Cones at Lyman's

(1982, left to right, Jim Duffy, Chris DiNardo, Chris Kelley. Photo by Brian "Herman" Hess (RIP).)

(Editor's note: The piece below concerns the early days of the 1980s Boston band Rods and Cones and our encounter with the starmaker Maurice Starr. This piece appeared in the New York Press in 1995.)

We weren't exactly a funk band, but we had our funky side. We were white guys, but that never stopped anybody from trying to be funky. It was a strange time to start playing music, the early 1980s, and we played the dancy beats that brought out the young women in those days. We played loud, our clothes were terrible, and we fit in nowhere, but we were somewhat popular because we threw a good party.

We felt especially funky when Sidney, the sound engineer for the real funk bands, said we were all right and that he could make us sound great in the studio for only $100, plus tape. We took him up on it.

The studio was called the House of Hits, and it was up on a hill in Roxbury, which was one of the de facto segregated black neighborhoods of Boston. Sidney booked us from midnight until 8 a.m. The House of Hits was a narrow walk-up apartment building with an eight-track studio on the ground floor and funky musicians living upstairs.

When we arrived, Sidney was mixing and remixing a sappy ballad that went nowhere. He had been awake for a couple of days, and his curls were hanging low. He said he'd be all right, though, and he'd be right with us, once he had a little sniff. We loaded in our gear and got set up. Funky musicians were coming through the front door, going up and down the stairs, leaving, coming back, looking for a sniff so they could keep playing funky music. Somebody told us that we were the first white band to come to the House of Hits, and we tried to not act too cool.

We were a six-piece band. We waited in the lounge and passed a joint until Sidney could wash his face and freshen up.

The House of Hits did actually have a hit to its credit. Maurice Starr, the local impresario who would soon go on to bigger things, had masterminded a dance groove called "Pack Jam" by a group called the Jonzun Crew, recorded right there at the House of Hits, and he promoted it as a 12-inch single that got played all over the country. We didn't know it at the time, but Maurice Starr's current project, New Edition, featuring future heartthrob Bobby Brown, would soon remake the old Jackson Five sound into platinum.

Sidney kept us waiting, and we began to grow restless.

Then into the room walked Maurice Starr himself. He did a little double-take when he saw us, just being funny, then gave us a winning smile. "Hey, whoa, what do we have here? You guys a hard-rockin' band? Gonna play some of that old rock and roll?"

He was a bigger-than-life figure, Maurice Starr, with big, expressive gestures, a loud, disk-jockey voice, a big smile, shiny suit, shiny hair. In a moment we were all standing around him in a circle. "So you guys a heavy-metal band? You do the big guitars and the light show?"

We said no, we played mostly dance-style music. We had a boombox, and we played him a cassette of the instrumental track from our big song, "Don't Let That Girl Pass You By," and we sang the vocal parts for him, right there in the lounge, acting it out a little more than usual.

"Hey, that shit hits!" said Maurice Starr. He put his arms around us and shook our hands and gave us the showbiz smile. "Hey, let me see that bass," he said to me. He took up my bass and played some very, very good things on it. "Yeah, I was into the rock and roll back in the '60s and '70s. I played with Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker. I played with all the guys. I'm on all the Jack Bruce records. You know that album he did with Carmine Appice? I'm all over that. But hey, you guys got your own thing going. Keep playing, there's no reason you all can't be big stars. That shit hits! Look at you, a bunch of young, cute white guys playing funky music. You've got something there."

He joked with us, told us each what rock star we resembled. He said our keyboard player, Herm, who wore rimless eyeglasses, looked just like John Lennon. Then he shook our hands all over again, and as suddenly as he had appeared, Maurice Starr was gone.

Sidney was finally ready for us, and we spent the night recording "Don't Let That Girl Pass You By," and the recording went so badly that we couldn't even listen to it.

But the point of the story is this: A few short years after that night, after New Edition had gone worldwide, that same Maurice Starr assembled a group of young, cute white guys who sang funky music. They were called the New Kids on the Block. I've always felt partly responsible for that, and I'd like to take this opportunity to get it off my chest and apologize.

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