Notes From The Underground: Long-gone Allston rock club’s 15-month legacy preserved in new website
The Underground in Allston closed 35 years ago today. Jan Crocker’s Boston Flashpoint website has immortalized its sound, sights, and stories.
Every day, thousands of people take the MBTA Green Line through Packard’s Corner on the edge of Allston, either inbound towards Kenmore Square or outbound to Brighton and Boston College. As the trains roll around the bend, few pay much attention to the building at 1110 Commonwealth Ave.; with “Nora’s House” posted above the entrance and red awnings for ASC English at street level, the towering dorm, which also houses private prep school CATS Academy Boston, is not much to stare at, and in 2014 was purchased from Boston University by notorious city landlord Anwar N. Faisal.
But for 15 months from one night in February 1980 until June 14, 1981 — 35 years ago today, to be exact — the building housed the Underground, a long-gone Boston rock club that crafted an insane legacy at the height of the post-punk era. The L-shaped room, with a legal capacity of 103, was a haven for locals like Mission of Burma, the Neats, and Lyres, and a remarkable pipeline for young British bands playing Boston for the first time, like New Order, the Cure, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, A Certain Ratio, Bauhaus, and Au Pairs.
A lightning bolt served as the venue’s logo, both emblazoned on the DIY flyers and the backdrop behind the stage, and lightning was exactly what was captured nearly four decades ago. It came and went in an instant.
“It was a perfect storm,” says Underground sound technician Michael Whittaker by phone from Maine, where he’s a librarian at the Portland Public Library, today making far more than the $25 a week he got at the club as a teenager. “That perfect crucible of art and young people trying to find something exciting and new to do. The most astonishing thing to the performers and to the fans was almost everyone who came in was interesting and engaged and wanted to be a part of this revival. Take the music back to the people. Oncoming were the Reagan years and we all felt it. It was like a mission from God — I was roommates with [booking agent] Jim Coffman and all we did was sit around and plot how we were going to get these bands.”
In addition to the 35th anniversary of the room’s closing — with a rowdy set by Boston’s the Neats, who tore the place apart with help from fans — this week is a special one in celebrating the Underground’s legacy.
The Cure, who played the Underground on April 20, 1980, on the eve of Robert Smith’s 21st birthday, perform at Agganis Arena just up Commonwealth Avenue on Thursday (June 16). Orchestral Maneouvers in the Dark, then still a jagged, electronic-leaning post-punk act from Factory Records and a few years away from mainstream attention via breakout hit “If You Leave”, played a roughly 15-minute set rife with technical difficulties just before 1 a.m.; when they play the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion this Sunday (June 19), things will likely go smoother.
This week also serves as the arrival of a new archival website called Boston Flashpoint, and extensive home base for Kino Digital Video’s Jan Crocker who worked with Benjamin Bergery assisting in teaching a Film, Video, and Performance class at Masschusetts Institute of Technology’s Film/Video department, when most of the live Boston music video was recorded. Crocker and Bergery worked together to capture video and audio of many of the Underground performances and at other venues around Boston. Crocker saw something special happening in the subterranean Comm. Ave. club, and dragged both technical staff and students — with, at the time, large burdensome video equipment, long before the days of over-the-shoulder VHS recorders and digital video — to Allston to capture the energy. Some came along kicking and screaming, eager to hang out elsewhere in the city.
“What’s very cool about this whole thing is being able to make a connection back to what MIT was pioneering when all these videos were first shot,” Crocker says. “There was an effort by the group leading the Film/Video section to shrink down the hardware used to record film and video, with the idea that greater numbers of people would be able to make movies and then share them with one another. Well that vision is a reality now with people using hand held technology and sharing their movies with one another on the internet. So this is one of the things we want to do with Boston Flashpoint; to encourage interaction using hand held technology to upload video responses to the content on the site and embellish the narrative.”
