On any given night when they were on stage, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones might have been the best band in the world. They were always great, but sometimes they were transcendent. I should know. I saw them 20+ times, and I’ve seen hundreds of other bands. Frontman Dicky Barrett would joke that the Bosstones weren’t good at much, but they were good at one thing: choosing great opening acts.  And they were really good at that. But the truth is, once the Bosstones hit the stage it didn’t matter who played before them. Even at the Warped Tour; even on Lollapalooza

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I was turned on to the Bosstones relatively late; I was interning at Mercury Records in the summer of 1994, as they were setting up the release of the band’s fourth album, More Noise And Other Disturbances. They were playing two nights at New York City’s Academy. My bosses hooked me up with a ticket. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’d heard a few songs from the album, and I liked them. But man, seeing them take the stage all dressed as police officers (it was the one tour where they didn’t all wear suits) and barrel through most of the album was mindblowing. The prevailing wisdom was that horns in a rock and roll band were supposed to be used sparingly, or else things felt too “Elvis in Vegas.” But with the Bosstones, the horn players were full band members, as important as the guitar, bass and drums.

Sax player Tim Burton, aka “Johnny Vegas” was a real presence, as was trombone player Dennis Brockenborough, whose backing vocals were key to the band’s live sound. Sax player Kevin Lenear was super cool. The three of them added a power and timelessness to the band that most guitar-based groups who dominated the radio in the ’90s didn’t have. They didn’t just sound different from everyone else: they looked different. Their suits (or police uniforms) was a stark contrast to the way more alt-rock bands presented themselves. And Brokenborough and Lenear were Black men: there were few bi-racial bands back then.  But the Bosstones, like their spiritual predecessors the Specials, took a hard anti-racist stance, and they walked it like they talked it. The organization Anti-Racist Action had a table set up at their shows. The Bosstones supported pro-choice causes, releasing the Safe And Sound: A Benefit In Response To The Brookline Clinic Violence compilation on their Big Rig imprint (which included “The Impression That I Get,” the first single from their next album, Let’s Face It, months before the album was released). If moves like this cost them fans who wanted them to “shut up and sing,” or annoyed their record label, the Bosstones didn’t care. Like the Clash, they wanted a mass audience, but they weren’t going to sacrifice the message to get it.

Of course, their championing of important causes didn’t make them joyless. Far from it. They were the rare band from the punk rock underground who didn’t see “entertainer” as a dirty word. One of their members, Ben Carr, was listed in the liner notes of their records as their dancer. That’s what he did on stage: he danced (he also contributed some backing vocals; additionally he served as road manager). Entertaining was important. Looking sharp was important (again, like the Specials). And having fun was really important. Every show was a blast.

I remember seeing them open Adam Yauch’s Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York City in 1997. Before they went on, Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam played an unannounced mini-set. That would be a tough act to follow… especially in ’97. But when the Bosstones hit the stage, the audience erupted, bouncing and dancing for 25 minutes. After the they finished, critical darlings Pavement performed a laconic set; they seemed embarrassed to play for such a large audience. I remember feeling embarrassed for them. I shook my head: why did music critics spend so much time fawning over a band who seemed to inspire so little enthusiasm.

And that’s how it was: the Bosstones could go toe-to-toe with the biggest and best bands of the day. I’d seen indie bands get twice as much press, or mainstream bands get 10x the radio play, but few of them got the love and loyalty from fans that the Bosstones did. Similar to their friends and heroes in Fishbone, you saw Bosstones t-shirts everywhere. It always felt like they should be more popular, but sadly, things didn’t work out that way.

Their time in the pop culture spotlight was far too short, and in 2003, they announced a hiatus. They returned in 2007 and their shows were as great as they’d ever been, but the albums somehow lacked the magic of the earlier records. That was true of 2021’s When God Was Great. Except for one song: the epic jam “The Final Parade.” The nearly eight-minute tune saw Dicky sharing lead vocals with Angelo Moore from Fishbone, Tim Armstrong of Rancid (who produced the album and put it out on his Hellcat label) and Aimee Interrupter of the Interrupters, one of the best bands in the world today, and one who owe a lot to the Bosstones. Backing vocalists included Jamaican legend Stranger Cole, the rest of the Interrupters, and members of Stiff Little Fingers, Suicide Machines, Dance Hall Crashers, Less Than Jake, H2o, Goldfinger, Murphy’s Law, Sonic Boom Six, Madball, the Specials and many others. The Bosstones always seemed to really believe that punk rock and ska were one genre, and it was a genre based on community.

 

When I listened to the song, I wondered: are they singing about themselves? It’s rare that a single is the last song on an album, but “The Final Parade” closed the LP.  And it felt like a final bow, a wave goodbye, one last dance party. In one verse, Dicky and Aimee go back and forth: He yells “He let it slow to a stop!” She adds: “Then let it grind to a halt.” He sings: “He felt that the bottom would drop.” She responds, “To be fair to him, that’s not his fault!” It felt like he was explaining to a fan why the band was ending. But the song’s guest list – particularly the Interrupters – make the point that punk rock and ska is a long continuum: Stranger Cole has been recording since 1963, while the Interrupters are just three albums into their career. Few of the artists on that song — or in the scene — went on to be chart-toppers and pop stars. But they all had tight fanbases and most of them championed causes tied to justice and equality. And they could all make you dance. Sometimes, dancing is all you’ve got.

At the end of the aforementioned verse, Dicky and Aimee sing together: “Let’s let the merry go round/Let’s hear the musical cheers/Let’s get it back up off the ground/Even if no one still cares.” Here’s hoping that people do care. Rock and roll can use more bands that have a message, bands who show their fans a great night, every night. And who always look sharp while doing it.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones in New York City, 2019