Formed during hardcore punk's salad days, The Proletariat were certainly not the most prolific band to come out of the Boston scene, but their influence has never been in question. Black Flag, Bad Brains, Misfits, Mission of Burma, and Negative Approach, to name just a few of the great punk and hardcore bands The Proletariat's shared the stage with during their initial 1980 to 1985 run. Their two studio albums—Soma Holiday (1983) and Indifference (1986)—are essential listening experiences for anyone who loves any of the aforementioned bands.
After a long time away from the band, original singer Richard Brown, is back in the fold, and along with fellow OG members Peter Bevilacqua and Tom McKnight, The Proletariat is back for the attack, performing all over the US, and writing and recording new material for the upcoming year.
In this new interview, I chat with Brown about the group's history, his biggest musical regret, and his life outside of punk rock.
I like to get into the childhood stuff first in these interviews.
Well, my parents got married really young and basically just worked their entire lives. They had no interest in the arts. They might have listened to some Elvis Presley, Connie Francis, that kind of stuff [laughs]. But they were never really that into music and art.
Did you have siblings?
I have a sister who is five years younger than me. We really didn’t hang out a lot because of the age difference.
What kind of music were you into as a kid in the ‘70s?
As a kid, I was into the Stones, Sabbath, Aerosmith, Bowie… you know, that kind of rock from the ‘70s. That started in junior high school. But punk didn’t come till after that for me.
Since you grew up in the Boston area, I’m curious to find out who some of the key hardcore and punk scene figures you met during your formative years.
The first person I met who probably who had any connection to the Boston scene was probably Peter Prescott from Mission of Burma’s brother, Miles. He went to college with my friend and he would drag us to see Mission of Burma play loft shows way back in the day.
What were some of the other area bands that you saw during that period?
Oh, let’s se… La Peste. Lou Miami & The Kozmetix was a very dramatic band that wore a lot of makeup that I saw back then. The Maps were great. I would see a lot of these bands at that loft I mentioned earlier.
Once you began to absorb all of these underground punk-styled bands, did you abandon the more mainstream stuff you liked a few years earlier?
Yeah, I think so. There were certain bands I didn't say fuck off to, like Cheap Trick. But, yeah, Sabbath and Aerosmith, I was basically done with them [laughs].
What were some of the record stores you would go digging in around that time?
It was all about Newbury Comics for me. This was when it was a tiny store, and not the chain that it is today. Man, it was wicked small! I remember feeling intimidated in there. We were in the sticks, so we would look at the people in there and go, “Man, that guy must be in a band!” [Laughs]
When did you decide to jump into the band thing yourself?
Peter [Bevilacqua}, the bass player of The Proletariat, I’ve known since I was three-years-old. Evidently, our moms used to have us hanging out with each other in his backyard when we were little kids. He was the one that was always going on about starting a band. We finally found a drummer who was like a 65-year-old man [laughs]. We had a few guitarists come in and out early on. I even played drums at one point standing up, Stray Cats style. We finally convinced Frank [Michaels], the original guitarist, into coming and playing with us. That was it. We went from there.
Did you have a clear blueprint of what you wanted The Proletariat from the start?
We wanted to sound like The Clash.
[Laughing] Yeah, I like that directness! How about the name of the band?
I was a history major and learning about the history of the Soviet Union. I was intrigued with the word “proletariat” and what it meant. That’s why we went with that as the band name.
It’s impossible to talk about The Proletariat without mentioning engineer/producer Lou Giordano and Radiobeat Studios. How did the band first hook up with Lou?
One night, we were playing at a club called The Underground. There were probably six people there, but one of them was Eric Martin of the band the Neats. He said to Jimmy Dufour—who was Lou’s partner at Radiobeat—that he might want to come check the band out. Anyway, they were just kinda starting at that point, so we didn’t pay much since we were coming in from the ground floor. It still blows my mind because Lou used to do our sound live. Ironically enough, he’s working with us again. He just finished doing a single we have coming out, and he’ll also be doing our album, which we’ll record in January.
Who were some of the bands you guys were playing with, circa 1982?
Given that we were never a pure hardcore band, we were all over the place. One month, I remember playing shows with bands like the Bush Tetras, Stiff Little Fingers, and Flipper, and then again, we also played with the harder bands like SSD. You see, hardcore bands weren’t playing in clubs at that point, but The Proletariat did from the beginning. So that helped us get a following outside of the hardcore scene because we were playing with more traditional punk bands.
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The debut Proletariat album, Soma Holiday, came out in 1983. What was the atmosphere like in the Boston music scene at that point?
I would say ’82 and ’83 were insane years. There were a million shows and a million kids. Shows went off without a hitch and they drew like crazy. There wasn’t really anything bad I could say about it. Around the end of ’83, it all started to splinter off into a more metal thing. The bands got heavier, for the most part.
Was going the more metal route something that ever appealed to you?
Bands like DYS and SSD, it came naturally for them to go in a more heavier direction. They were comfortable doing that. For The Proletariat, we went in a more post-punkish direction. Our songs got a bit longer and experimental, in a way. But you know, it all felt normal for us and the other bands. It was just a natural direction on everyone’s part.
There’s this idea out there that once metal fans started going to hardcore shows in the ‘80s, they brought along a meathead attitude with them. What are your thoughts on that?
It definitely happened, and I would say it even came before the hardcore bands went in a more metal direction. As the shows got bigger, the jock element would be there and they didn’t know what to do. They thought, “I saw slam dancing on TV…” Next thing you know, there’s all these fights happening at shows. But I would say that stuff happened more because of the shows becoming so huge in Boston. It brought in a wider audience.