Crocker’s website, which documents what was happening in Boston from 1978 to 1982 with unrivaled media, photos, and personal anecdotes from many of the players (Mission of Burma, The Neats, Peter Hook of New Order), is an archive portal to a lost time. He has “hundreds of hours” of footage stored on old reels in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Paris, Cape Cod, and elsewhere around the country. He estimates that about 80 percent of it has surfaced, and only 60 percent has been shown. His recordings of the Cure and Buzzcocks shows have been floating around the internet for years; with Boston Flashpoint, he hopes to give it all a permanent home.
“It has a place in history,” he says of the site, “but it also has a place in the future as well.”
Like most historical things, fate often aligns with the inspired.
For that relentless 15 months, the Underground was crafted thanks to the vision and hustle of a then-19-year-old Coffman, who as a Boston University sophomore was waiting tables down the street at Our House. He convinced the owners of Our House, Henry and Carmen Vara, to let him book shows at their sister venue, Sweet Virginia’s. Boston University owned the building, but leased the bar to the Veras, and at the time gave them space to operate how they saw fit. Business at Sweet Virginia’s, as it turned out, wasn’t doing so well, so they let Coffman bring in his own live music, a mix of art rock locals and a wave of British bands just starting to make noise in the United Kingdom. It was as DIY as DIY got.
“It was just a bunch of kids,” the Neats’ Eric Martin says in a video on Boston Flashpoint, detailing how they’d play the Underground at least once a month. “I don’t think anyone was over the age of 22.”
That included the staff, like Whittaker and Coffman, which made for some interesting dealings with the touring bands.
“The British were not very happy with the room”, says Roger Miller of Mission of Burma, who opened that Cure show in February 1980 (the cover was $5). “It was really dense, and if you got 100 people in there, it was a throbbing mass of humanity.”
As mentioned, the ceiling of the Underground was low and at times falling apart. The L-shape of the venue meant you weren’t guaranteed to see the band. And the dressing room was so tight two people couldn’t pass. Though, as Whittaker, notes, the dressing room was usually reserved for the venue’s management to handle their own private, rather unsavory business. The building it was attached to was also a Boston University dorm room, and local members of the 1980 United States’ “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team would be staying several floors above where the music was happening. Sports fans and autograph seekers would cross paths with musicians loading in or hanging out.
“The pretty astounding thing is that it was still a dorm when Underground was working,” Whittaker says. “It was a non-stop battle between new music and old fashioned Boston thuggery.”
The clash between Boston University and this dodgy post-punk club with the leaky air conditioner, wood-paneled walls, and those pesky ceilings (legend has it Peter Murphy of Bauhaus hit his head a few times) was inevitable. As was who would eventually win out.
Spoiler alert: The space where the music happened is currently a laundry room.
“I can see why people would complain about it,” Miller says. “But it was a pivot, a lightning rod. Jim had that vision, and it really worked.”
Miller describes the room as “anti-corporate,” and a welcome alternative to places like the Rat and Cantone’s. “It was more clean cut, college kid. Easy to find… The vibe was really good, you’d see the same people. It was very social and welcoming; the clean-cut side of the Boston underground.”
Not everyone was impressed. And Orchestral Maneovers in the Dark’s show on June 1, 1980, remains a thorn in the band’s side.
“The first time that the band came to play in the U.S. was a complete wing and a prayer tour,” OMD’s Andy McCluskey tells Vanyaland. “By the time we get to Boston for the final concert of our crazy four-day tour we are exhausted and not in the best of moods. The Underground has a tiny stage and nobody seems very organised, least of all ourselves! OMD don’t use back line amplifiers so we are entirely dependent upon the monitor mix. This works when everything is done correctly. Unfortunately, nothing is done correctly this night. After the support band have played all of our equipment is plugged back into the wrong channels and when we finally get onstage the sound is appalling. We are tired, cold, hungry and entirely fed up of our experience on this tour. After about 15 minutes of trying to play and sounding like World War Three onstage I completely lose my cool and walk off stage. End of gig! End of tour! Very depressing for everyone!”
