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Monday, November 10, 2014

Boston Rock Clubs of the 1980s: The Rat

We were supposed to care more about Boston’s legendary rock club The Rathskeller aka “The Rat” than we actually did.  

It just wasn't important to us as a band since our business interests lay elsewhere. We, meaning our band Cool McCool, were a rock & roll band, not punk and not even approaching what would later become “alternative” or underground and nothing in the vein of the past bands that came out of The Rat that went on to Boston greatness like Mission of Burma, Human Sexual Response, Iggy Pop, The Neighborhoods or The Lemonheads.
Yeah yeah I know, U2 and the Police and other national and international acts played The Rat in the 1970s blah, blah, blah but I’m sure they played other hole-in-the-wall dungeons too. They didn't need The Rat, they just happened to have played The Rat and the odds are very good that all those big bad Boston bands that are breathlessly associated with the club DID NOT get their first gigs there either. By the mid 1980s they would have had to go to Chet’s or TT the Bears first.

All that legendary stuff about the place was primarily in the past by the time we walked in the door for the first time in 1985.

If The Rat was Underground, we didn't see it as such. At the time Boston was bursting with original music clubs. To us The Rat was just another place in Boston with a PA and a bar to play when we weren't hanging at The Channel, Chet’s Last Call or Green Street Station in JP, all rooms that fit our style and that of the people who came to hear us play. And when you look at the place from that perspective, without the word "legendary" attached to its name, The Rat wasn't all that great.

It wasn't like they treated bands any better than any other of the Boston rock clubs at the time. You drew a crowd, they liked you. Not much not to understand about the mechanics of the situation. 

Since there are only so many hours in a week, bands wishing to make “the scene” had to work the music rooms they wanted to play the most.  This does not change with the times.  Actually living in the city gives a band a huge advantage in the “schmoozing” department since they can bar hop more places while seeing the bands, talking up the waitstaff, the management and being seen. When management sees you there regularly and you keep asking, you’re going to get a booking.

Also daytime access was an especially important aspect of booking The Rat since the booking agent always seemed to roll in around 3pm, an impossible time for a 9 to 5er working in the 'burbs. It seemed to us that The Rat took a whole lot more hanging out to get noticed in the “Ok, I’ll give you a gig” department. There were a lot of bands that really wanted to get in at The Rat.

So Just what was The Rat all about anyway? 

For one thing, it had the best location of any rock club in the city, right smack in the middle of it all since Kenmore Square was the crossroads of the city’s nightlife throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Your night began and ended in Kenmore Square. You had Narcissus and Celebrations, the two biggest discotheques in town, right across the square and located just up Brookline Ave a little ways and around the corner was Landsdowne Street with its row of nightclubs operating in the shadow of Fenway Park's Green Monster that varied in entertainment value from the ritzy Metro, the dark and cool Spit discotheque and the not so great “five dollar dungeon” that was 9 Landsdowne St where you paid a $5.00 cover to basically listen to records and where they would occasionally lower a high school grade movie screen from the ceiling in the middle of the room without warning to show some music videos. 

If you kept going past Landsdowne there was Copperfield’s featuring quality cover bands, cheap beer and good sound. Then on the other side of the square just up Commonwealth Ave was the lounge at the old Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge which featured professional cover acts, mostly oldies. Continuing up Comm Ave there was, and still is, The Paradise rock club. Beyond that lay the many bars of Brighton and Cambridge. Kenmore Square at the time was just crowds of people hanging out, passing through, meeting friends before they headed off or just outside waiting for their band to go on. 

The sound system at The Rat was easily overwhelmed by the amplification that many of the bands who played there brought with them. As a person who likes to hear the words, I was often frustrated by this. Only the better bands paid enough attention to sound good there and there were plenty of those too but as a spectator I would never characterize the sound night in and night out at The Rat as good.  As a performer, forget it, you never heard yourself on the stage at any of the original music rooms in town except The Channel.  Any place else the monitors were merely just music-related stage decorations.

The Rat’s exalted status did not disguise for us or our mostly suburban, over college age following the fact that it was an ugly little fire hazard/death trap of a room with its narrow stairway, black painted walls, dirty floors, wobbly tables, black leather jacketed clientele, fickle sound and just as legendary and notorious as some of the bands that played there if not more so, its noxiously obnoxious toilets.  In fact, the most consistent recollections of past Rat patrons, and anyone who had been there will tell you, had to be the river of “water” that ran from the toilets out onto the floor in the back of the downstairs club. It was an experience we all shared.

This really shouldn't be a surprise since The Rat was arguably the oldest rock club in the country’s oldest city with the historically oldest sewer system on the North American continent dating back to the founding of the city in 1630. Every now and then the city STILL pulls up a few hollowed out logs jammed together that were functioning as water piping from sometime back in the 1700s.

