Gather round, my children, for a story of our Founding Fathers your teachers forgot to tell you.
You’ve heard of the Boston Tea Party, a late-18th Century protest carried out by a bunch of thoroughly pissed-off merchants and tradesmen, the likes of which has tea boxes embedded in Boston Harbor’s murky bottom to this day. Well, this is the story of a band who, in their own way, formed a different kind of revolution. While George Washington had the Battle of Bunker Hill, punky kids who had trouble going to school five days a week had The Channel, a legendary ‘80s Boston nightclub located—you guessed it—across from the famed site of the Boston Tea Party rebellion. From Anthrax to X, all the best played at The Channel. Not giving a rat’s ass about school, a young Dicky Barrett trekked into Boston from just outside Norwood, Massachusetts to play the generally (and shamelessly) oversold 1,700-audience venue.
“That’s the very first show I ever played in a band,” Dicky says, waxing nostalgic. “I was still in high school. I was 17, I believe. I opened up for the Misfits at The Channel with my punk rock band called Impact Unit, which was named after the Norwood riot truck. There was a van that basically drove around to places that we would be drinking beer in the woods and the van was called Impact Unit. We had this four-piece punk band and a really good practice base. We practiced in the same room that ‘Til Tuesday practiced in.
“It was all pretty cool. We played The Channel and I was just so nervous… The place was packed because it was the Misfits. There’s still footage of that Misfits concert. You can find that on YouTube. We opened up…us and The F.U’s. Also, one night — it’s in a BossToneS song called ‘The Route That I Took,’ on Pin Points and Gin Joints, about a night where they threw me out of The Channel. The whole Boston punk-ska scene was at this Bad Manners show at The Channel.”
While the more traditional Founding Fathers were enduring early military training and sharpening their quills for declarations and presidencies, teenage Dicky was fully cementing his future as a mainstream rabble-rouser, trading parochial school for public because he had trouble staying out of trouble.
“The Channel bouncers were gangsters, but we also knew them. They were roughly our age but they were from Southie and Charlestown, so it was a mix of that. [They were] like, ‘Look dude, I’ll throw you in the river.’ You think, ‘Oh, right. You’re going to throw me in the river?’ We got thrown out and then we found a way to watch from a window that involved climbing out on the rickety old pier. It went up against the building and so we made it to the window, and we’re watching from there and then the bouncers spotted us looking through the window. They trapped us on the pier on both sides, and then we somehow got around them. They chased us to the South End and to another waterfront in that area in South Boston all night.
“I loved The Channel. The BossToneS had great shows there, and shows I went to were fantastic there. It was in that really cool gnarly neighborhood at that time. It’s probably beautiful now.”
Despite all his success, Dicky will never forget where he came from — and he’ll never change his Boston phone number.
You see, an area code, dear marauders and miscreants, is more than just a trio of numbers — it’s a way of life. Dicky Barret understands this better than anyone, as he’s L.A. based “for all intents and purposes”, but has held onto his 617 since the mid-90s. “I kept that from my childhood. When I first got a cellphone, when I first started touring back in 1994. I always assumed, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be out of Boston for very long.’ I just kept it everywhere I went. It’s fun to drop on people. If you run into somebody in L.A. and you give them the phone number and he’s like, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, dude. You keep it real.’”
This may very well be his secret weapon. Or superpower. “617…” he ponders. “It’s the real Massachusetts, Boston phone number. There’s some 781s, I think now and some 508s…but we all know the 617 is the real deal.”
He adds: “I think Paul Revere had 617.”
“Our Founding Fathers, most of our Founding Fathers…Ben Franklin had a 617. Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, and Dicky Barrett.” He declares, illeism intact, and further noting the hard plastic phone with the endless, twisted cord he’d conduct important “Founding Father business” on. “You could throw it at the wall and it’d be fine. With a long, twisted cord.” He reenacts a phone call: “Listen, I got to make this quick dude,” he says, in full desperate high schooler voice. “Just a dime back, okay? All I’ve got is $10. I stole it from my mother’s purse.”
May marks the release of their 11th studio album When God Was Great. “I would get in trouble with the other guys if I didn’t call it a masterpiece,” Dicky says. Before you cast this off as a Dicky-ism—he’s not wrong. Yes, it’s the same signature ever-optimistic ska-punk sound, but, somehow, actually greater.
“They and me, we worked pretty hard, and when it came time we were like, ‘Oh, gosh. We’re all sitting at home. What do we do now?’ We just kicked into high gear…. We were writing anyway…then it was just almost to engage people into doing something super creative in an effort to go, ‘Please, we don’t really understand completely what’s going on in the world right now so let’s do what we do best and that’s create together and make music.’” The track “The Killing of Georgie (Part III)” was written shortly after the death of George Floyd, with lyrics inspired by John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the speech Bobby Kennedy gave the night MLK was assassinated. “We’re so proud of [the album]. When we finished, and got to stand back and looked at it, it was like, ‘Holy smokes, we’ve made something really good.’”
