Boston’s built on a marsh, but it sure feels founded on rock. Like the squeal of the trolley coming around the bend at Boylston or the roar from the stands at Fenway, there’s just something about distortion and drums that channel the spirit of this city. Here’s how it started.
By the closing strums of the ’60s, Boston was making a name for itself in rock circles, and not just for its “Dirty Water” (besides, the Standells were from LA, for Pete Wolf’s sake). Its burgeoning rock scene was just starting to drown out the town’s stubborn rep for heartfelt folk and far-out psych. (Remember Ultimate Spinach? No?) Protean garage bands like The Lost and The Remains (who opened for the Beatles) set the stage for basement-packing, speaker-blowing rock history in the making — all happening inside a city that was changing just as hard and fast.
Put in your earbuds — better yet, dust off your turntable — and let the memories roll.
MORE THAN A FEELING: THE 1970s
In a way, a folk venue started the Boston rock scene. At Club 47 (now Passim) in the summer of 1966, three Worcester Polytechnic dropouts saw Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf play and decided to form the then J. Geils Blues Band. The next year, Geils, harmonica player Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz, and bassist Danny Klein took a house in Inman Square and started jamming into the night. Joined by the shaded and fast-talking Peter Wolf — a sometime WBCN DJ whose own psychedelic blues band the Hallucinations had just broken up — they became known around town for intense live shows, which the nation got a taste of on the band’s 1972 live album Full House.
Across town, big noise was coming from five rough-and-tumble rockers blasting at a crash pad at 1325 Commonwealth Ave. Drawing musically from heavy English blues-rock and visually from the emerging Bowie/New York Dolls glitter scene, Aerosmith was as flashy as anyone around. After their first gig in November 1970, at Upton’s Nipmuc Regional High School, Aerosmith played every high school, country club, or frat party that would have them. By 1973, they’d proved that Boston rock ’n’ rollers could be as streetwise and hardscrabble as anyone’s. A review in Detroit’s tougher-than-thou Creem magazine said it all: “These guys played my neighborhood and they’re still alive, so what are you waiting for?”
Over on Cambridge Common, the Saturday afternoon scene might include a doe-eyed guy fronting a scruffy band and urging you to “put down your cigarette and drop out of BU.” That was the eternally lovelorn Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, playing punk rock before anyone knew what to call it. They showed their local roots proudly: Their anthem (and future candidate for official state song) “Roadrunner” saluted the joys of driving down Route 128 with the radio on.
Out in Watertown, Boston, the band that would become synonymous with “arena rock,” worked in much closer quarters. Guitarist/gearhead Tom Scholz and singer Brad Delp constructed their grandiose sound on a 12-track machine at a jerry-built studio in the basement of Scholz’s house. Initially rejected by every label (including the one that ultimately released it), the band’s self-titled 1976 debut became the album that wouldn’t stop selling — even 40 years later.
The band named for the city never liked the local vibe. “The Boston music scene to me was the clique-iest and nastiest I’ve ever seen,” Scholz says. But as a teenager in Toledo, Ohio, on a clear night he could tune in WBZ, which “played all those Boston Sound bands — Ultimate Spinach, the Improper Bostonians — and the English bands like the Who and the Yardbirds. That’s what started my loving rock ’n’ roll, and that’s the real reason I picked the name Boston.”
Others loved the scene. Guitarist Curt Naihersey, a.k.a. Mr. Curt, played in bands from punk to “ambient-jazz-jam-experimental” to his best-known, the art pop band Pastiche, once praised by the Globe as “the best local band to never make it.” He mentored hundreds of local musicians. The Rathskeller, opened in 1974, fascinated Los Angeles transplant Robin Lane, who loved LA's music scene. “What I heard in Boston gave me the same excitement,” she says. She recruited some ex-Modern Lovers and formed Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, whose “When Things Go Wrong” was played on MTV's very first day in 1981 (other Boston bands played that day were The Cars and The J. Geils Band).
