The Neats career was one which spanned the years from the late 70′s to the 90′s. Their early single “Six” was a pop gem that got national attention, with a pure sixties reverberating ? and the Mysterians twang. Their later career found the band compared to REM, while their final incarnation mutated the Boston roots sound with metal and Allman Brothers-era solos. Talk about chameleons! Yet at no time did the band’s live shows or recordings sound premeditated or forced. It was just like we got to watch the Neats grow up up, stylistically, and like any inquisitive soul they covered a lot of ground. The Neats themselves have now grown apart but they have left an indelible mark on Boston rock as well as some great recordings behind.
My own friendship with the Neats began back in the mid-70′s, right after the band located to Boston to pursue their rock dreams. In those days my friend Anthony Rauseo and I used to joke about them receiving personal mail as “A Neat- at such and such an address, Allston Mass.” We marvelled at the way they were inseperable and indistinguishable, common cells in a single organism. And we both admired and envied that they were a real band like the Beatles or the Monkees or something- you just didn’t ever think of them as seperate individuals. If someone asked “who was that” about a member Anthony would answer “a Neat”.
The Neats had a place they rented just off North Harvard St., by Rugg Road in Allston. They set up a little club in the basement, with a little stage area and a bunch real booths and a PA., and threw parties that featured sets by the hosts as well as extensive jamming. These parties were as good- if not better – than most club shows at the time. Heck, the basement was almost as big as Cantones (and better lit!), and there were no boxers from Southie to harrass you at the door like there were over at the Rat. As I gaze back through the murky mists of time I recall these halcyon days as the time when the local scene was the most fun. There was a great soldarity between the few dozen bands playing out regularly, the compartmentalization of different cliches and sub-cliches hadn’t become entrenched yet and DIY was the overriding rule. It seemed everywhere I went there was a Neat, good-humored and friendly, always eager to play. I remember one night we heard there was going to be this big after-hours party down by the Channel- which was then a disco called the Mad Hatter. Someone had been running around the club- I forget if it was the Rat or Cantone’s -and advertising this super-jam. I drove over with my best friend from East Boston, Slow Children drummer Anthony Rauseo, and when we arrived there was this enormous stage all set up with drums and amps and even lights. And up on the stage were two Neats, and that was it. Not even the host was around! But everything was plugged in, so Anthony jumped on the drums and I plugged in and the four of us jammed until the wee hours. It was all about the excitement of just playing.
The Neats loved the music and they loved being part of the scene. They genuinely enjoyed being musicians, and for that I loved the Neats. Their tenacious presence on the Boston scene made them an influence on it, and indeed they are one of the handful of groups who really contributed to a creating a unique, definable Boston sound.
There were a great number of Boston music fans who the Neats left an indelible impression on. I get messages from them regularly in response to this admittedly sparse article. For example, in May of ’99 I got the following email from Kathleen Patton (who describes herself as “a devoted scene-maker in Boston from about 1979-1985, before I moved to NYC”):
I have very fond memories of going to Neats parties at their famous little white shingle house in Allston. A diary entry I wrote about one of them said something like:
“After the band played for what seemed like hours, and I drank about 2 six-packs and smoked about 2 million cigarettes, and I saw Roger Miller dancing in the living room, and Sheena hit someone over the head with a beer bottle, and the police came, we left.”
Sort of sums it up.
And when my then-beau Jack Hickey actually moved into the house after someone (Jerry?) left, I was there all the time, hanging out in the livingroom listening to Pebbles records, etc., for hours upon end. And I was dancing amid the rubble when they pulled the ceiling down at the Underground while the Neats thrashed out “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” So even though we’ve all dispersed, I cherish memories of my “Neats Years”…
When we opened Fort Apache South in Roxbury Eric Martin was one of the first people I hunted down and into whose hand I pressed a business card. Before long I was sitting in on rehearsals in their tiny space beneath Jack’s Drum Shop. Producing Crash at Crush was a labor of love and I tried hard to make the definitive Boston LP. That record remains one of my three all-time favorite Fort Apache releases, and I am as proud of “Angel” today as I am of any song I’ve produced, recorded or been involved with as an owner. Sure, I was still learning my craft, and there are technical aspects of the record that are far less than perfect. It was only the second 16-track project we did at the Fort so we were renting a Tascam machine, and our 16 channel, 8-buss Neotek I mixing board was pushed well beyond it’s capabilities- we had to get a second portable mixer just to play back tracks and add effects. But what we lacken in technology and experience we made up for, in my humble opinion, in enthusiasm and effort. We logged several 14 hour days, and in the heat the four Neats produced a mountain of Budweiser cans that took half an hour for Paul and I to remove.
