The Well Babys make a powerful return
By Ann Wood
It took a new millennium to bring the punk-thrash band the Well Babys—a late ‘80s concert-goer’s must-see because of its musicianship and insane live antics—back to life. The Well Babys’ first self-titled vinyl was recently released by Motherlode Records and includes 13 songs borrowed from the David Bieber Archives and remastered by Peerless Mastering. A record player is obviously required to listen to the self-titled album—it’s not intended to go digital—and it shouldn’t. The sound of the warm, crackling record enhances the Well Babys’ songs and having to flip the album fits its ‘fuck you’ attitude. The perfectly ordered songs are as relevant today as when the band wrote them more than 30 years ago, and the album rivals any released today.
Fronted by Jeffrey Gagnon on vocals and guitar, the power band includes guitarist Stephen Silbert, who studied at New England Conservatory, drummer Jim Doherty, who did some time at Berklee, and bassist Tim Highland Barry, who Gagnon found at an open night he used to host at 1369 Club in Boston and then at The Middle East.
The highly charged Well Babys’ album opens with the melodic song, Last Million Turns, which is also poetic: “Neon ice burgs/ floating down the river/ crashing down the bridges/ to yesterday’s life/ And somewhere/ a man sits and shivers/ wonders how long/ how long it’s been/And somewhere someone tells me everything is/ rotating” Then comes a time change that makes the chorus both hypnotic and self-deprecating: “Sorry I missed the last million turns/ Sorry I missed the last million turns/ Sorry I missed the last million turns/ Sorry I missed the last million turns.”
Coming Up, a total ‘80s punk tune that shows off Doherty’s powerhouse drumming and could have influenced Cage the Elephant, follows. A mosh pit along with that turntable is required to fully rock out to the song. Then there’s Union Square, heavy grooving nod to the past, to a now gentrified area of Allston where Gagnon hung out and misbehaved in a rock ‘n’ roll haze: “I wanna be a lush today/ I wanna hang out in the park talking with Harry and Jay/ Hey mister do you have a quarter/ I ain’t no welfare case/ I just wanna have fun here/ All the way down in Union Square.” The record is full of social commentary but it’s also hilarious. Days of Promiscuous Sex Are Gone is a rockin’ PSA, “Jack be nimble/ Jack don’t be too quick/ you must always wear a rubber/ upon your dick.” And the folk-rock Cold December has the Well Babys’ fighting plastic bag use to protect sea creatures well before progressive towns started banning them: “And when the species are all gone/ They’ll be on pajamas for kids to remember/ and only the rich get heat and bottled water/ it will be a cold December.”
The band’s anthem may well be Wheelchair Jesus, which the Boston Phoenix called, in 1989, “a potent parable of a handicapped guy with a messianic mission,” and has a psychedelic Bowie feel to it: “Wheelchair Jesus asked us to strap his body to a rocket he had built from a junkyard yesterdays ago. … It was the fourth night as he got into his rocket as the images of the antichrist loomed over the town/ Sirens blaring and people locked in their houses/ As we kissed wheelchair Jesus before he left the ground.” The song topped Boston radio and New England college charts after its radio cassette release.
Lesser known songs include Wrong, which begins with a nod to Black Sabbath and transforms into a heavy punk groove with a great riff; the super punk-thrash-jazz song Paper Boy; and the one song written by Gagnon alone, She Was Our Manager, to which any real band can relate: “She come up from New York to see out show and tell us how great we were…she talked about big record advances and how she could get us a deal from a major record label….She told me to write more mainstream songs and sing more mainstream choruses, songs that say, ‘I love you’ or ‘We’ll make it through’ knowing all the time that we are a punk rock trash funk band bordering on insanity.”
That manager may have been a failure but the Well Babys got a funny, potent song out of it. And, as that so-call manager said, the band should have hit it big—the songs are great (you’ll have a new favorite every day) and each musician is brilliant in his own right. If timing is everything, the Well Babys time has come.
Ann Wood is an arts and entertainment editor and winner of 14 New England Newspaper and Press Association awards.