the modern lovers boston punk rock
[Photo via Spotify]

A greasy R&B riff rips from the speakers, coated in more fuzz than a peach orchard wearing a 50-year-old wool sweater. A singer with a sneer that could wilt Elvis’ upper lip indicates he’s gonna tell you a story about his town. He snarls about hanging out by the notoriously polluted Charles River, “along with lovers, muggers and thieves/Aw, but they’re cool people.” Then comes the chorus: “Well, I love that dirty water/Oh, Boston, you’re my home!”

The Standells were from Los Angeles and featured former Mousketeer Dick Dodd on drums and those sneering vocals, as well as actor Russ Tamblyn’s brother (and Amber’s uncle) Larry on organ. So, Boston was not their home, though producer/songwriter Ed Cobb had a girlfriend there and got mugged while visiting her one night. Negative inspiration created a No. 11 hit called “Dirty Water” in 1965, a garage-rock legend and a theme song for Boston sports teams. 

Read more: 10 glam-rock artists from the 1970s who heralded the coming age of punk

Being Angelenos, the Standells weren’t Boston’s first garage-punk outfit. They were actually beaten to that punch by several tough, rowdy, homegrown bands: The Remains (who opened for the Beatles’ final U.S. tour), the Rockin’ Ramrods and Teddy & The Pandas all come to mind. Then there’s Cape Cod’s answer to the Rolling Stones, the Barbarians. They appeared in The TAMI Show alongside the Stones and James Brown, and they had a drummer named Moulty who had a hook for a hand. In their repertoire: an infamous riposte to older generations ripping on their shaggy locks, “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?” Why the New York Dolls never covered it remains a mystery of the ages…. 

Later, the Velvet Underground found Boston audiences more enthusiastic for their blasted-out protopunk than what they enjoyed in their native Manhattan. A famous live tape was recorded by a fan from inside Lou Reed’s guitar amp at the Boston Tea Party on March 15, 1969. A Boston University student named Doug Yule heeded the call when Reed fired founding Velvet John Cale the previous year. After Reed left the band following the recording of fourth album Loaded, Yule hired Walter Powers and Willie Alexander, former bandmates from his old Boston garage band the Grass Menagerie, to round out the numbers for a European Velvets tour. 

No one realized it until years later, but all these events fertilized Boston’s soil for a rabid underground scene to grow. Here are 10 of Boston’s finest ‘70s punk bands, presented in roughly chronological order.

The Modern Lovers

Best heard on: The Modern Lovers

The story of Boston punk begins with Jonathan Richman, a clean-cut, middle-class teenager from Natick who worshipped the Velvets, especially Reed. He stalked and pestered the band whenever they were in town, eventually moving to New York City for a brief spell to be closer to them.

He returned to Boston to form a band in the Velvets’ image with childhood friend John Felice on guitar, future Cars drummer David Robinson and bassist Rolfe Anderson. Felice and Anderson departed after six months, replaced by bassist Ernie Brooks and future Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison. The Modern Lovers drew large audiences in Boston, playing Richman’s quirky compositions about loving the old world while still loving the modern world (“Old World,” “Modern World”), mentally ill girlfriends (“Hospital,” “She Cracked”) and how no one thought ill of “Pablo Picasso.” Most popular: “Roadrunner,” an ode to nocturnal drives through rural Massachusetts, the AM radio blasting.

They never recorded a proper album, though demos produced by Cale were eventually compiled posthumously into a highly influential document released at punk’s dawn. “Roadrunner” became a punk standard, covered by everyone from the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett. The Modern Lovers dissolved when Richman decided his material was too dark, and he no longer wanted to play at volumes that hurt children’s ears. He still maintains an active solo career, playing whimsical, childlike compositions that are indie rock’s building blocks, occasionally under the name Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers.

Thundertrain

Best heard on: Teenage Suicide

Formed in 1974 and centered around singer Mach Bell, Thundertrain were essentially a glam relic who hung around long enough to become late ‘70s headliners at The Rat, Boston’s equivalent to CBGB. They played bar band boogie rougher and noisier than Aerosmith, clad in a low-rent approximation of the New York Dolls’ fashion sense, Bell’s Rod Stewart-oid rasp leading the charge. They were a highlight of early Boston punk sampler Live At The Rat, and sole studio LP, Teenage Suicide, was stormy enough to land the band in Time magazine’s July 11, 1977 punk-rock roundup, “Anthems Of The Blank Generation.” Ultimately, Thundertrain were most notable for Van Halen ripping off their song title “Hot For Teacher.” Bell went on to front the Joe Perry Project and other local rock bands, eventually playing a series of hot-wired Thundertrain reunion gigs in the last decade.

The Real Kids

Best heard on: The Real Kids

Ex-Modern Lovers guitarist Felice formed the Kids, eventually renamed the Real Kids, in 1972. By the advent of their classic lineup—Felice on lead guitar and vocals, second guitarist Billy Borgioli, bassist Alan “Alpo” Paulino and Howard Ferguson on drums—their tough Flamin’ Groovies-meets-the-Dolls rock ‘n’ roll was primed for the new punk movement. Felice is a world-class songwriter steeped in the Chuck Berry/Eddie Cochran tradition, with a knack for instantly memorable guitar hooks that never leave your head. Their self-titled 1977 debut album is one of the greatest basic rock ‘n’ roll albums ever made, and “All Kindsa Girls” is the sorta classic signature song any band worth their salt would kill for. The Real Kids still intermittently rouse into action, releasing the eight-song 28:18:39 EP on steadfast Boston indie Ace Of Hearts Records in 2018.

