This story was written in 2014 in celebration of the Rumble’s 35th anniversary celebration.
The Lasting Legacy of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble
by Mick Greenwood
On April 6, 2014, the curtain will come up on this year’s installment of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble. It will be the first of nine nights in April at TT the Bear’s Place in Cambridge, during which 24 bands will compete to become this year’s champion. For decades, the annual month-long battle of the bands has played a significant role in shaping and showcasing some of the best talent the city has to offer. In that time, the event has grown, morphed, and evolved to play in-time with the beat of Boston. The rules have changed. The hosts have changed. The host-venue, also, has changed. The changes themselves have helped ensure that each installment of The Rumble re-establishes its own identity each year, while still retaining the nostalgic familiarity of each of its predecessors.
This year will mark the 35th time that a group of Boston bands will stand up to be counted amongst their peers, both past and present. The contestants will play to a room full of both their fan bases and the fellow citizens of their industry. Being named to this group is a much-sought honor in this city. But why? What sets The Rumble apart? Why are bands falling over themselves to play it, while scoffing at other ‘battles-of-the-bands’? Why does the Rumble matter so much?
The Rumble is different because it is not a battle of the bands. It is more of a competitive festival – a celebration of two-dozen bands who wove themselves into the city’s tapestry in the preceding twelve months. Every band that is asked to compete is conferred the knighthood of forever and always being a “Rumble band’. Some Rumble bands went on to be legends in this town and, in some cases, all over the world. In a city that has seen beloved venues go shuttered (The Rathskeller) and radio stations go silent (WBCN, WFNX), The Rumble still matters. And The Rumble matters because it is the only remaining direct channel into the one part of Boston every rock musician wants to be a part of – its legacy.
To appreciate the legacy, one must know the history. The beginning is a bit murky. There are some who would contend that Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band hold the distinguished honor of “First Champion”. This would come by virtue of their victory in 1976’s “Bi-centennial Tournament of the Bands” that was held at The Club in Central Square in Cambridge (The Club, on Main Street in Cambridge, later became NightStage, which ultimately was torn down to make room for condos)
There are others who say the inaugural honor goes to goes to La Peste who, in 1978, walked into The Inn Square Men’s Club (formerly located in Inman Square, Cambridge) and, a week later, walked out with the crown of the WBCN-sponsored “First Annual Spring Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival”. Those two events have come to be known more as ‘predecessors” and “inspirations”, rather than as the true point-of-origin. Modern historians, Wikipedia, and Billy Corgan all seem to agree that 1979 was the year.
The time was right, the sponsor (WBCN) was right and the location was right – The Rathskeller, affectionately known as “The Rat”. The opportunity for bands was significant. WBCN was a hit-maker – time on their airwaves was becoming the fast-track to success, as U2 has openly acknowledged. With an entity like WBCN offering to bring its power and influence into its own backyard, bands leapt at the opportunity to share the spotlight of those they aspired to be. Thus began what would come to be known, at that time, as “The Rumble at The Rat”. The inaugural installment was won by The Neighborhoods, a venerated local act both then and now.
Since 1979, some of the most essential acts in Boston’s impressive canon of influential artists have faced the gauntlet that is The Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble. Sometimes, the greats won (The Dresden Dolls, The Sheila Divine, Darkbuster, Til Tuesday). Sometimes, they didn’t (Mission of Burma, Morphine, Lemonheads, Big D and The Kids Table). The light the event began to cast drew guests and hosts of illustrious caliber (Peter Wolf, Joan Jett, Iggy Pop, Taylor Hawkins).
But, what has stayed the same, is that every spring for nearly four decades, those great bands and many many more have all had the same experience – an experience of competing, of improving, of performing, and of learning from each other. Much like sports, sometimes you’re only as good as your competition. If you don’t win, you learn what it takes to play the game to win. It is a simple formula, one that yields a simple truth – bands almost always come out better than when they went in.
Even though it has grown to be so much more, logistically the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble is, at least structurally, a competition. There are contestants, judges, semi-finalists, finalists, a champion and a prize purse. In its current incarnation, 24 bands are selected by Anngelle Wood, the current host of WZLX’s Boston Emissions radio show – a show that has, for years, put Boston’s local up-and-comers on the same airwaves as their mainstream competition.
Boston Emissions, like The Rumble itself, started with WBCN. Once, quite literally, “The Rock of Boston”, WBCN’s reign atop the Boston music scene came to an abrupt and shocking end in 2009. In the chaos that ensued, Boston Emissions was moved to WZLX (due to the fact that both stations fell under parent CBS Radio). The Rumble; however, went into limbo and thus 2010 came and went and – for the first time since 1979 – there was no Rumble. The influence and effort of Anngelle Wood can’t be understated. Without her insistence that the tradition endure, it may well have stayed dead. She was able to convince her superiors of the value of resuscitating The Rumble and inheriting the legacy of its predecessors and, thus, in 2011, The Rumble came roaring back.
After spending a year without what their much-revered annual Boston and New England music festival, bands and tastemakers alike rallied around The Rumble’s revival. The subsequent demise of alternative rock station WFNX had the unintentional cause of re-doubling the fervor with which local bands came to rally around The Rumble as their yearly moment – their opportunity to matter.
Many perennial attendees maintain that the first week of each Rumble, The Preliminary Round, is the best part. It is a six-out-of-seven night bender of noise, energy, alcohol, sweat, hugging, head-banging, dancing and shouting. The six nights begin on a Sunday and are evenly split down the middle, leaving the infamous Rumble “Day of Rest” on a Wednesday. Each show is a four-band bill and each band has a strict 30-minute set. It is worth nothing that the typical set length for many of these bands is in the 45-60 minute range, so every band must come into the show having had the gut-wrenching introspection of trimming their set and deciding what truly is the best-of-their-best.
A panel of industry peers whose membership changes from night-to-night judges each competitor. The fact that the panel changes, aptly represents the experience of being a performer who must play in front of different audiences every night. Judges can include former performers, radio personalities, publicists, bookers, journalists, etc. The criteria by which they are judged is a 45-point scale**, broken down as follows:
1. Material/Songwriting: (1-10 points)
2. Playing Effectiveness: (1-10 points)
3. Vocal Effectiveness: (1-10 points)
4. Timing: (possible 1-10 points)
5. Bonus (Optional): (0-5 points)
**2014 will see an evolution in the scoring, based on researching the Rumble’s history and the uncovering of a scorecard from 1981!
After each performance, while the stage is being broken-down / set-up (with the the assistance of newly-added volunteer stage managers), the judges will retire to the backstage area to confer with one another. The panel can discuss their individual observations and ratings with one another. By the end of the final performance, judges have typically already begun the challenge of scoring and (sometimes) re-scoring that night’s lineup. The optional “Bonus” category is given to allow the judges to grant credit those reactions that are more ‘felt’ than ‘seen or heard’.
This all occurs in the 15-minute break time between sets. Unlike usual local shows where bands are asked to share equipment, The Rumble emphasizes comfort for artists. Each competitor is strongly encouraged to use not only their own gear, but their own sound engineer as well. This can make for a hectic environment between sets for the artists, but the downtime makes The Rumble an extremely social affair for the crowd. There is plenty of time to talk and drink, just as there would be at any bar.
When the Preliminary Round is over, there are six semi-finalists. The two highest remaining scores amongst the eliminated are granted Wild Card status in the semi-finals. Since its introduction nearly twenty years ago, the Wild Card has helped three previously-eliminated bands become champions. There is a much-needed four- (sometimes five-) day rest period prior to the back-to-back semi-final nights. The semi-finals function identically to the previous rounds. Two finalists emerge and, once again two more Wild Cards are selected.
In stark contrast to the frenetic nightly pace of the prelims, there is another week’s pause before all four bands return for The Finals – a night that blends the excitement of a championship, with the wistful, reverent finality of a graduation. Bands that entered together inevitably bond like classmates but, once it’s over – it’s over. Bands can compete only once.
This year The Finals fall on April 25th. On that night, a well-deserving band will become the 35th to collect not only honors, but prizes as well. The prizes tend to vary from year to year. There is always a cash prize but other prizes in the purse have included studio time, mastering, duplication, design, photoshoots, merchandise printing, instruments, recording gear, radio and television appearances, and future shows. No matter what is in the purse, each of the prizes always tend to have one thing in common – opportunity. And for 35 years, that’s what The Rumble has offered and what every kid who picks up an instrument is looking for most of all – opportunity.
And so, as the Rumble grows older and the musicians get younger, the tradition of 9 great nights of music each spring continues. The legacy endures. Long live the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble.
Mick Greenwood has been an actively performing and touring musician since 2006, serving as the longtime guitarist for The Self-Proclaimed Rockstars and, more recently, for the newly-founded alternative band, The Interrobang. In addition to his work with those groups, Mick has also been the Music Producer for the internationally-televised talk show, The Steve Katsos Show for nearly the entirety of its 5 seasons and is the author of the blog 52 Shows.
2017 Rock & Roll Rumble