In audio captured by Crocker on that night, you can hear the band walk off after a valiant attempt at “Electricity”. Says McCluskey as the song draws to a close: “Boston! Electric things are great — when they work!”
But the pipeline of bands that came through Underground was incredible. Whittaker says that a lot of the British bands would get paid handsomely to play New York clubs like Danceteria and Hurrah. Because of Boston’s close proximity to New York, and because of the city’s wealth of college students who were plugged into the bands in an era long before the internet, Coffman would score several Next Big Things.
“So we got all these bands that really had no business playing a room with a capacity of 103 people,” Whittaker says. Three hundred people showed up for the Cure show, the same week they would release sophomore album Seventeen Seconds. They were paid $800. “There was no space to move,” Whittaker says.
Coffman initially planned for Joy Division to play Underground in May 1980, but the show never came to fruition after Ian Curtis’ suicide. In September, the surviving members returned, and Whittaker says the first time he personally heard they were called “New Order” was when Bernard Sumner declared it on stage. The band’s gear was stolen the night before in New York, so Whittaker hustled to borrow, rent, and buy replacement instruments from all of his Boston contacts so the show could go on. It remains his favorite memory of the Underground tenure. “Just because I was so totally enamored with that band, and the sheer work it took in getting all the gear,” he says. “People chipped in.” The gear issue brought New Order’s take from the show down to about $300.
Founding New Order bassist Peter Hook remembers the show as well. They played seven songs, and all rotated vocal duties as New Order had yet to decide on who would be the singer.
“I do remember that we had to sleep on the promoter’s floor,” Hook tells veteran Boston music writer Jim Sullivan, via Boston Flashpoint. “And we had cockroaches running over us while we fucking slept. The swine! Good character building stuff, though. It was the longest night in my life. We couldn’t afford a hotel. We had so many adventures on that first American tour as New Order. It was like that film where the family goes on holiday and everything that could possibly go wrong did. It was hilarious. Ian must have been pissing himself laughing.”
The room would be well-stocked by local bands as well, like La Peste, Bound & Gagged, and Thalia Zedek’s White Women, even though Whittaker says he and Coffman made a concerted effort to steer clear of the usual “Boston rock” stuff. If they needed an opener in the pinch, they would get the late Mr. Butch up on stage. “It wasn’t a money-making venture by any stretch of the imagination,” Whittaker says. “Almost everyone that came through the door as a customer was also a part of it, part of the scene.”
Adds Miller: “I’d get free beers so it was easy for me to show up.”
But it all came crashing down — literally — on June 14, as Boston University bought out the lease, likely tired of the complaints from students above and the increasing clashes among late-night Underground patrons and everyone around them. Whittaker says the end was a result of the lease being up “and B.U. not wanting something interesting.” Coffman and Whittaker went on to book Streets, just up Commonwealth Avenue near the Harvard Avenue intersection.
But not before the Neats played that final show 35 years ago tonight. They and the crowd didn’t leave much intact.
“Now looking back on it, I think I should have been terribly frightened,” Martin says in a video on Boston Flashpoint. “There was so much energy going on in the room… toward the end of the set, you could see something was happening. The ceiling wasn’t terribly high, it was only maybe nine feet high, if that, and was a hung acoustic ceiling. We were playing ‘Another Broken Dream’, and I’m looking out, and like slow motion it seemed like I saw a hand go up — boom! — grab a ceiling tile and come down. Next thing you know everyone was going up in slow motion, these little rocket ships going into the ceiling, hitting the ceiling tiles and pulling them down along with wires, just everything. It was a fantastic scene of… positive destruction. By the end of the night there wasn’t much left. And that was it. It was the end of an era. But a lot of good memories.”
Follow Michael Marotta on Twitter @vMichaelv.