There’s an air of poignant nostalgia—and at times a subtle romance, if you will—as only Dicky and the band can do it, preserving their affable edge, larger-than-life, louder-than-most, approachable Everymen.
Surprisingly, Dicky doesn’t flinch when faced with a “nostalgic” or “romantic” review.
“I think that when you spend a lifetime being the musical equivalent of the Bowery Boys — replace the word Bowery with Boston — and you’re just kind of, ‘Oh, those guys will talk about tough guys.’ I think that when you’ve lived and been doing what we do for so long, you’ve bought the right to be just exactly what you described. To not be [sentimental or nostalgic] would be denying what we went through and ignoring exactly who we are. All of the things I describe and the experiences I’ve had in Boston and traveling the world playing BossToneS songs, that’s a combination of who we are now and I’m not embarrassed by it.
“I don’t think we embarrassed ourselves. I don’t think we’ve rolled around. We’re not a disaster, we’re not a mess. All we did was try to go from town to town and place to place, and spread unity and talk of the power of being together and getting together and lead by example. There’s two ways you can be at our age: One is ignore everything you’ve gone through and ignore everything you’ve done and be sour and bitter, or embrace it and say, ‘Hey, these are the things. These are the elements. These are the components that made us who we are.’ Once we started doing that then it freed everything up. It allowed songs like ‘Certain Things and Lonely Boys’ to be what they wanted to be. You’d go, like, is ‘Lonely Boy’ too upright? It’s like, no, that’s the kind of song it wants to be, it’s begging us to be that and it would be cruel if we didn’t let it be.”
Their first studio album Devil’s Night Out, was released in 1989. Thirty-two years later, they’re focused on God. The album title, When God Was Great, implies a harkening back to idealistic days. Just listen to the lyrics from the title track: When God was good/It was understood/There was no better place to be than in our neighborhood/When God was great/We just couldn’t wait/To get as far away from there we didn’t hesitate.
“’When God Was Great’ talks about Cambridge,” Dicky explains. “Most of the BossToneS grew up in Cambridge, Central Square and Harvard Square, that area of Boston, which is also where I came of age, too. I’d go into town and those were my friends and those were people I’d hang with. Those are the words and references of it, but then it talks more broadly about us, and us growing up together.
“It’s at a time when things were so much better and everything, the stuff was so much more promising, just the blessing and the gift of being young people at that time. That’s where I got the line ‘When God was great,’ and ‘When God was good.’ It was in the middle of my Xaverian [Catholic high school in Westwood, Massachusetts], my upbringing, my gothic background. It was also at the very same time we were making a record called Devil’s Night Out.
“We liked the juxtaposition and going against the grain and rubbing people the wrong way, and it’s all cartoon characters to us. It appealed to us to use When God Was Great because 11 records ago, we called a record Devil’s Night Out.”
Within an album filled with so many treasures, there’s one that stands out as truly precious: their cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Long As I Can See the Light”, written by John Fogerty. The cover is achieved with such stunning, almost hymnal reverence, a revived anthem for the modern ska-punk heart.
Dicky explains why it was so important to make this incredible song distinctly their own. “The original version…it’s so good and his voice is so good. I was thinking I wanted ours, of course, to have a Jamaican ska feel to it. Let’s be fair to ourselves: the BossToneS feel. I sent it to the keyboard player. [He] said, ‘Let’s learn this one. We can get this on the record. I’d like to get this covered.’ It speaks in the same language as all the other songs. It talks of what we do and who we are, and family and friends and the people we’ve put together.”
“On that level, it really worked for the record. We had made a demo of it, when we got Tim Armstrong involved in the production. Tim was like, ‘The Fogerty brothers lived right down the street from me.’ They were like guys in his neighborhood in the Berkeley, California area where he grew up. I was so into this thing. The great Tim Armstrong of Rancid and his neighbors, the older kids in the neighborhood, are the band that we decided we were going to cover. There’s a lot of Berkeley California/Boston crossover reference thing, that kind of thread that’s woven through the album as well.”
When God Was Great may just be the album the BossToneS have been striving for their entire career, capturing everything we love about who they’ve always been, while cementing their spot amongst some of the greatest and most creative musicians to endure a going-on-40-year career.
The album ends with the near eight-minute-long “The Final Parade”, an epic closer, featuring a died-and-gone-to-heaven guest list, including Armstrong (who produced the album with Ted Hutt) Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns, Fishbone’s Angelo Moore, Suicide Machine’s Jay Navarro, Murphy’s Law’s Jimmy G, and then some.
Dicky refers to the song as a “love letter to ska.”
“Ska is always something that’s been very close to my heart. The people that have contributed to this track and countless other like-minded ska lovers mean a great deal to me and the BossToneS. Without overcomplicating things here, I guess the time felt right so we took the opportunity to say, ‘Thank you ska music, we hope we didn’t do too much damage! Either way, we love you.’”