DMZ

Best heard on: Radio Demos

Even a few seconds of any DMZ record can drop jaws to this day. Picture the bloodthirsty attack of Iggy and The Stooges driven by an obsession with the most dangerous of ‘60s garage rock—the Sonics, 13th Floor Elevators, the Pretty Things. Now replace Iggy Pop with an even more unhinged maniac named Jeff Conolly, renamed “Monoman” reportedly because he refused to listen to stereo albums. As Conolly ranted explosive originals such as “Ball Me Out” and “Bad Attitude,” guitarists J.J. Rassler and Peter Greenberg twisted their Gibsons into all manner of James Williamson-esque shapes, put into a pressure drop by the Rick Coraccio (bass)/Paul Murphy (drums) rhythm section. Their two rampaging tracks on Live At The Rat make the whole compilation, and their Flo and Eddie-produced, self-titled 1978 Sire LP doesn’t get enough love for the blazing rock ‘n’ roll beast it is. 

Willie “Loco” Alexander And The Boom Boom Band

Best heard on: Live At The Rat

Boston Globe journalist Steve Morris wrote of Willie “Loco” Alexander, Yule’s former bandmate in the post-Reed Velvets: “He is clearly the patriarch of the Boston punk-rock scene that centers on the Kenmore Square club, The Rat, where Alexander first played way back in 1965 as a member of the Lost.” Alexander remembered in the article, “We were the only group in Boston then with long hair. The audience was full of jocks with crewcuts. They thought we were a bunch of fags, junkies and weirdoes.” He’d passed through the Bagatelle, Grass Menagerie, the Reedless VU,and played boogie-woogie piano on Thundertrain’s “Hot For Teacher” before declaiming that his Beat poetry-influenced originals like “Kerouac” and “Mass Ave.” with the tough-sounding Boom Boom Band.

He ruled The Rat’s stage in those days, placing three tracks on Live At The Rat and releasing two superb (and sadly now out-of-print) LPs on MCA that went absolutely nowhere. Alexander performs to this day, the 78-year-old Godfather Of Boston Punk, complete with a full head of snow-white spiky hair.

Nervous Eaters

Best heard on: Hot Steel And Acid

Like many ‘70s Boston punk bands, Nervous Eaters had skills that belied ownership of a Cream album or two. Their roots are in an earlier band called the Rhythm Assholes, who backed Alexander on his “Kerouac” single, but they’re responsible for some of the most vicious post-Stooges singles now considered part of the KBD canon, including “Loretta” and “Just Head.” “We were only called a punk band because we were managed by The Rat where all the punks played, and our songs were fast, tight and energetic. Oh, and rather nasty,” vocalist/guitarist Steve Cataldo told the Please Kill Me website’s Eric Davidson in 2019. “But a lot of us, like the Real Kids, the Neighborhoods, and the Lyres were garage bands or hard-rock bands.” Like many other Boston first-wavers, they still gig and record these days.

La Peste

Best heard on: v.2.0

“We were ahead of our time in that our music was a hybrid of heavy metal and pop,” guitarist/vocalist Peter Dayton told Slug Mag in 2014 of the trio he formed with pals Mark Karl (bass) and Roger Tripp (drums) after seeing the Ramones in 1975. “It was nasty but catchy and had a slight tongue-in-cheek element, too. The hardcore movement that followed had none of that and was a big disappointment for me.”

Indeed, anyone who’d name his band after the original French title of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague might be disappointed with hardcore’s anti-intellectual impulses. But La Peste cut a wide swathe through Boston, playing like art-school kids who owned copies of Raw Power, only releasing the perfect single “Better Off Dead.” Dayton dissolved the band in 1979 after having what he terms a “Syd Barrett moment,” emerging playing more psychedelically as a solo artist a few years later. 

Mission Of Burma

Best heard on: Signals, Calls And Marches

Formed in 1979, Mission Of Burma were the intersection where punk met post-punk, then went for a quick coffee date with hardcore. Guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott—all three splitting singing/songwriting duties—played loudly and chaotically, with a number of catchy songs including “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” (later made a hit by Moby) and “Academy Fight Song.” But the lyrics were obtuse, impenetrable. Soundman Martin Swope would capture snippets of the performance—a guitar riff, a vocal snatch or something random—and manipulate them via tape loops into a jarring new song element. MoB truly elevated punk worldwide, not just locally.

The Neighborhoods

Best heard on: The Last Rat

Singer/guitarist Dave Minehan led what seems like a million lineups of the Neighborhoods since 1978, even breaking up from 1992 to 2003. But the focus has stayed on his melodic yet aggressive guitar playing and hooky original songs. From 1980’s debut 45 “No Place Like Home,” which resembles a high-quality bubblegum version of the Clash, Minehan’s kept the band firmly at the intersection where punk, powerpop and hardrock dynamics meet. He’s also built one of Massachusetts’ finest studios, Woolly Mammoth Sound, where he’s gained a reputation as a stellar producer/engineer. When the Replacements reunited from 2012-2015, Minehan was in the second guitar slot.

Lyres

Best heard on: Lyres Lyres

Conolly wasted no time following the mighty DMZ’s 1979 breakup. He dragged that band’s final rhythm section of Coraccio and Murphy with him into Lyres to play music parked more firmly in a 1965 garage, with none of his old band’s blitzkrieg punk trappings. The band’s been through endless lineup changes since, with various DMZ members dropping in and out, likely because of Conolly’s penchant for being a stern taskmaster. It’s hard to argue with the superiority of his songs, such as “Help You Ann” or “Don’t Give It Up Now.” They’re rock ‘n’ roll of the highest order, and Conolly is one of rock’s greatest performers, even if he’s likely to loudly berate his bandmates before a packed club.