The Rocking Legacy of "Rocket From the Tombs"
David C. Barnett
One of the most influential bands to emerge from the new wave and punk rock scenes of the 1970s, started in Northeast Ohio.
Rocket From the Tombs didn't last long enough to record an album, but a handful of live recordings and demo tapes have inspired a number of better known acts --- ranging from the grunge rock of Pearl Jam... to hard rockers like Guns 'n' Roses and Living Colour.
The Cleveland-based group was created in 1974 by five guys who were fed-up with most of the music on Top-40 radio. Vocalist David Thomas says the band's name was a nod to the B-movies they had watched on TV as kids.
"People said we were angry," he recalls. "Well, what we were angry at was the ordinariness of things, of the mainstream rock bands.
Peter Laughner and Gene O'Connor rounded out the group on guitars, with bass player Craig Bell, and drummer Johnny Madansky. Thomas and O'Connor added a bit of humor and show business flash by adopting the stage names of Crocus Behemoth and Cheetah Chrome, respectively. Their raw, energetic performances contrasted with the more predictable sounds of local bar bands.
"We thought: "Here, we've got this beautiful engine that's capable of anything. We've got this car, we've got this vehicle. Let's go!"
The music was fast, loud and distorted. It was punk before there was a name for it. But, the enduring legend of Rocket From the Tombs began with an audition tape, submitted to Cleveland radio station WMMS, engineered by bass player Craig Bell.
"Peter had somehow challenged the people there at the station to play some local music," Bell recalls. "And they said, 'Nobody gives us a tape'. So, he comes back to us and says, "Alright guys, let's make this tape." I think it was recorded in February of '75, and I think a few weeks later, it was played on the radio. And that pretty much was unheard of, at the time."
And they invited Laughner to discuss the recording on the air. That Sunday night program was recordedHis earnest voice addresses the audience, during a break in the music:
The reason we did this tape, and the reason that 'MMS is going to broadcast this stuff, is to tell you that you can do it too. Anybody can make a tape, as long as they've got a little bit of stuff together. And it should be original. Because, records today are made by formula. They shove the right Pavlov impulses down your throat and into your ear. And, if you don't hear that formula, and you don't feel the way that the producers of records today want you to feel, and you want to make records, you've got to do it for yourself, which is what we did with this thing. It's not studio stuff, but it's a valid statement we made about what we were doing one night at our loft and, just like, going crazy.
Copies of that recording, with its do-it-yourself message, have circulated among fans for years. Cleveland drummer Lamont Thomas heard it in a used record shop in Columbus.
"I'm thinking like, these guys are my heroes," he says. "I'm not thinking that in 1974 or '75, this was a failure. This is some of the best punk rock I ever heard."
Thomas now records his version of punk under the name Obnox, on equipment in his basement. He's put out three albums, this past year, and has been favorably reviewed by the Washington Post and Pitchfork. Regardless of whether you view them as a failure or a success, Rocket's Craig Bell says the band flamed out fast.
"I know we did our first gig in December of 1974, and I would say we did our last somewhere around August or September of 1975. I can't say we played more than 15 times, tops."
After the break-up, Cheetah Chrome, Johnny Madansky and a Youngstown vocalist named Stiv Bators formed the Dead Boys, a straight-ahead punk band, while Laughner and Thomas formed the core of an art-rock group, Pere Ubu, but Laughner died from the effects of drug and alcohol abuse two years later, at the age of 24. Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid is a longtime Ubu fan who remains fascinated by David Thomas's voice.
"At one point you hear him being very melodic, and then he's kind of this rambling, dark, muttering, and guttural. He's almost a kind of anti-vocalist."
In the near term, Thomas will be splitting his distinctive vocal stylings between Rocket and Ubu, with a possible foray into another project called the Two Pale Boys. At 62, he says there are no plans to slow down. "I’m going to hit that wall with my foot on the pedal," he muses. "I’m only accelerating now."
In addition to the current Rocket tour and record, bandmate Craig Bell is working with John Morton, another Cleveland-area rocker from the 1970s who is also back with a new recording.
"It’s amazing when you sit back and look at it," Bell says. "You had to wait 40 years for this, but it’s still moving in the trajectory that it is supposed to."
A trajectory that started in 1974, when five guys from Cleveland decided to make their own music.