Rocket From The Tombs – The Day The Earth Met the Rocket From The Tombs/Barfly (Fire)
By Tamsin Chapman
The Day The Earth Met the Rocket From The Tombs (1974-1975)
Howl and spit. Distort and contort. Whisper. Scream. Rage against something undefinable – a knot of fear that slides around inside like an air bubble in damp wallpaper, a tumour of discontent that makes itself known when the lights go out. This is the condition that the most reckless strain of rock’n’roll seeks to cure. For some, it’s enough. For others not.
Within a few seconds of listening to the reissue of this rough collection of demos and live recordings, it’s evident that, despite legendary differences of musical opinion, each member of Rocket From The Tombs Version 1, worships rock’n’roll with every muscle, every nerve ending and every cell of their bodies. The album starts with a fevered instrumental tearing up of The Stooges’ ‘Raw Power’; distorted, badly recorded, metallic guitar raking dirty fingernails down your back. One track in and you already need a rabies shot. If only the rest was so simple.
The first indication that we’re dealing with something uncomfortable comes with the oppressive, spewed out lyrics of ‘So Cold’; “All the pretty living dead/Pretty egos to be fed”. Add a stiff whisky after your shot. A brief interlude follows – the scrapey, frenetic ‘What Love Is’ – and then That Song.
Never listen to ‘Ain’t It Fun’ by Rocket From the Tombs alone. Amongst the most chilling songs ever written, this time the guitar line, held together by self-loathing and rust, stabs straight into your stomach and digs around your innards, scooping them out and leaving them on the floor like rotting roadkill. And its words, oh man, its words. There are only a few songs like this; ‘Strange Fruit‘, ‘Permafrost’, ‘4 Hours‘, songs that you almost can’t listen to, but you just have to. Songs like these leave scars. They are septic.
Anything after this would be a relief, even ‘Transfusion’, with its seven minutes of ragged rhythm and blues, ending with a sinister, whispered, “you didn’t bleed.” Respite is rare; the odd jamming boogie bawl-along dotted about amid some of the most uncompromising concoctions of scowl and howl ever recorded. There’s the grating bones, keyboard-led ‘Life Stinks’ (“I need a drink/Life stinks”). The strange and scared ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo.’ The almost perkily anthemic ‘Sonic Reducer’ – could there be a glimmer that rock’n’roll can be a cure-all after all? Nope, last verse – “I’ll be a Pharaoh soon/Rule from a golden tomb/Things will be different then/The sun will rise from here/Then I’ll be 10 feet tall/And you’ll be nothing at all.”And just in case there was any doubt left; “I don’t need a cure/I need a final solution” (‘Final Solution’). Gulp. This primitive noise makes me jump and shout. I should be getting warm. But instead I put another sweater on and feel alone.
Frenetic. Blasted. Unforgiving. Four alley cats locked in an amp. Four coyotes bathed in creosote. Four young men with musical differences.
There is a version of ‘Satisfaction’ on here, but it’s tellingly only 19 seconds long.
And so, 37 years later, Rocket From The Tombs release new material. So much has changed in that time. And yet still, for some rock’n’roll is a cure. And still for some it’s not.
The best song is the first one; ‘I Sell Soul’. Once again, that venomous love for the two ‘r’s is unmistakable. Simple, repetitive, compulsive and what a voice – high and quavering, completely unpredictable. This is a good start, a very good start indeed.
The album is frothy and effervescent. It is Classic Rock, but there’s no shortage of ideas and there’s plenty of energy. However, in places it verges on the Dire Straits-ish (particularly in the mid-paced shuffles of songs like ‘Butcherhouse 4’ and ‘Good Times Never Roll’). That’s the problem with blues influences and white men. There are a few too many widdly solos. There is too much restraint.
David Thomas’s voice is both Barfly’s saving grace and its undoing The sheer exuberance of his fruity chirrups and growls keep the music from ever being ordinary. If Grandpa Simpson fronted Thin Lizzy it would sound something like this. But its very warmth and likeability means that the album has none of the sense of nihilism of the Laughner era. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I don’t think I could take two albums like that in one go. This sounds like a group of old pals having fun. For people that have grown up with David Thomas this should be just fine.
Before writing this review, except for ‘Ain’t It Fun’, I had never heard Rocket From The Tombs before (or Pere Ubu for that matter). I read the press releases and purposefully listened to Barfly first. I didn’t want to judge this album’s self-confessed ‘old men’ against the bootleg recordings of four fucked-up kids a lifetime ago – Barfly deserves to be listened to on its own merits. However, comparisons are irresistible. Primarily, it is the cleanness of the production that makes ‘Barfly’ lack vitality. The Day The Earth Met‘s raw quality of desperate moments snatched is what adds to its addictiveness and mystique. The recordings are grimy post-it notes as opposed to the handsome spiral-bound report of ‘Barfly’.
Barfly has a cuddly, loveable quality, The Day The Earth Met is anything but loveable. But unfortunately love is not that simple. We fall for people who are wrong for us, because they make us feel alive. And once we meet them, we can’t get the jagged taste of them from our mouths and there’s no going back. They are septic and they leave scars, just like the best songs. There is no cure.