City Scenes: Remembering Boston's Great Scott
Boston music club Great Scott opened its doors for the first time in 1976, the same year Howlin' Wolf died, The Ramones released their self-titled debut album, and disco rose to the mainstream. During the club's 44-year run, it was all of those sounds: a go-to blues joint, a raucous rock room, and a destination for long-running dance nights. Great Scott has been many things to many people in Boston, most of all an epicenter for the city's culture and local music. But after the pandemic passes, Great Scott, the gritty little club located on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Allston neighborhood, will not reopen.
Through interviews, this oral history will dive into the club's rise to prominence, its impact on Boston's music scene, and what's lost in a big city without spaces like it.
Tim Philbin (General Manager, Great Scott): "I started working as a doorman at Great Scott in the summer of 1987. I was about to start my senior year at Boston College and I had a friend who was working there. He told me they were looking for help and it seemed like a much better job than working at the deli counter at Star Market in Chestnut Hill.
When I first started, Great Scott was undergoing a transition from a local blues bar catering to mostly neighborhood folk to a college bar. Weeknights included a DJ night on Wednesdays that was very popular with BC students and Thursdays featured a jam band called The Candles that played a lot of Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. They played every week for about 10 years and there was always a line to get in."
Joanie Lindstrom (DJ, WMBR): "It definitely was a 'college bozo' place for years and years. I still have friends who moved away 20 years or so ago that when I say I saw a show at Great Scott, they can only picture what it used to be."
Philbin: "In 1996, I moved to Florida for a short time. Upon my return, I really wasn't looking to get back into the bar business but I needed some quick money so I picked up some bar shifts. Within a couple of weeks, the GM left and the owner, Frank Strenk, asked me to take his place.
Weekends were doing ok but weekdays were struggling. Thus was born Ladies/80's night: every Wednesday, a DJ would mix '80s bangers (think "Pour Some Sugar On Me") with whatever top 40 hits were most popular that week. As a huge fan of '80s punk/post-punk/new wave, I had a love-hate relationship with this night. It was an incredible financial success, but man was the music terrible! It was also around this time that Great Scott parted ways with its booking agent and the owner asked me to start booking all the live entertainment as well. This was the beginning of the next transformation."
Great Scott starts booking local acts
Anngelle Wood (Host, Boston Emissions): "I booked one of my first shows at Great Scott back in, I'm guessing, 2001 or 2002? I was hosting the local show on WFNX and booking a handful of shows a year. I don't remember the whole lineup, but I definitely remember Humanwine (A Vermont-based band founded in 2002) were on the bill. It may or may not have been their first Boston show."
Carl Lavin (Talent Buyer, Great Scott): "I had started a night called The Plan at a venue in Cambridge with a more indie rock vibe and brought it to Great Scott in May of 2003. I suggested that Great Scott could become a seven-nights-a-week live music venue in 2004 and took over the booking duties at that point and remained involved in booking it up until the pandemic shut it down."
Philbin:"This was a tough phase, as I think we were trying to be too many things to too many people. College kids didn't want to go to the bar with all the tattooed kids and those kids didn't want to be anywhere near the college kids. This is where we had to make the biggest choice in Great Scott history: backward to college bar or forward to music venue."
Aaron Perrino (The Sheila Divine): "Carl basically turned a s***** BC (Boston College) frat dive bar into a hub for a ton of different scenes. It started with the Brit-Pop and NYC/Strokes-era music scenes and became a home for everyone. I think the magic part of the place was Carl's taste in finding those bands that played there right before they blew up and moved to bigger venues."
Lavin: "We took chances on different kinds of bands and bands at earlier stages in their career than those getting shows at other venues in the area and took a different approach to fostering a community and connecting with both fans and bands. We really were just music fans who got the proverbial keys to the candy store and we tried ALL kinds of things and the adventurousness really resonated with fans who were looking for something beyond the typical experience."
Philbin: "There were definitely some struggles along the way, but we had a lot of great people on our side. Ben Karnavas, our first production manager and sound engineer extraordinaire was invaluable, as was our first promotion director Ben Sisto. These two gave us instant credibility. When Ben Sisto brought a band somewhere, fans would go. He probably could have put on a show in McDonald's bathroom and the kids would have thought it was the coolest venue."
