Rather than hitting a dead end, the punk wave launched a decade of wild proliferation in the ’80s. By now all bets were off in defining the Boston sound: the Cars were on the charts, and any number of bands were waiting in the wings. The most glamorous counter employee at Newbury Comics, Aimee Mann, was leading Boston’s most elegant and Euro-sounding band, ’Til Tuesday. A mainstream rock band known as the Dream was regularly filling the Channel, before selling their name to a TV series and taking the punning name of Extreme. And more traditional rock and roll was being pumped out by the Stompers and Boston’s resident R&B wailer, Barrence Whitfield.
Still, two things came to define the ’80s. One was a turn to punk-inspired music that evinced brains, abstraction, and a good deal of art damage. Mission of Burma were a love-or-hate band from the get-go, and though their shows sent timid ears out the door, others loved the band enough to spray-paint their name all over town. That Burma graffiti wouldn’t be all gone until 1990. The first heirs to Burma’s post-punk throne were Newport’s Throwing Muses, led by 18-year-old visionary Kristin Hersh. If you’d seen this band around 1985, you probably would have noticed how loud, weird, and inspired the Muses’ regular opening band was. They were called the Pixies, and their impact would be felt before long, particularly when Seattle fan Kurt Cobain wrote an intentional Pixies rip-off and called it “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The other ’80s revolution happened largely because a lot of pissed-off 16-year-olds couldn’t get into clubs to see any of the above. Taking matters into their own hands — and tossing some pure aggression and old-fashioned teen angst into the mix — hardcore rewrote all the rules, throwing out everything that wasn’t about speed and intensity. Boston was the third city to sport a hardcore scene (after LA and DC) and arguably the most spirited of them all, as everyone who attended the early, unpoliced shows at Gallery East would attest. Things got a little more under control when the Sunday hardcore matinees moved into the Channel, but now headliners like Flipper, Black Flag, and Hüsker Dü were aboard.
As the ’90s dawned, Boston had a nationwide reputation for great music that didn’t sell — thanks to the Cavedogs, Big Dipper, Dumptruck, O Positive, and many other should-have-beens. This would change somewhat as the alt-rock feeding frenzy came to town. Now high-powered execs would cram into the Rat to see Jen Trynin and Tracy Bonham; former street singer Mary Lou Lord found herself on a private plane with Jimmy Buffett; national hits were scored by everyone from indie hero Lou Barlow to Buffalo Tom and ex–Throwing Muse Tanya Donelly’s new band Belly. The Pixies still weren’t rich, but David Bowie recorded one of their songs. And it’s safe to say that Morphine — a band that could jam and innovate, with a charismatic songwriting genius upfront — would have been the big local breakout if tragedy hadn’t intervened when Mark Sandman collapsed on stage in Italy in 1999.