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Punk Before It Had A Name, Rocket From The Tombs Releases An Album


One of the most influential bands to emerge from the new wave and punk rock scenes of the 1970s didn't last long enough to record an album. Rocket from the Tombs got together in 1974 and came to a volatile end less than a year later. But a handful of live recordings and demos circulated far and wide and inspired such better known bands as Pearl Jam, Guns and Roses and Living Color. Rocket from the Tombs has reformed and disbanded several times since, but as David C. Barnett of member station WCPN reports, the group is back on tour behind a new record.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: Rocket from the Tombs was created by five guys who were fed up with most of the music on top 40 radio, says vocalist David Thomas, who went by the name Crocus Behemoth.

DAVID THOMAS: I mean, people say we were angry. Well, what we were angry at was the ordinariness of things - you know, of the mainstream rock bands.

BARNETT: So one of the guitarists in the group, Peter Laughner decided to do something about it and went to a local radio station, says bassist Craig Bell.

CRAIG BELL: Peter had somehow challenged the people there at the station - why won't you play any local music? And they said, well, nobody gives us a tape. So he comes back and says all right, guys. Let's make this tape.


BARNETT: The station was WMMS, and this is the tape the band made.


BARNETT: To everyone's surprise, Bell says, the station played it.

BELL: I think it was recorded in February '75. And I think a few weeks later, it was played on the radio, and that pretty much was unheard of at the time.

BARNETT: Not only that, but the station invited Peter Laughner to talk about it on air.


PETER LAUGHNER: The reason we did this tape and the reason MMS is going to broadcast this stuff is to tell you that you can do it, too.


ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS: (Singing) Ain't it fun when you're always on the run? Ain't it fun when your friends despise what you've become?

BARNETT: And that was it - no singles, no album, nothing. Nevertheless, the band's message to other musicians got out there.

LAMONT THOMAS: I'm thinking, like, these guys are my heroes.

BARNETT: Lamont Thomas was working in an Ohio record store when he ran across a copy of Laughner's broadcast. Thomas took it to heart and now records his version of punk under the name Obnox.

L. THOMAS: I'm not thinking, like, whoa, in 1974, '75, this was a failure. I was thinking, like, this is some of the best punk rock I ever heard.


ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS: (Singing) Got to close my mind. Got to hold on tight.

BARNETT: The music was fast, loud and distorted. It was punk before there was a name for it. Crocus Behemoth's voice commanded attention. One fan is Vernon Reid, guitarist with the band Living Color.

VERNON REID: At one point, you hear him being very, very melodic. And then he's just kind of this rambling, you know, dark, muttering, guttural - you know, he's almost a kind of anti-vocalist. And you hear - I hear bits of Nina Simone in the way he uses vibrato. You know, I hear bits of Screamin' Jay Hawkins.


ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS: (Singing) There's ships in the night. There's signs in the sky. There's some bottomless holes out there. And you're no friend of mine.

BARNETT: Rocket from the Tombs only gave about 15 performances, but David Thomas says that they put everything into them.

DAVID THOMAS: We thought, here we've got this beautiful engine. It's capable of anything. We've got this car. We've got this vehicle. Let's go.


ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS: (Singing) Dark flak spiders bursting in the sky, reaching twisted claws on every side. No place to run. No place to hide. No turning back on a suicide ride.

BARNETT: The road had proved to be bumpy, says Craig Bell.

BELL: I just think that what grew was our frustration of we're going in a direction, we see movement, but we don't see this movement fast enough.

BARNETT: Rocket from the Tombs broke up in the late summer of 1975. Guitarist Cheetah Chrome, drummer Johnny Madansky and a Youngstown vocalist named Stiv Bators went on to form the straight-ahead punk group as The Dead Boys. Vocalist David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner formed the core of the art rock band Pere Ubu, but Laughner died from the effects of drug and alcohol abuse two years later at the age of 24. Rocket from the Tombs never did crack top 40 radio, but that's not what they were after.

DAVID THOMAS: You know, we weren't interested in being pop stars 'cause being a pop star was totally unrealistic for a kid in Cleveland in the '70s.


BARNETT: Sixty-two-year-old David Thomas says Rocket from the Tombs had a higher aspiration.

DAVID THOMAS: What we were interested in was history and making history in some teeny, little, small way in one field of human endeavor.

BARNETT: And they did, although maybe not in the way they originally imagined. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.


ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS: (Singing) I don't need anyone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David C. Barnett