Rat owner Jim Harold says “we happened because of disco. How was I going to compete with that? I had a basement club and no disco ball.” What he had was space for 350 that became a focal point for Boston’s punk and new wave scene, with multiple bands playing each night and unknowns getting a chance onstage. If a band knew how to put on a show — like ex-Lost frontman Willie Alexander’s wildman Boom Boom Band — they could draw a crowd to the Rat. If they had a great song — like the Lyres’ organ-driven pounder “Don’t Give It Up Now,” the Neighborhoods’ swaggering “Prettiest Girl,” or the Real Kids’ lust-driven “All Kindsa Girls” — they could get some beer money, local airplay, and a national tour.
These cuts defined the Boston “garage” sound, keyed to punkish energy and catchy hooks. But Boston was more than punk: People passed around locally produced tapes showcasing the European style, synthesizers, and cool irony of The Cars on songs like “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed,” which sounded good enough to land them on Elektra. The wildly influential Mission of Burma built on the garage sound by adding a sense of adventure and musical confrontation, plus tricky arrangements. “Even though the scene was oriented toward the garage side of punk rock, there was a built-in art-damage/prog/weirdo vibe that was growing, too,” recalls Burma drummer Peter Prescott. “And we all wanted loud guitars.”
SHAKE IT UP: THE 1980s
By the early ’80s, rock ’n’ roll was a full-fledged Boston industry. If a band played a hot new song at the Rat or the Channel, a local label like Ace of Hearts or Modern Method might release it. You could hear it on WBCN or WFNX, read about it in Boston Rock magazine, dance to it at Spit on Lansdowne Street, and buy it at Newbury Comics — where the register might be manned by Aimee Mann herself, a Berklee dropout whose own band, ’Til Tuesday, was gaining momentum.
’Til Tuesday was one of Boston’s success stories — and with the photogenic Mann upfront, the band was one of Boston’s first MTV stars with 1985’s “Voices Carry.” Its elegant sound wasn’t typical of Boston — but then, the city’s music scene was growing in every direction. Alternative country was a good decade down the road, but well ahead of the herd were the Del Fuegos and Scruffy the Cat. Fellow roots lovers Treat Her Right rocked the blues, and Barrence Whitfield wailed some wild R&B. The Neats were big on muttered lyrics and jangly guitar sounds about a year before R.E.M. got the same idea.
Some of the new breed were tougher to categorize. Everything about Throwing Muses was startlingly different: the name, the intensity of its two frontwomen, stepsisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, the angular rhythms and quirky harmonies — and all four members were under 20 when they arrived in town from Newport, Rhode Island, in 1985. Opening many of their early shows were the Pixies, migrants from UMass Amherst who also loved a throat-tearing vocal, a surreal lyric, and a jagged guitar lick. Both were instantly loved in the UK, base for record label 4AD, which signed them.
The decade-closing breakthrough came from a completely unexpected corner. Brothers Maurice Starr and Michael Jonzun were Floridians living in Roxbury who saw themselves as old-fashioned star makers and lived up to it by discovering New Edition in 1982. After Jonzun produced Peter Wolf’s solo debut and had hits with his Jonzun Crew, Starr took the reins and started telling people his next group would be a new Osmond Brothers — white kids who could go over big in black neighborhoods — and that they’d be stars. People thought he was nuts, and it turned out he was wrong about the crossover appeal. But by 1989, barely three years after debuting at a Dorchester tennis club, the New Kids on the Block had three Top 10 singles and a screaming teenage fan base. The boy-band era was upon us, and you can credit (or blame) Boston for that one.
