Britain/Boston/Influence?: How The Snake Bites Its Own Tail
Written by Pat MacDonald from The Hush Now
The other day a good friend of mine asked me the question "How did Brit pop influence The Boston music scene?" I grew up here and have been playing in Boston bands since I was 15/16 That got me thinking. Yes, in the early 90s there was a fair amount of bands in Boston that were smitten with the likes of The Stone Roses, The Smiths, The Clash, and The Jam. By the mid to late 90s kids learning their first songs were not reaching for The Complete Beatles Songbook like my friends and I did in the early 8's. Pouring over the changes to 'Drive my Car' and trying to figure out that first chord in 'Hard Days Night' (It's just hitting all the strings and not touching the neck) Now they were learning from the pages of the (What's the Story) Morning Glory songbook or the hip ones it might have been Blur's Parklife.
With that being said, looking at it from a historical perspective, I noticed that music from either side of the Atlantic seems to influence each other.
Now some bands, to my ears, are distinctly American sounding and some distinctly British sounding; whether it's the kitchen sink dramas of The Kinks or Blur, or the windswept longing of Wilco or Drive by Truckers. Yet the four bands just mentioned still have a bit of the opposite side of the Atlantic in them as well. Especially when you get to the self-titled album by Blur. You know, the one with 'Song 2'. That is where this question trips me up. Who really influenced who? And does it matter?
It's pretty much common knowledge at this point in time, when The Beatles broke in the states in 1963 a percentage of the male population of a certain age thought being in a rock band seemed like a viable option. If not for anything else, just a way to meet cute girls. "Dang Billy! Did you see all those screaming girls on the Ed Sullivan show? I'm getting a guitar." At the same time the older boys who already knew how to play and were around the same age as those lads in the Fab 4 were finishing high school and heading off to College/University. Out of the hallowed halls of Boston University came one of the best, if not the best of that time period, the band that almost made it - The Remains. They were a cross between The Beatles and The Zombies but with a bit of that Stones swagger. Their hit 'Why Do I Cry' was a stomper. They also had the honor of being the band that opened for The Beatles on their final tour in 1966.
I know I just mentioned three British bands to describe the sound of The Remains but the bands in question all pretty much had the same influences - R&B, Motown, Girl Groups... Sooooo. There were some other fine Boston groups of the time The Barbarians with their hit 'Are You A Boy Or A Girl'. And there were others like Ultimate Spinach, Orpheus, and Beacon Street Union. Some marketing schmuck decided to put these bands under the blanket term "The Bosstown Sound". Lets say that didn't last long. And that's a good thing.
Now as we skirt the edges of this rabbit hole we can talk of my all time favorite era, the 1970s. I'm of the age that the 70s were the time I feel I missed out on, not unlike the people younger than I who ask me about the early 90s.
- Coworker: You saw Nirvana at a CLUB??
- Me: Yea I saw them at Axis in September 1991. I was 23
- Coworker: AWWWW Man!!!
Now this was the same conversation I had with my High School English teacher in 1985, who by the way was one amazing lady.
- Me: You saw Led Zeppelin at a CLUB?
- Teacher: Yes I saw the at The Boston Tea Party in 1969.
- Me:AWWWW Man!!
At this point we had almost 10 years in the states with such an influx of British pop/rock so the gene pool is starting to get a little deeper. This will help as we bounce back and forth across the pond. The Kinks, The Who, Small Faces, The Move, The Animals, Faces, The Yardbirds, David Bowie, Humble Pie, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd ... The list goes on. Now there is a reason I picked these bands and here's where the back and forth gets going because most of these bands had songs I would consider to be more British than American. I say that because some "Music Hall" had crept in.
Now Music Hall is not really a form of music but more a form of entertainment (dancers, singers, comedians) that came about in England in the 1850s and lasted into the 1960s. I use it as a shorthand to describe songs such as 'When I'm 64' or 'Lazy Sunday' by The Small Faces, 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion' by the Kinks or 'Cherry Blossom Clinic' by The Move.
Songs one and all that hark back to a different time and are altogether British. This will make sense when we get to the 80s and 90s so just keep your heads and hold on. All around the western world in the late 60s and early 70s the pants got wider and the hair got longer. The weed was stronger and the girls hair so much longer. The African American influence was still very strong in the bands mentioned and that influenced a lot of Boston bands that had The Beatles in the back pocket, but were really digging the sounds of The Yardbirds or The Move or Cream. Thus begat the one band that held the Brit and American influence proudly on there sleeve. Aerosmith we're as enamored with The Yardbirds as much as The White Album.
