The more I learn about the Boston rock-and-roll scene of the 1970s, the more I am struck with how entrenched and artistically incestuous the players were… and still are! They were in and out of each other’s bands, jammed in the clubs together, shared crash pads and drugs and women. They were all grabbing for that brass ring combo of self-expression and fan-following that meant success. In competition with each other but also in cahoots, many made it, many didn’t. And out of the chaos and the grime and the striving, a welding happened; the unbreakable bond of a brotherhood was forged by survival and experience, and they all felt loyalty to it.
With producer and multi-instrumentalist Barry Marshall, I stumbled across a loose thread of a memory and followed it down and around his unique path in Boston music history, where the friendships cemented in those raucous days would yo-yo throughout his career for the next 50 years.
It kind of started with this: Back in 1980 all five members of The Cars were in the studio to promote the Panorama album with Mark Parenteau on WBCN. Let’s zoom in on one part of the interview for a minute. At about the 16:35 mark, a guy calls in and identifies himself as Edgar (or, more accurately, “Ed-gah”). He makes his comments and asks his question, but during the call he is ‘outed’ by staff member Eddie Gorodetsky, who reveals that the caller is actually named Barry Marshall. David immediately jumps on board with the joke. I snipped that audio out and posted it by itself, if you want to take a listen.
Now fast-forward to a couple of months ago when our good friend Becky B was scouring the internet for photos of Ben. She came across these pictures from a record release party in 1979 for a Boston band called The Marshalls. See Ben and David? And guess who they were posted by? Yup, a guy named Barry Marshall – that name! She immediately recognized the possibility of the connection to the WBCN recording and confirmed that yes indeedy, this Barry is the very same one that called in on that interview forty years ago. Barry was floored when, prompted by Becky, he took a listen to the recording. “I honestly hadn’t thought about that since I did it,” he laughed.
Thanks to Becky’s sleuthing, I was able to get in touch with Barry and chat with him about his relationship with The Cars. As it turns out, the bond of friendship between these Boston musicians started early and has remained relevant over all these years.
At the beginning of the 1970s, clubs in Boston were fairly boiling with talented and wild-eyed musicians who were ready to blow the lid off of the music scene. The roster of groundbreaking names is long and stunning (and heavily intertwined!), so for our purposes, I’ll just mention a few. Jonathan Richman and his Modern Lovers were on the scene, with David Robinson on drums. Simultaneously, there was a band called The Sidewinders that was fronted by singer Andy Paley. Andy Paley was friendly with The Modern Lovers, and also good buddies with our drummer and songwriter Barry Marshall, so through Andy, Barry met and became friends with David Robinson in about 1975-76ish. Whew! Did you follow that?
At the time, Barry lived in Scituate, a South Shore community located about an hour southeast of Boston proper. Many Boston bands made their way to the stage of a local club called The Bell Buoy. Barry remembers seeing Cap’n Swing play there a couple of times and he really liked them, taking note of their unique look and sound. “Ben didn’t play bass and was the main singer. I remember him in high boots, like a pirate! Elliot wore a beret a lot. And they had longer hair.”
That would have been about 1976. Not long after that, a new band called The Cars showed up for a gig. Barry recognized Ben and Ric from Cap’n Swing, and low-and-behold, there was David Robinson on drums. Barry was surprised by the visual contrast between the two bands.
“[Cap’n Swing] were still kind of ‘hippy,’ and The Cars completely went in a different look,” he explained, acknowledging how obvious it was that David designed the unique style of The Cars. “I’m one of those people that actually truly believe that David … I mean, all of them were crucial to the success of the band, but David was actually especially crucial because I really saw the difference right away. I really liked the other band a lot, I thought they were really good, but I was completely knocked out as soon as I saw The Cars.”
Barry came to know the other members of The Cars through his early connections. “We were kind of friendly with them from the get-go because of David,” he confirmed. Andy Paley knew Elliot, too, and everyone’s paths crossed and criss-crossed all over the place.
The Cars played at The Bell Buoy probably once a month for about a year, performing four sets a night, three nights in a row. They did some original stuff, but they also sprinkled in covers like, “Love is the Drug” by Roxy Music and “Gimme Little Sign” by Brenton Wood. In fact, Barry vividly remembers Elliot singing, “Something Else” by Eddie Cochran, and that is where Barry’s WBCN comment came from.
Barry genuinely thought Elliot had a great voice and enjoyed it when he sang, but it was pretty obvious that The Cars were settled on just Ric and Ben on vocals. Still, Barry would bring it up just to tease Ric. “I used to joke even when I was playing with them, just before they really took off. I used to needle Ric and say, ‘Oh, you should let Elliot sing more. He’s great!’ and he would actually get almost mad about it. He wasn’t amused!” Barry recalled, laughing. “Although I got along really well with him; I got along with all of them. They were really great.”
