Johnny Angel, Boston’s Rat, and 5 bands you should know about

Portrait of Johnny Angel
Johnny Angel, 2015.

There are 8 million stories in the naked city, and Johnny Angel has a few thousand of them. As founder of Thrills, the Massachusetts native (and current Los Angeles resident) played a major role in Boston’s late-’70s scene focused on the legendary Rathskeller, better know as the Rat (and a k a “Boston’s CBGB“). Thrills gigged with Boston’s finest as well as touring groups from the Ramones to the Dead Boys to U2; Angel has maintained those relationships as a musician, radio personality, print journalist and actor.

But how to tell the tale without the clichés of a standard-issue memoir? Johnny took a novel route in 2015, when he published Looking for Lady Dee: A Punk Rock Mystery. The book weaves together scrupulous autobiography with a film noir mystery: An old flame from his days at The Rat has disappeared, and Johnny teams with a punk femme fatale to find her.

Along the way, Johnny Angel pays homage to his band and a slew of others who pioneered the scene. Here are five you should know about:

1. Thrills. Inspired by the Ramones and other first-wave punk bands from New York, Johnny’s own formative group was a fixture at the Rat, Cantone’s and other Boston venues. Besides Johnny Angel on vocals and guitar, Thrills included vocalist Barb Kitson; Merle Allen on bass; and Mike Collins, drums. Lead guitarist Sean McDonough joined in time for the band’s relocation to New York; in Manhattan, Thrills became “City Thrills,” releasing one EP before disbanding.

2. Willie “Loco” Alexander. Willie Alexander was already a Boston institution by the time the Rat went punk. In the late ’60s, he played with regional favorites the Lost, the Bagatelle and the Grass Menagerie; then in 1971, he replaced Sterling Morrison in the last incarnation of the Velvet Underground. The VU influence is manifest in his solo work and with his Boom Boom band.

3. DMZ. DMZ was a formative Boston band in its own right, and its members went on to further adventures. Vocalist Jeff Conolly would go on to form Lyres, an enduring institution with an ever-changing lineup that has included former DMZ bandmates Peter Greenberg (co-founder of Barrence Whitfield & the Savages) and Rick Coraccio (a veteran of the Real Kids, fronted by John Felice, who was in the very first version of the Modern Lovers). Speaking of the Modern Lovers, DMZ for a time also included drummer David Robinson, who had been in Jonathan Richman‘s band from its founding and would go on to major-label success with the Cars. (Editor’s note: The “Do Not Enter” publicity photo below features Paul Murphy, who replaced Robinson.)

4. The Neighborhoods. Formed in 1978, the Neighborhoods came within an eyelash of mainstream success, with opening spots on David Bowie’s Glass Spider and Tin Machine tours as well as tours with the Ramones and Cheap Trick. A live “farewell” gig at the Rat in 1992 would become a double live CD in 2010 featuring guest guitar by Aerosmith‘s Brad Whitford, who had produced the Neighborhoods’ 1990 and 1991 albums.

5. Unnatural Axe. Another band profoundly influenced by New York punk, Unnatural Axe’s first run lasted from 1976 to 1980 and featured vocalist Rich Parsons; bassist Frank Dehler; guitarist Tom White; and drummers Dom DeYoung and Tommy Taylor, among others.

Unnatural Axe would reform periodically, including appearances as the backing band for Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys and Rocket from the Tombs.

For an insider’s view of the grit and grime at the Rat, pick up or download Johnny Angel’s “semi-fictionalized account of an unrequited love between boy and girl and boy and his band,” Looking for Lady Dee: A Punk Rock Mystery.