We played The Rat, we guess, maybe about a dozen times here and there, never in any kind of a rotation, from 1985 to 1989 and drew really well just once. We only ever did get one good night, our last, late in 1989, a Friday opening for The Lemonheads who were out for less than a year at the time but had the number one record in town with "Hate Your Friends".  We would't have played The Rat again after our first date except for the extraordinary efforts of our drummer, Tony, who would stop in almost weekly to try to get another gig. If not for that we would have been out of the loop real quick. As for James and I, we didn't care either way and felt our gig efforts would have been put to better use elsewhere. 

Most of the bands I saw at The Rat I had seen somewhere else first and I was less impressed with their Rat shows. The Bent Men played The Rat but they put on a better show at Chet’s. Ditto Throwing Muses, The Prime Movers, Scruffy the Cat and The Dogmatics.

Of the bands I had only ever seen play The Rat, I liked Johnny Angel’s band City Thrills which sort of had a Missing Persons meets Robin Lane thing going on. Also enjoyed the Condo Pigmies who were cool then and remain cool since I saw them play at Bill’s Bar on Landsdowne St in 2008 where they were the best band on the bill. I also caught the Sex Execs one night for the only time ever and they played their local hit "Princess Cheyanne" a song about a local "Exotic Dancer" who used to work Boston's red light district The Combat Zone. They were a band that, for me, represented what a good Boston band was. Tight, professional, uptempo and with quirky but catchy tunes.

One of the more enjoyable shows I saw at The Rat was another of Johnny Angel’s bands, the Swinging Erudites  which did song parodies of popular hits at the time like changing the Go Go’s hit song “Walk Like an Egyptian” to “Walk With An Erection” and a takeoff of Bon Jovi  with “Living on my Hair”. I don’t know, it was funny at the time and the record got lots of airplay on local FM stations WBCN and WCOZ. I still sing “Oh, Oh, I’m a millionaire, Wah-ah, Living on my Hair” to myself when I see something about Bon Jovi in the news. The Erudites were the biggest hit of Johnny Angel’s Boston musical career which he must have found ironic after all those years of sawing away in Boston bands like The Turbines who were really good but just didn't quite get there, then to hit with a parody group must have been bemusing. 

I was also at The Rat for a total riot that took place one night and closed The Rat for three days when some punk band I never got the name of and their aggressive fans took the place apart in 2 minutes flat. The band came on, and they weren't just playing punk rock, they were living it and their large following, who were hanging in the back unseen came forward and from the first power chord the room burst into full motion as these guys just started throwing tables, chairs, full pitchers of beer and anything else not nailed down and some things that were all over the place without regard to where they were going and what would happen once they got there. There was furious slamming going on at the same time, and I’ve seen slam dancing before or I thought I had, with stage diving, whirling fists and bloody faces. People who had no idea what was going were being knocked to the floor and a few of the regulars just dove right in. I remember this one guy, very clean cut in a red polo shirt and jeans just laughing and pogoing away while this chaos whirled around him in the fashion of Robert Duval's character, Lt Col Bill Kilgore in Apocalyse Now. But then there were the bouncers off to the side  and they were hammering some of these guys as they formed a sort of bucket brigade where one bouncer would grab a punk, slug him but good and then throw him to another bouncer who slugged him again and so on until they threw them out the back stage door into the parking lot where they staggered in bloody and disheveled protest at their shoddy treatment. Then they threw all their shit out after them.  Now THAT was a legendary show!

After the melee ended, the lights brought up and the bums thrown out and in the silence that followed the thing that stood out to me was Mitch, the owner of The Rat and he was no kid, getting down and picking up broken pieces of the plastic pitchers with his expensive three piece suit, ringed fingers and real alligator shoes. He didn't tell others to do it, he just did it. I found that impressive. I never really met the guy but he was always there and it had to be tough running a place like The Rat like few could experience.

Later in the 1990s, The Rat opened the upstairs to bands that played cover material so there were actually then three floors with something going on. There was the basement for original bands, the first floor bar and the upstairs.  I knew a couple of the bands that played "Upstairs at The Rat" like The Gypsys and The Visigoths. The bands that played upstairs got $50.00 a night…FOR THE BAND! Still, with my new group working regular I figured I’d go in and get a gig. I left the usual promo with the new booking agent and when I talked to him later he told me that, by listening to my tape, “that The World Renowned Rythmmen! were not ready to play The Rat Upstairs.”  He got that right.

That was my last experience with the room while it remained open since I was too busy with everything else to go there or any of the other original rooms left in town for that matter since I was working a different club circuit. Many of the original rooms had closed by then and none had taken their place. Then The Rat closed in 1997 and three years later became a cornerstone for a luxury hotel, The Hotel Commonwealth. 

The lasting legacy of The Rat can still be found every year when Boston’s Rock & Roll Rumble takes place at various venues around town. The Rumble started at The Rat crowning The Neighborhoods as the best band in Boston for the first time in 1976.

Seems like yesterday.

1 comment:

  1. Hey I am so glad to know about Boston’s legendary rock club! I have been to several Boston venues for parties but never heard about this one. I would love to visit this place at least once in my life!