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The band time forgot

The shocking truth about the Outlets
By BRETT MILANO  |  November 14, 2007

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.)

The Outlets didn’t make an album for another four years, by which time the personnel had shifted (White went on to the Blackjacks and Gustafson to Gang Green) along with the sound. Whole New World (1985, Restless) offered slower tempos and a more mainstream approach. “We were under pressure to make money at the time,” Barton admits. “And that was the most popular the Outlets ever got, but that record sounds freakin’ horrible.”

Barton would jump in and out of the music industry, and the Outlets, for years afterward; his personal low point came when he went to Los Angeles in the early ’90s with a publishing deal. “I heard a lot of promises and wrote some good songs. But I was at the bottom of the totem pole.” The Outlets reared their head again in 1999, when long-time ally John McDermott wound up working at the Hendrix family’s label and commissioned an album. The homonymous result (out of print already) was solid enough, though it was more a Barton solo effort than a true Outlets album, with half band oldies and half leftover songs from LA. By then, Barton was committed to his family and his new career, so the disc never got promoted. Meanwhile, Rick Barton went through his own up-and-down career, co-founding Dropkick Murphys and writing much of their first two albums.

But the original Outlets line-up — by now recognized as the only real Outlets — still did the occasional reunion, most recently at local DJ Carmelita’s anniversary party at the Abbey Lounge last year. Still buzzed from that show, Barton got the band into the studio the following week, invited a few friends (including Dropkicks singer Al Barr and the first EP’s producer, Richie Parsons), and knocked the new disc out in four days. Instead of struggling with material, they pulled an early set list out of mothballs and recorded that. And they got the blast they were after. Only Barton’s deeper voice marks it as a latter-day recording.

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  Topics: Music Features , The Ramones , Punk Rock , Entertainment ,  More more >
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