When David Thomas dubbed Pere Ubu “Avant-garage” he did so in a playful, facetious manner, mostly to give rock critics something to chew on. Of course, as Bryan Ferry observed, throwaway lines often ring true. Pere Ubu, especially in the Seventies, combined primitive, aggressive guitar based rock and primal emotional expression with a unique performance (especially Thomas’s vocals) idiom and lyrics that derived from intellectual abstractions not common to the “Nuggets” generation that inspired the band. It’s hard to imagine the Shadows of Knight arriving at lyric conceits like “Non-Alignment Pact” (basically a desperate plea for fidelity built on a diplomatic metaphor … but still) or “Final Solution.” You know?
Ubu, arguably one of rock’s greatest and most important bands to remain little known, was an offspring of another tremendous band. That same band birthed the Dead Boys – a group that had everything and nothing in common with Pere Ubu. That mother of a band was Rocket from the Tombs. RFTT existed for about a year, straddling 1974 and 1975. They played a handful of shows, mostly in their native Cleveland. They never released a record.
But from Rocket From the Tombs' repertoire Pere Ubu took “Final Solution,” ‘Life Stinks,” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” while the Dead Boys derived “Sonic Reducer,” “Ain’t it Fun,” and “Down in Flames.” In other words, a chunk of the core repertoire that helped establish two pretty important punk era bands originated with RFTT. And it’s noteworthy that their sound could, pretty easily really, inform two outfits as rocking, but divergent as Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. And you, by God, could call them Avant-garage.
Recorded evidence of RFTT’s fiery eccentricities finally emerged in 2002 from Smog Veil Records. A collection of live shows and radio takes called The Day the Earth met Rocket from the Tombs was a revelation, placing the band squarely in the company of punk anticipators like the Velvets, Stooges and MC5. It was followed in 2004 with a live in the studio recital of the same material called, appropriately, Rocket Redux – recorded by a new edition of the band. This new assembly included three original members – David Thomas on vocals, guitarist Gene O’Connor (Cheetah Chrome of Dead Boys fame to you), and bassist Craig Bell. Able new additions to the band included Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman and guitarist Richard Lloyd, best known for his role in Avant-garage’s (ha, there it is!) ultimate guitar tandem with Tom Verlaine in Television. Redux lacked only a little for The Day the Earth’s … incendiary qualities, and made up for that slight lack with sharply focused performances and better sound.
After a fractious tour in 2004 and a smattering of dates since, the band appeared to be on indefinite hold. Then, assembling at the glamorous Red Roof Inn in Mentor, Ohio (okay, that’s what the band’s press release says) in January 2009, the five members of the rejuvenated RFTT began to massage the material that was recorded in August of last year with long-time Ubu sound associate Paul Hamann. The new album is called Barfly. The cover art and packaging reflect a Fifties vintage obsession with illustrated insect-monsters. My first flash was on James Arness, being a chronological peer of these fellas, and my/their early fixation on flicks like The Thing and Them. It’s creepy, it's fun and it’s also in keeping with David Thomas’s well-founded sense of himself as a rock mutant and outsider.
The songs on Barfly embody this sensibility, being mostly left-field takes on romantic rock conceits. If age has taken a few of the feral edges off of RFTT’s attack this is still vital, dangerous, and distinctive rock. David Thomas sounds like absolutely no one else, but the years have added a lot in the way of depth and nuance to his singing. Nonetheless, while his persona is not exactly meat and potatoes punk rock, he does sound, in his words - “old, loud and snotty” (a reference to the Dead Boys debut Young, Loud and Snotty).
On paper, based on their playing in the late Seventies, the idea of Cheetah Chrome and Richard Lloyd as a twin-guitar attack would have seemed a little improbable. In 2011 it sure works. Lloyd was always the more linear and rocking guitarist in Television. Chrome in the Dead Boys was a straight up rockin’ out monster. On Barfly they succeed simultaneously at playing off and to each other’s strengths – without shedding any personality they often fuse seamlessly into one guitar mind, like the experienced, nuanced musicians they’ve become. To my ears Lloyd’s thoughtful jangle stands out on “Romeo and Juliet” (Thomas inquires: “how come you’re the one that’s left alive?”). I think it’s his bluesy fills that adorn “Six and Two,” a production that echoes Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album with its creepy atmospheres. And it sounds like Lloyd behind the Richard Thompson-esque solo that elevates the album closer “Pretty.” But hey, I’m guessing (and if I’m wrong someone will let me know). “Pretty” is a stab at love song sentiment, but Thomas can’t keep himself from asking the id-y questions in the back of every sweetheart’s mind: “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” and “What are you doing here?” Thomas turns a phone call into something foreboding on “Maelstrom,” a ditty about a “girl call’ with a twist of the Stooges gloriously dumb menace.
"I Sell Soul” echoes in title and feel the 13th Floor Elevators “We Sell Soul.” Thomas seethes like he can barely contain himself as Lloyd and Chrome riff viciously. A mature nuance to Thomas’s singing shows on “Birth Day,” a song that suggests that however “Avant” RFTT’s take on rock is, it’s also squarely rooted in the tough post-blues of the Stones and Yardbirds. The lyrics hint at a certain disdain for today’s ironic mustache rock (“it’s the style, maybe a fashion, to get away with so little passion”). “Anna” borrows a Stooges title, as well as a certain Detroit-rock aggression; Craig Bell’s walking bass powers the song nicely.
The anti-utopian vision of “Butcherhouse 4” has a sci-fi vibe, along with a nice dumb intro worthy of the Troggs, and a vocal passage that sounds like David Thomas plugged into the “Uncle Albert” effect machine. The band plays with a slashing, swinging authority – a guitar fanfare blasting as Thomas announces that he “doesn’t live on the moon anymore.” Of course he also demurs that he’s “living a total lie,” keeping the listener nicely off balance. The medley of “Sister Love Train” and “Love Train Express” has an unexpected rhythm ‘n’ soul groove, again with a Seventies Detroit-meets-Cleveland sound hybrid and a jagged break borrowed from the MC5 and the Who’s “The Real Me.” With a nice Beatle ostinato interlude, a dash of Velvet Underground lurch, and hints of Television’s “Friction” - “Good Times Never Roll” rocks hard right up to its abrupt ending.
Barfly is the sound of a rugged band of proto-punk veterans whose historical eccentricities have, while growing no less remarkable, become part of a muscular and hard-won musical authority. David Thomas is a nonpareil voice of internal anguish and quizzical outsider query. There’s no one like him. For all of the rest of RFTT’s musical power and excellence it’s his voice and vision that make RFTT unique. If they have more albums like Barfly ahead of them, long may they rage.