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Rocket From the Tombs is a rock ‘n’ roll band that made the great unheard music of its day.
They spanned parts of 1974 and 1975, roughly a year, and the place was Cleveland. The group was fronted by David Thomas, a large, theatrically inclined singer who went under the name Crocus Behemoth. Rocket From the Tombs played out live, but never released any studio music during that period. Yet, they became one of punk rock’s most notable and enduring footnotes, largely because of the bands that arose from its ashes, Dead Boys and Pere Ubu.
And now, Rocket From the Tombs is back: A new album, “Black Record,” a cantankerous, fast and furious effort, and a tour that stops in Boston at Brighton Music Hall Tuesday Dec. 8.
Thomas would prefer you don’t call what he’s doing a retro-fitted, return-to-the-roots reunion.
“I haven’t gone back to anything,” Thomas insists, on the phone from Cleveland. “We’ve been here all along. There’s only so many things I can do at once so. The [‘Black Record’] recordings started back in 2012. Then I have Pere Ubu to work on and Two Pale Boys to work on and everything just happens as quickly as it can.”
He’s not exaggerating. Thomas, now 62, has been an ever-active presence for four-plus decades, often fronting versions of Pere Ubu, which just released a box set, “Elitism for the People,” and has another slated for March. There’s a tour in the works. Thomas has had a myriad of solo projects and offshoot groups such as Two Pale Boys, the Pedestrians, the Wooden Birds, Foreigners, and His Legs, all of which are properly called David Thomas & [fill in the group name].
“To me, David is the Neil Young of the alternative set,” says Daved Hild, a Thomas collaborator with the Wooden Birds and founder of late-‘70s Boston art-punk band the Girls. “He’s got the longevity. He takes chances.”
“I don’t have a pop career,” says Thomas, about his rather jagged trajectory and cult success. “I don’t have to do things that pop bands do. Pop bands last five years. Well, I’ve had at least eight pop careers and eight times five is 40. It’s like you’re standing there on the street waiting for the bus to come along and whichever bus it is, you get on it.”
“He’s a genius and a contrarian,” says saxophonist Ralph Carney, who’s played with the Pedestrians and Wooden Birds. Carney compares Thomas to Oliver Hardy and Ralph Kramden, noting both his girth and acerbic temperament. “David likes to rile people up, including myself, on stage. It’s not personal; sometimes he gets super frustrated, but it’s well worth it. To work with him, when he’s on it’s great. Nobody like him at all.”
When it all began with Rocket From the Tombs in 1974, the other main songwriters were guitarists Peter Laughner and Cheetah Chrome. Laughner’s drug and alcohol abuse led him to an early grave, at 25, in 1977.
Chrome left Rocket From the Tombs to form Dead Boys. He - along with former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd - joined the Rocket lineup for a 2003 tour and to record an album called “Rocket Redux.” That included core songs from the early days such as “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Final Solution” (which later went to Pere Ubu), “Ain’t It Fun,” “Sonic Reducer” and “What Love Is” (which later went to Dead Boys). Rocket From the Tombs released an album of new material in 2011, “Barfly,” which Chrome and Lloyd also played on.
Dead Boys were, for a brief spell, one of America’s top punk bands before they imploded. (Chrome chronicles the rise and fall of the band and himself in his memoir “A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock.”) Pere Ubu moved in a headier, more expansive direction, toward an art-punk zone or something they called “avant-garage.”
“We just took it in the direction that rock music was going in or should have gone in,” Thomas says. “It’s not meant to be some stupid adolescent, boring boy-girl, Brill Building/Wrecking Crew sort of construct. All of that is fine, but the plot of rock music is very easy to understand: It starts with the Elvis recording of ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ Then there’s the whole Brian Wilson/Velvet Underground axis - abstract sound and concrete sound and analog synthesizers coming into use. And the third generation of American rock music is what we were.”
In today’s Rocket, bassist Craig Bell is the only other charter member besides Thomas. Gary Siperko and Buddy Akita (from the punk band This Moment in Black History) share guitar duties and the drummer is Steve Mehlman. So, what does one make of Rocket From the Tombs, then and now?
“Rocket is fast, Midwestern hard rock groove music,” says Thomas, who loathes the term “punk rock.” “I haven’t ‘outgrown’ it. I haven’t started putting together my album of Sinatra covers. And I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I like doing this kind of music, hard, fast loud unremitting rock music. I don’t want to do it all my life. I suppose it would have been better if I had done it all my life. Then again, I wouldn’t still be doing it, probably. I don’t know. Rocket was the foundation for Pere Ubu. Actually, it was the foundation for the Pale Boys and the foundation for everything I do. I’m just not going to keep doing it over and over again.”
The goal when they went in to make “Black Record” Thomas says was pretty simple: “Make a hard rock record.” It is, in places, gleefully nihilistic. Asked if there were any themes he intended to explore, Thomas politely explodes.
“It’s very clear if you sit there and think about the record, it’s just like any record I do,” he says. “There’s stuff that’s being said. It’s not namby-pamby, I’m-a-sensitive-person, Honey-this-is-what-I-feel. I don’t care what you feel and I don’t care what you think; people shouldn’t care what I feel and what I think. The songs are stories. That’s the point of it all.”
“Rock music is a narrative earful which does leave a lot of open space, but that’s what music is about,” Thomas says. “It’s about going beyond the exactitude of language.”
Hild says Thomas “is not a dictator, but he’s very serious about his work. He and I clashed the whole time we played together, but in a good way. He likes to do things spontaneously.”
Over the years, Thomas’ songwriting has been elliptical and jarring, with Thomas weaving surreal, but stinging portraits of a world often in decay of pleasures gone by. He’s mixed disruptive jolts with more melodic pop-rock. “Black Record” finds Thomas and company in primal punk mode with the singer at his bilious, bleak best.
“We were given a magnificent vehicle with a powerful engine and set out on the highway,” says Thomas about his work with Rocket and Pere Ubu. “After a while you come to a road sign that says ‘Satisfied City, Exit 1 Mile’ and there’s nothing wrong with Satisfied City and you can exit there and have a full productive life and be happy and that’s wonderful. But some of us see the sign and then we see the sign going over the hill and we say, ‘Ah, let’s see what’s over that hill.’”
Jim Sullivan is a former Boston Globe arts and music staff writer who pens the arts-events website jimsullivanink.com and contributes to various publications, TV and radio outlets. He hosts the monthly music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk” on Xfinity On Demand. Find him on Twitter at @jimsullivanink.
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