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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Boston Rock Clubs of the 1980s: The Channel – 1980 to 1991

The Channel used to sit at 25 Necco Street, at the edge of the Fort Point Channel that separates South Boston from the Financial District not far from where the Boston Tea Party happened back in 1773. It was surrounded by old brick factory buildings that seemed to be somewhat inhabited but also seemed to be very dark. The large parking lot was built for the other buildings as well and at night it would stretch out into the darkness beyond The Channel's parking lot lights. I found it spooky. It was apparently also a great place to burn a car since I can recall burning cars in the parking lot on at least 3 occasions over the years.

The Channel was the 2nd largest viable music venue in Boston at the time with a “suggested” legal capacity of 1700 people. The Boston Garden was the biggest venue in town but if you couldn't move 13,000 tickets, forgetaboutit. The Orpheum Theater, which is still in business, with its 2,700 seat capacity has no dancing and these little wooden seats built back during their last renovation in 1916 (no fooling). No matter who was playing, you just sat there and watched them and none to comfortably either. The next closest place, The Paradise nightclub, only holds 185.
No, The Channel was IT as the city's #1 concert club with its large open floor in front of the stage, multiple bars, massive sound system with giant speaker stacks on both sides of the stage, laid back rules and low cover charge. It was all about selling the drinks and you can’t buy a drink if you can’t get in. Especially since the drinking age was going up in Massachusetts. It went from 18 to 20 in 1979 and from 20 to 21 in 1984 spelling the death knell for many of Boston’s original music clubs of which only two from that era survives today: TT the Bear’s Place and Johnny D's in Cambridge.

Some of the more memorable touring acts I saw were Tommy James, who blew me away with a great set of new, old and Christian music. Jimmy Cliff was unbelievable singing “Many Rivers to Cross” two and ½ hours into his show clear as a bell amid the plooms of marijuana smoke wafting up from the audience. Must’ve seen Greg Allman play The Channel at least 4 times. Not because I was much of a fan but because my roommate Jeanie was. Still he put on a good show each time.  One time Jeanie managed to walk right up to him and punched Greg in the shoulder saying “Great Show, Greg!” She actually didn't think she could get that close to him so when she did, she couldn’t think of anything else to say. Smooth. Say one thing about Greg, he’s a good sport. He did tell her “Thanks”.

I was playing in my own band, Cool McCool, in Boston during most of the 80s so it seemed I was always working when my favorite bands played. Missed The Cramps every time and also Social Distortion but I caught a lot of local acts. Probably saw Til Tuesday 15 or 16 times between Jonathan Swifts, Scotch & Sounds and the Channel. I thought Gang Green was the greatest band on earth when I caught their last 3 songs at The Paradise and so I caught the whole set the next week at the Channel and then thought that they were close to if not the worst. They were so full of shit. The Fools and Ball & Pivot were other favorite local acts but my favorite Boston band was Berlin Airlift bar none and their album and EP I still covet.
Playing The Channel was a unique experience since they were the biggest club in town and booked a lot of local acts. Every band in and out of Boston clambered to play there and it seems they gave almost everybody a shot. Mostly this came off as 3 to 4 bands in an evening but later on these “New Music” nights became, as our guitarist James put it, “Cattle Calls” pitting anywhere from 5 to 6 bands a night. James recalls nights where there were more but I can’t remember a night with more than 6 bands. These were nerve wracking affairs since once you were done with your set, and lord help you if you went over your time, you had to get your stuff off the stage and out of the building. Nothing set aside, get it out! You had plenty of help though since the next band would start massing at the side of the stage to help you get your stuff off as your set clock wound down.

New bands started on Tuesday. If you could draw on a Tuesday you got a Wednesday. If not, you got another Tuesday. It took us about 3 years to get to a Saturday night opening slot. We could draw but being from the suburbs, it was hard to be consistent on a weeknight.