But where did “Ed-gah” come from?
Around 1975, Barry and his siblings were striving to get their own band, The Marshalls, off the ground. In order to help make ends meet (and partake of some cool free perks), Barry took up writing in local papers: he wrote opinion pieces and film reviews for publications like The Real Paper and The Boston Globe. When he started writing about the music scene, he recognized that as a musician himself there was a bit of a conflict of interest, and, not wanting to tarnish his credibility, he began writing under the pen name of Edgar Willow. Eventually he gave up the writing gigs as his own music career got more serious and successful, but the alias came in handy for things like calling up his buddies on the radio and busting their balls during their interviews. Haha!
The Marshalls, consisting mainly of the three brothers, Kenny, Kevin, and Barry, and later their sister, Ellie, started playing seriously in 1975. All of them wrote songs, contributing to the fun, happy vibe of the group; they were ambitious and eager. The Marshalls opened for The Cars several times when The Cars were on their way up. Not everyone had heard of them yet, but they were famous around town. “[The Cars] were already known in Boston as being the hot-shit new band in Boston,” as Barry put it.
Because The Marshalls had the connection with The Cars early on, they got the gigs with them; Barry guesses they played about ten openers for them altogether. “And then when they really got going, it was a little bit more difficult to get opening for them, because all of the bands that were a little bit bigger than us in Boston tended to get it then.” And rightfully so, Barry concedes. “It was understandable, why it went that way. But we were still friends with them; everybody was friendly, there was no issue about that. If anything, they were so friendly that they’d have so many people backstage that it was a problem!” he joked.
As The Cars’ popularity grew, and they were getting closer and closer to landing a deal, Barry and David would help each other out when it came to booking shows. Barry explained, “It was like, ‘Hey, I could put together a show at this place in Marshfield called the Rexicana, and if you guys were to open, I would put it together just to play with you all.’ And David might say, ‘Yeah, we need a gig for so and so to come see that weekend.’ That happened with a couple of gigs at The Club in Cambridge, where I put together three nights at the joint with a band called The Criers from NYC, and David mentioned, ‘Oh, we need to play for someone that weekend, would you want to put us on the bill?’ And they played two of the nights, which, of course, were packed! I wasn’t really booking as a job, but I was promoting shows just to get The Marshalls good gigs!”
One night in late 1977, Barry pulled together a gig for The Cars and The Marshalls. They played a weekend at The Rexicana: two nights, sold out, for about 800-1000 people each performance. Unexpectedly, Barry saw a bit of Cars’ history being made.
You know how David plays the Syndrums on “Good Times Roll” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” on the first album? Well, those Syndrums were a pretty new technology at the time, and it’s no surprise that David wanted them. Using the advance money the band received from Elektra, David worked with Syndrum rep Andy Bergsten to purchase a set, and the two spent some time fiddling around with them in the studio, figuring out the most effective way to incorporate them into The Cars’ songs.
So on one of those specific nights at The Rexicana, Andy came in and David played the Syndrums for the first time in a live set. Barry was floored when he heard the results. It was SO revolutionary. “Nobody had seen something like that. People in the audience were stunned,” Barry recalled, still impressed with the genius of the sound. “It was amazing.”
Those were exhilarating times. “Opening for The Cars was really fun, first of all, but second of all, it was educational,” Barry emphasized. “We learned a lot about showmanship and about performance and stuff.”
Of course, Ben made a lasting impression. “Ben Orr had a huge influence on every band in Boston. Half the guys in Boston imitated the things that Ben did, if you know what I’m saying,” Barry shared, laughing. “Those looks he would give, and the way he would bend down with the bass, and that ‘pursed lips’ thing! I even did that a couple of times! That little pout that he did, to me he invented that. I mean, I don’t know if he really invented that, but to me he did!”
Barry continued, “I gotta say, I honestly don’t think The Cars might have made it quite like they did – they wouldn’t have been as big if it wasn’t for him, because he sold it in the beginning, he totally sold it.”
But The Cars’ influence went deeper than exuding rock-star sex appeal. Barry had example after example of how his bond with the members of The Cars continued to intersect with the trajectory of his own career.
After The Cars got signed, David bought two brand new sets of Slingerland drums, and he gave Barry a deal on his old ones. In around January, 1978, Barry and his brother went to pick them up from Ric’s house where they were stored. While they were there, Ric started asking them questions about what was happening with their band. At the time, The Marshalls were talking with a manager and there was some interest from a record label and talk of publishing, and it was a bit over Barry’s head; he didn’t quite understand the process. He explained all this to Ric, and Ric said, “Oh, okay… you guys got a little time? Come on in the house and let’s talk and I’ll explain some of this to you.”
