Culture Corner

Best of the Boston Music Scene, 1979-1981: The Neighborhoods

Bernie Langs

The Neighborhoods in 1979, left to right, “Careful Mike” Quaglia, John Hartcorn, and David Minehan (image courtesy of Boston Groupie News)

I lived in Boston from 1979 to 1981, spending time as an active participant in the local rock music scene as a musician and songwriter playing in a short-lived band. The time period is now considered a ”golden age” of local New England music talent. I can attest to the truth of that label. My bandmates and I would frequent club performances displaying astonishing musicianship and singing, powered by a brutal adrenaline rush of energy that I believe has vanished from current popular music. 

Several Boston clubs boasted an extraordinary vitality, walled in ragged punk decor, including some of the venues we performed at—Cantones, The Club, Jonathan Swifts (in Cambridge), The Channel (more upscale), and especially the center and hub at the time of the local music scene, the Rathskeller, nicknamed “The Rat” and known as “Boston’s CBGB’s.”

One of my favorite acts was the group The City Thrills, and I enjoyed speaking and joking with their lead guitarist, Johnny Angel. Their dynamic lead singer, Barb Kitson, dated the soundboard tech at The Rat, “Granny,” whom we were all in awe of. Another of my favorite groups was The Lyres, led by the golden-haired, powerhouse performer known as “Mono Man” for his style of playing a vintage organ using one finger at strategic moments to hold a long, solitary high note for dramatic effect. The Lyres did a version of the sixties hit 96 Tears that was sublime, and my band was graced with a request to open for them for a show at a small club. A band called Robin Lane and the Chartbusters was tight and precise in their sound and often played the larger venues to sold out crowds. 

There was one undisputed leader of the pack during this period of fabulous live music, a trio named The Neighborhoods. They are still active as a band, with only their leader, David Minehan, remaining from the time I was a devoted fan. Through mutual friends, my band got to know the drummer, Mike Quaglia, an amiable fellow known as “Careful Mike” for the way he maintained a steady beat as his bassist and guitarist inflicted their wall of sound on the audience. His tenure with The Neighborhoods was from 1978 to 1990. We’d also chat at the clubs with bass player John Hartcorn who was with the band from 1979 to 1981. But I would never have presumed to approach the lead singer, guitarist, and composer, David Minehan. There was no musician or personality like him in Boston, not one player/composer/singer in his league. He would have been a presence in any music scene from New York to London. I’d venture to say that most of the band members from the Boston area that had made it on the national charts didn’t have Minehan’s natural star power, not only as a performer, but as a personality offstage (the one notable exception being Aerosmith’s front man, Stephen Tyler).

Everything about The Neighborhoods was unique. Their songs were centered around basic rock compositional form, but had great twists in their complex melodies and chord structures. The lyrics were poetic, minimal and displayed the rare sweet spot of intellectual, yet approachable subjects and expressiveness. Minehan played his blue Stratocaster hard and with sustain, but never overly distorted. You could hear each power chord and lead note ringing out from floor to ceiling at the clubs where they played, but not at a blistering volume at the threshold of pain. His guitarwork was not an attack on the ears but more like the comfort of a demonstrative cathedral bell ringing out in majesty. Minehan moved about the stage in a trance-like, troubled dance of tough emotions, and his demeanor was otherworldly, as if he existed in his own parallel universe of sound and vision. His hair was colored red rooster crimson in the style of early David Bowie, and piled up high in the manner of members of the English band, The Faces. 

Minehan’s act was no act at all, it was completely honest and unassuming. There was also no self-consciousness in any of the other band members as they created their joyful music. All serious rock enthusiasts long for a pure experience of music, something untainted by commercialism, consumerism, and a compromise of values for the sake of monetary success. The greatest bands never change their core sound or message to increase their audience, thereby polluting artistic vision. The Clash is the only other band I know of in a brotherhood with The Neighborhoods in terms of unwillingness to be anything other than true to music and the intellectual values held precious in the hearts of its members. 

There were times in my own band that we’d kick off our rehearsals by playing a rocking version of The Neighborhoods song, No Place Like Home. Our guitarist Dave would rip into the guitar and vocals and our virtuoso bassist Bill duplicated Careful Mike’s high harmonies. Our magnificently talented Keith Moon-style drummer, Dermot, brought a power and danger to the song that Careful Mike would never have attempted. No Place Like Home is a tale of a teenager’s withdrawal into a private world of music, with the reassuring tagline chorus shouted to the listener, “Little boy I know what you are going THROUGH!” The song kicks off with an amusing description of the youth’s family scene: “Mom and dad are so frightening/Every day is a crisis/Dad gets home and he’s NERVOUS!/The air’s so thick you can’t breathe!/Don’t let them get to you/there’s not much you can do/ and little boy I know what you’re going through…” Much of what Green Day would go on to write about in the 1990’s with their massively successful song output was anticipated by The Neighborhoods.

My other favorite songs by The Neighborhoods included an ode to the wondering eye of a young man, Flavors, featuring the cool chorus, “I love flavors – I love to try them ALL!”, and Prettiest Girl, which Elton John could have fit in nicely on his masterpiece album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. One of their most complex lyrical expressions was the power ballad, Mr. Reeves, a thoughtful meditation (and more) on the suicide of the original television Superman actor, George Reeves, whose bizarre leap off of a building haunted many a child watching the show during the 1960s.

 My band opened for The Neighborhoods in May 1980 at an intimate club in Providence, Rhode Island. It was an honor and a privilege to have done so. About five years ago I recorded a cover version of No Place Like Home as a birthday surprise for our former band’s guitarist Dave who remains a close friend with me and other members of the ‘Tones. We still bask in the memory of having witnessed the peak of The Neighborhoods forty years ago. The Neighborhoods would go on to open for David Bowie in 1987 at a stadium show in Foxborough, MA, and tour with major acts such as The Ramones, Cheap Trick, and Bowie’s art band, Tin Machine. David Minehan also played a stint as a guitarist with the alt-rock sensation, The Replacements. He currently runs a recording studio, Woolly Mammoth Sound, in the town of Waltham outside of Boston, and The Neighborhoods’ new set of songs, Last Known Address, can be streamed on Amazon Music and other services. I consider myself so fortunate to have been a witness to one of rock’s under-appreciated moments of glory, an exceptional, brief window of time in the genre that was honest and true with brilliant and pure sincerity in every performance. Everyone should be so lucky to be in the presence of genius in the artistic genre they hold closest to their soul. Link: The Neighborhoods perform Prettiest Girl and No Place Like Home in 1979 on Boston television: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5Mia0yvVmw

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