Perfect Sound Forever

Ain't It Fun
Rocket From The Tombs

band picture
L to R: David Thomas, Wayne Strick, Craig Bell, Peter Laughner, Gene O'Connor

by Jason Gross (September 1996)

"Others talk about it, we do it"

Aside from Pere Ubu (which was spawned from it), Cleveland's only real legitimate claim to house the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is a band that will never be inducted there. In fact, it was 15 years after the group broke up that a semi-legitimate album of their material was released and that was only in a limited edition (after having been only available as a bootleg cassette for years). This was Rocket From the Tombs and it's mainly known as being a mutant daddy to Ubu and the Dead Boys. It was also a mutant papa to punk rock as well as spawning a number of famous and infamous talents, all packed into one band.

Originally, singer David Thomas started the band in May 1974 as kind of comedy act though even later the group would have a good grasp of theatrics. A gifted and reckless guitarist/writer named Peter Laughner showed up at some of these farce-filled gigs, jammed with the band and joined soon after that in September. Thomas and Laughner would make a new more musical lineup that included Gene O'Connor (guitar), David Bell (bass) and Johnny Madansky (drums). O'Connor had known Laughner before and been in a band with him. Madansky was also in a band with O'Connor called Slash. Bell had recently left another veteran Clevland band, the Mirrors.

What made this scene so unique was that there was no scene at all then. As Charlotte Pressler noted:

There were no "New Wave Nites" at local clubs; in fact gigs of any kind were rare, and usually attended only by the bands' closest friends; the local media for the most part ignored these bands; nor was there yet a national network; there were few fanzines; there was no Radar, no Stiff, no CBGB even. There were no stars in Cleveland then. Nobody cared what these people were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves.
Although they had done some demos (one of which would appear on a Peter Laughner CD, years after his death in 1977), the only recorded work that's now available of the band is a series of radio broadcasts that were also released years later.

The material and the sound of the band would be carried over later to both Ubu and the Dead Boys (even though the Dead Boys would wind up with a lot of Rockets material, Thomas decided to disown almost all of it). Thomas' shrieking singing (which would later become a staple of Ubu) caused so much head-shaking in the band that they brought on Stiv Bators briefly to sing while Thomas played keyboards and sax. This didn't work out for long so Thomas was singing with the band again- they decided that Bators was such a poser that Thomas was the better choice. Still, since the rest of the band weren't sure of him, they split the vocals on most of the songs, which were mostly written Laughner and O'Connor. Madansky was replaced briefly by Wayne Strick who was fired after he kept ripping off the band's equipment. Somehow this disparate crew got opening gigs ranging from Iron Butterfly to Captain Beefheart to Television (who Laughner actually joined briefly).

Since their only recorded legacy is a radio broadcast, the sound quality isn't polished but then again that's never what the Rockets were about. The inspiration and perspiration was more than live and still holds up today. Stooge covers start and end the album, just as they did in concert. The mad guitar roar is pure Detroit- sure enough the band tried unsuccessfully to shop their tapes to the MC5's first manager, White Panther leader John Sinclair. The sound of the Rockets is much more ferocious than Ubu or the Dead Boys. Still, they didn't give up the original theatrics or art that the band started with. The Stooges "Raw Power" was their intro for the shows for Thomas to come out. "Thirty Seconds Over Toyko" was still pretty disturbing and twisted even before Allen Ravenstein turned it into more of a horror-show in Pere Ubu. "Final Solution" was another Thomas song and another brooding, existential rant that Ubu would again rework- not surprisingly, Bators and company didn't want to have anything to do with these songs. Also interesting is the way they copped sources into their songs: Bell's "Muckraker" from Bowie's "Jean Genie" and the intro from "Down In Flames" from the Who's "Pinball Wizard."

Eventually, "creative differences" broke up the band around the summer of 1975 as it got as bad as having backstage fist-fights. Laughner (who liked to do traditional stuff like "Route 66" and Dylan) and Thomas wanted different things for the band than O'Connor and Madansky (who were more into glam). O'Connor (Cheetah Chrome), Bators and Madansky (Johnny Blitz) would later form Frankenstein, which would become the Dead Boys (who found some measure of fame and infamy). "Ain't It Fun" would become one of their best-known songs, among a number of Rockets songs they used. Laughner and Thomas would find a group of like-minded guys to form the artsier Pere Ubu (initially as a one-off project). Ubu's first single would be "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," a Rockets favorite. Laughner would quit the band soon after, forming a number of other groups. Laughner, like Bell, would also get a number of writing assignments including a number of reviews for Creem. Later, after Laughner's death in June 1977 (from pancreatitis), the band would include the Rockets' "Life Stinks" on their debut album. According to the Pere Ubu box set, Bell lives in New Haven (Connecticut) "to make more music and work on the railroad." Such is the stuff that becomes of legends.

I'd say that their finest moment came from a little speech that Laughner gave during a radio broadcast of the Rockets. The rest of the band were fiercely against him saying it but he got his way. He described the session that was being broadcast (and would become the Life Stinks album).

