37 years is a long damn time to wait for a debut album. That’s the case with seminal Cleveland, Ohio band Rocket From The Tombs (not to be confused with the more recent San Diego rock band Rocket From The Crypt), who wrote music, played shows, did drugs, drank too much, and fought their way through one rocky year together before calling it quits without much tangible evidence they’d ever existed. During their brief, tumultuous time together from 1974 to ’75, they re-invigourated the fledgling Cleveland rock scene and arguably woodshedded the punk rock sound before the Ramones ever took the stage at CBGB. After they burned out as a band, their factions split to form to prototypical bands on different ends of the spectrum. Singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner formed the avant-garde Pere Ubu while guitarist Gene O’Connor (aka Cheetah Chrome) and drummer Johnny Madansky formed the punk stalwarts Dead Boys. Each group relied on Rocket From The Tombs tunes in their repertoires.
After a 2003 collection (The Day The Earth Met Rocket From The Tombs) scraped together scant live and rehearsal recordings, the remaining band members (Thomas, O’Connor, and bassist Craig Bell) embarked on a tentative reunion, recruiting Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman and former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. The reunion produced two tours of brutal and impressive live shows, but also plenty of band drama. “We got that bad attitude thing in our blood,” singer David Thomas says of the experience. “Can’t shake it. But at least we’re not young, loud and snotty anymore. We’ve moved on. Now we’re old, loud and snotty.”
Old, loud and snotty, indeed. Here, with Barfly, we’re presented with an album that has been long awaited and debated in some circles, and never heard of in far more others. Bootleg collectors and punk-rock academics have long discussed Rocket From The Tombs at dissertation length without really having much to go on. And in some ways, that mystery – that sense of being gone before their time, collapsed under the weight of their own excesses – is what has fueled the Rocket From The Tombs mythos. If we knew for sure that Sasquatch or UFOs or El Chupacabra existed, and that they had, indeed, just been biding their time to make an appearance when we least expect it, we would risk not being too impressed when they finally showed up, middle aged and late to their own party.
Barfly sounds like it could have been recorded in 1975, so rigidly adherent is Thomas’s production to the thin, aggressive aesthetic that made The Stooges‘ Raw Power, Television‘s Marquee Moon hallmarks of the genre’s early days. Most surprising, though, is how straightforward Barfly is; it’s a rock album, and a fine one at that, but after all the waiting and speculating, it’s hard to say it measures up to its long shadow. Guitarist Peter Laughner died of a drug overdose in 1977, and his off-kilter influence is greatly missed here (though Lloyd is arguably one of the most influential guitarists in punk rock history, and he’s no slouch either). Thomas’s voice bounces between manic growling, disenchanted drawl, and under-exposed croon, and it’s certainly not pop radio stuff, but it would seem that, for better or worse, his days of vocal experimentation are more or less behind him.
That said, Barfly is a taut, enjoyable album that sounds instantly – if reluctantly – classic. It reverberates with the same sense of weighty importance as any of those raw, primordial albums that formed punk’s backbone in its infancy. Lloyd’s guitar work is nimble and razor sharp; Mehlman and O’Connor form a grooving, relentless rhythm section; and while Thomas seems content to wallow in the middle range of his talents, he still exhibits a disaffected sneering prowess that today’s punks needn’t bother even aspiring to. It’s difficult to not compare Rocket From The Tombs to the protagonists in Wilco‘s Late Greats, who lived in obscurity and created the “greatest lost track of all time”. Indeed, Barfly is a late, great entry into a canon that’s passed it by.
Opener I Sell Soul rollicks hard and fast, while Birthday is a weird, carnival-esque fever dream. Anna is straightforward bluesy garage rock with bubblegum-smacking kissoff attitude. Romeo And Juliet is a forlorn and delightfully earnest love ballad that leads into the soulful horn-stabbing of the twin-barrel blast of barroom brawlers Sister Love Train and Love Train Express. On Good Time Never Roll, Thomas sounds slinky and menacing, growling, “I see you, baby, standing there,” with lecherous malice; this one’s sultry blues with a dark heart.
Barfly is a road map of all that works in punk rock, and it’s commendable that a band (even a band of venerable old-timers) could release an album as true to its roots as this one. While it doesn’t quite account for the storied legend of the band behind it (these guys wrote Sonic Reducer, Ain’t It Fun, and Final Solution, after all), Barfly is an album that sounds immediately important. Time will tell if it’s remembered alongside works by Pere Ubu or Dead Boys, but for what it is, Barfly is a welcome foray into pre-punk in a post-everything world.