Vintage Stash: ‘Many Years Ago: The Complete Robin Lane & The Chartbusters Collection’

Every self-respecting music lover with any history inevitably encounters artists with credible bodies of work nonetheless confounded by the lack of recognition. Take Robin Lane, for instance: the woman had some cachet when she moved from California to Boston–after all, she sang on Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s seminal 1969 album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. And notwithstanding the history of popular music in The Hub of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—from the Cars and Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers to the Ultimate Spinach and Beacon Street Union–the city provided a vibrant music community within which to stake out a new career. That tightly-knit and nurturing environment remain strong to this day and it has now produced Many Years Ago. The Complete Robin Lane & the Chartbusters Collection is a three-disc anthology that could not live up to its description more fully unless it included the film documentary on this artist (depicted within the package), directed by the band’s own drummer and titled  after her best-known tune When Things Go Wrong – Robin Lane’s Story.

CD 1: As recounted in the writing of Brett Milano, area journalist and co-producer of this set (with Blixa Sound’s Dan Perloff), Robin Lane was introduced to punk and new wave music a year or so after her arrival in New England. The melding of her established Laurel Canyon leanings with influences including Cheap Trick and Television made for a potentially novel mix, but despite strong original material that incorporated those sources, the production of the Lane and the ‘Busters’ eponymous first album for Warner Brothers no more accurately captured the musical mesh than the contrived cover art depicted the band’s chemistry (Brebner’s piquant art as pictured in the enclosed twenty-page booklet would’ve been much more suitable). Joe Wissert had sanitized the music of Boz Scaggs with great success on Silk Degrees, but his work on this self-titled debut, unfortunately, sublimated the rough edges at the core of Robin’s music. Lane’s preferences for more sympathetic producers subsequently went unheeded, so the sophomore outing found Foreigner producer Gary Lyons at the helm and while he guided Robin and company from the Sixties into the Eighties, all the effort (and ever-so-slight improvement) went for naught due to the lack of sustained promotion from this once savvy major label, an unfortunate but not wholly unusual sequence of events the aforementioned scribe lays out with admirable objectivity.

CD 2: All that said, the 20-20 hindsight espoused in the liner notes corresponds to the clarity and spacious nature of the sound as remastered for Many Years Ago by Bill Inglot and Dave Schultz. Even if the electric guitars don’t exactly leap from the speakers, it’s immediately apparent how the instruments of Leroy Radcliffe and the recently-deceased Asa Brebner take precedence over any and all keyboards. Meanwhile, the enhanced mix even more clearly and cleanly highlights the assertive grace of the Tim Jackson (drums) and Scott Baerenwald (bass) rhythm section. Robin Lane’s lead singing guides the vocals supplied by everyone else in the quintet, thus retaining the original prominence of the arrangements: she moves confidently from the winsome (“Pretty Mala”) to the wailing (“Idiot”) as the material calls for it. Previous affiliations of three band members added to the steadfast unity of the lineup, a bond that kept their relationship stable even after the initial dissolution;  as a result, a modified Chartbusters lineup generated enough material for another full-length album, titled Heart Connections, the finished recordings and previously demos for which comprise most of this second CD; in their purest form, as demos of songs later re-recorded like “Why Do You Tell Lies,” these compositions reflect the no-nonsense personality the front-woman brought to her prolific output.

CD 3: Considering that recent regroupings of Lane and Chartbusters have taken place on stage, combined with the fact none of the studio work accurately captured the bristling energy of their musicianship, it is most appropriate track sequencing to leave the last disc of The Complete Robin Lane and The Chartbusters Collection for the WB swansong 5 Live EP, followed with other concert recordings around their hometown during their first era. Revelatory as it is to hear previously-unreleased live culls of markedly more spontaneous readings of songs from the records like “Many Years Ago,” with such takes appearing alongside covers including blues icon Willie Dixon’s “Violent Love” and the late Del Shannon’s “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun),” such performances confirm Lane & The ‘Busters never fully sacrificed the toughness at heart of their music as they proceeded through their studio outings. Taken from appearances at local venues such as Jonathan Swift’s and the Paradise Rock Club and most unissued til Many Years Ago, the twenty-two cuts also certify the authenticity of Robin Lane & The Chartbusters’ roots, captured in visceral action: the Who circa Live at Leeds would no doubt approve of this rendition of “Shakin’ All Over” in large measure because, even at full-speed (and high volume), the fivesome maintains the fine balance of elegance and muscle that rendered their music equal parts urgent and infectious in the first place.

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