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Why we love the Modern Lovers, the Pixies, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones

Their unique sounds had an influence far beyond Boston.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones live; Dicky Barrett holds the microphone (top left).  Black  Francis of the Pixies (right); and Jonathan Richman  at Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square in 1984.

Bosstones and Black Francis by Eric Antoniou; Richman by Phil Spring/file

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones live; Dicky Barrett holds the microphone (top left). Black Francis of the Pixies (right); and Jonathan Richman at Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square in 1984.

1. OUR ENDLESS ROMANCE WITH THE MODERN LOVERS

This isn’t exactly what you’d call a recipe for rock band success: The Modern Lovers were together for only four years in the early ’70s. They played at offbeat spots like a Harvard boathouse, the auditorium at Gloucester High School and even the funeral party for country rocker/Harvard dropout Gram Parsons. They never had a manager, rode in a tour bus or even cut a record.

But their simple two-chord thrumming sound influenced seminal punk bands like the Sex Pistols – and found an audience that’s still growing nearly half a century later.

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When 19-year-old singer Jonathan Richman, a Natick native, formed the group in 1970, the Modern Lovers played in front of often-confused audiences, and why wouldn’t they be? The term “proto-punk” hadn’t even been invented yet.

But the Modern Lovers didn’t wallow in the darkness that would envelope punk. Richman’s keen observational eye, sharp wit, and innate positivity would bring an edge of homespun humor to songs like “Government Center” and “Modern World,” the latter advocating for the listeners to “drop out of BU.”

And then, suddenly, it was over. By the time a West Coast independent label packaged some demo songs as the 1976 release The Modern Lovers, Richman had formed a new version of the band and released his own album. Two other members of the band went on to new wave stardom: keyboardist Jerry Harrison to Talking Heads and drummer David Robinson to The Cars.

But it was the original band’s Velvet Underground intensity and Kinks-y pop charm that got airplay on college radio stations like MIT’s WTBS (now WMBR), attention in alt-weeklies like The Boston Phoenix and shelf space at record stores like Mo Levy’s Strawberries.

The suburban celebration that was “Roadrunner,” the sky-high yearning of “Astral Plane,” the art-snob envy of “Pablo Picasso” resonated with outsiders the world over – and all these years later, they still do.

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That the Modern Lovers broke up because Richman decided they needed to make a radical change would become a part of the band’s legend. What could be more punk than rejecting punk before it even really existed?  

 — Sean L. Maloney

2. MAKING PIXIE DUST

The first time the Pixies played the Boston area, back in 1986 at Jack’s in Cambridge (since lost to fire), they suffered a cruel fate — not at the gig itself, but on their tour posters. “They advertised us as ‘The Puxies,’” says guitarist Joey Santiago, laughing. “We were so excited, and then it was like ‘Typo!’” It was a fitting debut for a band that would go on to forge its own chaotic path.

Santiago and his UMass Amherst pal (and fellow dropout) Charles Thompson IV had formed the band the year before. Thompson rechristened himself Black Francis, and bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering entered the fold.

“We were getting very, very, very excited,” recalls Santiago. “At the same time, we worked hard.” That was despite a practice space that literally stank — there was sewage coming out of the pipes. But the space, located in the Fenway, was cheap. While a lot of the other bands that rehearsed in the building seemed to show up mostly to party, they were paying attention to the sounds emanating from the Pixies’ rehearsal room. “I remember coming out and people would just be listening to us and commenting on how good we were sounding,” Santiago says. “We knew we had something — otherwise I would have gone back to college.”

A 1987 demo, the product of a six-day session at the Boston recording hub Fort Apache, got them signed by the tastemaking British label 4AD. The band’s first EP, Come on Pilgrim, was released later that year. Surfer Rosa, the band’s 1988 full-length debut, broke through first to college radio, then to modern-rock listeners enticed by its jagged textures, unexpectedly sticky hooks, and surrealist lyrics. “We basically blew up,” says Santiago. “The album was number one for a while on college radio. . . . We were mid-tour, and all of a sudden, boom, we just hit it. . . . We just started selling out places anyplace we went.”

No less an exalted figure than Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain cited the band’s influence, telling Rolling Stone in 1994 that he “was basically trying to rip off the Pixies” when he penned the early-’90s rallying cry “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By then, the Pixies had been dust for a year. But in 2004 they reformed. Their continued touring (with new bassist Paz Lenchantin) now allows younger alt-nation listeners to discover their boundary-breaking building blocks of music.  

— Maura Johnston

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3. MIGHTY BOSS TUNES

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ pummeling rhythms, chugging guitars, and brass-assisted bounce are a celebration of the city the group loves. “Boston meant everything,” says frontman Dicky Barrett, who grew up in Norwood. “It was our place; it was in our blood.” The extra “s” in the band’s name was “for obvious reasons,” he says, and the double “Mighty” was initially added as a joke on a club promo board.

In 1984, Barrett, a student at Bunker Hill Community College, was in a ska-punk band called the Cheapskates when a kid from Cambridge Rindge and Latin approached him about fronting a new ska band he and his friends were forming. That kid was Joe Gittleman, then 15. Soon he and then 13-year-old guitarist Nate Albert were performing at shows they were too young to attend.

Ultimately an eight-person unit, the Bosstones bashed out a blend of punk, metal, and ska known as “ska-core,” recording on the local independent label Taang! and appearing in an ad for Converse. On New Year’s Eve 1993, they opened for one of Boston’s biggest guns, Aerosmith, at the old Boston Garden. “At that time, it just seemed absolutely insane,” recalls Albert. But now he sees it as a benediction from one made-in-Boston band to another. “It was like ‘These guys are proud of where they’re from and are also giving it back to a local band that’s making noise.’ ”

After that, the Bosstones made an even bigger racket. In 1995, the group was on the main stage at the alt-rock festival Lollapalooza and had a cameo in the Jane Austen-for-teens smash movie Clueless, playing the breakthrough single “Someday I Suppose.” Then came 1997’s Let’s Face It, with its modern-rock hit “The Impression That I Get.” The album went platinum, but the success didn’t spoil them, says Barrett. “It wasn’t like time had passed so much so that you didn’t remember that last year you were playing the Rat.”

They dubbed a 1997 tour Boston on the Road, because it introduced local bands Bim Skala Bim, Amazing Royal Crowns, and Dropkick Murphys to rest of the country. As Aerosmith had introduced the Bosstones to Boston, the Bosstones introduced some Boston up-and-comers to America. “We’re not only showing the country how great our city is,” says Barrett, “we’re out there with our friends. Brilliant.”

Albert left the band in 1999 and is now an executive at Capitol Records. Barrett — whose second is gig is as the announcer for Jimmy Kimmel Live — will lead the group on a tour this summer celebrating the 20th anniversary of Let’s Face It. Brilliant!

— Maura Johnston

Sean L. Maloney contributes to The Boston Globe music section and is author of “33 1/3: The Modern Lovers’ The Modern Lovers.” Maura Johnston is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Bandcamp. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.
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