Graphics by Maeve Huttner and Simru Sonmez-Erbil
By Simru Sonmez-Erbil, WERS Staff Writer
When you think about the music hotspots of the U.S., Los Angeles or Nashville might immediately come to mind – Think again. The East Coast is home to a musical powerhouse; It's called Boston, and it’s bursting with musical history and charisma.
Music is everywhere you go in Boston. Start in Cambridge, take a walk up Mass Ave, and by the time you hit Symphony Hall, you'll have passed four or more different record stores. You could see three shows every night if you wanted to with Boston's abundance of concert venues. I'll bet there are plenty of bands you hear on the radio that you had no idea are from Boston. In this town, the streets are paved with sheet music and guitar picks.
With all the colleges that Greater Boston is home to, it's the ideal incubator for youth movements, and most new musical phenomenons are born out of these youth movements. Over the decades, this city has nurtured countless genres and made them grow, and has always been home to a distinctive scene. We could go back to the sea shanties that sailors sang upon reaching Boston's shore; We could cover the compositions by original New England Conservatory scholars. Let’s start, however, in the ’60s, and take a deep dive into Boston’s musical history and just some of the many bands that were a part of it.
Want to learn more about the current state of the Boston music scene? Check out our series, The Basements of Boston, here!
"Don't Look Back" – The Remains – 1965
In the early and mid-1960s, garage rock was the underground movement spreading throughout the nation. Boston was not exempt from the sensation; The Remains were one of the major, phenomenon-causing garage bands in the city. They met at BU in 1964 and played together for a short two years, but man, those two years packed a punch. "Don't Look Back" has that raw-edged, fuzzy sound that had garage rock aficionados lining up from Kenmore Square to Fenway to catch their act. However, the Boston garage rock scene was hindered from becoming a cohesive "scene." The city lacked the venues and the record labels for the movement to take off, and for Boston to have a place on the musical map. By the late ’60s, all that changed.
"Dark World" – Ill Wind – 1968
Around 1967, San Francisco had become famous for the psychedelic rock sweeping its streets and taking the nation by storm, being labeled the famous "San Francisco Sound." The movement was catching on in Boston, too, this time with venues to back it up. The psychedelic movement's home became South End music hall the Boston Tea Party, which opened at the very start of 1967. Ill Wind headlined Boston's first psychedelic soiree at the Tea Party in June of that year. Ill Wind's sound was a new and revolutionary one, one you can hear on "Dark World": far-out and foggy, with folk roots.
"Can't Find the Time" – Orpheus – 1968
The psychedelic movement was picking up speed in Greater Boston, a worthy competitor for the San Francisco Sound. During this time, these East Coast musicians honed their sound, combining psychedelic instrumentation with a folk structure and a soft pop feel. Of course, any worthy competitor needs a worthy name; Record producer Alan Lorber coined "the Bosstown Sound," marketing Boston as a force to be reckoned with in the psychedelic genre. Orpheus, coming out of Worcester, was a hallmark of the Bosstown Sound and one of the few bands from that scene to achieve chart success. "Can't Find the Time" is three minutes of orchestral bliss with its soaring strings, gentle tambourine, and gliding harmonies.
"Something About You" – Boston – 1976
As the ’60s came to an end, Greater Boston musicians began to return to their hard-rocking roots, drawing inspiration from the times and the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, who visited the city. This influence spawned bands like Aerosmith, The J. Geils Band (originally The J. Geils Blues Band, fronted by WBCN DJ Peter Wolf), and, with the city as their namesake, Boston. As early as 1969, Tom Scholz began writing the music that would become Boston's hits. He kept cranking out that music in a Watertown basement until a label finally picked up the band; They released their self-titled debut in 1976 and major commercial success came knocking on their door. "Something About You" has Boston's signature sublime harmonies and distorted yet melodic guitar riffs that, combined, make for a high-energy masterpiece.
"Modern World" – The Modern Lovers – 1976
Though some Boston-based groups were now topping the charts, there was still no lack of a counterculture in the city. Kenmore Square was home to a punk scene that flourished throughout the ’70s, partly because the rent was cheap in that decade; Musicians could live, work, and create the way they wanted to. The Modern Lovers, led by Natick-born Jonathan Richman, created the beginnings of the Boston punk and new wave sound starting in the early ’70s, inspired by The Velvet Underground. "Modern World" reflects the underground sentiment that swept the Boston punk scene; The lyrics even include references to Boylston Street, Route 9, and BU!
"Loretta" – Nervous Eaters – 1977
The punk clubs around Kenmore Square formed the heart of Boston's alternative music scene. The Nervous Eaters were one of the biggest fixtures on this circuit, especially at legendary venue the Rathskeller. "The Rat" started as a pub – where bands like The Remains would play – before it was converted into a full-fledged punk locale in 1974. The Nervous Eaters released "Loretta" on the Rathskeller label; It's got a partial twelve-bar blues structure behind rebelliously overdriven guitars and gritty vocals. Though it deserves more reception than it gets, Boston punk mostly stayed in Boston. Producers were aiming to water down these bands' gritty sound to make it commercial-friendly, which didn't jive with the punk spirit.
"Running to You" – The Cars – 1980
The Cars, however, brought the underground Boston sound to the world. Having started out playing venues like the Rat, they became one of the U.S.A.'s most notable new wave acts. You could often find them jamming with Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers in the ’70s; They were a staple of Boston's new wave sound before they were a staple of Live Aid. The Cars' recording career started in 1978, with their first two albums giving them great chart success. "Running to You" is off of their third, more experimental album, Panorama; You can hear at its core the feel that filled Boston's music halls, with the addition of the new technology that shapes their post-punk sound.
"Mr. Telephone Man" – New Edition – 1984
R&B in Boston is much-overlooked, though it shouldn't be. The members of New Edition came from rough beginnings in the projects in Roxbury before rising up using their musical talent. It was at a talent night at the Strand Theatre that major R&B producer Maurice Starr discovered New Edition; He later brought New Kids On The Block into the spotlight. Starr gave New Edition the chance to record their debut album, Candy Girl. "Mr. Telephone Man" comes from their second, self-titled album and features the smoothest of harmonies, an infectious rhythm, and top-notch vocals provided by the five-piece band. Some say that R&B and hip-hop in Boston haven't flourished because of the reluctance of smaller venues to book hip-hop acts. There's still work to be done in giving hip-hop the place it deserves in Boston's culture.
"The Holiday Song" – Pixies – 1987
Alternative music has been a mainstay in Boston since the beginning, and in the ’80s and throughout the ’90s, the city became an alternative rock haven that would make even Seattle turn pale. Long gone were the days of musical unimpressiveness in this town; Boston was well-known as a rock 'n roll kind of place, and music fans would flock there to hear the new sounds local musicians were making. The Pixies started as UMass Amherst dropouts and ended up alt-rock sensations. "The Holiday Song" has a hard-driving tune and dark theme masked by an unassuming title; It comes from the Pixies' debut mini-LP, Come On Pilgrim.
There's more where that alt-rock paradise came from in Boston's future! Read part 2 of this deep dive into the city's musical history here.
"Visions of Your Reality" – Ultimate Spinach (1968)
"Green Destroys the Gold" – Beacon Street Union (1968)
"Give It To Me" – The J. Geils Band (1973)
"Better Be Good" – The Real Kids (1977)
"Don't Watch Me Bleed" – 'Til Tuesday (1985)
"We're Notorious" – The Almighty RSO Crew (1988)