Boston Rock City: How the Humble City on a Hill Finally Became a Music Mecca in the 1970s

Boston Rock City? Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

When one thinks of cities with musical legacies in the United States, there are a few obvious choices. Memphis, with the ghosts of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and WC Handy hanging over it, while Al Green presides as the musical reverend, often battles it out with New Orleans, a city where its international airport is named after jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and New York, the cultural capitals on opposite coasts, are obvious contenders, and nobody can forget Detroit, with Motown, Aretha Franklin and rock legends like Bob Seger and Iggy Pop, or Nashville, the capital of country music. One city that often is perennially overlooked is Boston, a small, charming college town with an illustrious history. It is a city famous for its firsts- first phone call, first subway etc., but arguably Boston´s most renowned musical contribution is the Berklee College of Music.

Despite this, there have been a number of popular and influential acts from Beantown, and for one glorious decade, bands from Boston (and even one named for the city) were suddenly everywhere. After a decade as an also-ran, Boston was suddenly an epicenter of American popular music, just as the city was experiencing its most socially tumultuous era. This is its story.

The Failed Bosstown Sound and Other Pre-70s Follies

Before Silicon Valley, the City by the Bay was known for its sound by Casey Horner on Unsplash

In the 1960s, there were a handful of musical cities that controlled the airwaves. Soul music, both in the gritty, horns-drenched style of Stax in Memphis or the poppy, radio-ready mold perfected by Berry Gordy in The Motor City, reached its peak in the swinging decade, as epitomized by these culturally distinct cities (even if two of the kings of the genre, Otis Redding and James Brown, hailed from unassuming Macon, GA.) Psychedelic or so-called acid rock, the kind of music that made hippies swoon and soundtracked an era, hailed from two ¨groovy¨ metropolises in California- Los Angeles and San Francisco. While the much-derided L.A. could boast the likes of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Doors, the sheer, diverse talent on display in ¨San Fran¨ and the adjacent Bay Area was mind-boggling; Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother & The Holding Company (with front woman Janis Joplin), Santana, Sly & The Family Stone, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others.

San Francisco further established its firm hold on the countercultural music scene with the publication of Rolling Stone in the autumn of 1967, which would be published in the foggy city before moving to Manhattan a decade later. Boston, with its shaggy college town vibe and coastal setting, seemed to be a perfect East-Coast rival for the throne as a hippie mecca. However, its attempt to do so to this day is considered to be one of the most pitiful failures in marketing and modern musical history alike. Fueled primarily by MGM Records, which signed several up-and-coming local groups with psychedelic leanings, among them Orpheus, Beacon Street Union, and Ultimate Spinach, promoters worked in overdrive to transform the hyped ¨Bosstown¨ style into a legitimate contender to San Francisco´s crown.

Immaterial to the talent involved, none of the groups even came close to being as nationally popular as Jefferson Airplane or CCR, and it is likely that the over-zealous campaign doomed bands that could have at least been as well-known, as say, Country Joe & The Fish, a second-tier SF psychedelic band that still managed to perform a stand-out set at Woodstock.

Instead, the Boston bands failed to make a name for themselves beyond local shores, and the then-heavily San Fran-associated Rolling Stone was especially brutal in its assessment. As a result, the short-lived would be-musical movement simply faded away.

How New York Legends Led to a Cult Boston Rock Icon

Although these Boston-bred bands did not manage to rocket up the Billboard charts, the city was still a top-destination for touring musicians, especially in the legendary club the Boston Tea Party, a Vietnam-era haunt almost as indispensable as L.A.´s Whiskey a Go Go or the Fillmore East and West, respectively located in New York and San Francisco. Led Zeppelin famously made their U.S. live debut there, and almost every prominent group of the era made a stop at the Beantown venue. One band who would eventually be considered one of the prototypical acts of a whole new genre of music, but at the time was soundly ignored even in their home base of Manhattan, was The Velvet Underground, who found a surprisingly more hospitable audience in Boston and its ¨far-out¨ tea party.

One young man who was obviously impressed by the Velvets´ area shows was a wordy, precocious Bostonian named Jonathan Richman, who was so smitten with the band that he contacted original VU bassist John Cale to produce clearly Velvet-inspired demos with his Boston group The Modern Lovers.

