For those of us who weren’t around during Boston’s late-’70s underground rock heyday, a handful of grainy YouTube clips makes for a pretty decent substitute. Quick searches can bring up a teenage David Minehan fronting the slack-punk jangle of the Neighborhoods and the stern and lanky Ian Kalinosky of La Peste jerking back and forth at the Paradise.
Then, of course, there’s the seven-piece freakshow of Human Sexual Response, hijacking the stage in gender-spanking nurse uniforms in one clip, or baiting FCC fines on late-night local TV with gleeful profanity in another. The band was a New Wave clusterbomb with four vocalists and a penchant for crooked pop songwriting that changed the shape of the Boston music scene during one of its most vital eras. Led by the spastic Larry Bangor and a troupe of singers (Casey Cameron, Windle Davis, and Bangor’s brother Dini Lamot), along with a sneakily excellent trio of musicians (Rich Gilbert on guitar, Chris MacLachlan on bass, and Malcolm Travis on drums), the band steamrolled through clubs with a mix of choreography and abandon.
The Neighborhoods’ Minehan, who grew up a few years behind them, happily chimes in about the band: “These guys never have a bad show. You never knew what they were going to do at any given night, but you always came away thinking that they just never failed.”
For years, those manic YouTube clips have been one of the only ways for many to experience the Humans, as their fans called them. Of their two full-length recordings, one is completely out of print (1981’s “In a Roman Mood”) and the other exists as a hard-to-find reissue (1981’s “Fig. 14,” reissued in 1991 as “Fig. 15”).
That’s all set to change next Saturday night, when the group returns to Boston for not only a full-cast reunion performance at the House of Blues, but the unveiling of a self-released live DVD, “Unba Unba,” which brings to life a live show filmed 30 years ago at the Streets, a now-defunct Commonwealth Ave. rock club.
The DVD captures the end of the band’s storied tenure, which lasted from 1978 to 1982. A local filmmaker and M.I.T. teaching assistant named Jan Crocker had been taking students out into the wilds of Boston punk clubs like Cantone’s and the Rathskeller to practice video documentary, editing footage back in the classroom later on.
“We shot hundreds and hundreds of hours of bands then,” says Crocker from his current home in West Yarmouth. Crocker first hooked up with Human Sexual Response after meeting Lamot, who worked for a stint as a bartender in town. “I had been friends and going to parties with them for a while and finally this opportunity came up to film them.”
He hired out a crew, had a mobile recording studio with a 24-track mixing board for live sound, and then edited the footage together for a four-song demo reel in three weeks. A few weeks later, the band had broken up.
“I was shocked,” says Crocker. “They had made real headway with a lot of important people and were on the verge of becoming a real national act. Then: boom.”
The band remembers things a little more modestly.
“It was certainly a special time where you had a new discovery every week,” remembers Bangor, who now lives and works with his partner, a psychiatrist, in Manhattan. “We had a certain degree of success, but it wasn’t any gigantic splash.”
Cameron, the lone female of the group and lead vocalist for their biggest hit, “Jackie Onassis,” thinks it may have worked out for the best. “I think we ended up with more autonomy because we never crossed into big-time popularity,” she says. “God knows, our material is really not that accessible.”
It was good enough, though, to convince her to leave a promising job as an editor at Little, Brown (which had published the landmark Masters and Johnson book “Human Sexual Response” in 1966).
With the group’s lewd behavior (costumes included jockstraps and body paint), off-kilter subject matter (like the morose “Anne Frank Story”), and some very blatant homosexuality, the Humans were never meant to be a mainstream act. They started out as a joke vocal quartet formed in order to attend a party thrown by famed novelty singer Tom Lehrer, who had taught mathematics at M.I.T. That group, Honey Bea and the Meadow Muffins, worked as a spoof country and western group led by Cameron. The concept fit in perfectly with the art world they were invading, anchored by Lamot at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where they met friends like photographer Nan Goldin, who later performed as a go-go dancer for the group.
But as the group discovered early recordings of Devo, the B-52s, and Television, they began to shift their goals. They quickly found willing bandmates in Gilbert and Travis, settling on MacLachlan a bit later, and the rest was history. Their first show was at the Birdcage, a rock bar in the Combat Zone that doubled as a strip club.
Clint Conley, a founding member of Mission of Burma, who launched soon after the Humans began playing, remembers their rise. “The prevailing aesthetic at the time was all about reductionism, ripped T-shirts, and proudly reckless technique,” he says. “But here was this strange theatrical collective with elaborate costumes and ensemble vocal arrangements. They were one of those bands that come around so rarely that make their listeners feel part of a select club.”
The band happily alternated between shows at rock venues like the Paradise and gay clubs like the defunct 1270, and they do link a good portion of their momentum to the growing Gay Pride movement at the time, but Lamot says part of the appeal for them was inclusivity. “Our crowd was so totally mixed,” he says. “You’d have hard biker guys standing next to drag queens standing next to hippies standing next to beatniks and strippers from the Zone.”
Gilbert says their punk roots were not to be taken lightly. “In those days, aligning yourself with punk music was still a risky move,” he says. “Clubs like the Spit would actually close early so kids would have time to get out before people getting out of the discos got out and started fights.”
By 1980, they were touring the country. Their first album was all over college radio and the band bought a checker cab to tour in (“We could fit seven of us in it because, in those days, we didn’t have seat belts,” says Cameron). They found themselves playing with the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Public Image Ltd. KROQ picked up “Jackie Onassis” and the Go-Go’s came to watch them in Los Angeles. They met Andy Warhol at a show with the Knack in New York.
But not long after the release of their second album, the band imploded. No one can cite one clear factor — some think they were feeling stagnant about the stage show, some felt Bangor and Gilbert were getting tired of writing for seven people.
Lamot and Davis moved to Key West soon after and began renovating houses (Lamot also began a new cabaret career as Musty Chiffon). They now run a bed and breakfast in Hudson, N.Y. Cameron got married, had a daughter, and moved to the Bay Area to work for Sun Microsystems — her daughter, Cameron Mesirow, performs as the acclaimed indie act Glasser. Bangor, Gilbert, and Travis went on to form the Zulus in Boston. Travis later played in Sugar; and Gilbert has found a lasting career as a guitarist, backing up Pixies singer Frank Black for a while and eventually moving to Nashville, where he lives now and gigs four to five nights a week. Crocker himself had turned to a long career of interactive media installations at museums around the world — everything from the Basketball Hall of Fame to the Carnegie Institute.
Time’s been flying since ’82, so it still feels like yesterday for Crocker when, in 2002, he decided to finally transfer his archive of band footage off of his piles of three-quarter-inch tape onto a digital drive before it all wasted away. Watching some of his old footage of the Humans, he thought, “Wait a second, this is really good. It looks fresh, it feels good, and it sounds terrific.” He cut a couple of songs and put them up on his own archival website and on YouTube and approached the band about doing a DVD.
The result feels like a lifetime in the making, and for many young, late-arriving fans who will be at the show in Boston, it will literally be even longer. Nevertheless, it will be a worthy document of a particularly vibrant era in Boston rock history when weird bands ruled, punk hardly had any idea what it was doing, and you couldn’t see any of it happening unless you were there.
Bangor remembers those days as being not so different from his days now. “I still write songs and stories and poems,” he says of his current life in New York. “It’s nothing like a career, but it’s basically why the band got together in the first place. It’s just what we did to entertain ourselves.”
Matt Parish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.