Boston’s legendary rock club ‘The Rat’ is still remembered fondly


By Colin McCandless, Contributing Writer 

Musician Linda S. Viens outside legendary Boston music club The Rat in 1984.Photo/Wikimedia Commons/Wayne Valdez
Musician Linda S. Viens outside legendary Boston music club The Rat in 1984.
Photo/Wikimedia Commons/Wayne Valdez

BOSTON – The area is gentrified now. But a legendary live music club once stood in Kenmore Square that many people growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in and around Boston considered their “home away home” or “second family.” It was technically named the Rathskeller, but to everyone who frequented the place, it was known simply as “The Rat.” 


Origins as a college bar

In the 1960s, The Rat (then called T.J.’s) was a restaurant and bar popular with college students that held live music shows in a back room. It brought in acts such as Boston garage rock band The Remains, who opened for The Beatles on their final tour.

By 1974, the club began offering shows in its downstairs basement. While the initial focus centered on mainstream rock, ultimately it shifted to primarily highlighting, but not limited to, bands in the punk and new wave scene. Over the years, the venue hosted area bands like The Cars, Dropkick Murphys, The Pixies, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mission of Burma, The Neighborhoods, The Stompers, Nervous Eaters, La Peste and Gang Green.


A growing reputation

The Rat gradually built a reputation as a dark, dingy dive bar featuring great live music that brought in new and emerging talent. The Music Museum of New England proclaims of The Rat that “Outside of New York and LA, it was the most important punk rock club in the country.” From 1974 until it closed in 1997, it booked some out-of-town acts that would later become superstars including Metallica, The Police, R.E.M., Talking Heads and the Ramones. But The Rat also showcased a lot of local talent in the underground scene. It was where radio station WBCN’s annual Rock & Roll Rumble, a showcase for local bands, originated in 1979. 

Carter Alan, a veteran Boston radio DJ and music director at 100.7 WZLX, writes about The Rat in a chapter of his 2017 book “Decibel Diaries: A Journey through Rock in 50 Concerts.” Alan recalls attending a 1977 show watching a then “up-and-coming local group” The Cars, now a staple of classic rock stations, before they released their major label debut album and made it big. 

The Cars’ performance at The Rat that night convinced him they were destined for stardom. His musical intuition proved correct. A year later The Cars were headlining a Top 40 radio station concert at Boston Garden. The Rat would serve as a launching pad for countless musical careers over its relatively brief existence and still holds a cherished place in the hearts of many.


Fans have fond memories

Boston band The Young Snakes, including future ‘Til Tuesday member Aimee Mann at right, playing The Rat in 1981.Photo/Wikimedia Commons/David Henry
Boston band The Young Snakes, including future ‘Til Tuesday member Aimee Mann at right, playing The Rat in 1981.
Photo/Wikimedia Commons/David Henry

Stephen Gilligan is the founding bass player for The Stompers, which had a Monday night residency at The Rat in 1978. “Hanging out in the parking lot out back was almost as much fun as being in the club,” recounted Gilligan. “It was basically our dressing room. On a hot summer night, we could hear the cheers from the crowd at Fenway Park across the Mass Pike.” 

“Walking down those steep back steps into the club, up onto the stage in front of a packed room and tearing into a set of high energy rock ‘n’ roll,” Gilligan recalled, “there was nothing like it! Even considering all the success that came afterward, those were some of my favorite shows.”

Carmen Wiseman, a bassist and fanzine content creator in Boston from 1977 to 1985 said that if you were an aspiring local band, getting your first weekend slot at The Rat was a very big deal. “The Rat was sort of a Beantown CBGB’s,” (a famed New York City punk club) she explained. “Because a lot of British punk bands started their American tours in Boston, they often played their first U.S. gigs at The Rat. That was definitely true for The Police in ’77.” Wiseman remembered seeing Talking Heads, the Ramones, Television, Richard Hell, The Damned, Dead Boys and numerous other punk acts there.

Rik Van Horn managed the Copley Square Strawberries record store in the late ‘70s and frequented The Rat. His most memorable experience was seeing The Police over four nights from Thursday through Sunday. They had only released the song “Roxanne” in the U.S. and while not unknown, the group hadn’t yet become famous in America. Van Horn recalled that, at the time, they were driving around in a beat up old white van and asked concertgoers if they could crash at their house. The Thursday show was sparsely attended, no more than 50 people. By Saturday and Sunday, though, word had circulated, and weekend shows sold out. Running the record store allowed him to score free tickets to watch The Police and untold other shows throughout Boston’s fertile music scene. “It was the happiest time in my life,” stated Van Horn. 

