By Richie Unterberger

Even if Robin Lane & the Chartbusters' self-titled 1980 debut album didn't quite meet the expectations of the band and their rabid Boston following, it did capture their blend of new wave pop with dynamic folk-rockish guitar lines for the first time on a widely distributed national release. At the fore were singer-songwriter Lane's own husky vocals, delivering songs that for all their melodic hooks were tinged with far greater darkness and ambivalence than most pop-rock of the time, new wave or otherwise.

    Although Robin Lane & the Chartbusters was Lane's first album, she had actually been active as a singer-songwriter for about a decade. Back in 1969 she had sung backup vocals on "Round and Round" on Neil Young's classic Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. In the 1970s she left California to move East, and only a little prior to hooking up with the Chartbusters, she'd been playing far mellower, folk-rock-aligned singer-songwriter material. Those were the kinds of songs she was doing when she got a deal with Private Stock, Blondie's first label.

    Soon afterward, a newfound love for acts like Patti Smith, Television, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, and Dwight Twilley sent her own music into a much different path. Hanging out with Boston bands like the Real Kids and at the legendary local venue the Rat got her in touch with most of the musicians who would become the Chartbusters: guitarist-vocalists (and ex-Modern Lovers) Asa Brebner and Leroy Radcliffe, bassist-vocalist Scott Baerenwald, and drummer Tim Jackson. "I put this other band together and actually enticed them to be my bandmates, because I had this deal with Private Stock," remembers Lane. "And then about a month or two later, Private Stock folded. So I had my new band and new direction."

    The new direction would come as a shock to many of her old fans. "Our first gig, we were opening for another of our manager's bands, NRBQ. I pretty much just didn't sing, I screamed!" she laughs. "NRBQ just hated us. A lot of people who had liked me before went, 'What have you done?' It really wasn't an about-face, because I always felt social issues and identified with the underdog. I just thought that this music was a better way to say it [and] put it in. The people that came to listen to me, [when I was] the mellow Robin, would just kind of sit there, and it would be all nice and peachy-keen. But it wasn't affecting them in the gut. It wasn't passionate. I suddenly realized, 'Here's some fertile soil I can plant some seeds in, and it'll be more meaningful to me.'"

    She dropped her old repertoire and penned a new one virtually from scratch, though one of her old numbers would be reworked into her most famous song, "When Things Go Wrong" (the song from which it evolved, "Never Enough," was covered on the 1979 album of the same name by the Pousette-Dart Band). Although several record labels expressed interest, the band signed with Warner Brothers after Jerry Wexler saw a show and offered them a deal. A three-song EP (with an early version of "When Things Go Wrong") had already come out on the Deli Platters label and gotten some airplay in Boston before the Chartbusters went to Los Angeles to record their Warners debut.

    In hindsight, Lane feels that the album didn't capture the band as well it could have: "Though some people really liked that album, it lost the guitar sound that we had. They had a really wonderful kind of mesh that was lost. I think I wasn't singing as well as I could have; I was trying to retain the force of the songs that we had live, and pushing too hard. After we came back to Boston, people couldn't believe it when they heard the album; they said, 'This is not you.'"

    But the songs were definitely Lane's, though "Don't Wait Till Tomorrow" was written with Jackson and Radcliffe, and "Kathy Lee" and "When Things Go Wrong" had assistance from Joanne Cipolla (from the band Planet Street), who at one time lived upstairs from Robin. "When Things Go Wrong" was the single that made the charts, though just as impressive were cuts like the sullen and jaggedly rhythmic "It'll Only Hurt a Little While," and the Sid Vicious-inspired "I Don't Want to Know." Lane also likes "Many Years Ago" and "Don't Cry" ("a kind of staple for us: a cute little ditty, and it's pop").

    "I gravitate towards minor keys," reflects Lane when asked what set her most apart from other acts bridging the new wave-pop gap at the time. "Actually with the Chartbusters I started writing in major keys more. But still, that minor key always calls me. And that, right away, kind of sets up the more brooding kind of feel." Some of her lyrics were not out of the radio airplay textbook either: "I remember I was playing 'you digest me with facts like a piece of cheese' [from 'Waitin' in Line']. My publisher goes, 'You can't say that!'"

    "I think her history gave her a distinct advantage over a lot of what were considered 'new wave' acts of the time," adds Asa Brebner. "The whole 'new wave' thing was kind of stuck on us because of Leroy Radcliffe['s] and my background with Jonathan Richman and so forth, and that colored how they proceeded to produce and market us. I think we were naive and happy to be signed to a major label, and although we liked [producer] Joe Wissert very much, we just went along with whatever they had planned for us. I think now we could have done a much better job producing ourselves. I still cringe at that album cover, which I think largely sunk us as a candy-ass major label contrivance to those uninitiated to our music. The music itself was watered down enough so it could not overcome that basically cosmetic impression that the casual record store [browser] would garner on seeing it in the bins. It didn't represent us, and I felt cheated."

    The album did not widely break the Chartbusters beyond their regional base, and after another live EP and a second album (1981's Imitation Life), they were dropped from Warner Brothers. Although Lane's only sporadically released music since then (most recently on 1995's Catbird Seat), she and the Chartbusters have recently reunited, with all of the original members save Radcliffe. A new album is in the works that will mix newly written songs with others that the group performed live in their original incarnation, but never recorded. Lane is also working on a book about her "kooky crazy peripatetic life in the music world and other planets" that, given a career that has spanned many styles and intersected with many musicians of both star and cult renown, should prove to be quite a ride. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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