Robin Lane & The Chartbusters: Many Years Ago

Boston band gets its due, with electrifying bonus live tracks

The Los Angeles-born, Laurel Canyon-bred Robin Lane developed her musicality as a Golden State folky, but broke through as an east coast rock ‘n’ roller. Lane migrated from California to New York and then north to Boston, where she formed a band that quickly established itself in the late ‘70s as a regular at The Rat. Club and college dates led to a record deal with the soon-to-be-bankrupt Private Stock label, and then a more fruitful signing with Warner Brothers. The group’s self-titled 1980 debut spun off the singles “When Things Go Wrong” and “Why Do You Tell Lies?,” with the former turning up as the eleventh video played on MTV’s first day on the air. Lane’s original material was emotionally moving and melodically catchy, and her voice had the heft to lead a talented band made up of former Modern Lovers Asa Brebner and Leroy Radcliffe, Reddy Teddy bassist Scott Baerenwald and Sidewinders drummer Tim Jackson.

Formed in the middle of punk rock’s golden age, the Chartbusters managed to deploy their seasoned talent with enough passion to fit in among the less instrumentally gifted. Live and on record, the band was incredibly tight, but never seemed out of place among their punk rock colleagues. The album gained regional and college radio airplay, despite the band’s sense that it didn’t capture the essence of their guitar-centered sound, but failed to break nationally. A live EP, 5 Live and a sophomore LP, Imitation Life, failed to break the band beyond Boston, and they were dropped by their label. Lane’s pregnancy and the birth of her daughter combined with the band’s disappointing commercial results to seal the group’s fate. One more independently released 1984 EP, Heart Connection, was produced before Lane went into hiatus that eventually produced new career directions.

The Chartbusters original recording history is catalogued here in full, with all three Warner releases complemented by a pre-Warner indie single, the post-Warner EP, and a wealth of previously unreleased demos, session tracks, and live material; all that’s missing is the 2003 reunion, Piece of Mind. The debut album, despite the band’s reservations, still resounds with a great deal of rock ‘n’ roll charm. Those who first heard the band live may have been disappointed by Joe Wissert’s bright production, but the guitars aren’t exactly buried, and the drums add a lot of punch to the mix. Lane is commanding as she opens the album with a triple-shot of emotional counsel, and sings of longing that’s personal (“Be Mine Tonight”) and spiritual (“Without You”). She captured her in-the-moment reaction to Nancy Spungen’s death on the rocker “I Don’t Want to Know,” and the guitars offer Byrdsian-chime and McCartney-seque bass on “Kathy Lee.”

But even with Lane’s intense vocals, the band’s impassioned playing, and an album full of memorable lyrics and melodic hooks, the label couldn’t find a way to break the band beyond New England. Whether it was the production, the New Wave album cover, or just the random breaks of the music business, neither the singles nor the album charted nationally. The subsequent live EP, recorded at Boston’s Orpheum Theater, includes three songs not otherwise recorded by the band (“Lost My Mind,” “When You Compromise” and “8.3”), along with a scorching cover of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over.” The recording captures the band’s strength as a stage act, as well as the crowd’s enduring love for their hometown band. But again, the spark of regional enthusiasm couldn’t be grown into a national fire.

The band’s sophomore album was released the following year, and though it’s a solid effort, it didn’t have the obvious singles of the debut. The band’s continuing intensity is heard on “No Control” and the title track, and the poppier “Pretty Mala” and closing ballad “For You” are easily liked, but nothing here reaches out and really grabs the listener’s by the ears like the debut. The band’s tenure on Warner Brothers closed with a good album that wasn’t good enough to hurdle past the failed launch of the superior debut. The 1984 EP Heart Connection opens strongly with “Hard Cover,” and includes three tracks whose keyboards and handclaps date the recordings in a way that don’t affect the previous releases. The EP sessions produced seven additional tracks that are included here as bonuses. The quality of this material could certainly have merited the release of a full album, but was consigned to the vault until now.

Additional demo material includes a pair of pre-Chartbusters recordings, “Rose for Sharon” and “Never Enough” that show off Lane’s California country-folk roots. They also explain the surprise with which Lane’s earliest fans greeted the rock ‘n’ roll sound of the Chartbusters. “Never Enough” was recorded by the Pousette-Dart Band as the title song of their fourth album before Lane rewrote it as “When Things Go Wrong.” The band’s pre-Warner Brother single includes the original versions of “When Things Go Wrong” and “Why Do You Tell Lies,” along with a moving folk-pop original titled “The Letter.” This early material’s connections to Lane’s musical influences is both a treat and a revelation. Disc two is filled out with a 1980 demo of the singer-songwriter styled “The Longest Thinnest Thread,” and the fragile, violin-lined “Little Bird,” taken from the band’s 2002 reunion album.

Disc 3 is dedicated to live material, including the 5 Live EP and seventeen previously unreleased tracks recorded in clubs (Paradise Rock Club and Jonathan Swift’s) and studios (RCA and Normandy Sound) between 1979 and 1981. The Normandy tracks, apparently recorded before an intimate audience, are particularly electrifying. The band is tight and powerful, and Lane’s punk-inspired energy is mesmerizing at the mic; it’s here that the band’s reservations about the sound of their debut album become clear. These tracks also show off the wealth of original material the band had early on, with many of these songs never having made it past live performance. Additional in-concert highlights include a terrifically urgent cover of Del Shannon’s “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” and a stomping rock ‘n’ roll treatment of Willie Dixon’s “Violent Love”

As pleasing as it is to finally have the second album and both EPs in the digital domain, it’s the generous helping of the band in prime live form that will get you on your feet. The three discs are delivered in a four-panel slipcase, with photos, cover art, and new liner notes by Brett Milano; as noted earlier, all that’s missing is the readily available reunion album. Listening to this set, it’s clear that the vagaries of fame often have more to do with circumstance and luck than raw talent, the latter of which the band had in abundance. As Lane opined in Tim Jackson’s 2014 documentary, “Maybe it’s easy to get stuck in Boston, be a big thing in Boston, and then the rest of the world doesn’t even know about you.” Perhaps with some of the luck that didn’t find the band in 1980, this set will help renew and expand the band’s much deserved acclaim. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

Robin Lane’s Songbird Sings Organization

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