Boston has a rich rock 'n' roll bloodline that has fathered some legendary bands. The first two children of the rock scene started with The Remains and The Barbarians in the sixties. The era that exploded the population of influential, and sometimes successful, bands was 1978-1982. During that span of time a fresh and alluring sound seemed to be delivered every week via the network of college radio and commercial stations of varying wattage and listenership. The clubs teemed with band line-ups that were weekly occurrences and upon looking back are enviable in 2006.
Rick Harte, owner and producer of Boston's Ace of Hearts Records was at the birth of some of the most memorable recordings emanating from Boston's punk heyday. Most singles that are on this compilation are jewels from the vaults of Ace of Hearts archives.Some are later Ace releases from the 1990's. On 12 Classic 45s Harte's productions are available again. Harte has digitally remastered the sessions with devout attention to the original sound he helped record and distribute decades ago.
Many of these songs are the first roars to come out of Boston's emerging garage/punk scene. Simply packaged with little information outside of the track list. The graphics are comprised of scans of the original singles with the covers on the cover, backs on the back and the liner graphics are the actual labels from the original 7" center. For readability the original 45's labels are accompanied by track lists under each label with the song writing credits. The CD has the original Ace of Hearts center label graphics that was a mark of musical, if not graphic, quality and distinction and now has been added to the CD jewel case format.
Starting the CD off is The Infliktors- Where'd You Get That Cigarette 7" backed with Everybody Wants To Survive. Admittedly, I know little about this band and there is little to be found beyond the Ace of Heart singles and two live tracks from the essential Boston rock compilation: Live at the Rat . The band began in 1978 and disbanded shortly after.
From the first note of the CD the song Where'd You Get That Cigarette grabs you. Combining hints of blues, 70's glam, emerging english punk and 70's funk the track the sound is very seductive. The vocals are Handsome Dick Manitoba -ish (The Dictators) and dead-on to the instrumentation that swings from subdued and easy blues to searing and expansive rock. At the bridge you get a taste of a Boston tradition, chicken scratch, metallic guitar clucking. Now I know where Boston's The Rings got some of there lick's and many other Boston bands to come.
The Infliktors B-side is another great song, Everybody Wants to Survive. The song is slow and bluesy with a personal feel. There is a sing-a-long quality to the arrangement. Both songs from The Infliktors have a intimate feel to the production like you are at the session and the song is being played just for you and you are treated to a fantastic jam. This is not fake emotions. This is the real deal. The lyrics are sympathetic to the things that all of us have to do to get by. The song plays like the band's own farewell to rock and roll and a realization that dreams get put on hold, just to survive and life doesn't always play out as planned.
The Neighborhoods song Prettiest Girl is the third track. This song is a personal favorite of mine from the Boston rock catalog. Upon discovering this CD the first thing I looked for was this particular song . Rick Harte recorded and produced this song and it was everywhere on Boston radio in 1979. This recording put The Neighborhoods on the map and lead to the band winning the 1979 WBCN Rock 'n' Roll Rumble (starting the tradition that a Rumble win is the kiss of death to a band's future) and lead to a major label record deal. This seminal, signature track was re-cut for the major label release and was butchered. The spontaneity and visceral pop hooks of Harte's original production, gone. What you get On 12 Classics is Harte's old work lovingly restored to bringing back a long lost gem!
There are songs that just cut right to your core with sound that is new and old. Songs that make you think that you already heard it even though you never have. Prettiest Girl is that kind of song. A pop masterpiece. The song begins with a plodding guitar, bass and drum beat that baits and switches. The drum beat pounds out and the nerve guitar comes in and the song is now under your skin. The chords are open and metallic. The drums are rolling tom toms with snare beats where you can hear the springs scratching at the drum skin. The guitar is Gang of Four, Wire with The Trogg's pop sensibility. But the song is an ironic, hateful bubble gum anthem to Prettiest Girl that men and women envy.
From the second the intro changes and the guitar comes in I am tingling from head to toe ( Boston band The Atlantics wrote a song about this phenomena called, Pop Shivers) and the goose bumps poke up all over my body. I don't know if it is the history, the sound, the lyrics, or the fact that this song cuts through all the clutter and brings forth a crystal clear, direct amalgam of the best elements of an era. The '78-82 rock era was a new kind of pop based on angst, sexual tension, and the desperation of being an outsider. That is what this song is all about. This is an under known, under recognized period piece that belies the bands demise. Do I rave to much?
