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On the Record at Last 

Three decades later, Rocket From the Tombs gets an album all its own.

It's hard to determine what's blown more smoke in Cleveland over the years: LTV Steel's coke furnaces or the town's many nostalgia-obsessed punk aficionados. Granted, Cleveland has as storied a legacy as any city when it comes to no-nonsense rock and roll. The Pagans, the Dead Boys, the Electric Eels, and plenty of other great punkers have rightly put Cleveland on the map, as far as curled lips and vented spleens go. But the mythologizing of the local punk scene of the '70s and '80s gets a bit out of hand at times. With all the yarn-spinning that goes on, you'd think this city's punk progenitors ate glass, pissed Jack Daniel's, and put out nothing but great records. Hell, even the dudes who were in the thick of it all back then are taken aback by how fabled those times have become.

"I got asked a question in an interview about how'd it feel to be mind-fucking nihilists or something, and it was like 'We were just bored and pissed off, you know,'" chuckles Cheetah Chrome, the wild and woolly guitarist who came to fame with the Dead Boys.

Ironically, it's Cheetah's pre-Dead Boys ensemble, Rocket From the Tombs, that has been subjected recently to some of the greatest hype of all the old-school punks. The band's early demos and live recordings, widely circulated in bootleg form for years, have just been remastered and officially released for the first time. The handsomely packaged set, dubbed The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs, comes with a notice on the back that states that the collection offers a "glimpse at one of the greatest albums NEVER recorded." Almost as hard to swallow is the fact that the record actually lives up to its claim.

From the sleazy, scary "Ain't It Fun" to the proud defiance of "Sonic Reducer," the album is buoyed by some of the most essential punk anthems ever laid down. With David Thomas bellowing like a wounded grizzly, Cheetah unleashing toe-curling sheaths of white noise with fellow guitarist/songwriter Peter Laughner nipping at his heels, and bassist Craig Bell and drummer Don Evans trying to keep the runaway train from derailing, the disc is a 40-minute cold sweat.

"This record should be just as highly regarded in the annals of punk rock as the first Dead Boys and Pere Ubu recordings," says Frank Mauceri, a native Clevelander who operates Nevada-based Smog Veil Records, which put out the Rockets' release. "Rocket From the Tombs are true unknown legends of rock and roll."

Even the band's longtime rivals have developed some respect for the band.

"They were doing music for themselves," says John Morton, frontman for the Electric Eels. "What was going on then was a lot of cover bands. You'd go to a high school dance and they'd be playing 'Purple Haze,' 'I Shot the Sheriff,' and it was like what was the point? It was really absurd to do your own material. But they were real musicians doing real music."

So why the decades-long wait for the band's material to surface? Well, it was really just a matter of tracking down the masters.

"It's taken a long time to locate the original source tapes," Thomas says. "We didn't want to do something that wasn't the best that could be done. Believe me, there were many temptations to just hang it all [out] and release the copies we had. Especially in the light of all the bootlegs of even worse copies that were making the rounds."

Still, those roughshod bootlegs, combined with RFTT's brief lifespan -- its classic lineup was together only eight months -- seemed to heighten the band's underground aura, especially in later years, when groups like Guns N' Roses and Pearl Jam took to covering its songs.

"I believe what kept RFTT alive in the world of music had a lot to do with a mystique that surrounded the group," Bell says. "Attaining so-called legendary status, only available through bootlegs and the like."

Nevertheless, listening to the raw, ragged triumph that is The Day the Earth Met . . ., it's clear that RFTT's rep is deserved, and that the band has left its fingerprints on a lot of young, pissed rockers in the past 27 years.

"It's taken on a life of its own, and it's become as big as the Dead Boys or Pere Ubu; it's become this thing that's very influential," Cheetah says. "I feel vindicated in some way, because I was such a public asshole for a while, so it's nice to hear good things about yourself. It's nice to know that the music got through."

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