We played The Channel almost monthly between 1986 and 1990. Tony, our drummer, got us the shows and it was his idea to concentrate on the biggest venue in town, an idea that worked out well for us. Sound check was at six o’clock sharp and that first February I made a terrible discovery: They didn’t heat the place when nobody was there. They came in at 5:55 pm and just turned the lights and the heat on. Or maybe just the lights. Well, in February it was something like 10 degrees F in there if that. Just brutal. “What, and give up SHOW BUSINESS?!!”
There was a memorable show where I thought James had my amp and he thought I had it so subsequently, no amp and the bass player from The Beach Masters, Boston’s premier Surf band, was gracious enough to let me use his. And yes, his amp was infinitely better than my low-end 130 watt Peavey Combo. It was a Trace Eliot with the little blue florescent light on it. Cool!
Our band would get $50.00 a show, a case of canned beer and a room to drink it in. Once we got to the weekend shows we got $100.00, a case of beer but no more “get in free” tickets. Those free tickets worked very well when we opened for Bachman Turner Overdrive on our first big Saturday show. The cover was $9.00 so with our ticket it was free.

Friend: “You mean I can see BTO for free?”
James:  “Well, we’ll be playing too.”
Friend: “Yeah, but BTO for free!”
James: “And our band…”
Friend: “BTO, for free?”
James:  “Great, enjoy.”

There were many good things about playing The Channel and we really enjoyed playing there. The sound was great and it could get super loud. We used to cover Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” at the end of which there are some “Oh, oh, ooooohs” and if you were off on the pitch, and we were, the monitor system would MAKE YOU PAY for your lack of precision! I thought my head was going to explode.
The staff weas actually pretty nice for an original music club. Many venues around town like Jack’s (Cambridge), TT the Bears (Cambridge) and Bunratty’s (Allston) could be pretty surly to bands wanting to play “their exalted dive bar” but we didn’t get that at The Channel.
The sound guys always made us a tape through the board when we asked and the tapes always sounded good. The stage crew, for having to shuffle a multitude of bands on and off the stage in a hurry and mic 'em up were as good as it got in Boston. We did what they told us to do and we got along well.
That BTO show was big for us. It was the most people we had ever played for which was about 2000 people since people were standing up against the wall in back, the signature sign of overcapacity for this place. We never met the band and I felt a bit sad for them because they were touring to support a new album and NOBODY WANTED TO HEAR IT.  The crowd would cheer at “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” but when they did a new song you could hear crickets chirping out there. They went on the “Oldies” circuit a year later.

One neat thing about playing to a big crowd for the first time and being really, really nervous and feeling the pressure to do a good job, put on a good show and essentially "not fuck up" was that when we played our regular house gig at Green Street Station in Jamaica Plain the very next afternoon, it was so relaxing. Like you could just lay back and play. Many of the people who followed the band marked THAT night as our best show ever.

I left the band in 1990 to pursue other musical interests but Cool McCool continued to play The Channel and open for other great acts like Treat Her Right and The Stompers right up until The Channel passed into Boston Rock History in 1991.

It is greatly missed.



5 comments:

  1. I loved The Channel, have many happy memories of those days in the 80s at the all ages shows. Can't list the many bands I saw there but remember seeing The November Group over and over again. I also saw The Cramps there, loved them! Such fun times. So sorry they are gone.

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  2. I saw the Blushing Brides here....great club!!

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  3. The heat was provided by the customers...more customers = more heat. The heat was actually up high enough for the pipes not to freeze.

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  4. Loved performing there with Rods & Cones
    opening once for Gary Glitter
    another time Dennis Brown
    and lots of shows with our peer bands
    We finally headlined a Saturday night come 1986
    a big thrill
    The Channel was a tremendous venue.

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    1. UncChris, I'm sure our paths crossed back in those misty and competitive rock & roll days when the night life was our life! Going out seeing bands, loving bands, hating bands and being in a band. You only get one chance in life to live like that.

      It took a lot of perseverance to move up to a weekend at the Channel since the national acts got those slots and many times carried their own opening acts but it was so worth the effort when you looked out at the biggest crowd you ever played for and yer knees went a-knockin' but you played your ass off anyway. That set was over so fast!

      And there's no forgetting the feeling when that first case o' beer is left for you in the dressing room.

      I value my Rods & Cones EP and am going to put it on the turntable.

      Thanks for writing.

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