The Neighborhoods B-side track is another excellent representation of the new pop. No Place Like Home has the upbeat pop feel of The Undertones with a fun, sneering edge. I even hear a little of Burma in the drums and catch the very last chord. It sounds like the first chord of MoB's Academy Fight Song. No Place is really good but does not deliver the same pop fervor that makes you want to hear it again and again. The Neighborhoods are like so many other bands that can make one song that defines them and an era. They are not one hit wonders. They are a band that just hit the nail so hard on the head that little is left to drive home.
Classic Ruins was a Boston bar favorite. Started in 1979 the band had a strong following and some moderate success. The Ruins member came from an earlier band Baby's Arm. Half of that band turned into The Real Kids, another of that era's best bands, and the other half became Classic Ruins. 1+1<2 is the first track. Although the vocals are off key, the music delivers a fast and furious rock punch. Drumming like a machine gun and tight chord and rhythm changes push this along with a touch of Secret Agent Man to add a sinister edge. Their second track, Heart Attack, delivers the same punch with the U.S. punk/country twang of X and the metal sense of Motorhead, replete with a guitar solo (unheard of at the time). Nyquil Stinger is their third track and is just as good as the other two before it. Something in the sound and feel of the Classic Ruins makes you realize a record can't match a live show.
The eighth track on 12 Classic's is the ultimate Boston classic song. This is the punk shot heard round the world for those who were listening over disco's fading din and Skynyrd's Free Bird. Mission of Burma's Academy Fight Song! This was huge to Boston's position of influence in the 78-82 rock era. Far beyond the novelty of Sex Pistols, this was new. This was something that grabbed your attention by being poetic, angry and with a subtle political edge applied to human relations. It's not just on the news it is in our heads and our beds.
Roger Miller's guitar intro sounds as fresh today as the first time it caught my ear. The song is a time machine catapulting anyone who was involved in the underground music scene in the US and Europe back to the moment you heard it. That tsunami bass wave, the marching drums (marching feet) and the sustained, wide-open, distorted guitar chords blend with Clint Conley's voice delivering Burma's insidious poetry. The thing that always amazed me about this song is the age-defying maturity and sensitivity in the lyricism and sound. As I get older the lyrics effect does not fade but adds nuance.
Burma's Max Ernst comes next and was the B-side to their first single and an homage to the surrealist painter and collage artist. Back at the time of the singles release this song may have been overlooked as a lesser b-side. But time has shown that this is a Burma classic if not rock history's classic. Fast and dense the song toys with pop constructs and turns it up side down. Jerky and nervous the song takes its cue from Devo but departs and picks up a little Gang of Four. Peter Prescott's pounding, rock, military march drums carry the song along. Miller's guitar of muddled chords blinks with bight lighting flashes. This song is much like its the style of Ernst. Burma has cut pieces out of the pop songbook and rearranged them all to make a very surreal piece of art that makes you look at each piece out of its original context. I also enjoy the humor of the "Da-da" backing vocals.
Burma also contributes the songs Trem Two and OK/No Way, their second single on Ace of Hearts. Trem Two is hypnotic and dreamy down tempo song that centers around Millers wafting and wavering guitar distortions. It is not notes or written music. This is pedals and knobs positioned just right to make that sound. It is a haunting song that has a transcendent quality. The sound, lyrics and deep, slow vocal harmony create an eerie soundscape that is the right bed for the lyrics that display a yearning for clarity and rebirth.
OK/No Way is thick, fast and discordant. It is more "punk" then the previous songs and even has a country flare as it comes to an end. It is short and to the point and its basis will be revisited in later Burma material.
If you know the Boston sound and are a fan of garage rock, Lyres should already be on your radar. The Lyres contribute six tracks from three singles. The two most known Lyres tracks that leapt out of the Boston fishbowl and survive on their own are, I Want to Help You Ann and She Pays the Rent. You can't toss out the other songs that appearon this disc. The Lyres are not a band that hopped up on a style band wagon to get fame and attention. The Lyres were dedicated to resurrecting the Boston tradition of garage rock and they do it with out a trace of camp or parody.