There were aspects of the production approach I took that members of the band weren’t crazy about at the time. Phil in particular was highly resistant towards having any non-Neats play on the record. He favored a totally live approach with little or no overdubbing except for Eric’s vocals and maybe guitar solos. I felt just as strongly that the studio should be used as a tool to create a product that was greater than the sum of the songs plus magnetic tape. You could just set up a machine at the Rat or someplace and then clean up the tracks later in a studio if what you wanted was a live record, I offered. I wanted to make a record like the Beatles made a record, where the studio itself was like an additional instrument, the producer became a temporary band member, and other musicians could be integrated into the sessions when a certain part was called for that strengthened the song. That was the key- to only add parts when it clearly improved the quality of the song as recorded. We reached a compromise eventually with Eric serving as the moderator. I promised Phil that I would (as I always did) treat their tunes as though they were my own and only propose adding parts that worked to augment the message and mood of the song. Only if the tune was clearly improved by a production idea would we keep the idea, and of course the band was free to override any changes I suggested. There would be no “dog balls production”, a pet concept of mine that alludes to the habit some producers have of arbitrarily making changes to a song that already works just fine- just because they can. The idea came to me from the old joke: why does a dog lick his balls: because he can.
I’m not sure how Phil or Terry or Eric look at the results of the compromise now but the reviewers and critics seemed to like what they heard. Well, at least most of the contemporary reviwers. Ira Robbins offers this retrospective comment from the Trouser Press 70′s and 80′s record review section:
“Led by the song ‘Big Loud Sound’ and a raunchy remake of ‘Monkey’s Head’, the pounding big-beat swamp-rock comes as a shock from this once modestly amplified group. Raspy guitar distortion (intentional and otherwise–shitty production adds to the fuzziness) dominates, as Martin gallantly vies for attention over Phil Caruso’s thick six-string roar…Crash at Crush doesn’t quite work, but it’s a promising enough experiment.”
There was some problem during that general time period with many of the records we sent out for mastering that had really hot guitar levels- like Crash at Crush. Mastering labs were using digital compression and EQ for the first time, and high guitar levels sometimes triggered a nasty digital distortion easily mistaken for purposeful guitar crunch- or “shitty production”. We were also pushing our meager equipment to the absolute limit, and any minor clipping was then mega-amplified by the digital compressors. The other possibility is that my production sucked, but I personally love the guitar sound on that record. The Neats wanted huge and we did our best to give it to them…now, as far as the drum sound…
The most controversial overdub during the sessions was an organ part on “Angel” that I brought Ted Pine of the former Sex Execs in to play. Every time I listened to the song during my pre-production I heard a lilting, Hammond-meets-Vox-organ part in my head. The tune was lovely but tended to sound sort of choppy and I wanted to have a fluid instrument that acted like an adhesive to bond the parts together and smooth transitions between sections. Ted listened, went home and returned with a few of his own custom digital keyboard sounds to choose from and a killer part. I added guitar parts on three songs. On “For You” I added a Les-Paul type part (with my red ’66 teli) with the round, sustained tone replete with feedback that I call the Wooly Flute Tone. This basically is the same sound that Clapton and Mountain’s Leslie West called the Woman Tone, where the middle pickup of a Gibson guitar is used with one tone knob turned all the way down. My teli has a ’59 teli treble pickup rewound with 3000 extra turns and the pickups waxed, so it sounds more like a Gibson P90, and by using the “middle pickup” setting and putzing with the tone knob I get that same sound- of course the amp has to be cranked or a suitable fuzz box used (for this tune I used a Reverb Rocket and a Foxx Tone Machine). The “Tear My Soul” part I added with a Nick Hoffman Brian Jones model guitar, a funky unit with a metal box for a body and the pickups inside the box. The weird phase effects generated through the stainless body served as a mock-sitar part on the choruses. On “Soldier Blue” I added a highly reverberated Epiphone Riviera XII string part, augmented by miking the bridge of the electric twelve and mixing it in with the amp sound (often Sean Slade would also mike a solid body electric as an effect). The final overdubs were backup vocals using a male choir of myself, Ted Pine, Dave “Bone” Pedersen and Stona Fitch (from Scruffy the Cat).
I’d recently been out to Texas with my ex, screenwriter Gretchen Dyer, and while there I’d visited the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco. One of the pamphlets I picked up described the disastrous 19th century staging of a locomotive crash in a town renamed Crush because of the crowds the event drew. On the last day working on the record the Neats were discussing a name for the record and drawing a blank. As I read the pamphlet and listened to the huge metallic guitar roar coming out of the speakers it occurred to me that there was a common theme between the train crash and this record. Reading on I realized that the anniversary of the crash was in fact that very day! I handed Eric the pamphlet and said “how about this for a title?” They ended up using not only the title- the photo on the cover of the pamphlet became the album cover as well.