Still grateful, Barry explained, “We spent like two or three hours with him, and to this day, that’s the most I ever learned about the music business in the shortest amount of time.” He continued, “For years, later, I taught a lot of that music business stuff and every once in a while I’ll say, ‘well the person who taught me most about this was Ric Ocasek.’”
Remember when I mentioned Andy Paley earlier? Well, in the late 70s Andy was the caretaker of this incredible mansion at the bottom of Beacon Hill that was owned by the Museum of Fine Arts. While he was in residence, he used to throw these amazing, elaborate parties there. In 1979, when The Marshalls released their first album, Andy hosted their record release party, and Ben and David attended (see those two photos above). By this time, The Cars were riding the charts with their debut album and getting Candy-O under their belt, too, so their presence created quite a buzz. “As an element of the party, that was a big deal that they came. A lot of people talked about the party because, ‘oh! The Cars were there!’” Barry laughed.
In some ways, it wasn’t a surprise: the support, the endorsement, the returning of a favor for a Boston brother. “The one thing about The Cars… they were super-supportive of local bands. They were really nice.”
The Marshalls had some local success – and a lot of fun – with their original music, and Barry found his true calling, though not as a drummer. That first album served to showcase Barry’s production skills, and it wasn’t long before other artists were asking him to produce their stuff. Gradually it took on a life of its own, and ultimately Barry ended up carving out a long and varied career as a producer of music and movie soundtracks, while continuing as a performer and session musician.
[You can take a listen to The Marshalls’ original tunes by clicking on this playlist I created. Great stuff!]
In fact, Barry was into producing records when The Cars bought their own recording studio, Syncro Sound, in 1981. He did several projects there, like these charity Christmas albums he produced for WBCN. The Cars let Barry work on them at Syncro Sound basically for cost. Though it was pretty much ‘nose to the grindstone’ when he was focused on a job, Barry could definitely feel the club-like atmosphere. There was always something going on at the studio. The Cars recorded there (of course), and Ric, Elliot, and David were all involved in producing various acts. David lived right around the corner off of Newbury Street and he came in a lot. There was always a steady stream of different people going in and out. “It was definitely a hang.”
Barry owned a video store on the same street. “Very typically people would rent all the video tapes for that place [Syncro Sound] at my store, and so I would see Ric about every other day doing that. He’d come in and get about ten movies just to amuse people to keep them out of his hair when he was working, you know what I mean? So it was enough of a clubhouse that he did that to keep them out of his hair, literally.”
Eventually the studio was sold and Barry didn’t run into the guys much anymore. The years marched on, and the Boston brotherhood stayed intact. Barry worked closely with Andy Paley on the soundtrack for the 1988 film Shag, The Movie, producing two songs with the iconic rhythm and blues singer Lavern Baker. That experience led him into one of the most fulfilling stretches of his career as Ms. Baker’s producer and musical director from 1989 until her death in 1997. It was the best of all worlds for him: he was touring and playing on stage with her in front of thousands of people, jamming with people he grew up idolizing, and running things from the producer’s chair. Even more importantly, Ms. Baker influenced Barry’s growth as a man and a musician.
“If she hadn’t died in 1997 I might still be doing that, because it was that much fun. We had a good relationship; more like a mother-son almost, because at the time I started working with her I was about 37 or 38, and she was about 59-60, so she was an older woman, of course. I loved hanging out with her; I had such a great time. Every day I did with her I learned something about music, and every day I did with her I learned something about life. It was that kind of a thing. It was tremendous.”
Take a minute to enjoy this footage of Barry (on the right with the red guitar) performing with the legendary Lavern Baker in 1991. Man, that woman can SING.
After Ms. Baker passed, Barry turned his attention back to producing music for Boston artists. During these years Barry would run into Elliot from time to time through work with Andy Paley and other common friends in LA. They crossed paths again in 2013 when Barry was producing an album for a fellow Scituate-tonian (I might have just invented that word), Kevin McCarty and his group, Twice the Size of Jupiter. Barry invited Elliot to play on the album, and Elliot was terrific. Barry remembers, “I realized this is a guy that is not only a great guitar player, but he really knows how to play sessions; he really knows how to get what you need and fairly quickly.”
Having established a good working relationship, and being highly impressed with Elliot’s professionalism and versatility as a session musician, Barry recently collaborated with Elliot on a much more current album… but the story of that project overlaps with the path of another rocker, a next-generation Boston musician who has Cars threads of his own to weave. Should we be surprised? Stay tuned: Boston Boys, Part 2 will include the rest of Barry’s story, insight into Elliot in the studio, an encounter with Ben in the 90s, and the journey of a kick-ass new album you’re definitely going to want to hear!
Here’s a little Barry Marshall bonus: a snippet of an episode of Joe Viglione’s Visual Radio show featuring Barry and Fox Pass co-founder Jon Macey. I love it!