A local indie dance night finds its home at Great Scott
Michael Marotta (DJ, the pill): "the pill (a Boston-based indie dance night) started in October 1997 by Ken Powers and Jennifer Sullivan at the Upstairs Lounge, above the Penalty Box in North Station, across from the Fleet Center. It got the boot from the Upstairs Lounge and Carl Lavin, who was a part of our network of friends, took the reins and found a few new homes for the pill across the city: The Paradise, the Milky Way, even the Hideaway in Alewife near Ma Magoos. It was really Carl's drive in those years that kept the night going."
Lavin: "When we landed at The Milky Way as a monthly for a while, they required we have a band play, so I started diving in on booking bands, which was fairly easy for a while since so many bands came to hang out at the pill and were dying to play. Ultimately, we wanted to get back to being a weekly and I had a conversation with Tim Philbin about perhaps trying it at Great Scott."
Marotta:"Ken asked if we could bring the party over there. The two (Carl and Ken) had scouted the place out a while back, on the suggestion of Love Night's DJ Brian, and while Ken didn't see the immediate fit, since Great Scott was a bit of a frat bar, Carl saw the potential of that stage in the back of the room and knew a rock club like that, in that location, was exactly what the city needed. So Carl started booking there and once we saw he was having success we asked if the pill could take over Fridays.
It was a massive success right out of the gate, and allowed us to host bands as well as spin the modern indie dance party that the pill would be known for during that time. We'd spin the Brit-Pop bands that helped launch the party, as well as the newer wave of guitar and garage bands coming out at the time — The Libertines, Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc. The whole danceable indie — all bands borrowing from post-punk and new wave — really helped create a sound for the pill that became popular enough to fill 200+ people every Friday night. It was a dance party where literally everyone danced, and it was dark and shadowy and before the modern onslaught of social media documentation, so things likely happened on that dance floor that were probably never spoken of after the fact."
Great Scott becomes home to Boston's largest and longest-running queer dance party
Colby Drasher (DJ, Don't Ask Don't Tell): "Don't Ask Don't Tell started on a cold Sunday in January of 2011 at the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain. It featured my friend Coleslaw (aka Ian Diver) and myself DJing, alongside my partner Nick Day taking photographs. Our first event was January 25, serendipitously just a few days before the Pentagon released its plan for implementing the end of the Don't Ask Don't Tell military policy. DADT's name and attitude are a play on the now outdated legislation.
Our motto is: "All are welcome who welcome all," standing for inclusion and diversity. A lot of parties aim to welcome just the L or G in LGBTQ; at DADT everyone is welcome to come and be just who they are."
"We've had a perfect home at Great Scott because they were a match made in Allston. The orientationally neutral (not a gay club), centralized locale of grungy Great Scott paired with DADT's punk energy and unconventional aesthetic. Great Scott became a safe space for DADT to thrive, enabling tens of thousands of individuals who were previously from a fractured queer community at last come together."
Marotta: "It was always just a cool place to be. It was defined by its patrons; there was never any pretense about fitting in or style or anything, everyone just kinda rolled with who they are. Punks, metalheads, indie kids, an outsider's definition of 'hipster' — everyone kinda just mingled together. It was cool because people were themselves."
Great Scott creates a new sense of community in Allston
Ben Stas (photographer): "Great Scott always felt like home, in a way that other clubs never really could. There was something about the mix of people and also the quirks of the space itself, which had been there for decades and felt lived-in without being run-down. It was unique."
Nick Benevenia (DJ, WZBC): "Great Scott's atmosphere set it apart from every other venue in Boston. It was more than just a music venue; it felt more like a lodge or union hall more than a music venue. You never needed a reason to go to Great Scott; you'd swing by to grab a drink, hear some new music, and see your friends. Conversely, I need a damn good reason to visit most other venues in this city."
Christine Varriale (editor-in-chief and booking, Allston Pudding): "Whether you're playing a show or attending one, it always feels like home."
Candace McDuffie (music and culture journalist): "Great Scott has always been a prime example of how live music is supposed to be experienced. It's right in the heart of Allston; the location (and the ease of getting to it) was always very convenient."
