Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Documentary Review: Boys from Nowhere: The Story of Boston’s Garage Punk Uprising

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Video from the Internet

Boys from Nowhere: The Story of Boston’s Garage Punk Uprising
Directed by Chris Parcellin
BFN Films
77 minutes, 2016

Photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.

When it comes to sports, something which I don’t really follow, the New York-Boston rivalry is legendary. But when it comes to the sounds coming out of the clubs in the 1970s and ‘80s, well, yeah, there was a bit of a competition there as well, but both scenes – be it CBGBs or the Rathskellar (aka the Rat, whose denizens I’m sure hated it being called “Boston’s CBGBs,” and rightfully so) had more concurrent and complimentary bands helping charge each other rather than tearing down. While I had my feet firmly planted in NYC, from the late ‘70s to the mid ‘80s I had the opportunity to go to Boston twice a year on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, and immerse myself in that wonderful area. This gave me the opportunity to experience many of the musicians mentioned in this documentary.

After a brief opening with a brief historical video of ex-WBCN radio DJ Oedipus (he is also interviewed in the heart of the film), who was both loved and hated by those on the scene for various reasons, the documentary jumps ahead full volume. It’s a notch that this is more about the bands than anything else, so chronology of whom or what came first isn’t as important. For example, if it were presented that way, the Modern Lovers and Willie “Loco” Alexander would have been right off Yaz’s bat (why do I even know about Carl Yastrzemski? Osmosis, I guess. But I digress…), since there were at the forefront as the period unfolded. However, the Real Kids start off the focus.

I first learned about the Real Kids via their abbreviated masterpiece single “All Kindsa Girls” / “Common at Noon” (the full version would be released after), and then by their album on Red Star Records, promoted in NYC strongly by then-Red Star employee and huge Real Kids fan, Miriam Linna (not shown here). The album is phenomenal, even though I like the single version of the two songs more, but that may be because I heard it first, who knows. Using recent and archival footage, all the members of the band are heard from, including lead singer John Felice (who I saw at the Rat in his post-RK group, the Primevals), Alan “Alpo” Paulino (d. 2006), and Billy Borgioli (d. 2015; I had the opportunity to hang out with him a couple of times, thanks to my friendship with his long-time girlfriend Nancy Neon, also not interviewed probably due to time constraints).

John Felice and the Primevals
The Real Kids were quite spectacular, with high energy performances both live and on disk, and top notch songwriting, both of which are discussed here, by the likes of Jonathan Richman. This is key, considering Felice was in the Modern Lovers as a scene newbie. I’m happy to say that the film does not shy away from some of the negatives in the band, such as Felice’s contention about the album (apparently he’s the only one from anyone with whom I’ve discussed it), their more-than-recreational use of substances, and the firing of Borgioli, whose guitar was the backbone of the album. In my opinion, they never really recovered from that loss, though an obviously modified version of the band still plays today.

Again, not worrying about order, next up is the introduction of the Rat, the seminal locus of the scene at its start (the Channel and the Paradise, etc., would come later for promoting it), opening in 1973 (or ’74 as I’ve seen both listed, and closing 1997, where a luxury hotel replaced it), presenting the groups that would help change the world, is discussed through it’s originator, Jim Harold. He is an important hub to the Boston locus, and yet as I am not from the area, I know so little about him. I appreciate the info.

Monoman and the Lyres
This leads to DMZ, a band that would be led by Jeff “Monoman” Conolly, who I would later see numerous times in his next band, the more garage-based Lyres (the last time was 2007). I didn’t realize that he was the last to join the group, rather than it forming around him. DMZ was another band that signed to a major label (Sire, directly by the Danny Fields), yet never clicked with the larger audience. They were a band divided by egos; we even knew then that they would not last, but their LP is just so much fun, even though it honestly didn’t really represent the band as they were live. They rest this squarely on the shoulders of their producers, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo and Eddie, aka the Turtles). Honestly, I never thought about how bad and misrepresenting the cover of their album was before, but they dissect it quite nicely here. It was their final hurrah. Oh, and as a point of interest, Monoman wrote the song whose title was used for this film.

Willie "Loco" Alexander
Next up is Willie Alexander, the godfather of the Boston underground. The section opens with the sludgy guitar of “Hit Her Wid Da Ax” (being “penis” rather than “hatchet” in this case), which was immediately identifiable. I may not agree with Willie’s politics, but as a musician, I’m a fan. With his Boom Boom Band, he actually does my favorite version of “You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” which he made his own. Saw him play twice in the ‘80s, including once at the Paradise, where I had the opportunity to hang out with him a short while before the show. Both performances were excellent, of course.

