If Dale Lawrence had done nothing else with his life, he could have hung his hat on fronting Indiana’s first punk band, the Gizmos. The kids and scenesters that talk now about “boring Indiana” should appreciate life in Bloomington, circa 1979. With no local music scene to speak of, and certainly no other punk bands around to play shows with, the Gizmos, along with Purdue’s Dow Jones and the Industrials, eventually got a following around Indiana. But in a place where even the Ramones (with whom the Gizmos played) weren’t understood, the group packed up and took off to NYC. That didn’t exactly pan out either, and the band broke up soon after.
Thankfully, Lawrence still had it in him, though for his next venture, he chose a different path in the form of Right to Left, a groundbreaking alternative band that became the Vulgar Boatmen.
The story of the Vulgar Boatmen, to this day, stands as one of the most interesting arrangements in rock ’n’ roll history. Two bands, two cities, one name: the Indianapolis version that Lawrence fronted and the Gainesville, Fla., version fronted by professor and scholar Robert Ray. The two met at IU. “I was an undergrad, and Robert was a grad student helping teach a course I was taking — as fate would have it — on song lyrics,” Lawrence says. “We became friends, though neither of us were in bands at the time and didn’t start writing together until much later.”
The plan wasn’t to create two separate, yet identical bands. “As Robert and I wrote more together, the two bands’ repertoires started mirroring each other,” Lawrence says. “When it came time to make an album, it just made sense to pool everybody and call the whole thing the Vulgar Boatmen.”
The albums, 1990’s You and Your Sister
and its follow-up, Please Panic
, released in ’92, were met with local praise and caught the attention of music critics nationwide. The band’s sound came from its respective geographic locations. East Coast art-rock met with Southern R&B — with punk, country and folk thrown in the mix. The tours were handled primarily by the Indy lineup, though a handful of shows saw the two incarnations blend together on stage.
When the band was signed to Warner Brothers’ U.K. division, its third album, Opposite Sex
, was released in Europe. This led to interest from Elektra, a division of Warner, but the president of that label cut the Boatmen from its roster before Opposite Sex
could be released stateside, thus ending the Vulgar Boatmen’s major label hopes.
It was a situation that Lawrence says is all too common. “Signing with a major either makes things really go or, more often, kills them,” he says.
Since the band’s three albums are out of print, a self-released compilation, entitled Wide Awake
, showcases Ray and Lawrence’s favorite cuts from their career. It is available on the No Nostalgia label.
While the Gainesville incarnation has all but stopped playing, Lawrence and company still play around and were seen last year at Locals Only for the Midwest Music Summit.