Benevenia: "My God, did I love those stool tables underneath the Elvis bust. Seriously, more venues need casual seating like that, especially for shows with bills longer than three bands. I'm getting older, but I still want to hang."
Lindstrom: "I loved the size of Great Scott. It was intimate but you could get 250 which is a good size for a whole bunch of bands."
Wood: "When so many touring acts didn't include cities north of New York on their itinerary, Great Scott gave them a reason to make the trip. You can see anyone from Brendan Benson to Mutoid Man to Longwave to Hallelujah the Hills to Mint Green to Weakened Friends to Eldridge Rodriguez to Aaron Perrino (The Sheila Divine) doing a solo set."
Varriale: "One of the funniest Great Scott memories I have is when Allston Pudding (a Boston-based music website) hosted three nights of Diarrhea Planet shows. My friend Marc who was a writer for Allston Pudding with me got kicked out of our own show for crowd surfing. My friend Nina also accidentally broke a guy's nose in the pit during a Pile show."
McDuffie: "Great Scott undoubtedly is a rite of passage for local talent. If you can play that venue and sell it out and the audience really vibes with you there, you are definitely onto something big."
Varriale:"It's also the sweet spot transition for bands and musicians who have mostly played at houses to finally play a nice stage and be able to legally advertise the address of their show. It's where bands can play often and hone their craft. It leaves room for experimentation and learning in their performances."
Stas:"It was a really important nexus between the hyper-local basement/DIY scene and a broader audience of local music fans. It was the rare space where a nationally-known up-and-comer could make their first Boston stop one night and a whole bill of bands from the neighborhood could play the next."
Lavin: "Sadly, the absurd manner in which residents of Boston are relentlessly being priced further and farther away from the city's cultural cornerstones made it tougher for the typical music fan to just pop over and check something out on a whim."
With Boston gentrifying, Great Scott's role becomes more vital as changes loom
The breakneck pace of development in Boston isn't exclusive to higher-end neighborhoods like the Back Bay and Seaport District; it's been a citywide epidemic. New construction and rising rents in outlying neighborhoods like Allston have had a twofold effect on spaces like Great Scott: they've become more expensive to operate, and the patrons who frequent them are becoming priced out of the area.
Throw a global pandemic into the mix, and it's no surprise that on May 1, Philbin announced that the club would not be reopening at 1222 Commonwealth Ave. after closing for the final time on Friday, March 13.
Philbin: "It's like losing a friend. Great Scott was there in that location for 44 years. Very few people can remember it not being there. I think we've also lost a space that was open to all, a space that was welcoming and genuine. This was a place for art and culture. Where does that go?"
Benevenia: "When Boston loses a venue like Great Scott, the city travels farther down the path of eliminating arts spaces. Boston's arts and culture doesn't grow in luxury cookie-cutter Seaport apartments; it is cultivated in unique places like Great Scott."
Perrino: "Boston is continuing down a path where every inch of the city is being overdeveloped into these bland high-end buildings with rents that no one other than giant corporations can afford. It's sucked the soul and life out of the city."
Drasher: "When Boston loses a venue like Great Scott, it loses the reason people move here: to find real spaces where we can set aside our differences and come together to enjoy one another."
Stas: "It's undeniably a blow to the arts in Boston."
Marotta: "It's tough to measure the impact of Great Scott, because it all still feels so relevant and current. It's not like talking about the Rat or the Channel (historic Boston-based music venues that have been closed for decades) where it's been gone for so long you can trace back all these memories about its closing and the after effects, and have time and separation to really crystallize your feelings and thoughts.
We really haven't had a chance to mourn Great Scott."
Great Scott has signed a letter-of-intent to relocate to a space at the other end of Harvard Ave. recently vacated by a Pizzeria Regina. With the news comes hope that there will be another chapter in the historic club's story.
GBH worked with local music luminaries to curate its City Scenes articles to provide a diverse and focused perspective on Boston's music scene. Adam 12 is a 25-year veteran of broadcast and digital media and a Boston radio mainstay. He can currently be heard weekdays from 11 am to 4 pm on Boston's ROCK 92.9.
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