This was quintessential American punk that can stand proudly beside the MC5 and the Stooges.
By Brett Milano
To turn a familiar phrase around, Rocket From the Tombs is more a band than a legend. Sure, there are a few rock scholars who know the history: the band operated in Cleveland from 1974–75, played a kind of music that didn’t really exist yet, did no national touring and released no vinyl. They’re remembered mainly because its two leaders formed influential bands: Guitarist Cheetah Chrome started the landmark punk band the Dead Boys, while the hulking singer David Thomas (then known as Crocus Behemoth) went in a more idiosyncratic direction as the longtime leader of Pere Ubu.
That was the story, until RFTT suddenly turned up again in 2004—with Thomas and Chrome returning, and the volatile ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd standing in for the late Peter Laughner. That lineup played a thrilling show at TT the Bear’s a couple years later—not least because the frontline members clearly didn’t like each other much. They’d reportedly had a public blowup during soundcheck; and the visible tensions between Thomas, Chrome, and Lloyd added that extra shot of fury to the performances.
Flash forward to this week, and the band was back in different form at the Brighton Music Hall: Chrome and Lloyd are both gone, replaced by two young-gun Cleveland guitarists, leaving Thomas fully in charge (bassist Craig Bell is the other original member; the drummer is Steve Mehlman from Pere Ubu). And without the bad vibes onstage—Thomas was uncharacteristically relaxed, performing most of the set seated—they somehow sounded more furious than before: this was quintessential American punk that can stand proudly beside the MC5 and the Stooges. The two new guitarists (Gary Sperko and Buddy Akita) brought in heavy-metal tendencies that integrated fine, especially since the solos were kept tight; and Bell’s industrial-strength basslines were the secret weapon.
But it was largely Thomas’s show, and even if you can roll with Pere Ubu’s skewed rhythms, it was a kick to hear him sing unqualified rock & roll (including “Final Solution” and “Sonic Reducer,” two original Rockets songs that respectively went to Ubu and the Dead Boys). Though his voice has deepened, Thomas still does some of the best strangled yelps around; and his lyrics for the new Rockets songs are more pointed and pissed-off than usual.
Tellingly, the set was bookended with songs about future shock—opening with a faithful version of “The Shape of Things to Come,” from the 1968 teen-exploitation film Wild in the Streets. In the movie, the song’s chorus—“Nothing can change the shape of things to come”—is delivered by a rock star running for president, but in Rocket’s world, it’s not clear whether that line is a threat or a promise. Probably the former, if their new song “Welcome to the New Dark Ages”—another snarling three-chord wonder—is any indication.
Introducing one tune, Thomas said they learned it from a bootleg tape where Ted Nugent played a frat house in the ’70s, and was joined by a soul horn section, with underground hero Captain Beefheart improbably sitting in. The story was highly suspect—the song is on their new album (The Black Record) as “Nugefinger,” credited as a band original—but it managed to unite a charging Nugent riff (lifted from “Stranglehold,” to be exact), with a wild, Beefheart-esque soprano sax solo by Thomas. So if that collision between greasy frat-house rock and the avant-garde didn’t actually happen in the ’70s, it just did in 2015.
Opening band Township also have a foot in the ‘70s, but theirs is spiritual. They do classic-model arena rock with tongue held partly in cheek, but not too far: Most of all they recognize the underlying heart needed to put over the importance of a strong, fistwaving tune. With the addition of a keyboard player, they’re going in a more prog-influenced direction; heard on their new album Light Years (which will be officially unveiled at their next show in late February). On Tuesday they even got a backstage endorsement from the acerbic Thomas: “I like you guys, you’re a good band. Terrible name.”
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat. His latest book is Don’t All Thank Me At Once (125 Records), a biography of the unsung pop genius Scott Miller, who led the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family.