As millenials (like me) are learning in these increasingly nostalgia-hungry times, Boston was insanely different in the 1970s. From the crap economy, to Vietnam shock, to the Nixon presidency, and so on.
Add middle-class (read: white) flight to that mix in the wake of court-ordered busing, and you have a city riddled with hostility, arguably in crisis. Yet despite those conditions, or perhaps largely because of them, various new fascinating subcultures took root, and in many cases channeled problems of the era into powerful and memorable music.
Boston rock has always had its heroes in the limelight—Aerosmith, the Cars, you know all the big names. But bubbling below the mainstream, the city’s punk scene and its offshoots had famously unique cult followings that speak to what was popping in the clubs back then. Most subterranean icons never got much recognition in their day, but there have been some consolations in the decades since, in part thanks to the hard work of Chris Parcellin and Lenny Scolletta and their film, Boys From Nowhere: The Story of Boston’s Garage Punk Uprising.
With said intimate look at the nuances of grassroots local rock, complete with input from the circuit’s esteemed veterans, set to screen at the Regent Theatre in Arlington on Nov 10 with a question and answer period to follow, we took the liberty of beginning the inquiry.
What got you into this project? What were some goals and motivations behind the documentary?
LS: I got into the scene in ’77. I was a drummer for some local bands and actually opened up for the Real Kids at the Rat. After seeing them, I always wondered why they never broke out nationally. They always had a fanbase in Europe where they could tour, and groups like Blondie and the Ramones down in CBGB were getting good deals.
I had worked in the field doing public access stuff, so I knew how to be a camera guy. I thought, Would someone like me be able to get this together? I had a camera and some experience, so I figured why not at least reach out to the bands. [Parcellanris] reached out to them, the response was good, and one thing kinda just led to another. We set up as many interviews as possible. I really wanted to get to the bottom of this question that had been lingering in my head as to why these bands fizzled out when they were such great musicians.
CP: My older brother went to see the bands at local clubs, so I heard them through him when I was about 13 or so. I remember thinking how different the sound was from what was on the radio. It was new and refreshing to hear local musicians with such a passion for the sound. I think what I wanted to accomplish was to show how the bands weren’t getting the appreciation they deserved. They had been forgotten in time and they made some great music, a lot of which can still be heard and enjoyed today. …
New York is a national media center. Boston became a secondary market to all that. Boston bands always needed to work a little harder to get that national coverage, and these bands just weren’t in it for the fame, they had no desire to put out number one hits, they did what they wanted to do, which was to show Boston a good time and foster the scene.
Were the musicians and groups easy to get in contact with? They must have been scattered.
CP: It definitely was difficult. Some of the guys didn’t want to talk—understandably, too, considering we had no track record. They thought, Who the hell are these guys? I have to credit Rick Harte [of Ace of Hearts Records] because he helped communicate to them that we were legit and just wanted to celebrate the music. I ran into him at a Classic Ruins show so I interviewed him and we spoke a bit. He saw that we were in this for the right reasons.
The scene was plagued by unfortunate circumstances that ultimately led to the lack of widespread attention. What would would you say contributed to that?
LS: Sire Records was signing the bulk of the bands like DMZ and the Nervous Eaters. What was so strange about it was how much better of a grip they had on the New York sound. The producers just weren’t matching up and the bands were so happy to get signed that they kinda just went along with it.
They weren’t given enough creative control. They were victims of the industry. The producers … wanted something to throw on the radio, but what they didn’t realize is these bands were the antithesis of that marketable sound. Maybe if the ball had got rolling they’d have been able to produce better recording in the future. It wasn’t until they started pressing their own records that they finally captured what they were going for. Had Ace of Hearts been a major label, things would be much different.
CP: There was never a lack of interest locally, but so many intangibles can go wrong. They weren’t given enough say in the final product, ultimately. That’s one of the unfortunate parts of being in a band, ya know, even down to the album covers. It comes with the territory, never getting that big, it does. What’s unfortunate here is these bands were so good.
Legendary Kenmore Square club the Rat was obviously a major part of this, but what were some other memorable places to see the music?
LS: There was Cantone’s on Broad Street, which was more of a divey place. A lot were centrally located—there was Storyville, a lot of bands played there, and the Channel. These venues usually didn’t last very long, unfortunately. The Channel was good because bands on the way up were playing there along with bands on the way down, and they could fill up the place. Now it’s a parking lot by South Station. Another great place was Chet’s Last Call in the West End; I saw the Ramones there.
CP: I think WBCN is important to mention here. While it wasn’t a venue, it played a hugely important role in the scene in terms of radio broadcasting. WBCN had always played alternative music. Charles Laquidara came through in the ’70s and … they were doing stuff other stations just wouldn’t do, and from there played local bands religiously. From there, stations like WERS, Emerson’s station, played local shows that widened the audience. The main college stations didn’t play big Top 40.
What were some of the contributing factors to the Rat’s doors closing?
LS: By ’97, the scene was done, and no one took the torch. There just wasn’t the same type of community with the regulars and all that.
CP: As the local revenue got harder to generate, people weren’t as apt to seeing live shows as they used to.
Boston wasn’t a pretty place to be at the time. Do you think the music was a response to that?
LS: Yeah—’77 and ’78 were tough times musically, with punk and disco getting big followings that were part of such different sounds. I had a record store in Malden and was selling a lot of those local records. I think it helped that I was right down the street from the high school. The kids would come in for the local music and would ask me where they could see them play as I played them in the store. From there they’d go see the bands at the Rat and such, and the energy was infectious. The city was just so much different, it’s almost unfeasible that it used to be like that. The fanbase was just so passionate.
CP: Well, the drinking age was 18, so younger kids could go see the music. There weren’t as many distractions back then. Today with the internet it’s less of a big deal when you hear about a show or a band because it’s so oversaturated. There was more mystique because you couldn’t just check out the band online beforehand.
What hindered the movement, if anything?
LS: The hate came from misunderstanding because it didn’t sound like the status quo, but it was so influential on the sound to come. It became mainstream from London and New York bands, but our unique Boston sound wasn’t received well. The progress was a lot like hip-hop, it just took awhile for it to stick.
CP: There was definitely a culture clash between locals who didn’t seem to understand what was going on. It was something new that didn’t sit well. The disco fans felt infringed upon, especially because that big disco club Narcissus was right across the street from the Rat, and punk just didn’t mix well in the era of Saturday Night Fever. … There were a lot of fights between the punks and the disco fans. It got pretty violent at times.
Check out the next screening of The Boys From Nowhere at the Cabot Theater in Beverly on Nov 10th and at the Regent Theater in Arlington on Nov 16.
This throwback is a collaboration between Dirty Old Boston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and DigBoston. For more throwbacks, visit facebook.com/dirtyoldboston and binjonline.org.