This excerpt from a Boston Rock review of the Neats’ Crash at Crush LP, written by Kris Fell, is an excellent summation of the Neats career, and since she writes better than I do I thought I’d include it here. On the subject of the Neats she writes:
Wow. They were hot. So hot that their house caught fire and burned down. So hot that they were asked to tour with REM. So hot that record labels (indies and majors) started sniffing around, tails a-waggin’. For a while it looked like the Neats would follow the Fuegos to a life of California luxury by signing on with Slash, but they heard rumors that Slash wasn’t doing too well and might be folding. This was, in fact, not the case. Slash ended up signing its own distribution deal with Warner Bros., cementing their position as the leading U.S. indie label at that time. Who knows what would have happened it they had signed (my theory is that the Neats would be all dead. their bodies being so accustomed to Budweiser that the Miller would have done them in). But they didn’t, and that decision marked the beginning of a period of change. The big fish had to get re-accustomed to life in the small Boston pond.
The last few years haven’t been all fun for the Neats. Their original bass player quit to be replaced by Jay Parnham (ex-Flies), to be replaced most recently by David Lee. Terry Hanley shattered his kneecap one night on tour while pretending to be a hood ornament on their van. Live, the old grindy-groove was slipping. The introduction of such off-kilter rave-ups as “Whipping Post” into their set was throwing the demon-dance crowd for a loop. They countered the confusion by cranking the guitars, creating a solid wall of strum that would at times completely obliterate Eric’s already enigmatic vocals.
Weird. Fun, but weird. You couldn’t just go and trance out listening to the melodies chase each other up 3/6 hills and down 6/8 valleys.
They were heading to a musical place where lots of folks go when they’re hurting. a place called the white-trash blues. We, the audience, wuz confused. They’d never felt more like singing the blues. But, luckily for us, the Neats have pulled up short of whining about wakin’ up in the morning with a dead dog beside you and your baby done gone.
The new sounds started to make sense (to me at least) with the addition of “Baby What You Want Me To Do”. the ’60′s soul encore done most potently by Van Morrison’s Them. The new Neats sound, at its most cohesive. is a smooth blend of danceable soul tinged with their patented mix of hard-rock folk. The best way to illustrate this is to compare the version of “Monkey’s Head” on the first EP with the version on Crash at Crush. The first is sharper, with cleaner guitars, crispish high-hat and prominent vocals; the last is dirtier, more atmospheric, keening guitars jacked to the fore, vocals coming in a slurry second. It’s pretty heady stuff. As a friend has noted. they’ve traded in the white socks and penny loafers for big black boots.
Are the days of bad luck/bad timing/bad dreams over? Coyote, an arm of Twin-Tone, has picked them up for three albums with an option. Not bad considering Twin-Tone recently signed a pressing/distribu-tion/promotion deal with A&M. The Neats titled their first Coyote offering after an exhibition in destruction staged by William George Crush in Waco, Texas on September 15, 1986. Termed the “Famous Duel of the Iron Monsters”, it was “the only man-made head-on collision of locomotives ever staged.” They got the idea from a pamphlet found laying around Joe Harvard’s studio while they were recording. Their completion date coincided nicely -90 years to the date of the crash.
The single “Angel” was released as a beefed-up 12-inch and is, quite simply, a beautiful piece of work. It’s an insistent plaint, persistently driven by the backing organ, a yearning farewell to a love who disappeared with the sun’s rising. Performed live, the addition of yet a third big guitar- belonging to David Fredette (ex-Oysters, Matweeds and sometimes guitar roadie) – makes this a powerful offertory that would appease the most bad-tempered guitar god. Eric says. “Yea, it was a drag having a guitar roadie that could play better than both of us, so we had to do something with him.”
Touring through Texas and the South, they’re planning to quickly record the next album when they get back. In an attempt to define the new direction, Eric offers a beaten pile of “tapes we listen to in the van” (see list) for your listening pleasure and a hint: “Be sure to say we’re going to be doing ‘Sundown’ by Gordon Lightfoot.” Rest assured, if it’s got a groove, they’ll find it and do it justice.
The essential details of the article quoted above are accurate, as are the historical details of the bands career. In my view there are a dozen or so bands whose music defined- and still defines -the unique Boston sound. The Neats are one of them. After we finished Crash at Crush they’d would sometimes see me at a gig and invite me up to play on a number or two, usually a cover like “Baby What You Want Me To Do” or one of the tunes on the record that I’d played guitar on such as “Tear My Soul” or “For You”. If I closed my eyes it was just like being back at one of those late 70′s after hour jam sessions with Eric and Phil- the only difference was this time there were more than six people in the audience.