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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Boston Rock: Boston Bands from 1979 to 1989

Played the Boston scene from 1983 to 1994 in two acts: Bass with "Cool McCool" 1983-1989 and Guitar with "The World Renowned Rythmmen!" 1990-1994. Managed to do close to 450 shows in that time and shared the stages of The Rat, Green St. Station, Chet’s last Call, The Channel, TT the Bear’s, Club III, Storyville, Jacks's and Bunratty’s with some of the best bands ever to bang their heads against the big green wall that was the Boston Music Scene. And despite all the time we spent playing in the bars ourselves, I still consider myself more of a consumer than participant in Boston music of that time period. Whenever we played, we didn't pack up after our set but stayed to see the other bands even if it killed us the next morning going to work.

There were some great Boston bands that were the best you never heard of and some that you have. Til Tuesday comes to mind as a band you've certainly heard. I still have Aimee Mann’s first EP, Bark Along with the Young Snakes, featuring a 19 year old Aimee with two anonymous band mates on the cover. Must have seen the band more than 20 times at places like Jonathan Swift’s in Cambridge, The Channel downtown and Scotch & Sounds in Brockton, MA of all places, where anybody who was anybody played including David Johansen (After the NY Dolls and before he became Buster Poindexter), The Ramones, Robin Lane & The Chartbusters, The Stompers, Face to Face and Jon Butcher Axis.

I was amazed that one night when the opening act had cancelled, Til Tuesday was asked to do two sets and came out and did the same set twice. They only had one set of material! How could this be? The hottest band in Boston! But what a set it was. A shame that “One Minute More” never made it to vinyl (that means “record” to those under 35).

Before Til Tuesday signed with Epic records, they recorded a number of their best songs like "Love in a Vacuum" with Elliot Easton of The Cars at the studio the band had set up to record themselves and other bands. One of my menial musician's jobs at the time was driving a van for some evil corporate overlords and while driving my rounds I would listen to WNTN, a radio station out of Newton, MA that only had a license to broadcast in the daytime. They programmed mostly funk and R&B, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang and these recordings of Til Tuesday. Why? No clue but there they were and this was before I ever saw or even heard of the band. The Epic recordings, quite frankly, did not stack up to the production or sound of the Easton sessions. I wonder where THOSE tracks went.

Berlin Airlift, with their unheard of mix of strong vocal harmonies over absolute killer Rock & Roll was a big favorite. They weren’t just a band, they were a SHOW! This may be why they didn’t hit the big time since they were too rock for pop. This was the first band I ever saw that the guitar player (Joe Perry) had six guitars locked and loaded and was physically handed a different guitar for different songs. I was amazed! Who gets their guitars handed to them but Gods? Rick Berlin was/is the picture of what a frontman should be. I've lost count of how many times I saw them live.

Jon Butcher had a good thing going with his stellar first album in 1983 that produced the hits "Ocean in Motion", "Life Takes a Life" and "It's Only Words" and he played a great live set but things started to go south for him when his rock-solid bass player, Chris Martin, left the band and was 'replaced' by the bass player from another local Boston band who seemed more interested in how his hair looked and keeping his shirt open to the waste than actually laying a solid groove. After a short time with this lineup, management problems then caused Mr. Butcher drop the group and move to LA.

Face to Face with singer Laurie Sargent managed to produce three studio albums and a couple of solid hits like "Ten, Nine, Eight" and "Under the Gun" and I got my first glimpse into what it's about in the music business when one of the guitar players told me that they really didn't make any money on any of the albums once the recording advance was paid back. 

The song "American Fun" was a huge hit for The Stompers and it was a great single but I have to admit I wasn't a big fan of the band during their first run even though I saw them multiple times at various venues. As I have since grown into a songwriter myself, I have grown to appreciate the artistry of Sal's songwriting and their music to the point where I have sought out their albums. I was lucky enough to play a live broadcast on a Salem, MA radio show around 2004 on which Sal Baglio also appeared. He was promoting a new album of songs but was coaxed into playing one of his old songs by the radio host, Doug Mascot. So Sal plays "Rockin' From Coast to Coast" on the acoustic guitar and everybody in the crowded waiting room from the 20 somethings on up stopped what they were doing, started bobbing their heads and taping their feet. In deference to Sal's new stuff, this was a great musical moment.