Originally the band DMZ in 1979 they became the band Lyres. The line up of musicians keeps changing but Jeff Conolly is the heart and soul of the Lyres. His voice and organ work are integral in the sound of the Lyres. The first Lyres Classics song is I Want to Help You Ann. A legendary Boston rock song. The song was able to get on local radio and spread far beyond Boston. With its tremulous guitar, ala MoB's Trem Two, and the sixties organ that is updated for the times. The lyrics are pleading and the sound rocks with yearning. The driving drums ring in the chorus like a barreling train. The gutiar is infectious. The beat is head-bopping. The production is pure garage. The song is solid and somehow never got above local and indie adoration.
Ann's B-side is I Really Want You Right Now. The song also deals with desperation but with a more bluesy edge. It is darker and more desperate like an addiction more than a love affair. The guitar work is fantastic and the production captures a live feeling that is stripped bare like the emotions running through this cut. Other Lyres songs like Someone Who'll Treat You Right, How Do You Know? and Stacey are also able rockers that don't have the commercial hooks to make them hit songs but have the talent to show how great this band is and how dedicated they are to the garage sound.
She Pays the Rent is another of the Lyres most recognized tracks. Its popularity rivaled, if not surpassed, I Want to Help You Ann. I don't think it compares to some of the B-sides with a delivery that is not as intense or heartfelt as the other Lyres cuts. Maybe I just heard it too much. I am sitll sick of the guitar sound of I Want to Help You Ann. The song does bring back Paul Revere and the Raiders, Dave Clarke to the 80's deftly but doesn't sustain my attention like the other Lyres 45s. No denying, it is another piece of essential Boston rock history delivered by Rick Harte.
Another of my personal favorite Boston bands was the Neats. A band that was in the same category as The Flaming Groovies, The Feelies, dBs, and The Clean. Bands that were intelligent and waded in the pool left behind The Velvet Underground's melt down. The Neats add two tracks from their first 45, Caraboo and Harbor Lights. Caraboo begins with primitive jungle drums. The vocals are very reminiscent of Mission of Burma. The guitar work is wide and open like Burma but it is less manipulated and organic. The drums are more rock than marching containing more cymbals that work well off the guitar strumming. Harbor Lights is a slow and ambling song that holds more in concert with Winchester Cathedral by Rudi Vallee than the Velvets. It is a fun track that is smartly done piece of camp but by no means a throw away.
The last three 45s that appear on the Ace of Hearts comp are from Tomato Monkey and Chaotic Past. Both bands hail from the '90's and not from the prime era of Boston's punk scene. Tomato Monkey is Richie Parsons' band. Parson's formerly in the band Unnatural Axe, a band that was very big in the punk club scene in Boston. Axe had a couple of songs that made a splash in Boston, most notably, Summertime. Tomato Monkey's first track, Mostly Torso, is a punk-ish number that starts with searing guitar feedback and delivers a fast and fierce pace aided by some mad drumming. Joe Transit, the second track, is a slower and countrified blues track. The vocals are calm and easy and the music follows suit. It reminds me of Crazy by Versus and The BoDeans. Nice and easy. Good not great.
Chaotic Past is from New York and is a later addition to the Ace of Hearts discography. Able rockers that are musically skilled but there is something missing. Sometimes a band with musical talent and chops produces music that is competent but lacks charisma. That is Chaotic Past. The band floats between Goth/Metal, Chili Peppers and 70's stadium rock and Primus. The music to this point on the CD really fit well but the Past's is not on the same par as the preceding music. I don't think Chaotic Past will achieve true classic status as other songs on this CD have and will endure.
This is a great compilation of historic Boston sounds. One gets wrapped up in the music but this is as much about Rick Harte as it is about the bands. Rick Harte and his bands owe each other a debt of gratitude. Harte took the risk and dedicated himself to his artists. The artists need Harte to get their music out. Together they pioneered the "indie" label. Without these independent labels how could these band have gotten known when the major labels wouldn't touch them. It may not seem like a big deal in the era of the I-pod, MP3's, and file sharing. A band doesn't even need a label anymore but in 1978 the indie revolution was just taking off and Harte was at the forefront.
What is rare about Ace of Hearts that I have never heard ill words about Rick Harte or his label from his artists or the local rock constabulary. In a scum-laden business like music where bands are used, abused and left on the roadside of success, it is high praise to Harte and his integrity. Harte's reputation as a producer was to let the band do what they wanted and to help them get the sound they wanted. If you listen to these restored tracks you will hear the dedication in the recording and the re-mastering of the old tapes to the digital format. The music world could use more people like Harte. Producers and labels that put the artists first and hope the money will come and allow them put out more great music.