They Didn't Invent Punk, Though They Could Have
By JON PARELES
Published: July 31, 2006
The standard story goes that punk rock was invented in New York by the
Ramones. They distilled the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls,
plus one-shot mid-1960's singles and the Detroit ferocity of the MC5
and the Stooges, into the formula that came to define punk: short,
fast, catchy, unstoppable.
But in some alternate realm, punk might have traced its genesis to
Rocket From the Tombs, which headlined the Dot Dash Festival of punk
rock at Southpaw in Brooklyn on Saturday night. The initial Rocket
From the Tombs was a Cleveland band that lasted less than a year
(1974-5) and never made a studio album. One of its songs, "Sonic
Reducer" — with lyrics like "don't need no human race" — was as
straightforward a punk song as anything the Ramones were devising in
Rocket From the Tombs split into the bands that would become the Dead
Boys, playing straightforward punk rock, and Pere Ubu, playing noisy,
arty songs it described as "avant-garage." Peter Laughner, a guitarist
in Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu, died of pancreatitis in 1977.
In 2003 three surviving band members — the singer David Thomas from
Pere Ubu, the guitarist Cheetah Chrome from the Dead Boys and the
bassist Craig Bell — reconvened Rocket From the Tombs with Steve
Mehlman from the current Pere Ubu on drums and Richard Lloyd, from the
New York punk-era band Television, on guitar. They did a brief reunion
tour and made the first full-fledged studio album of Rocket From the
Tombs' songs, "Rocket Redux" (Smog Veil). Now they have reunited
Hindsight inevitably colors reunions, and Rocket From the Tombs
started and ended its set on the fast and punky side. But Mr. Thomas
has said he doesn't consider Rocket From the Tombs a punk band. In the
mid-1970's Rocket From the Tombs drew on 1960's styles — the Stooges,
early psychedelia and garage-rock — and sang about adolescent
frustrations and destructive urges with a mixture of bluntness and
savage irony that was very punk.
The current band sounds hardly less volatile than the group on the
rehearsal tapes and live bootlegs that are all the original Rocket
From the Tombs left behind. The stinging, quivering phrases of Mr.
Lloyd's guitar solos change the overall sound but leave it just as
barbed; Mr. Lloyd wrote and sang a new song, a garage-rocker named
"Amnesia." Mr. Thomas's high, reedy, cracked croon is more familiar
now after 30 years of Pere Ubu, but it's still one of rock's most
willful vocal styles, both loopy and insolent.
Rocket From the Tombs carried "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," a song about a
bombing mission, from ominous psychedelic vamp to punk detonation;
"Final Solution" flared up fiercely between each doleful complaint.
While Rocket From the Tombs could bash away at punk speed, it could
also do unpunk things: particularly ballads like "Ain't It Fun," a
song about junkie life that, sung by Cheetah Chrome, now sounds as
much like a memorial as a report. On Saturday night, as in 1974,
Rocket From the Tombs fit into no genre and sounded just right.