The word gets thrown around like fists between inmates. And you're bound to hear it this week, when Cleveland protopunks Rocket from the Tombs--among the first originators of classic Midwest punk back in 1974--hit the city on a reunion tour. But what does "seminal" really mean, and, more importantly, how does an artist like RFTT get fitted for the honorary title?
At its core, seminal means influential, the first of a series that notably affected subsequent generations. Chat up any trivia-thumping supergeek, however, and it becomes obvious that a band's obscurity is also crucial. Even if Nirvana rearranged the face of contemporary rock music, you're not bloody likely to hear Joe Record Collector admit it. But Rocket from the Tombs? Pure seminal mid-'70s punk, a thermometer-bursting stew of acidic guitar basheroo and boiling nihilism--made all the hotter by the fact that the original RFTT didn't even last a full year in existence.
If you extrapolate the concept that Seminality (X) = Influence + Obscurity, you can properly rate a band like RFTT by using this fun and quasi-scientific formula:
Here M = Number of Members who went onto more famous pursuits. RFTT featured David Thomas and Peter Laughner (of Pere Ubu) plus Gene "Cheetah Chrome" O'Connor and John "Johnny Blitz" Madansky (of the Dead Boys). A grand slam of punk-rock royalty! Thus M = 4 points!
C = Critical darling factor. Do know-it-all rock zine reviewers namedrop the band as a crucial influence? You bet your 7-inch! Practically anytime Mr. Muzik Expert starts babbling about how America, not Britain, invented punk rock, RFTT is a mere breath away from their lips. On a scale of 1-10, C = 8 points!
R = Royalty-free cover versions. Although the Dead Boys and Ubu may have popularized them later, "Sonic Reducer," "Ain't It Fun" and "Final Solution" are all RFTT originals--and who knows how many times they've helped expand nascent punkers' setlists ever since? R = 9 points!
HRI = Horn Rim Index. Or, the number of times per week a band is "casually" mentioned by a record-store clerk, zine columnist, bartender, barista, vintage slacks retailer, etc., to prove his/her hipster IQ. Hell, RFTT's Pere Ubu connection alone gets mega-cred in the music-nerd demographic. And if exasperated eye-rolls result when you accidentally mention 1990s San Diego band Rocket from the Crypt instead, score a bonus point! HRI = 4 points!
CMJ = College Music Journal. Count how many collegiate radio playlists the band makes; look for RFTT spins on those smug old-skool shows with names like "The Roots of Cool" or "Back When It Mattered." CMJ = 6 points!
S = Soundscan sales results. Suddenly tearing up the Billboard charts? Sorry! Each Sam Goody sale rips away crucial points. Thankfully, with only one semi-official album--and that a 21st-century compilation of live miscellany--RFTT barely merits a blip on mainstream radar. S = 0.5 point! Maybe!
E = Number of Entercom (or Clear Channel, etc.) radio stations who've actually aired songs by said artist. Everyone knows those corporate playlists are compiled by "accountants instead of music fans" (as Dead Kennedys once noted), so RFTT wouldn't even make a dent. E = Zilch!
So there it is. Now we simply do the math and see that, um, well...who really cares about stupid scenester points anyway? As a 1970s American punk progenitor, RFTT can be proud merely for its contributions to underground rock history: songs, musicians and a whispered cult reverence that have outlasted many lesser mortals. It's seminal. Just because.
Rocket from the Tombs plays with the Hunches Friday, Nov. 21 at Lola's Room, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-0047. 7 pm. $12 advance, $14 door. 21+.