "I arrived and met everybody at the theater. We were on the stage and we began to play and the band got in another big fight! Cheetah, David, and Craig all walked off. And then Steve walked off. And I just thought, 'Wow, nothing's changed!'"

Chrome admits that relations among the band's founding members can sometimes be less than cozy. "We get along very well by e-mail, or on the phone. We get together in the same room and KABOOM, it gets tricky!" he said. "It's only because we all want it to be right, but it can be stressful, sorta like Rush Limbaugh and Abbie Hoffman working together on a project. The working relationships in this outfit would probably seem very strange to an outsider!"

Despite this, the reformed band's first gig was a powerful experience for both the musicians and the audience. Rocket From the Tombs MK II charged through a set including "Sonic Reducer," "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," and "Final Solution" as though the past 30 years were the blink of an eye. Lloyd said the crowd went crazy, exploding into a standing ovation at the end.

All involved agreed that the band was too potent a force to let fade. So Rocket From the Tombs embarked on a brief summer U.S. tour and followed it with a longer one this past winter. In between, the band assembled at Lloyd's New York studio to record what would become Rocket Redux. "People would keep bugging us after the shows, asking if there were any recordings of this band," said Lloyd, who produced and engineered the album. "So we thought we ought to get something down on tape. It's designed to be the live set done exactly in the sequence that the setlist was. It's just like a written, one-act play. You don't change the dialogue, you don't introduce a new scene. If in every place you play you're getting this great reaction, then that's the way it ought to be."

Chrome is especially pleased with the hi-fidelity nature of Rocket Redux. "We wanted it to be a clearer version of the songs, where you would be able to hear the lyrics and tell the difference between guitars," he says. "Much as I love the originals, some of the guitars are so far in the red it's painful. It makes a good document, and the intensity is great, but whew! Not for the squeamish."

With Rocket Redux now in stores, the band finds itself at a crossroads. Will they forge ahead and attempt to develop new material? "I think individually we all hope so," said Lloyd, who has written a new song, "Amnesia," for the band. "We're all cautious, because it's so volatile a situation. And it's all so long-distance — if it weren't for the Internet, this band wouldn't have gotten back together at all. I'm in New York, Cheetah's in Nashville, David lives in England, Craig is in Indianapolis, and Steve is in Cleveland! So it's not close quarters. There has been some talk of us playing some shows in Europe later this year, but nothing's final." — Tyler Wilcox [Monday, April 5, 2004]

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