We used to play this place in the North End of Boston called Chet’s Last Call which was across the street from the old Boston Garden where the Celtics and Bruins played. It stands out since we actually made money at Chet’s. It had been a disco in the 1970s and when Chet took it over he just opened the doors and DIDN’T CHANGE A THING. It still had this terrible shiny multicoloured contact paper on the walls and a stupid outdoor railing to cordon off the dance floor. Yet when we started there and began hanging out, I saw the most amazing bands. This is where The Bosstone’s played (long before they became Mighty, Mighty) and this Punkabilly band, The Wandells which tragically never put out a record and their killer tunes: “Basketcase Boogie” and “Who Cares Anyway” are lost to the world. Let this be a lesson: Record your stuff! The litany of bands that played Chet’s was a Who’s Who of the times: Scruffy the Cat, The Neighborhoods, The Flys, Valdez the Sinner, The Bent Men, The Beachmasters, and, well, us, Cool McCool.

There was also the Pajama Slave Dancers who did put out two records and had the most amazing stage show, apologizing after and sometimes before play there hits “Defreeze Walt Disney”, "Homo Truck Driving Man" and  “Farm Rap”, these guys were nuts.

Bands I also admired (meaning I bought their albums) who had big local hits and gained some national success were The Make who recorded “Aimee’s Home Tonight” in 1981 which was their big and only hit. The New Models which had a national hit in 1983 with “Say What You Want Me To Do”.  I later saw New Models founder Casey Lindstrom hit the stage on guitar with an energetic and more conventional power trio called Shake the Faith at The Channel. Then there were Rod’s & Cones which hit with “Your Infatuation Was My Education in Love” in 1985. To listen to this stuff today is to think they just were put out.

I also prize my copy of The Neighborhoods' “Prettiest Girl” which we used to also cover along with “Don’t Run Wild” and “I Still Want You” by the Del Fuegos. A little known fact of the first Rock & Roll Rumble winner was that the song "Prettiest Girl" is the B side of the single. And the band is pictured on the sleeve riding the COMET roller coaster at the long defunct Paragon Park amusement park that was in Hull, MA (1904 to 1984) one of the scariest rides ever build by humankind, completely of wood. Their 1984 LP “Fire is Coming” has a bitchen jumped-up remake of “If I Had A Hammer”. It’s a killer take.

One of the first professional acts I ever saw was Shane Champagne which was put together by Gary Shane and David Champagne way back. I played a show with Gary a couple years back when he did a reunion tour with his later band The Detour and he signed my 7 inch copy of their big hit: “Shadow World”. Both these guys are still out their playing as well as Rick Berlin. To me they are kindred spirits since none of us seem to be able to stop playing. For better or worse, it’s become part of the blood.

Another person who had risen to national prominence was Jonathan Richman who is legend in musical history. Not only did he do 7 encores of “Ice Cream Man” at CBGB’s, the notorious punk haven in New York in the late 70’s (now THAT’S punk!) but was at his most outstanding in an outdoor concert where, Toot’s Hebert of the seminal reggae band, The Maytals being lost somewhere in Western Massachusetts, Jonathan’s band, including the Pailey Brothers and Barrence Whitfield, played for nearly two hours. It was the last time I saw him with a full band. We saw him a couple of times at the old NightStage concert club in Cambridge but he played as a duo with just a percussionist.

There are too many outstanding acts to list from the days where the drinking age was 18 and all you had to do was LOOK around 18 to get beer. At that time there were 16 original music clubs and on any night of the week you could go out and see a well rehearsed professional act like The Joe Perry Project (when Joe split with Aerosmith for a time), Til Tuesday, The Del Fuegos, Robin Lane, Gang Green, The Neighborhoods, Jon Butcher, Berlin Airlift, or head down to the Channel and see, Jimmy Cliff, Tommy James & the Shondell’s, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Paul Revere & The Raiders and more. You had to learn to get along at an earlier age or someone would straighten you out.

A typical weekend evening usually began by hanging out in Kenmore Square right on the steps of the Dunkin Donuts near the Pizza Pad. This gave us the best view of the square and everybody who passed through it. We were right near The Rat and directly across from Narcissis and Celebrations, the two biggest discos in town right across the square where the BU bookstore in Barnes & Noble is today. We'd get a couple of six-packs and literally drink beer in public, watch all the people streaming by, give the bums a couple of bucks for their life stories and try to figure out what club to hit that night or when our favorite band was going on.

The days where "anyone with a weird haircut could call themselves a band" in Boston have passed but there once was a time there there was a great period of creativity that washed over the city. It's still there in pockets but the heyday of working original bands who actually were making money has passed into folklore.

Great bands. Great times.


  1. Wal,
    This is a great blog post. I'll add it to my next Boston Bands post. I saw so many of those bands, and at the clubs you mentioned that no longer exist...SIGH.
    I wish I thought of Gary Champagne when I was doing my "G"...I saw him several times. And I still love Aimee Mann. I went to see her at the Music Circus (of all places) a couple of years ago.
    I still have that Neighborhoods single with Paragon Park on the front. :-)

  2. True The Wandells did not make a record, but their music IS recorded. I am listening to Bop- a-Lena right now.