Jonathan Richman and Modern Lovers
Folded into this chapter is also Jonathan Richman, who would form the Modern Lovers. Most people today seem to know him as “the Troubadour” from the film There’s Something About Mary (1998), but his work has been consistently off-center, which makes him a perfect person to run concurrently with Willie in this piece. There are other similarities other than off-beat vocal styles. For one, both started solo and had a band join them after, but more importantly, both had a relationship with the Velvet Underground. For Richman, he was a mega-fan (as Morrissey was for the Dolls) and friend of the band, and Willie actually replaced Reed after Lou quit the group, to tour with the VU in Europe. Both are unique and yet led to the beginning of that period of Boston garage punk. I’ve seen Richman a few times, including with a version of the Modern Lovers in 1977 at My Father’s Place on Long Island; I’ve also videographed him being interviewed for cable access show Videowave backstage at Maxwell’s in Hoboken in 1996. It is rightly pointed out here that his version of “Roadrunner” exemplifies Boston, but I would add that it is just as much as Willie’s “At the Rat” is about the particular scene. However, to me, the best version of “Roadrunner” is from the Beserkley Spitballs compilation, rather than the eponymous Modern Lovers first album.

Next up is the Nervous Eaters, probably the band I know the least about on this documentary, even though I do have their album with the Elektra “chewed” cover. Again, a fun band with a non-representative release that did not help their career, even with one of the Paley Brothers, Jonathan, as a member (I used to go see the band Mong at CBGBs, with the other Paley bro, Andy). Their sound was more metalish than the other bands mentioned above, sort of like a dirty cross between the MC5, the joyful sloppiness and attitude of the New York Dolls, and that Willie A. way of going up and down the vocal scale on songs in a modified hiccupping way. But like so many of the bands before and after them, and even many on this documentary, they had one shot to record an album, and it never reached its potential either in sound or sales.

Then there is the amazing power trio, the Neighborhoods (reprint of a 1986 interview by me HERE), who I interviewed in the mid-1980s when they played in New York. The lead singer/guitarist, Dave Minehan, was a powerhouse onstage and off, and has become an important studio producer over the years. I first came familiar with them through their amazing singles on Ace of Hearts Records (whose founder, Rick Harte, was prominent in the scene, and also in this film, as is Minehan), such as “Prettiest Girl.” Though they sold over 10,000 records on a relatively small indie label, the Neighborhoods are probably the least known of all the bands here, which is criminal.

After a brief rundown of what some of the musicians are up to now (mostly recording with Rick Harte, it seems), there is a clip of Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band sharing the stage with Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band singing Willie’s classic “Mass Ave” at Willie’s 70th birthday celebration in Somerville (of course). This makes sense since there is a phenomenal amount of music that runs throughout, including rare live clips and recordings.

There are lots of interviews with band members, but also of front-line scenesters, such as Lyn Cardinal (aka Ms. Lyn), the publisher of the most important local fanzine, The Boston Groupie News (met her once in passing), Paul Lovell (aka Blowfish; I also had the good fortune to meet), who put out some topically hysterically funny EPs in the day, scene regular and comedian Dennis Leary, and Johnny Angel of City Thrills (he also had a comic side gig doing wedding band versions of punk songs that I saw him do at the Rat; picture Sinatra doing “Anarchy in the UK,” for example).

By using black and white footage for present day interviews, the historical still pictures and live footage meld together well, making the whole zeitgeist a timeless document that works collectively, rather than putting them into segregated, isolating moments, even with individual chapters for each band. This concept doesn’t always work elsewhere, but Parcellin nails it from the first to last frame. Plus there are some beautifully shot photos that are presented throughout; I was looking to see if my pal, the Barb Kitson-obsessed Rocco Cippilone’s name was there in the credits, but unfortunately not, but that doesn’t take away from the period piece ones shown, many from Robert Post.

My biggest (and probably only) problem with this film is that I wanted it to include all the musicians and bands I liked from there, without losing any of the details that’s already included, which would have made this probably at least three times as long, which is of course totally unrealistic. Just off the top of my head and in no particular order there’s Kenne Highland, the Thrills (who would lengthen their name to City Thrills, whose later version I saw at CBGBs)/Blackjacks/Swinging Erudites, the Count (caught them a few times at the Rat and the Paradise), Salem 66 (saw them in Boston, New Jersey, and NYC), Boys Life (seen at CBGBs and the Rat), Mission of Burma (who blew away Gang of Four when Burma opened for them at Irving Plaza in November 1980, to the point where people started leaving en masse about halfway through the headliners because it was so anti-climactic), Unnatural Axe (also saw them at CBGBs) and Fox Pass, to name just a few. That’s not even bringing up some of the great bands past this period, like the Bristols, the Outlets and the Dogmatics. You can see some of my pix below.

For future documentaries? In alphabetical order...

Boys Life

The Bristols

The Count

The Dogmatics

Mission of Burma

Salem 66

No comments:

Post a Comment