Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ten '80s Boston Bands That Mattered (And Still Do)

Mission of Burma

When my band Loose Ties moved to Boston in 1981, we found a stunning array of local music waiting for us. Here's a list of some of the bands I think had a significant impact on the '80s Boston scene. For the purpose of this list, I'm leaving off the acts who were already nationally known (i.e., the Cars, Aerosmith, Geils, Jonathan Richman, Robin Lane & the Chartbusters). I'm also leaving off some faves who never made it big despite making some great music (The Wages, Sensible Shoes, Half a Care, Ata-tat, Class Action, The Rafters, Relentless Cookout and, um, Loose Ties…). Here we go:

Human Sexual Response  Who doesn't want to be Jackie Onassis? HSR featured a solid punkish rhythm section and four singer/interpretive actors, including lead voice Larry Bangor. Their gigs were a riot, and often unique (witness the Halloween glow-in-the-dark skeleton outfits), but their antics didn't always translate to record, and their more serious art-rock side confused the folks who thought they were getting the next B52s. Bangor and the rhythm section went on to form the Zulus (who had to change names - twice - for legal reasons).

Mission of Burma  Boston's pioneers of loud, assaultive, raw nerve-jangling sound. Live, they were like a freight train going by, but their records had layers of complex interplay. Roger Miller went on to form Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, just as sonically inventive but with a lighter touch, and drummer Peter Prescott went on to form Volcano Suns.

Til Tuesday  Aimee Mann's follow-up band to the punkier Young Snakes, Til Tuesday was a disciplined synth pop/rock ensemble, no extended guitar solos, just song after song of Nu Wave hooks and unsmiling attitude. After winning the '83 Rumble, they were signed to Epic and released a great single and video ("Voices Carry") and a fine sophomore album (Welcome Home). Loose Ties opened for them a number of times, so we can attest that at least guitarist Robert Holmes occasionally smiled offstage.

Berlin Airlift / Rick Berlin the Movie  Berlin was already a scene veteran when he founded the Airlift, having fronted the art-rock Orchestra Luna in the '70s. Berlin Airlift had a heavy, dense sound (think Bowie's Berlin period) that underscored Berlin's dramatic (but natural) presentation. Their best songs were like archetypes (quick, think of a better title for a punk love song than "I Hate Everything But You") but their androgyny might have kept record companies away in the age of Reagan. The mid-80s Rick Berlin The Movie was funkier, with singer Julie Wood adding fire, and late great guitarist Steven Paul Perry stepping out front for a song or two each set. Berlin is still going strong with the Nickel and Dime Band, and new songs that are just as anthemic ("We're not getting off the stage!" he sang at the recent Let's Go to the Rat film benefit).

Push Push  Dennis Brennan was also a scene vet by the time he founded Push Push in the early '80s, after being frontman for the soul-influenced Martells. Push Push was more of an edgy power pop machine, with great players (Adam Steinberg on lead, Jay Feinstein on bass, and also a great songwriter, David Birmingham on drums) and songs that were both melodic and punchy. They rounded out their sets with cool covers ("Making Plans for Nigel," the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby") and the only downside to seeing them live was that your date always ended up wanting Dennis more than you. Push Push came close - a development deal with Capitol - but never quite landed a record contract - so they released two albums locally, both called Can't Wait (which I'm still waiting for on CD). Dennis is still singing, very well, every Wednesday at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge.

Throwing Muses  I saw Throwing Muses at one of their first gigs, at Chet's Last Call, a hockey bar overlooking the Boston Garden. Kristin Hersh's singing was unlike anything I've heard before or since, compellingly sincere but with weird melodic leaps at unexpected places. I bought their cassette, which included a country song written by their dad. The Muses released a number of albums on 4 AD before Tanya Donelly left to form Belly.

The Schemers  Formed in Rhode Island, The Schemers became known for such guitar-driven radio-friendly hits as "I Want Some Fun" and "Nothin's Shakin' in the Valley of Love," combining Beatles-y riffs with 'we're not gonna take it' vocals. They won the Rumble in 1984, and played throughout New England until their break-up in 1987. Guitarists Mark Cutler and Emerson Torrey went on to the more sonically adventurous Raindogs, who released two albums on Atco/Atlantic in the late 1980s. Cutler performs today both solo and with a band, and The Schemers reunite for special occasions, like the recent Let's Go to the Rat movie benefit.

The I-Tones  How did Boston end up with a bona fide reggae band? Credit Jamaican-born guitarist Chris Wilson, who went on to run reggae label Heartbeat Records. Their reggae cover of "Walk On By" was a staple on V66, Boston's short-lived music video channel, and they kept the Western Front in Cambridgeport in business for years.

The Atlantics  The Atlantics had already released a major label LP by 1980, but had their greatest success independently releasing a string of catchy singles in the early '80s including "Lonelyhearts" and "Pop Shivers." By this time they were a polished Nu Wave outfit (albeit one driven by Fred Pineau's crunching guitar) and they often headlined the Channel, Boston's largest club, tossing in treats like Gary Glitter's "Rock'n'Roll" to the faithful before splitting up in 1983. Guitarist/songwriter Tom Hauck, singer B. Wilkinson and drummer Paul Caruso also went on to form Ball & Pivot.

Knots and Crosses  Late in the '80s I happened to catch this band at Club III in Somerville. After a decade of more or less covering my ears at shows, I was pleasantly amazed to hear a band based around an acoustic guitar. With a rich sound and a phenomenal singer (Carol Noonan, as close to Sandy Denny as you can get on this side of the Atlantic), Knots and Crosses both revived the folk rock of the '60s and hinted at all the "unplugged" music about to come. Carol went on to release 3 albums on Rounder, and now runs the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Maine.

Honorable mentions:

The Neats
The Lyres
The Neighborhoods
November Group
Face to Face
Salem 66
Planet Street
Del Fuegos
Bim Skala Bim / Mighty Mighty Bosstones
John Lincoln Wright
Girls Night Out

Apologies if I left out your favorite '80s Boston band, and if so please make your case for them below!

Terry K