“The Rat was an absolute cesspool where your feet stuck to the carpet, and the bathroom toilet was, at times, literally a hole in the floor,” said Mike Gerard, whose band The Fools played The Rat a few times. “But like flowers growing in garbage, so many great bands, both local and international, came through that place.” 

John McCrea lived in Boston from 1980 until 1988 and began seeing shows at The Rat while attending MIT. During college, McCrea resided half a block from The Rat and later lived in an apartment a few floors above the club in 1987. “I could hear drunken fights in the middle of the night,” he quipped.

McCrea, who now lives in Palo Alto, California, remembered when R.E.M. played an unannounced show at The Rat on Friday, March 23, 1984, with opening acts Husker Du, Scruffy the Cat and Kilkenny Cats. R.E.M. and Minnesota punk rockers Husker Du were in town for a performance the previous night at Harvard University. The show was billed as Kilkenny Cats, with no mention of R.E.M. “Part of the magic was that R.E.M. was so big that The Rat couldn’t headline them,” noted McCrea. Photos from that “clandestine” concert appeared in Rolling Stone, immortalized by photographer Laura Levine

Vernon West, bass player for the band Sass, started his career at The Rat back in 1972 as a 17-year-old. The Cars opened for them twice, they played a show with the Talking Heads, and they appeared on the 1976 “Live at The Rat” album

He fondly recollected the interactions with fans, who the band regarded as family. “It was almost like we were collaborating with the fans,” maintained West. “People felt they were part of the band.” The Rat was also one of the few Boston clubs at the time that allowed bands to play originals and not just covers, he said, calling it an “oasis of authenticity” and a “great encourager of the music scene.” “Those days at The Rat were precious for me,” he mused. 


Booking agent recalls ‘characters’

Vocalist Jim Thirlwell of the Australian band Foetus on stage at The Rat in 1985. Photo/Wikimedia Commons/David Henry
Jim Thirlwell of the band Foetus singing on stage at the Rathskeller in Boston.

Kathei Logue worked at The Rat as a booking agent starting in the late ‘70s up through the late ‘80s. Logue remembered that although its owner Jimmy Harold (who died in 2022) was an alcoholic, he was nice and loyal. “He was a good guy,” and “treated his employees well,” she said. It was her job to listen to band tapes and determine openers and headliners, booking everyone from The Cars and R.E.M. to Tiny Tim. Eventually, she split bookings with another agent. They would work and then attend shows at night. Logue loved the local music scene. “Frequently the bands stayed at my apartment,” conveyed Logue. “It was like The Rat was my life in that period.”

Logue helped book the legendary unbilled R.E.M. show. “It was supposedly a secret. It was not advertised,” she explained. 

The job didn’t earn Logue, who was raising a daughter during this time, much money—about $150 a week—but she enjoyed it, nonetheless. She recalled some of the characters that were regulars, like Billy Ruane, who would buy everyone drinks, get smashed and dance wildly. He was an affable guy and fellow patrons would always drive him home when he got drunk. Logue said that’s just how it was at The Rat: everyone “looked after each other.” There was also Mr. Butch, a tall, Black homeless man with dreadlocks, beloved by many people, who hung around outside the club. People gave him food and shared weed with him. “Most people that went to The Rat, it became like a family,” she reminisced. “It was a magical place.”


Legacy endures

The building that housed The Rat was torn down and replaced by a luxury accommodation called Hotel Commonwealth. It pays tribute to the club with The Rathskeller Suite, ironically described as an “upscale retro room” filled with memorabilia from The Rat, looking decidedly posher than the original it commemorates.  

But The Rat’s legacy has been preserved in other ways. Logue serves as the admin for Rathskeller’s public fan page on Facebook, which has more than 10,000 members. Although not all are active contributors, there are typically daily posts, often eliciting a wave of nostalgic responses among devotees. 

“It brings people together again, even if we’re in different states,” noted Logue, who now lives in New Jersey. “It’s still a family.” 



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