The first time Cleveland's Rocket From the Tombs got together, the world wasn't ready for them, and Cleveland especially wasn't. They weren't even ready for themselves. Formed in 1974 by a bunch of Stooges and Velvet Underground fans—and in those days, if you liked those bands, you were a freak—they played fewer than a dozen times before splitting up in mid-1975. A couple of them went on to start the young-loud-snotty Dead Boys, a couple of others went on to start the hot-weird-arty Pere Ubu, and both bands turned retooled Rocket songs into punk-rock standards. A RFTT bootleg or two made the rounds in the early '90s, and a collection of their blazing, yowling live tapes got officially released as The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs a couple of years ago.
Then last year, David Thomas (who still leads Pere Ubu) reconvened his old bandmates Craig Bell and Cheetah Chrome for a one-off RFTT show, with Television's Richard Lloyd replacing lead guitarist/ songwriter Peter Laughner (a huge fan of Television who died in 1977). That show begat a tour, followed by another tour, and now Rocket Redux (Smog Veil), a document of their tour set (in the same order they always play it): 12 of the 19 songs from The Day . . . , rerecorded with modern technology. It rocks, they're clearly having a good time, not bad for old guys, and so on.
It is the most frustrating thing Thomas has ever recorded. After the third or fourth carbon copy of a RFTT mk. 1 recording, the thought irresistibly arises: Who do you think you're fooling? You have been flogging "Final Solution" and "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" for 30 years now. In some ways you're a more interesting songwriter now than you were then, as long as you play with musicians who push you—the Pale Orchestra you were playing with a few years ago was incredible. But now you've got the best punk-rock band you've ever played with, and what do you do? Exactly the same thing you did 30 years ago. Exactly the same songs. Exactly the same way of playing them. You have nothing new to say about any of them. And you're trying to pawn it off on us as your new album—even though it's effectively just an abridged version of the last album. RFTT "will not be a 'real' band until we start writing new material," you say on your Web site. Well, don't waste our time until you're a "real" band.
Or at least take a cue from the Mekons, whose recent take on their youthful punk excesses is usually theoretically interesting, and sometimes more. The best Mekons album, Rock n' Roll, came out in 1989; it's a commentary on rock, and it's also a full-on rock and roll record. The title of their new Punk Rock (Quarterstick) is so arch, it should have multiple sets of quotation marks around it. The 2003-model Mekons revisit 15 songs from their late-'70s incarnation as an art-punk band in Leeds; the joke is that the two groups are connected in little more than name. Guitarist and occasional singer Tom Greenhalgh remains, original drummer Jon Langford is now a singer/guitarist, and otherwise they're an entirely different band—and not especially punk rock in the familiar sense.
It'd be a more effective joke if they actually had severed their ties with this period. The Mekons' best early single, "Where Were You," is one of their standard encores, and they already rerecorded it a few years ago. Still, they definitely don't commit Rocket From the Tombs' sin of repeating themselves verbatim. Sometimes they juice up the original arrangements (the dry early single "Teeth" gets the thundering-horde treatment); sometimes they pretty them down ("Work All Week" becomes gentle reggae with thumb percussion); sometimes they burlesque their earnest younger selves—Eaglebauer, a"Canadian Mekons tribute band" (also known as the alt-country group the Sadies, who backed Langford on last year's Mayors of the Moon), scream along on the knuckleheaded anti-layoffs anthem "Fight the Cuts."
Almost all of the songs the Mekons have rerecorded for Punk Rock are out of print now, and it's good to hear a lot of them rescued from obscurity (hooray for "Dan Dare," a three-chord monument to the comic strip whose alien villain gave the band its name). As an art gesture, the group's skewed tribute to their earliest incarnation is witty and entertaining. But there's something a little sad about it. The Mekons' first single, in 1978, was "Never Been in a Riot," a riposte to the Clash's "White Riot," backed with "32 Weeks," a one-riff rant about consumer goods. Listening to the original recordings, you hear a band that can barely even hold instruments or write a song but desperately needs to express itself; punk rock is its lifeline, a language it can (sort of) speak to reach people who'll understand it. On the Punk Rock remakes, you hear an association beerily singing its founding members' anthems; punk rock is its birthright, and that means something important has been lost somewhere.
The Mekons play Chop Suey with Paul Borch at 9 p.m. Thurs., March 25. $12 adv.