The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll
By Brett Milano, Commonwealth, 254 pp., $24.95
In the 1980s, the Boston rock scene was an embarrassment of riches. Bands like the Cars, Aerosmith, 'Til Tuesday, the J. Geils Band, and Boston were megastars of the music world, while less commercial Hub acts like Mission of Burma and the Pixies gained devoted underground followings and would influence rock for years. Veteran music critic and Somerville resident Brett Milano has seen it all, and his rocking "The Sound of Our Town" should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding Boston's unique contribution to rock 'n' roll.
All the bands are here, from arena-rock heroes like Boston (whose "More Than a Feeling" remains an unforgettable anthem, though some might prefer to forget it) to underappreciated trailblazers like Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, who were playing great punk rock before the term was invented. Milano's narrative covers a half century, from the late 1950s, when radio DJ Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg would be spinning Elvis records from Somerville High School, to today's take-no-prisoners Celtic punk of the Dropkick Murphys.
The big question for this Boston rock fan is simple but complicated to answer: Is there a distinctive Boston sound, something that unifies all these great bands? What Boston has, and Milano depicts, is a diversity of scenes and attitudes, much of it driven by the constant influx of college students and transplants. This diversity creates a healthy dissonance, as fans on one side of town might worship Dorchester's New Kids on the Block, while those on the other might adore the alt-rocker Pixies.
In the late 1960s, record companies such as MGM attempted to package something they called the Bosstown Sound, which they sought to market as an alternative to San Francisco's popular psychedelic-influenced sound (dominated by the Grateful Dead). Milano shows why it failed. Put simply, the Bosstown Sound was a downer of massive proportions: "A song like the Ultimate Spinach's 'Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess,' " explains Milano regarding a typical Bosstown recording, "with its sitar, finger cymbals, and weighty spoken intro ('See the glazed eyes! Touch the dead skin! Feel the cold lips, and know the warmth of the hip death goddess!') . . . just wouldn't be attempted today."
Milano's vivid description of the punk scene at the Rat is perhaps the highlight of the book. The place was a dump and proud of it: "If you did any rocking in Boston from 1976 through the mid-nineties, it was your dump as well," notes Milano. Then-unknown bands like the Police and R.E.M. would play the Rat alongside punk bands that might assault the audience with sound and possibly beer bottles and fists. The author re-creates the unpredictable scene inside the Rat and also describes the epic Kenmore Square feuds on the sidewalks as would-be John Travoltas leaving the massive disco Narcissus would mix it up with the Rat's Johnny Rotten-loving patrons.
The great and not-so-great Boston bands Milano highlights have had a complicated relationship with fame. After Boston exploded onto FM radio and into stadiums, many local scenesters sneered that the group was a corporate sell-out serving up pompous songs to anesthetized sheep. Yet Milano, who had interviewed Boston lead singer Brad Delp, shows that the North Shore band worked tirelessly, recording tracks in basements and showing profound devotion to the music. Many of the other bands examined here were inarguably great but ill-fated, breaking up before they hit the big time or being let down by record-company mismanagement.
For those who think the Boston music scene is limited to Aerosmith and Aimee Mann, Brett Milano's book will serve as an enlightening history lesson.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.