They had the the American delta blues, shake yer ass quotients: American. As well as the pop sensibility of The Beatles with the sleaze of 70s Stones and a tad of the epic of the mighty Zep! So they win on both counts. Not to sound stuck up, but let it be known when I speak of Aerosmith I'm speaking of the first six albums... that's important. At the same time in Boston you had amazing bands like The Real Kids sprouting up like some diseased mushroom. They had an all together different, but not that different take on the same ingredients. I guess we could call them Pre-Punk the same as the New York Dolls were with out all the mascara and high heels. They were more of the Denim Jacket and hungover eyes ilk. Stones swagger with the big hooky courses of any good Beatles track but with the "I will punch you in the face," TUDE!
They were beautifully ramshackle in the best fucking way. Now for my money one of the best of the 1970s bands from Boston who fit the bill when it comes to the mix of English/American is a band called The Atlantics. Formed in the winter of 1976 and already playing clubs by that spring including opening up for The Ramones in May of that year. They had Beatles harmonies but with this muscular, dark, energetic almost proto-punk sound and all the time still shot thru the prism of the early 60s beat groups. The songs 'Lonelyhearts', 'Wrong Number', and 'Pop Shivers' for my money are some of the best chunks of rock gold of that time, and that includes the first Cars album. They also had for my money one of the best vocalists of the time in the form of Bobby Marron who at times could sound sweet and innocent (a real heartbreaker), sometimes a little like Bryan Ferry and on the drop of a hat sound almost like an Eric Burdon blues shouter - just listen to the last few choruses of 'Lonleyhearts'.
By the dawn of the 80s the gene pool is getting deep enough you could scuba dive in it. In the wake of the punk explosion on both sides of the pond a whole new world opened up. Boston finally had its first alternative radio station in the form of WFNX (started in 1983) in conjunction with our local alternative arts weekly 'The Boston Phoenix'. All of sudden you could hear The Cure (the first song played on the station was "Lets Go To Bed') Depeche Mode, David Bowie, Joy Division, The Clash, The Jam, Sex Pistols, Blondie, Siouxie & the Banshees, Talking Heads, Devo, The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, and in the case of David Bowie, not just the hits. They were playing all that strange stuff off the second side of Low. This, along with WBCN which started as a free form station in the late 60s and one of the first FM rock stations in the country, helped break bands in the states, such as the "soon to be filling up arenas" bands, such as U2 and The Police.
The great part is you could hear all this during the day and not have to wait for some specialty show on a local college station. So for a suburban kid like myself (truth be told, I was not brought up in Boston proper. I grew up about a half-hour north of the city) it was a revelation. It also helped breed these strange mixes of music now that we had 30 odd years of rock and roll and all these other genres mixing in with it. Wether that be The Clash or The Police throwing in reggae, or mixing the icy synth stuff of "No Pussyfooting" Brian Eno with the dark detachment of Jim Morrison fused with the rush of punk as with Joy Division. For this 13-year-old it was seriously exciting. Hell, in 1986 my friends and I were snotty little metal heads that switched between Slayer's Reign in Blood and The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead. For the purist that might seem like some kind of heresy, but we didn't know any better. I remember listening to Yes' Close to The Edge followed by my friend Steve's copy of The Record by Fear.
At this point in this rambling exercise of trying get this out of my head, I can say for myself personally all the British bands were a big influence on me as a musician, just as it was with the 60s and 70s bands. I readily admit to being a huge Anglophile when it comes to music and pop culture. But I'm still seeing a back and forth between British and American rock. For instance look at The Jam and the whole reawakening of the Mod movement in the mid to late 70s. the look of it is distinctly British but the music they listened to was a whole lot of American Soul and R&B. Just ask Paul Weller, he'll tell ya! So the Ouroboros comes into play. The ancient image of the snake biting its tail in the form of a circle to signify eternity.
That's what I keep seeing as I type this with shaking hands (to much coffee) - just a healthy creative back and forth. Now I could and just might write full pieces on my undying love for bands such as Radiohead, The Verve, Blur, or My Bloody Valentine or point out that in the 90s Kurt Cobain once described Nirvana as a cross between The Beatles and Black Flag or was that Black Sabbath? Or how in 1996 I cut my shoulder length hair (post grunge) into a fine Mod cut and was only really rocking to anything that was coming out in England. Either way it's the Brit/Yank continuum all over again. Blur was smitten with Forever Changes by Love as much as we were by Parklife.
P.S. I would like to keep going, but head is going to explode. But I missed a few Boston bands that if you feel so inclined should be heard if you haven't already. Big Dipper, O-Positive, Dumptruck, Volcano Suns, The Pills, Fooled by April, The Shods, The Gravel Pit, Permafrost, and there are many more. I'm not going for the usual suspects like The Pixies because I'm pretty sure a good portion of English music fans are familiar with this American band.
The Hush Now's new album, Memos, is out now. You can visit the band by heading here.