There’s a lot of conflict in the songs of Robin Lane. On her 1980 debut album with her band, the Chartbusters, she posed some tough questions (“Why Do You Tell Lies”) and set some hard rules (“I Don’t Want to Know”). The band’s biggest hit, of course, was “When Things Go Wrong,” another glimpse at a relationship gone sour, and one of the more successful songs ever to come out of Boston.
The video for “When Things Go Wrong” would bring Lane a durable piece of history, airing inside the first hour of programming on a new cable network called MTV. Yet despite that success, her relationship with the music industry wasn’t destined to last. Within a few years, after the commercial failure of a follow-up album and Lane’s decision to become a mother, she was dropped by Warner Brothers and the band fizzled out.
They’ve reunited occasionally since, but now, almost four decades later, they’re doing so with a purpose. This weekend the Chartbusters — guitarist Asa Brebner, bassist Scott Baerenwald, and drummer Tim Jackson, with special guest Billy Loosigian — play two sold-out shows at the Burren to celebrate the release of “Many Years Ago,” a three-CD retrospective that gathers the band’s original releases, rarities, and live recordings.
“Some people aren’t meant for relationships,” says Lane, relaxing on a couch in the Marblehead recording studio of her friend John Pfister. She means the romantic kind, but she’s also alluding to the compromises a musician makes when she signs a record deal. She recalls being told she needed to develop an image for herself if she wanted to sell more records.
“No one tells me how to look,” she says.
By the time she formed her band in Boston in the late 1970s, Lane had firsthand experience with some of the music business’s conventional wisdom and traditional sexism. Her father was Dean Martin’s accompanist and a co-writer of his hit “Everybody Loves Somebody.” A teenage hippie growing up in Southern California, she befriended a circle of young musicians including the guys in a band soon to be called Crazy Horse, who would back Neil Young on his second solo album, “Everybody Know This Is Nowhere.” Lane sang backup on the song “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long).”
Soon she was writing her own songs, “three or four a day,” she says. But every audition seemed to end with the same result: a few words of encouragement, and a weak excuse about how the label already had a female songwriter — Joni Mitchell, say, or Laura Nyro — on its roster.
Lane spent a few years married to a British guitarist named Andy Summers, who would go on to join a New Wave band called the Police. By then, she was bouncing around, going through a Christian phase and living briefly in Pennsylvania and New York before arriving in Boston in 1977.
With a new boyfriend at the time, Allen “Alpo” Paulino, who was in the Real Kids, Lane started spending a lot of time around the wild and woolly scene at the Rat and other neighborhood clubs. The feisty punk bands inspired her to set aside the strummy singer-songwriter model in favor of a more cutting electric style, one that comes across especially well on some of the previously unreleased live tracks and demos on the new release.
Asked who she thought of as her band’s peers at the time, Lane looks genuinely stumped. “Tom Petty,” she says after a pause. “That’s who I thought of. I don’t even know who else. . . . Some people think ‘Send Me an Angel’ [from the Chartbusters’ second album] sounds like Patti Smith.”
But if she was carving a niche for herself, her record label wanted her to fit another kind of mold. Her pregnancy ensured that wouldn’t happen, and the Chartbusters stopped trying to crack the charts.
“I’m not much of a businessperson,” Lane says.
“And you can put that in capital letters,” jokes Pfister. He met Lane decades ago, while he was playing in a band with Joanne Cipolla, Lane’s neighbor, who got a co-writing credit for her contribution to “When Things Go Wrong” (“Oooh, eee, I”). When they met, Pfister says, Lane told him, “You’d be great if you had a different brain.”
“I knew we were going to get along right then,” he says with a laugh.
Lane and her daughter, Evangeline, soon moved to Western Massachusetts, where houses were cheap. (Lately she’s been spending as much time as she can in Los Angeles, where Evangeline has an 18-month-old daughter.)
She kept up a solo career. In 2003, the Chartbusters reunited to cut another record together, including remakes of the unreleased songs that now appear on “Many Years Ago.” A few years ago, Jackson, the Chartbusters’ drummer, made a documentary about the band, and Lane and Pfister have been working at a languid pace on her next solo album. For a visitor, they cue up a lovely acoustic recording called “Dirt Road to Heaven.”
In 2010, Lane started a nonprofit workshop called Songbird Sings, in which she helps trauma survivors recover by teaching them to write their own songs. It took her a long time, she says, to get over an abusive relationship and her own parents’ neglect. “I’ve learned to let things go more,” she says.
Back when she was hanging out with those stoned musicians in Laurel Canyon, they were amused by her tendency to challenge everything. They called her “the genius child,” she recalls, “because I asked questions incessantly.” What did they mean when they said “Everyone is beautiful?” People are in conflict all the time, she thought. It’s not always pretty.
These days, she takes the good with the bad. In early 1967, still a teenager, she went with some friends to San Francisco to attend the original Human Be-In, the gathering that presaged the LSD-saturated Summer of Love. She remembers one of the poets onstage — it was Michael McClure — chanting to soothe the crowd: “This is really it. And it is all perfect.”
Yeah, right, she thought. But all these years later, she wonders: Maybe everything is, in fact, just as it was meant to be.