It was dingy, it was grungy, it was sweaty, it was smelly, and it was known as The Rat. From 1974 to 1997, this club showcased many of the best progressive bands from Boston and beyond, always before they made it big. Outside of New York and L.A., it was the most important punk rock club in the country.
Its official name was the Rathskeller, and in the 1960’s it had been a restaurant and bar catering to college students. At the time it offered live music in a back room, featuring local bands such as The Remains (who opened for The Beatles on their final tour), The Lost (with future Boston punk legend Willie “Loco” Alexander) and The Mods (whose drummer Harry Sandler went on to play with “Boston Sound” hitmakers Orpheus).
‘60s-style live music was phased out at some point, but in 1974 owner Jim Harold was persuaded to open the downstairs room and book some of the local bands beginning (or hoping) to make their mark in Boston. For the next 23 years it was the focal point for the punk and new wave scene in town, and became affectionately known as The Rat. Some the area bands who played there included The Cars, Dropkick Murphys, DMZ, Gang Green, The Infliktors, La Peste, Mickey Clean and The Mezz, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mission of Burma, The Neighborhoods, The Nervous Eaters, Pastiche, The Pixies, The Real Kids, Robin Lane & The Chartbusters, The Stompers, Thundertrain, Unnatural Axe, Willie Loco and too many more to mention.
WBCN’s annual Rock ‘n’ Rumble was launched at The Rat. It also became a stop on the tour for some new out-of-town acts who went on to become major performers, like Steve Earle, Joan Jett, Metallica, Mink de Ville, The Police, The Ramones, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, Thin Lizzy and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
The club was also known for the characters who went there and worked there. Mitch the doorman was an imposing but dapper gent who spoke through a voicebox. Granny the soundman, whose technical mastery provided an audio experience beyond what anyone could expect in such a room, was known never to speak at all when on the job. And Jimmy Harold, no punk himself, presided over the chaos with equanimity for nearly a quarter of a century. A notorious hole in the ground, yes, but The Rat was a unique and important musical institution in Boston which provided a stage for upcoming talent. For the bands and their fans, The Rat was where it was at.