A Brief History of Boston Punk Rock Venues: From “The Rat” to Rat City

Photo by David Henry

Photo by David Henry

by Erin Christie

During the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Boston began to rise as a pop cultural hub. With college kids swarming the area, along came a surge of rock ’n’ roll. Soon enough, various clubs and dive bars sprung up throughout the scene wherein a youthful audience could be served loud, danceable music catered for them, by them.

Writer for Culture Brats, Big Dubya, affectionately recalls his days living in Boston during the ‘80s, noting specifically “Boston’s punk home in Kenmore Square,” “The Rat.” Located under the glow of the historic Citgo sign, The Rathskeller (aka the Rat) was joined by clubs such as Where It’s At, Storyville and Psychedelic Supermarket. In the 1970s and ’80s, discos moved in (e.g., Lucifer’s), while the Rat became the locus of Boston’s punk rock scene.

“If you were up and coming, you played The Rat,” Dubya claimed, and this turned out to be relatively true. Over the years, punk icons such as The Cars, Talking Heads, The Ramones, and many more took the Rathskeller by storm in their early days. Playing the Rat became a sort of stepping stone on the journey toward stardom.

In 2001, the legendary building that once housed The Rat was demolished, though its legacy was far from destroyed in the process. In its once holy place, Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks now stands, far more elegant than the gritty, dingy, dark, and beer-soaked cellar that once housed rowdy teens and local stars. In 1976, a live record entitled Live at the Rat was released, covering roughly an hour of sessions at the “cellar full of noise” taped between September 27th and 29th of that year. Though one can’t experience the wonder that was The Rat themselves, listening to said record draws upon the same feeling that audience members assuredly felt.

Over the years—especially considering The Rat’s eternal resting place—Boston status as a “punk power-hub” may have depleted slightly, but Allston, “Rat City,” won’t let it die completely.

“Going out in Allston can be very similar to getting hit by ten B line trains all at once—except it’s your fault every time,” notes an article entitled ”Allston Rat City: How to Recover from Allston.” Allston, as described within this article, is a wild trip of a city sub-section, where dreams come to die and ideas manifest out of the shadows and lead to poorly-constructed consequences. In other words, when you go to Allston, there’s a likely possibility that you may end up projectile vomiting or needing to do damage control when you, in a drunken haze, “[send] your ex a text at 2 a.m. that says “Let me clap dem cheeks” or some other brilliant epithet[1].” Despite the strong duality that exists between Allston and, say, Beacon Hill, its roots remain an integral part in Boston youth culture (if you have enough courage to brave it!).

Allston, despite its rough patches, is home to what can be considered the closest thing to a current “punk” scene in Boston, at least in terms of college kids banding together to put on shows sporadically and with oftentimes, poor sound quality. If you’re looking for a house show, chances are, you’ll be taking a trip down to Allston, to some hole-in-the-wall, dank, dusty basement where you’ll be sure to have the most fun you’ve ever had in your life.

During the ‘80s, Boston clubs and venues began to shift—atmospheres similar to the Rat no longer had the desire to cater to audiences comprised largely of angsty teens who weren’t of legal age. This, despite initially being a tragedy, created a spark in kids making their own bands and housing their own gigs at venues where they could control the entire experience, whether that was their mom’s cellar, a neighborhood rec center, or elsewhere.

One spot where the scene began taking root in the ‘80s was an art and performance space in Boston’s leather district called Gallery East. “As more acts poured in,” recalls Daniel So for High Snobiety, “the venue quickly became a refuge for teens looking to discover a world beyond their suburban neighborhoods.” Today, various spaces like Gallery East find their home speckled about Allston and other local neighborhoods, allowing for space where youth could thrive, create, and revel in the amazing power that music possesses as a communal experience. Today, spaces such as the Cambridge Community Center take similar roles.

Aside from Allston, punk exists in every crack and crevice of Boston’s internal makeup. Even Cambridge, home of the ever-prestigious institution, Harvard University, houses the infamous Cambridge Elks Lodge (otherwise known as Hardcore Stadium) where acts such as Show Me the Body, Mint Green, The Impalers, and so many more acts have taken the stage since its 2014 conception.

Despite it being roughly thirty years since the beginnings of Boston’s punk scene, where front-runners had their start and Boston patrons cowered in fear, it would be unfair to say that parts of that culture don’t still exist around the city. Part of what makes Boston Boston is the “punkish” mentality that continues to shape its youth. For all we know, our favorite local DIY acts as of late might turn into the next Blondie, our favorite house venue, the next “Rat.”

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