It's not studio stuff. It's a valid statement that we made about what we were doing... one night at our loft and just goin' crazy, you know. So if you got a tape like that, you ought to send it to MMS (the station broadcasting them) and maybe they can program it for you. Because there's a lot of talent out in Cleveland and just... get it together.


A Night Of Heavy Music (1975)
bootleg cassette
This was a recording of the radio broadcasts which would eventually be released as...

Life Stinks (1990)- Jack Slack
limited edition LP (600 copies made)
A full-blown release of the broadcast material complete with extensive liner notes (where a lot of my information came from) and bonus single. These come from WMMS-FM, recorded February 18/19 1975 and broadcast the next week.

Raw Power/So Cold 
I'm Never Gonna Kill Myself Again 
What Love Is 
Life Stinks
Thirty Seconds Over Toyko 

Final Solution
Down In Flames
Search And Destroy
Ain't It Fun

Take the Guitar Player For A Ride, Peter Laughner- (Tim Kerr, 1994) CD
This includes a version of "Ain't It Fun" from a demo (along with a solo version of "Life Stinks")

Datapanik In The Year Zero, Pere Ubu- (Geffen, 1996) CD box set
Includes "Amphetamine" (previously unreleased, a Laughner song from their last show) and "30 Seconds Over Toyko" (from a June '75 Heavy Metal Showcase) by RFTT

Ubu Unchained, Pere Ubu- (Punk Vault bootleg, 1998?)
Includes Rocket from the Tombs show at the Agora (Cleveland) from May 5, 1975- "Transfusion," "Final Solution," "Muckracker," "Frustration," "Seventeen" and "Thirty Seconds Over Toyko"
Also includes Ubu show at Agora from January 12, 1976 with reworkings of these RFTT songs: "Heart of Darkness," "Life Stinks" and "Final Solution"
Thanks to Gus Sonora for this info

The Day The Earth Met The..., Rocket From the Tombs (Smog Veil, 2002)
Finally- a fully-legit, non-limited release of the RTFF material! This includes the 2-18-75 loft rehearsal tapes ("Raw Power," "So Cold," "What Love Is," "Ain't It Fun," "Transfusion," "Life Stinks," "Muckraker," "30 Seconds Over Toyko," "Satisfaction"), a live show at Piccadilly Inn from 7-24-75 ("Sonic Reducer," "Never Gonna Kill Myself Again," "Final Solution," "Foggy Notion," "Amphetamine," "Read It & Weep") and another live show at the Agora from 5-5-75 ("Frustration," "Down In Flames," "Search & Destroy").

Rocket Redux, Rocket From the Tombs (Morphius, 2004)
Incredible as it seems, David Thomas, Cheetah Chrome and Craig Bell reunited for a series of Rocket gigs, supplemented by Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and Pere Ubu's current drummer Steve Mehlman. Then, somewhat preversely, they decided to re-record their back catalog in the studio again to celebrate the occasion. The funny thing is, Lloyd and Mehlman (plus the better audio) make the record worthwhile, even if it lacks the historical value of the orignal stuff.

So Cold
What Love Is
Ain't It Fun
30 Seconds Over Tokyo
Sonic Reducer
Never Gonna Kill Myself Again
Down In Flames
Final Solution
Life Stinks

COVER VERSIONS- in chronological order:
Even though personnel from Rockets were in Pere Ubu and Dead Boys, these are considered cover versions technically since the songs were redone by another band

Pere Ubu
"30 Seconds Over Tokyo" / "Heart of Darkness" (Hearthen single, 1975)
"Final Solution" (Hearthen single, 1976- this and other Hearthen single appear on Terminal Tower compilation)
"Final Solution" (live version) on Max's Kansas City (Ram, 1976)
"Life Stinks" from The Modern Dance (Blank/Mercury, 1978)

Dead Boys
"Sonic Reducer" / "Down In Flames" (Sire single, 1977)
"What Love Is" and "Caught With the Meat In My Mouth" (remake of "I'm Never Gonna Kill Myself Again") on Young Loud and Snotty (Sire, 1977)
"Ain't It Fun" on We Have Come For Your Children (Sire, 1978)

Death of Samantha
"Amphetamine" single (St. Valentines, 1985)
The band's first single

Peter Murphy
"Final Solution" on Should The World Fail to Fall Apart (Beggars Banquet, 1986)

Mission Of Burma
"Heart Of Darkness" (recorded 1983) on The Horrible Truth About Burma (Taang, 1987)

Claw Hammer
"Final Solution" on Claw Hammer (Sympathy For The Record Industry, 1990)- originally appeared on the "Whack Attack" single

Living Colour
"Final Solution" from "Type" single (Epic, 1990)

"What Love Is" from The Songs All Sound The Same (Empty, 1992)

Guns N' Roses
"Ain't It Fun" from The Spaghetti Incident, (Geffen, 1993)- credited to the Dead Boys

"Misunderstood" from Being There, (Reprise, 1996)
Contains lyrics from "Amphetamine"

A big old thanks to JEFF ECONOMY who provided invaluable help with this article.

Also see:
Our interview with David Thomas

Our interview with Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine

Our article on Peter Laughner

Adele Bertei's Peter Laughner book excerpt

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER