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Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty BossToneS – On the new album, songwriting and the best song ever written

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – When God Was Great. Click on the pic for a link to the vinyl album (affiliate link)

The Mighty Mighty BossToneS are a musical institution, the American equivalent of Madness. Working-class backgrounds, together for decades, known for early hits and must-see live shows—and just now writing the best music of their lives. The BossToneS’ new album, When God Was Great, has all the things fans love about the band—big horns, irresistible dance numbers, an unabashed social and political stance and sticky, sing-along lyrics. But there’s an extra edge to this album, another depth, a nuanced layer of vulnerability and honest sentimentality that leaves more than a passing impression. It’s their best album yet. Just ask singer, songwriter and MMBT frontman Dicky Barrett. “I thought, ‘We can’t do any better than the last album.’ And then it turns out we can.” 

Days before the new album dropped, we chatted with Dicky about the album, songwriting, great teachers and what he thinks is the best song ever written. Like the new album, get ready for some wonderful surprises.  

RSS: The new album is outstanding, and since you’re the words man, let’s start with the lyrics. There’s a feeling of nostalgia and honest sentimentality about the songs. They evoke a sense of time and place, exploring how we fit in—or don’t—and how that fuels our passions. In many ways it reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album.  

Dicky Barrett: All the things you said regarding the sentimentality, your list of adjectives … Thank you for saying that, because I don’t disagree. I think that this record is exactly that. And to compare it to Born to Run … I mean that’s pretty rarefied air and some sacred ground you’re talking about.

There’s a mastery of craft that’s clearly evident here and that only comes with time on this earth and time together as a band. 

Absolutely. Eager young pups couldn’t do what seasoned, salty old veterans can do. We bought the right to do that stuff. When you’re first coming out, and you go, “I may never get to make another record, so I’m going to fucking spit in everybody’s face immediately, and get right up in their face. They’re going to hear me. They may tell me to walk away, but they’re going to hear me before they do.” And so, that’s the case. It has to come with that time. We’ve gained a lot of trust in people, certainly in our fans. It’s, “What do you got next?” I don’t ever really want to repeat myself or do something that I’ve already done before.

Dicky Barrett of MMBT
Dicky Barrett doing his thing.

You describe yourself as a words man.

It’s what I bring to the table. The other BossToneS are exceptional musicians. They’re really, really good. I would put Joe Gittleman’s bass playing up against anybody’s. Lawrence Katz and Nate Albert, the original guitar player who played on this record as well with us too. They’re virtuosos. Our drummer is sick. He’s an incredibly good drummer. Where does the guy that sings badly, where do I fit in? 

I think that it’s my love of words and blacksmithing them together and hammering them into shape, and saying, this is one way to say that. But is it the best way? Or are there other ways? Or is there a more colorful way? Is there a more interesting way to say it? How do I get there? That’s the way my brain works, and that’s my get-out-of-jail-free card. But having said that, I don’t take it lightly. I haven’t done a lot of talking about it in the history of what we do, because it’s not who we are or how we are, and talking about it feels so, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?”

But the truth of the matter is I love writing lyrics. I love writing poetry, and I have, since I was a kid. I had a teacher in high school that found out that I was writing poetry when I was in ninth grade. He wasn’t even my teacher. He found me, and he said, “Can I see your poems?” I was embarrassed and probably told him to fuck off. Then he said, “No, no. I’m interested in reading the poems.” I gave them to him. His name is Mr. Powell. He read through and then, then he called me back into his class and he said, “These are really good. You’re really good.”

At the time, too, I thought I was writing lyrics, future lyrics. I couldn’t possibly say I was a poet in Norwood, Massachusetts in 1981. He gave me a stack of these blue notebooks. He goes, “Fill these. Anything you think of, anything that comes into your head, just write them down in this.” I did, and then he took those from me, and he copied them, and then he gave them back. Up until he retired four years ago, part of his curriculum every year was the poems and poetry of Dicky Barrett. Which was, in my town, as I started to do well, a really popular part of the class. 

Mr. Powell came to the Hometown Throwdown two years ago, and I spotted him up in the balcony, and I turned to him, and I just started telling that particular story to him as he stood there in a Norwood High School sweatshirt, with a BossToneS t-shirt on his shoulder. The spotlight hit him, and I just said, “This is what you did for me and who you are,” and he started crying. I go, “Dude, I’m really sorry.” And then I looked out, and everybody was crying. My real English teacher was like, “It’s easy to fall in love with him if he’s not in your class. This kid’s an idiot. You might like his poems, but you should see his grammar papers.” Mr. Powell, he did that for me, and he was still a friend throughout the years, every now and then. He’ll call me to come talk to the basketball team, or something. I would for this guy. He’s a good guy, and a good friend.

He got me through high school. It would have been tough in a town and at a time where art and writing poetry was really nothing. But someone recognized it. I always appreciated that. If today I were tending bar, I would still think fondly of the guy who found me as a kid and said, keep writing. Something came out of it.

Creative writing, whether it’s poetry or lyrics or prose, looks easy from the outside. But it’s a struggle. 

It’s painful and there’s a lot of bad writing that goes on. I think that a lot of people, when it comes to lyrics or writing jokes over at the Jimmy Kimmel Live Show, I think you can maybe do it once. But can you do it again? Can you do it consistently? Is it in you, or did lightning happen to strike, and you wrote something pretty good? Are you going to follow that up with trying to do the same thing again? Are you going to follow it up and say, “Hey, I went south on that, let’s go north this time. I went up, let’s go down. I went blue, let’s go red.” Can you do that? Make that move? That’s I think what separates someone who says, “I think I’ll try my hand at this,” or who wrote a good song once, from someone who can do it again and again.  

Your storytelling is a BossToneS trademark and that really stands out in the song You Had To Be There, which, lyrically, reminded me of Bob Seger. You mention specific clubs in Boston and even specific nights. I was half-a-world away at the time but the song makes me feel like I was there, less you telling me about it and more me remembering. 

I think that the lyrics in that song worked on a few different levels, because we were creating and writing this album at a time where you weren’t allowed to be anywhere. Saying you had to be there during the lockdown, it’s, okay, we can go virtual here, and you can check out our band online. If you want, we’ll play a song from our living room. But to really experience what it is we went through, and what it is we’ve done, you really had to be there.

I think people saying that they were there, whether they were or not, I think that they know that. The fact that they’re saying, “I was there,” means that they know that. That they wanted to be there and in some ways, they were there in spirit. They love the legend, they love the story, and it’s even better to say, there’s certain things that I didn’t go to. One of them was when my buddies were going to see Fear on Saturday Night Live. I was like, Fear wasn’t my favorite band. I did like it, but it wasn’t my favorite band. At that time I was more into the Bad Brains so I didn’t go. But then every time I watched the video, I was like, gosh, I wish I was there. That’s one example. And so there’s other things like that, and I’m almost tempted to go, “I was there.” Because I’ve been to a lot of cool places and I’ve been in a lot of different things. If someone calls me out, “No, you weren’t Dicky,” then all of a sudden, I’m the liar. But I think that’s just that. I mean to experience the Mighty Mighty BossToneS or to experience the bands that we loved growing up or go into venues, seven nights a week to see different bands, it’s a blessing and a gift. I could spend five hours trying to explain what it was like, but sorry, you had to be there.

And I’m loving the Bob Seger comparison, too. I love his song that goes, “Roll Me Away. Roll, roll me away. Won’t you roll me away.” I love that nostalgic, bird’s eye view. I don’t really have a connection other than I love Bob Seger, and I think that the way he writes, he takes a step and really looks at it, and then paints the picture that way. But I think that there is that, “you had to be there.” First of all, I wanted to have a Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man type song. That just keeps going at you. But I wanted the sentimentality of some of his other stuff. Seger-esque, you nailed it. 

I was a little surprised with, I have to say, really surprised, that you chose to cover an old Creedence Clearwater Revival song, Long As I Can See The Light. I didn’t recognize it from the title, but you started singing and there’s a little bit of a country twang to the song that I just loved. It is like a mix between blues, country and ska in one. 

Absolutely. John Fogerty’s voice on it, it’s pure perfection. Also, Fogerty plays the sax on that song as well. Leon Silva, who’s been a Bosstones now for about six or seven years, he plays the sax on our song. He’s from Brockton, Massachusetts, and he’s a bit of a legend. He also plays in the Tennessee Kids with Justin Timberlake. He’s a great guy and a great kid, and he is a scorching saxophone player. I mean, he just nailed it. That was his first pass on it, and he got what I was trying to do. Got the vibe and laid it in there. The thing about it is, with the sax you can do aerobics all over this and double back flips, but Leon just laid it in the way Fogerty would have himself. It’s not too much, and it’s not too little. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. 

We wanted to put a cover on this record and we hadn’t. We cover songs all the time, but we hadn’t recorded a cover in a little bit. With the exception of What the World Needs Now is Love, which we did a few years back. Put a Candle In The Window just felt like it was part of the collection of songs. It felt it had the same spirit, the same vibe, the same sentimentality—as well as mentality—as everything else we were putting together.

I’ve always liked the song. CCR had five number two billboard hits, and no number ones. That was one of the five. If John Fogerty hadn’t done the quintessential vocal take of that song. I probably would have gone for it more than I did, but because he just held back a little bit, I said to myself, “All right. Give a ska vibe to this, a BossToneS vibe.” With the country feel, it’s actually a steel guitar at the top of that song. And then we hit the mid tempo at a slower tempo, ska groove, and then it’s 100% Bosstones.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – When God Was Great. Click on the pic for a link to the vinyl album (affiliate link)

Old-school country, and old-school ska always seem to go together well. 

I think an old-school Jamaican ska song, and an old school country song—maybe Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard for sure, and Willie, in the Willie days—I think they’re both very, very good songs to start with. Well written songs. On top of that, they only use what it needs to take it there. There’s not a lot of extra flair. I think that that’s the same sort of brain. Same thought goes into both. I think that a good example of what you’re talking about would be the song Certain Things on the new album. Listen to that one. I mean, that one, we deliberately tried to write it ’70s era AM Gold, Glen Campbell song at that time. Oh, sure, it looks easy, but it’s not. The Glen Campbell song [written by Jimmy Webb], By the Time I get to Phoenix—it’s insanely good. Gentle On My Mind might be the greatest song ever written. “It’s knowing that your door is always open, and your path is free to walk …” Such a great song. He was a great songwriter. On top of that, he was a great musician. He was in the Wrecking Crew

You’ve said that there were things that you were disappointed that you weren’t able to do musically because of COVID such as getting to play with Madness at the Greek Theatre in Boston.

It’s tough to say that because it’s like, “Oh, this successful ’90s ska band guy didn’t get to have another one of his bucket wish items checked off. Meanwhile, I lost my job and my family is going without food.” All the tragedies and atrocities and things that were created because of lockdown and the pandemic, and everything that was going on, I’m low on the list, and it’s personal to me, and I wish that we could have played. I wish none of this happened. Let’s start there. I wish that we could go back and that none of it has taken place. If I get a wish.

If it’s Covid or just life, I think we’re all doing the best we can.

I actually think that’s true, and in a time when so many people, and so many Americans and so many people are being accused and the division is off the scale. It’s off the charts. I long for the days where some guy was voting for Ronald Reagan and I was for Mondale, and then after we said, “Oh, fuck you,” we got back to being friends again. I long for those days.

Isn’t that one of the ideas behind the song, It Went Well? You’re talking about how you’ll still be there when this is over, that you’re not going to hate everybody?

We’ve got to. I mean, are we losing? Yes. At different places in different points of view, but it’s so gone. No matter where you stand, on whatever political ground you’re standing on, how did we get here? How did it become this? It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not on that level. I think it’s just become so distorted, and so blown out. The damage that continues to this day, to go on, I don’t see any healing anytime real soon. But like all good BossToneS records, you end up feeling hopeful.

And that brings me to the last song, The Final Parade. It’s an anthem for people who love the music and scene, regardless what the haters say.

That’s the people who we are, and that’s the scene that exists, and that’s the people that make this music or appreciate the music that we create. It felt we needed to say, “Hey, we’re still here. This is what we do, and we still have the same attitudes.” I’ll tell you what, it got us through everything else, it was our unity and our friendships and the relationships and the fact that we are a strong unified group of people around the world that all have similar tastes and interests in music and to greater and lesser degrees. I wanted that feeling. After everything that was said on the record, and I think the Boston Globe accused me of making a record that was too long. But I don’t see how I could have trimmed it. And what the hell have you got to do right now? Sit down. It’s still under an hour. Sit down and listen to it. I’m certainly not going to take that song off the record which clocks in at eight minutes. It’s eight damn good minutes. 

I thought it was really well produced. The guys that put it together, what we took advantage of was the fact that people like us, we’re locked down, so we knew that they probably raised their home recording game in some way, which we found out was true. We contacted the great Roddy Radiation from The Specials and said, “Hey, can we get a little guitar on this track?” He said, “Sure, mate. I’ll get it to you in an hour. I’m sitting in my den, and I’ll just fire up this brand new equipment I ordered for the house.” That list goes on to The Interrupters, to the Pietasters, Stranger Cole, Bim, Toasters … on and on. It was like, “Let’s get together on this track,” and they did.

The toughest part of the whole thing was putting it together and who goes where and how does this fit here? What do we turn up? Which knob do we turn down? But it came out exactly the way I imagined it would, and gave the exact feeling which you so eloquently described. 

The last song is definitely a spoonful of sugar. You hear that song and you’re like, “You know what? I think things are going to be okay. I think it’s going to be all right. Dicky from the Bosstones and Christian from the Aquabats said it’s going to be okay.”

The vinyl album of “When God Was Great” (Hellcat Records) by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones  is available worldwide through this link 

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – When God Was Great (Hellcat Records)

(Amazon affiliate link)

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Described by friends as “way, way too obsessed with ska,” Charles Benoit lives in Rochester, NY, where he writes novels (Young Adult noir) and plays tenor sax in Some Ska Band. Incriminating details and paparazzi-quality photos at charlesbenoit.com.

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