The demos were recorded in 1972, yet did not see the light until 1976. This was the year ¨Punk¨ officially broke thanks to the classic debut album of The Ramones, and The Modern Lovers´ debut shared this innovative attitude and sound, even if did not pare down rock to 2 minute riff-blasts like the erstwhile Queens outfit. The bridge between the experimental likes of VU and Michigan´s Stooges and MC5 and the full-fledged punk-rock of the Ramones and Sex Pistols (who would cover the Modern Lovers´ signature tune ¨Roadrunner¨), Richman and his scrappy Boston group managed to display their own sound. Richman´s uniquely adenoidal and almost British phrasing meshed with the willfully naive and honest lyrics, peppering in a plethora of local Bostonian in-jokes and references. Meanwhile, his band ground out chugging, organ-accented garage rock by the dozen. The album remains an all-time cult classic, veering from the satirical, bouncy ¨Government Center,¨which skewered local bureaucracy, to the yearning ¨Girlfriend¨ and haunting ¨Hospital,¨the LP remains a gem for awkward teenagers everywhere, from Boston to Boise.

Blues Rock Finds an Unlikely Hub in Boston

After the likes of the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, it seemed like hard-edged, blues-based rock was the province of the UK. In the early 70s emerged two groups, the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith, who undoubtedly were influenced by these aforementioned acts, but found in Beantown a home for American style blues-rock. In the case of the latter band, their popularity and influence would eventually rival their limey predecessors.

Former Boston DJ turned frontman Peter Wolf

The J. Geils Band were actually originally formed in the central Massachusetts college town of Worcester, but soon developed their niche in the Boston scene. Formed in the late 60s and really hitting their stride at the dawn of the 70s, the band was a raw, hungry blues-rock act in an era full of them. Despite this, they managed to stand out due to their intense live shows, lead singer Peter Wolf´s colorful improvisations, namesake guitarist Geils´ heartfelt riffing, and the Chicago blues-inspired harmonica of ¨Magic Dick.¨

Early albums concocted in the studio failed to capture their on-stage prowess, and therefore naturally it was 1972´s live recording ¨Full House¨ that introduced them to a larger audience. Meanwhile, Wolf moonlighted as a DJ on the ultra-influential local radio station WBCN, taking his nonsensical rants on the air. For the remainder of the decade, the J. Geils Band were local heroes and word-of-mouth cult-sensations across the country.

Suddenly, in 1981 they became full-blown pop stars thanks to the radio-friendly album Freeze-Frame and the uber-catchy smash hit ¨Centerfold.¨ Soon after this mainstream breakthrough, the band faded away, yet over the years they popped up from time to time, while Wolf remains a living rock legend. Geils sadly passed away in 2017, but the group´s legacy lives on.

If there were ever a band to transcend being a mere Boston band or even a great American rock band, it would be Aerosmith. Coming on the scene in the early 1970s, flamboyant, big-lipped frontman Steven Tyler and ¨bad boy¨ guitarist Joe Perry seemed like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards clones, respectively, and their raunchy, bluesy hard-rock was undeniably Stones-inspired. Despite this, by the mid-70s, Aerosmith briefly arguably surpassed the Stones´ popularity with two back-to-back classic albums, while they became one of the decades´ major live draws, rivaling the impressive likes of Kiss, Elton John or Led Zeppelin.

The ¨Bad Boys of Boston¨ are also known for one of the most remarkable comebacks in popular music, as they were left for dead in the early 80s due to drug use and falling sales, only to become possibly even more popular in the late 80s and ´90s.

The group originally took off in New Hampshire, yet their Boston roots were cemented as all 5 original members hung out in a grungy Allston (a funky section on Boston´s outskirts) apartment, plotting their rise. By 1973, they released a self-titled LP, featuring a prototypical power ballad ¨Dream On¨ which would become an anthem and go on to be sampled by Eminem. Yet the album and single were only minor hits. The group´s second album, Get Your Wings remains their rawest and most blues-oriented effort, featuring an image-defining, amped-up cover of the blues chestnut ¨The Train Kept a Rollin´.¨ Yet it was 1975 which was the band´s make it or break it moment, and they truly delivered with the FM classic Toys In The Attic.

Featuring the one-two punch of the immortal singles ¨Walk This Way¨ and ¨Sweet Emotion,¨ as well as a number of excellent album tracks, the record took them to the big time. The following year they unveiled Rocks, which did not have a tune as ubiquitous as ¨Walk This Way,¨ yet is considered by many fans to be their most accomplished album and one of the best hard rock long-players of all time. They became major arena rock stars and were among America´s premiere rock outfits. However, by the late 1970s the quality of Aerosmith´s output started to wane as the members, especially Tyler and Perry, turned to hard drugs.

By the early 80´s they were washed up and forgotten. Suddenly, in 1986 when nobody seemed to remember Boston´s Bad Boys, the iconic riff of ¨Walk This Way¨ was utilized in a genre-bending hit by hip-hop innovators Run DMC. Tyler and Perry performed on the cover and appeared in the wildly popular music video. By 1987, a revitalized Aerosmith re-appeared with the slick, professional Permanent Vacation, spinning off MTV-ready hits like ¨Dude Looks like a Lady.¨ This commercial streak extended for a solid decade, including multi-platinum albums such as 1989´s Pump and 1993´s Get a Grip, before culminating in their first and only #1 Billboard smash in 1998, the anthemic ballad Ï Don´t Want to Miss a Thing.