What was the reaction to Soma Holiday like when it first came out?
It exploded. The album came out at the perfect time, in between everyone else’s big releases. Also, we hadn’t played any shows in a while, intentionally, so once the record was out, we played a couple of shows and they were just fantastic. The album sold really well for a local release and it got really good reviews.
What about the idea that The Proletariat was an overtly political band?
We were always intentionally vague. Every other punk band in America at the time mentioned Ronald Reagan in their lyrics. Well, we wouldn't give him that honor. We would just mention the programs and budget cuts. Someone said that we didn't sing about youthful rebellion, we sang more about economic issues. When I went back and listened to our music, I thought to myself, "Well, they were right!" We were young adults with financial responsibilities and maybe that's why I wrote about those things.
I know you played quite a bit in the Northeast, but why didn’t The Proletariat go out and do a proper US tour?
I wanted to do it, but Frank wasn’t into it at all. Ultimately, I think that actually lead to us getting on each other’s nerves after awhile. We’ve played more places in the last year than ever. Back then, we never flew somewhere to play a couple of shows. We played three shows in Tacoma, Seattle, and Portland in under 24 hours. Literally. We did the shows, got on a plane, and flew back home. That was back in March of this year.
The second Proletariat album, Indifference, arrived a few years after the debut full-length. From both a songwriting and production standpoint, there’s quite a shift from its predecessor.
Soma Holiday was so much more of a punk record. It as choppy and angular, with angry lyrics and spare guitar work. On Indifference, everything filled out, it seemed. I was practically writing books filled with lyrics by then. There are a lot of words and sounds on that album. It’s definitely a more mature effort.
I still favor Soma over the second album, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe I’m more comfortable with it? Not sure. But, yeah, I think they’ve both held up OK.
Maybe you like Soma Holiday more because you’re romanticized it somewhat, being that it was your first full-length?
I think you’re onto something there. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I might be romanticizing the whole thing. It was our first time making an album. “Wow, we’ve made a record!” Everything was so new to us on that first album. Also, we broke up during the making of the second album.
We had recorded 12 out of the 14 songs that ended up on Indifference and then broke up. Frank and Peter got a different drummer, and then they brought in Laurel [Bowman] who was the second singer. They did two songs on there: “The Guns Are Winning” and “Homeland.” I thought it was odd that they put those songs on the record… but, yeah, there was a lot going on. But I think the songs are good on both records.
What’s the story behind the cover art to Indifference?
That’s a photo of a guy sleeping in Boston Common that a photographer named David Henry took. He did a bunch of stuff for us. He’s in France now and he still sends me pictures of street scenes like that one. I remember a lot of people thinking that it was me in the photo [laughs].
Around the time of the Indifference album in the mid to late ‘80s, the whole idea of college rock as a radio format became a thing. You had bands like Hüsker Dü getting some love that way. Is that something that you thought you could tap yourselves into at all?
No, it never came up. I mean, college radio was huge for us in Boston, early on. It helped us a lot. But we never thought of us fitting into the big-picture college radio thing. Even if we had tried, I don’t think we would have succeeded at doing that.
Since you were already out of the band by the time the second album came out, were you at peace with the way it ended, or was it rough to deal with? How old were you?
I was 24 when I left the band. It’s one of the biggest regrets I have in my life. I think that if we had toured more and gotten through that period and carried on, we would have done much better. You know, as far as getting our name out.
What happened after you left The Proletariat?
I dropped out of music. I got a job with the Postal Service and got married… for the first time. I would go see friends play every once in awhile, but I was done.
How did The Proletariat come back to life?
From time to time, Peter would bring up the idea of doing something again, and finally, in the beginning of 2016, Soma City was reissued on vinyl, so me, Peter, and Frank got together for a few drinks and Peter was like, “Why don’t we do a couple of shows?” Frank said he wasn’t really into doing that but if we wanted to do it with someone else, he gave us his blessing. We recruited Don Sanders who we knew from a Providence band called Idle Rich who used to come see us all the time. He knew all of the material and we initially did four shows to along with the reissue. The shows went really well and we eventually decided to continue doing it.
Before we move on from the band, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about The Proletariat's appearances on two of the most beloved compilations in hardcore/punk history: This Is Boston Not L.A. and International P.E.A.C.E. Benefit Compilation.
When we got asked to be on the This Is Boston comp, it was definitely felt like a big deal for us. It was like, "We can go record in a real studio and not have to pay for it?" So, yeah, it was a big deal [laughs]. SSD didn't want to be on the comp for some reason, and I remember people saying that the only reason we were on it was because they declined. But that wasn't the case. I just think they wanted to mix it up a little and that's why we were on it.
For the P.E.A.C.E. comp, every month or so I'll get a message on Facebook from someone in the world who tells me how that record is their favorite of all time. You look at all the bands on that record (Articles of Faith, Septic Death, D.R.I., Crass, etc.) and it's staggering. It's a monster of a comp. I don't even remember how we were originally contacted to be on it.
Let’s talk a bit about your life outside of music. I know you’ve worked in the US Postal Service for a long time now. How do you manage to get any touring done now that the band is back in action?
Yeah, I’m the Senior Clerk where I work, so I get five weeks off every year. I also get first choice of when I want to take those days off. It helps the band string together weekend dates that way. Oh, I also work weird hours. I go in 3:00AM and I'm done by 11:30AM.
Those are some crazy hours, but I guess it does work well for a moonlighting musician.
Yeah, it's great because if we’re playing somewhere like NYC, that gives me enough time to get down there in time.
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