CURE FOR PAIN: THE 1990s
In the early 1990s, big-time A&R execs were hanging out at the Rat, hoping to catch the next big thing before everyone else did. The word was out that Boston was chock-full of rock stars waiting to be discovered, and after Seattle’s Nirvana released the game-changing Nevermind in 1992, record-label honchos carrying checkbooks crowded into known rock ’n’ roll cities like Boston. “Suddenly, it felt like we wouldn’t have to work day jobs anymore,” recalls Bill Janovitz, whose band Buffalo Tom, formed at UMass Amherst, had its first national hit in 1992 with “Taillights Fade.” R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction had already proved that “alternative rock” could sell, but after Nirvana, the sky seemed the limit. “There we were, three regular schlubs from Boston, being taken shopping on Rodeo Drive,” Janovitz recalls. “It became a matter of record labels saying, ‘How do we spend money stupidly?’ ” His band stuck with indie label Beggars Banquet for most of the decade.
If the industry wanted left-of-center bands, Boston was glad to oblige. Before leader Black Francis dissolved the band (by fax, no less) in 1992, the Pixies were respected enough that U2 had them open a tour and David Bowie covered them on two separate albums. Francis, now Frank Black, released a remarkably diverse batch of solo albums, though bassist/singer Kim Deal hit post-breakup success first with The Breeders, formed with Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses, and their surf-rocker “Cannonball.”
Before “Cannonball” hit, Donelly had left to start Belly, which scored with the mysterious “Feed the Tree,” earning a Rolling Stone cover story and two Grammy nominations. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who were as Boston as a band could get, took their hard-core sound, added horns, and embraced ska, yielding 1997’s instant hit “The Impression That I Get.” In a time when the soulfully wasted look was in, the Lemonheads’ leader, Evan Dando, became a full-fledged sex symbol. And the Lemonheads’ sometime bassist Juliana Hatfield was not only winning raves for her own trio, the Juliana Hatfield Three, but taking a memorable turn as a homeless angel on My So-Called Life, the TV show of choice for angst-ridden Gen Xers.
These bands gave one another unusual support, says Nate Albert, Bosstones co-founder and guitarist until 1999. “They were rooting for you because you were from Boston,” he says, “even if the genre was completely different.”
Industry eyes were so trained on Boston that Chris Blackwell — the Island Records owner who’d previously signed U2 — personally came to the Rat to sign Tracy Bonham, a punkish singer/violinist with a single local hit, “Mother Mother.” Warner Bros. gave spiky songwriter Jennifer Trynin a cool million for Squint Records, the label she’d started in her living room with herself as the only artist. Not every breakthrough was a surprise: With a sparkling pop sound and a charismatic frontwoman in Kay Hanley, Letters to Cleo would probably have hit in any decade.
As the decade wound down, the scene was migrating across the river to Cambridge, a move that accelerated after the Rat closed its doors in 1997. The twin hot spots of the Middle East and T.T. the Bear’s Place made Central Square the center of clubdom, thanks partly to the efforts of the late indie promoter and seemingly inexhaustible scene-booster Billy Ruane. Up the Red Line not far from the Davis Square stop was Fort Apache, the Camp Street recording studio where bands could get a world-class, live-sounding album without going broke. Along with national acts like Hole and Radiohead, it produced dozens of local releases.
One of the greatest Fort Apache-associated bands, Cambridge’s Morphine, didn’t have a genre, so they made up their own: “low rock.” The Newton-bred frontman Mark Sandman, formerly of Treat Her Right, played a two-string bass — as he’d tirelessly explain, they both had all the notes on them — and the only other instruments were baritone sax and drums. But with the band’s swaggering groove and Sandman’s impeccably hip songs, not to mention his good looks, there wasn’t a lot missing. At the band’s height, Sandman suffered a fatal heart attack onstage in Palestrina, Italy, on July 3, 1999.
But carrying on the scene were, among others, a punk band who discovered Irish music and took their moniker from a professional wrestler turned alcohol sanatorium owner (last name Murphy), and performance artist Amanda Palmer, who raised eyebrows as a living bride statue in Harvard Square and pulses as the singer/songwriter for the Dresden Dolls.
Brett Milano, a former Boston Globe music writer, is a Boston-based journalist and author of the Boston rock history “The Sound of Our Town.” Michael Andor Brodeur and Mark Pothier contributed to this piece. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.