With three records in one year, 1995 made their case for being the best and hardest working band in rock
In a perfect world, one absent of fads, trends and politics and where bands succeed or fail on their musical merit, Rocket From The Crypt could have been, should have been, huge.
They did okay, of course, landing a major label deal and making some modest inroads on radio and MTV. But for a group that dusted virtually every other band that came within earshot of them in their heyday, those victories ring a little hollow. Ask the legions of fans that still proudly boast Rocket tattoos to this day and they’ll tell you: Rocket From The Crypt is among the most misunderstood, underappreciated and arguably best bands of their respective era.
A punk rock band with the heart and charisma of a soul revue, the brassy San Diego sextet got lost somewhat in the overpopulated mess of bands plucked out of the American rock underground during the major label feeding frenzy post-Nirvana. Rocket didn’t exactly make things easy on themselves, either. Between ornate coordinated outfits and spinning game show wheels onstage to harnessing a sound that could best be described as a cross section between James Brown and the Stooges, the band was a proverbial square peg that happily existed outside of corporate rock’s round hole. Too much a thing of their own making to possibly climb the ladder to stardom, Rocket instead went about not only carving out one of the best rock discographies of the 90s and early 2000s, but building their reputation as one of rock music’s hardest working bands.
John “Speedo” Reis will forever be a name synonymous with San Diego, but Rocket was born out of aspirations to build a reputation outside of Southern California. By 1990, Reis’ work in Pitchfork had made him somewhat of a known commodity in San Diego music circles, and that band’s dissolution led to the formation of two new ones. Drive Like Jehu was built on Pitchfork’s post-punk and math rock pedigree. Rocket From The Crypt’s origins were also rooted in post-punk, as evidenced on the band’s debut, Paint as a Fragrance, and its 1992 follow up Circa Now. But 1995 marked the band’s evolution from underground noise rockers to stylized soul punk mavericks. The addition of Jason “JC2000” Crane on trumpet alongside saxophonist Paul “Apollo 9” O’Bierne gave the band a horn section with a sound far bigger than its membership, and Reis used the addition to refashion Rocket as a sort of punk rock big band. A premium was put not only on songwriting, but also performing. Countless hours of practice and relentless touring chiseled the band into something of a punk rock anomaly, a furiously tight, loud and energetic live band that at the same time embraced the kind of garish showmanship almost universally rejected in punk and indie rock circles. That included coordinated outfits and even some light onstage choreography.
“There was a bit of a contradiction in us being into punk-rock music and also being into rock & roll and wanting to entertain and put on a show,” Reis said in a 2015 interview with The Quietus. “But for us it made perfect sense: you could not only be inspired by Black Flag but you could be inspired by James Brown as well.”
On record, Rocket’s rebranding as a six-member punk and roll outfit was cemented with a trio of 1995 releases, beginning with the 10-inch The State of Art is on Fire. Released on Sympathy for the Record Industry and produced by Long Gone John, the six-song offering smacks of the massive, wall of sound style Rocket would go on to perfect further on later releases. Reis’ greaser howl barks over a dense mix of guitars, drums and horns that, while more often than not buried in the mix, do wonders in fattening the band’s sound. “Light Me” and “A+ in Arson Class” nail the record’s orchestrated mash up of punk venom, soulful swagger and garage rock primitivism, while the record’s CD version includes two covers from 60s proto-punk heroes The Music Machine (“Trouble” and “Masculine Intuition”).
The State of Art is on Fire represents Rocket at its most feral, but Hot Charity, released a few months later in August 1995, polished the band’s sound up, if only slightly, without compromising its brute strength. The band for the first time opted to record at a professional studio, only to scrap the original sessions and re-record the record with a new producer. Despite the hurdles and hiccups, Hot Charity nonetheless earns its standing as one of Rocket’s best records, even if it’s one that the band largely considered to be an experiment. “My Arrow’s Aim,” with its call and response chorus, remains one of the most accessible offerings in the band’s arsenal, while the raucous opener “Pushed” and tracks like “Lorna Doom” and “Poison Eye” rip with ferocious urgency.
Rocket From The Crypt rounded out its 1995 trifecta with what many consider its finest hour. Released in October 1995, Scream Dracula Scream, the band’s major label debut, represents the pinnacle of the band’s tireless work ethic and imaginative flair. Reis doubled down on the Phil Spector-esque wall of sound approach for the densest record the band has ever made. Filling out the guitars, drums and horns are backing vocalists, organs and even accordions. Strings were even incorporated as interludes at various points between songs, but the idea was eventually scrapped from the final product.
The ambition showcased on Scream, Dracula, Scream sets it apart from the band’s other records, but its lofty ideas didn’t come at the expense of the songs, which are among the best the band has to offer. You’d be hard pressed to find a more electric one-two-three punch to lead off a record than “Middle,” “Born in 69” and “On a Rope,” which breathlessly sequence into one another with fiery abandon. Scream also boasts a solid slate of middle hitters with “Young Livers,” “Ball Lightning” and “Drop Out.” On “Used,” the band scales back the noise in favor of a sound that’s more early American rock and roll than punk. Reis’ throaty scream during the breakdown of “Salt Future” is enough to make your hair stand on end, and “Come See, Come Saw” may very well be Rocket From The Crypt at the peak of its punk rock showband powers. There’s room to argue whether or not Scream, Dracula, Scream is in fact the best Rocket From The Crypt record, but it’s undeniably the one that helped the band stand out from the overcrowded alternative rock lot in 1995.
Scream, Dracula, Scream earned the band some well-deserved critical kudos, which it parlayed into coveted slots opening for the likes of Soundgarden and Rancid. But Rocket’s time on the major label circuit would be short lived. The band followed up Scream with 1998’s RFTC, which sanded down some of the band’s edge in favor of a more streamlined sound. Interscope would later drop the band, and Rocket would return to the indie circuit to release 2001’s excellent Group Sounds and 2002’s Live From Camp X-ray before disbanding in 2005.
But while Rocket flew somewhat under the radar during their initial 15 year run, their work appreciated in the eyes and ears of fans in the years after their breakup. The band is now seven years into a successful reunion, one that hasn’t allowed for new music but has reminded the world of just how much shit hot fun rock and roll can be with a little blood, sweat and grease. Speedo, ND, Petey X, Atom, Ruby Mars, Apollo 9 and JC2000 were never the biggest band in the world, but for a stretch of time in the mid 90s, no one worked harder at being the best.
VIDEO: Rocket From The Crypt at 7 South in Denver, CO 9/29/95