A Band Called Boston and New Wave Icons Close The Decade

While the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith honed their craft for decades, grinding it out in dingy rock clubs , one local group, without an iota of blues background, appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 1976. The simply-named Boston and their self-titled debut, emblazoned with a spaceship, indeed appeared futuristic upon its release. The group was the brainchild of MIT engineer Tom Scholz, hailing originally from Toledo, Ohio. After settling in the Boston metro area following his tenure at the prestigious technical university, Scholz moonlighted at Polaroid, while wanting to be a rock star. He formed several ill-fated bands, one of which, Mother´s Milk, contained the golden-voiced vocalist Brad Delp. Scholz grew fed up with the traditional gig scene, and instead spent hours experimenting with overdubbing techniques, trying to create the ultimate in expansive rock production. With help of Delp and other musicians, Scholz formed the band named for his adopted hometown, and the LP was released without much fanfare on Epic Records in 1976.

Scholz recounts hearing the opening strains of the classic opening track ¨More Than a Feeling,¨an FM staple to this day, on the radio at his 9 to 5. This signified that the group had made it, and despite minimal experience performing as a traditional live rock band, Boston soon joined the national arena rock circuit, opening for established stars like Black Sabbath and Foghat. They gained steam quickly, and Boston soon became an instant best-seller. By the time their follow-up came around in 1978, however, the group was behind the times, as punk and new wave ruled the rock world. Creem Magazine, a then-hip publication, bluntly dismissed their sophomore effort Don´t Look Back, declaring that änybody who buys this record is an asshole.¨ It was not until 1986 when Boston released their third LP, although it did contain another FM staple in the ballad Ämanda.¨

One local group who benefitted with the rise of so-called ¨new wave,¨combining the angular riffs and attitude of punk with the streamlined melodies of disco, were The Cars, one of Beantown´s most influential acts. Led by clever singer-songwriter Ric Ocasek and co-vocalist Ben Orr, The Cars´ self-titled debut was similarly a game-changing classic, and they racked up quite a few hits well into the MTV era, peaking in popularity with the smash hit 1984 LP Heartbeat City and its swooning ballad ¨Drive.¨

Formed in the mid-70s, The Cars were inspired by the aforementioned Velvet Underground, even covering their slow-crawl ballad ¨Here She Comes Now¨(years before Nirvana´s similar effort). Yet by the time their self-titled LP was unleashed in 1978, the Cars had mastered a commercially appealing mix of New York-inspired art rock with hummable melodies and insanely infectious choruses. The wall-to-wall with tunes debut led to three top 40 hits that remain radio-classics, ¨My Best Friend´s Girl,¨ ¨Good Times Roll¨ and especially ¨Just What I Needed,¨ with its instantly recognizable riff co-opted by Circuit City in the mid-2000s. The rest of the album too soon found itself in heavy FM rotation, which led the group to jest that the LP should be re-titled ¨The Cars´ Greatest Hits.¨

Unlike Boston, however, The Cars continued to find consistent success as the 70s gave way to the 80s and MTV ruled the scene. The stylish group was able to easily transition, producing memorable clips like ¨Shake It Up¨ as the new decade dawned. By 1984, arguably the peak of MTV mania, The Cars were bigger than ever, ruling the cable channel with clever, eye-catching videos for the poppy singles Ÿou Might Think,¨ ¨Magic,¨and especially ¨Drive,¨ the power ballad that remains the group´s highest-charting single. The humble Boston new wavers seemed to have it all. The video for the latter track even featured a super model, Paulina Porascova (who would soon marry Ocasek), while the band was a true highlight of the 1985 charity mega-concert Live Aid, playing a stand-out set in Philadelphia on a crowded summer´s day.

While at the top of their commercial success, the band suddenly splintered. The group´s sound lives on in the power pop and clever lyrics of 90´s groups like Fountains of Wayne and Weezer; the latter fittingly had several albums produced by Ocasek himself. The Cars remain one of the most legendary Boston acts, even as their two lead singers are sadly no longer with us.

During the subsequent decade, the university-saturated city unsurprisingly became a mini-mecca for the burgeoning ¨college rock¨ circuit, leading to cult icons like Mission of Burma, The Pixies, and Throwing Muses.¨ Yet Boston, before or since, has never had its fingertips at the pulse of rock so firmly than in the marvelous ´70s. Perhaps it never will again.

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