Here’s What It Was Like To Make Music Before the Losers Won

As the Blake Babies prepare to reissue their ’80s demos, John Strohm looks back on the band’s birth.

I’m so grateful to my friend and former bandmate Freda Love for her recent writings about our former bands, including Blake Babies. I’ve always known Freda to be a talented and enterprising person, but her emergence as such a gifted and insightful writer comes as a delightful surprise. I’m so impressed by her recent music and culinary-focused memoir Red Velvet Underground, and I look forward to whatever she does next.

We’ve always kept in touch, but recently we’ve been in closer contact than usual due to our Pledge Music campaign to release some recently unearthed demos we recorded with Juliana Hatfield and then-bassist Andrew Mayer back in early 1988. Freda recently published a beautifully written piece on the release, which got me thinking about that transformative time in our lives. I always question whether it’s worth writing about a band that never quite “made it” in any conventional sense. But people continue to encourage us to tell our story because those were strange times. And the moment captured in those demos evidences a unique, naïve, collaborative and bravely creative young band on the verge of…something.

It’s hard to imagine a less promising career in the mid-’80s than being in an underground rock band. During those recession years, not much seemed promising. But playing rock was more of a statement of opting out than striving for some sort of tangible success. We can say now that all those bands had baked-in credibility due to our limited prospects. But back then, we were all just losers and outcasts.

I came up playing in hardcore bands, and in catching that bug I learned a bit about the musty corners of the music business. My first “real” band — the first band to record and play outside of my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana — was a satirical hardcore punk band called (no kidding) Killing Children. My buddy Dave and I joined when the leader, Scott Colburn, moved from nearby Columbus to attend Indiana University. Scott was nineteen, Dave and I both sixteen-year-old high school juniors. Scott, who later became an audio engineer and much later recorded the Arcade Fire and Animal Collective, showed me the ropes. You’d find a studio to record your band. Then you’d pay a pressing plant to press the records. Then you’d send copies to distributors who supplied the stores that sold punk records around the region — or you’d sell your records in the back of punk zines. You’d network with other punk scenes to play their American Legion halls and basement parties. In the end, it all probably cost money to do, but we had so much fun.

So when I moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music in the fall of 1985, I’d had a tiny taste of success in music, and that gave me some ambition — if not for school, at least for making a band. My girlfriend Freda moved out a few months into my first year, and together we very actively pursued our goals. Freda generously gives me credit in her recent Talkhouse piece for being the one with the confidence and relative musical expertise, but as ambitious as I may have been, Freda had the bigger vision. I wanted to crack the local scene and impress the local venues; Freda wanted to be up there with our heroes — even if our heroes (such as the Replacements and the Minutemen) were probably still touring in vans and crashing with friends and parents between tours. As proof of this, I will note that our famous first meeting with Juliana Hatfield — who we approached cold in the Berklee dorms to ask her to join our non-existent band — was all Freda’s idea. And she did all the talking. Neither of us thought of ourselves as potential stars — so we needed to find one. Freda spotted Juliana just as Juliana spotted us, and there was no question in any of our minds that we should make a band.

As we get older we get perspective on our own motivations, and hopefully our personal narratives begin to make sense in context. For those first couple of years when the Blake Babies were a local band — right up to the time that we cut the demos at Fort Apache that we’re about to reissue via our Pledge Campaign — I never questioned my purpose. We had goals, and every day seemed to bring us a little closer. I took on the role of figuring out how everything worked, revising my rudimentary punk scene understanding of the business to fit our constantly changing circumstances and new challenges. How do we get a show? How do we get our gear there? How do we record a demo? How do we get it on the radio? Who will put out our record? How do we go on tour?

These days my professional life as a music lawyer is very much about taking on similar challenges on behalf of other people’s bands. That’s probably what I did best back then, and it’s definitely what I enjoy doing now. But it’s a different world now, and I have more knowledge and better resources. What particular challenges did we face back then? Here are a few examples:

  • We self-released our first album, Nicely Nicely, in 1987. We pressed one thousand vinyl copies, no CDs or cassettes. In addition to CDs being prohibitively expensive, we pressed vinyl because that’s what they would play on college radio — and we knew that college radio, if anyone, would play our music. At one point, we had one thousand LPs in our apartment and no idea what to do with them. A few months later, they were gone.
  • If you wanted to get a song on college radio in Boston, you could also bring the station a “radio tape,” which meant a ¼” reel-to-reel tape that they would either play on a reel-to-reel player or use to create a “cart,” which was sort of their own cassette-like format. The Emerson College station, WERS, played our music first, but WHRB from Harvard and WMBR from MIT really helped us to become established in Boston. Although two-thirds of us were college dropouts, that’s probably why our genre was “college rock.”
  • Our first real shows around town were “audition nights” where they’d give you a stack of tickets to give out and they’d count your tickets to decide if they’d have you back. We tried to give tickets to our first show at The Rat to members of the band Salem 66 and they laughed in our faces. We got bumped from our first Saturday night opening slot at The Rat in 1987 by a new band called the Pixies. I held a grudge against them…until I actually heard their music.

When we recorded those demos at Fort Apache in early 1988, we were just starting to get decent shows around town, but we were by no means “big.” Gary Smith, who became our producer and sort of took over as manager, had real ambition and most of the resources to get us there: a great studio, relationships with people in the business and real lessons from the school of hard knocks. He worked with the Pixies and Throwing Muses, who in our eyes had made it — but Gary saw us as a real mainstream pop band, and that really shaped things from that point, both in terms of how we produced the records and the business choices that we made. So those demos really were the end of something, and the beginning of something else. In that moment, we crossed an invisible boundary between local band and aspiring international act. We never quite got there — and our individual ambitions probably destroyed our band in the end. But you can really hear that urgency and yearning in all of those tracks.

The business changed around us over the next several years as the three of us took a deep dive into touring, recording and finding ourselves as small-frame public figures. By the end of the band in 1992, playing in an underground band had become a viable career move, and that probably led to some of my own confusion over what to do next. After getting used to being losers, suddenly “loser” became a badge of pride and probably a registered trademark. With Nirvana and all that followed, the losers won.

I spent a few years in the wilderness, trying to navigate commercial success versus artistic ambition, and by the time I left music as a professional pursuit in the late ’90s, I hadn’t truly accomplished either one. I really felt the pressure labels put on artists to chase that success, and that experience is very helpful to understanding what my clients experience in the industry today. But I feel very fortunate to have stumbled into that amazing transitional moment in Boston in the ’80s. And listening back to those tapes, I’m proud of the music we made. It’s neither great nor world-changing, but it is uniquely our own.

(Photo credit: Jeanne-Marie Greiner)

John P. Strohm is an entertainment lawyer and former professional musician based in Nashville, Tennessee. During his musician years he played guitar and wrote songs for Blake Babies and played various instruments in the Lemonheads, while he dabbled in various aspects of the music business. These days he has a much better understanding of the music business, although he still occasionally dabbles in music.