THAT WAS THEN: They heard the Ramones and said, “We could do that!”
The Outlets’ Rock 1980 really wasn’t recorded 27 years ago. It only should have been. You can easily get fooled into thinking that the new disc is a vintage reissue, since the cover shows a teenage Dave Barton on stage (wearing Boston Rock magazine’s original, long-gone T-shirt, no less), and the songs are all Outlets oldies. In fact, the original line-up reunited to record the disc just last year. And their hooky punk-pop songs have worn just fine after 27 years, even if their T-shirts haven’t.
You can hardly blame Barton for waxing nostalgic about the early ’80s: if you were known for throwing the wildest backstage parties at the Rat before you were out of high school, you’d probably miss it too. “Those were good days, my friend,” he said over a draft at the Middle East recently. Now going by the more formal name David Alex-Barton, he sports a slightly more conservative look that bears out his other life as a real-estate agent. “It amazes me to think that I was only 16. We went in and played the Club in 1980; next thing we knew, we were opening for Mission of Burma at the Rat. Everything happened for us almost instantly, and we were thinking, ‘Why us?’ But you know, when I listen back, we really had something.”
The Outlets’ youth made them an anomaly on the 1980 scene — even the era’s youngish bands, like the Neighborhoods, were hovering around 20. But in most ways they fit right in. The mix of punk drive and pop hooks made them spiritual cousins to the ’hoods, the Thrills, and the Real Kids, but Barton’s songwriting was surprisingly polished. (Note the new disc’s “I’m a Mess,” whose unusual three-part structure takes it out of Ramones-homage territory.) And they already had a sense of history, covering the Monkees’ “You Told Me” on their first single — a less fashionable move then than it would be now — and the Standells’ “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” on stage. “We had no idea we were even any good,” says Barton. “But you know, I heard the Ramones, and said, ‘I could do that! There was such an anti-corporate rock, ‘us versus them’ mentality going on.”
Boston in the early ’80s was also a hotbed of great live bands who never quite cut it in the studio, and the Outlets were no exception. They peaked early with “Knock Me Down,” a local classic that was the hit of the four-track Boys Life vs. the Outlets EP. Although Barton was writing about the effect a pretty girl had on him, fans at the time took the title literally, and it’s remembered as the first local song to incite slam-dancing (Barton: “It was definitely the first time I ever saw it.”) The original line-up — Barton, his brother Rick on lead guitar, Michael “Whitey” White on bass, and Walter Gustafson on drums — managed one more single, “Bright Lights”/“Best Friend.” True to their priorities at the time, it saluted rock and roll on the A-side and saved the girlfriend for the flip. (Both original singles appear as bonus tracks on Rock 1980, dubbed off scratchy vinyl — Barton says it was engineer Nick Zampirello’s in-joke idea to turn the scratches up.)