P lug in and turn up the amps. Here, vaguely chronologically, are the top 20 bands who shaped the sound of New Haven and have maintained the city’s image as the most creative original-music scene in Connecticut.
We set the hi-fi at hyperlocal here. Before fans of outliers such as Jon Brion (Hamden), Frank Critelli (Meriden), The Reducers (New London) and many other tremendous Connecticut acts start to complain, know that this list is limited to bands which had deep New Haven origins. If we skipped a few on the jukebox, we’ll regroup for another record hop another time.
The Five Satins
Recorded in the basement of Saint Bernadette Catholic School in Morris Cove, the instant classic single “In the Still of the Night” pioneered the doo wop form and, in that transformative year of 1956, helped make rock & roll a force to be reckoned with. “In the Still of the Night” composer Fred Parris has been performing with various versions of the Five Satins for over half a century now.
They traveled to gigs in a hearse, fostered an East Coast variation of Beatlemania (replete with moptop hairstyles) and enjoyed several regional hits. When The Shags broke up in 1967, some of them joined up with members of another popular New Haven band that’d just split up, The Bram Rigg Set, to form Pulse.
The Wrongh Black Bag
This awkwardly titled act recorded a cover of the garage rock standard “Wake Me Shake Me,” with the rave-up “I Don’t Know Why” on the flipside. Which might not put them in the local history books except for the presence of siblings Vic Steffens—who’s produced hundreds of local rock records at his Horizon Music Group studio—and divine “Beehive Queen” Christine Ohlman who still rocks out with her band Rebel Montez and warbles in the house band on Saturday Night Live.
A prog-rock powerhouse of the late 1960s which augmented the guitars and (Mellotron) keyboards with woodwinds and flutes. Jeff Cannata (later of Arc Angel) and James Christian (who went on to Eyes and House of Lords) were two key members.
The Poodle Boys
Representatives of the punkish scene swirling around Ron’s Place in the 1970s, due to family connections The Poodle Boys were featured in a Life Magazine photo essay. That national exposure was eclipsed locally by a flurry of great songs in the early ‘80s, including the anthem “What Can I Do?”
Long Island high school chums Derek Holcomb and Tom Dans started a band together in the 1970s. Originally a trio, it downsized to a raucous drum/guitar duo of just Derek and Tom. The Furors, who’ve perfected a blissful blend of early rock & roll, harmony-rich ‘60s pop, and ‘70s punk energy, are still at it.
At the forefront of Connecticut hip-hop, “Rappin’ With Mr. Magic” was released in 1979, with its titular MC reeling off a long list of Nutmeg State cities (“New Haven! We’re down!”). Mr. Magic also gave his 12-year-old nephew a rap makeover—as “Pookie Blow,” the child recorded the pro-education rap “Get Up (And Go to School).”
Yes, that Michael Bolton. Before he was a chart-topping soul crooner and a Saturday Night Live punchline, Bolton was a heavy metal vocalist who played regularly at Toad’s Place in the late 1970s and released two albums with his band Blackjack. A band photo from that era still hangs behind the counter at Mamoun’s falafel restaurant on Howe Street.
Deemed to be every bit as good as R.E.M. and presumed bound for the same glory, Miracle Legion instead found their momentum stalled by record label problems. That didn’t stop their earlier albums such as Backyard and Me and Mr. Ray from seeping into indie-rock consciousness. Among the band’s devout fans: Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Miracle Legion vocalist Mark Mulcahy moved to Massachusetts and began a sterling solo career. Guitarist “Mr. Ray” Neal still dwells in the area and plays out occasionally.
Sons of Bob
This was the hardworking local cover band which can boast that they opened for the Rolling Stones. The show, of course, was August 12, 1989 at Toad’s Place, intended to thank the state of Connecticut for hosting the band as they prepared for their international Steal Wheels tour. The show was unannounced—the band said they wouldn’t play if the scene got too hectic—but Sons of Bob found themselves playing to 700 people who were in on the secret.
This classic hardcore act is both funny and furious. They’re part of a worldwide punk community yet also speak to local concerns.
By morphing into the Big Bad Johns and later The Swaggerts, this local act singlehandedly kept rockabilly swagger alive in the Elm City.
The Mocking Birds
James Velvet helmed this longrunning bar band which held down one Saturday night a month for a decade at Café Nine. Velvet, who still leads bird-named bands such as The Lonesome Sparrows and The Ivory Bills, mixed his clever original tunes amid the cover songs and sing-alongs.
The Gravel Pit
The band rehearsed, and found their first fans, at a cooperative housing collective on Elm Street. They moved confidently up the regional rock ladder, headlining shows at larger and larger venues until the college-rock mecca of Boston beckoned and the band moved there in the late 1990s.
The Butterflies of Love
First known as Bug, then Silver Bug, The Butterflies of Love metamorphose into indie-rock darlings, earning the rare honor of recording a “Peel Session” for legendary BBC radio DJ John Peel in England.
The band of Rodgers brothers (vocalist Steve and guitarist Jonny) began as the sibling duo Only II, then filled out into a foursome that toured regularly, released a slew of well-received albums and remained one of New Haven’s most popular local bands for over a decade. Steve’s superlative skills as a promoter and music-scene booster have served him well as the founder of The Space and Outer Space clubs in Hamden.
Spring Heeled Jack
A high school ska band that grew up fast, taught themselves whole new ways of playing and pushed the envelope of what can be done with horns and short haircuts.
There were plenty of guitar-driven progressive rock bands in New Haven in the ’00s, but for sheer esoterica and unpredictability, Kimono Draggin’ served as New Haven’s own homegrown Mothers of Invention.
The premiere local party band, indoors and out, for several years in the New Haven scene, thanks to some inspired arrangements and relentless energy. They live on as hard-to-peel-off stickers which still adorn walls and streetlamps around town.
Stefan Christensen’s inspired blend of punk music from two eras—the garage-band sound of the ’60s and Minuteman-like punk of the ’70s—anchored a new energetic experimental rock scene in New Haven over the past few years. One of the prime laboratories was the vacant building next to the Popeye’s fast-food restaurant on Whalley Avenue.
New Haven’s rocked hard since the 1950s. It’s a noble history that has us reeling.
Written by Christopher Arnott.