Dicky Barrett, front man for the Boston-born ska punk band, the Mighty Mighty BossToneS, has come a long way to find himself. Growing up in New England (and other parts of the east coast like New Jersey or Philadelphia), one can feel in the shadow of the esteemed New York City. As a result, there is often a palpable tone prizing the group over the individual. For someone like Barrett, who stands out, that can create something of a psychological dichotomy. One wants to honor one’s home but also one’s own originality. For Barrett, this would manifest itself in the music he made in unique ways. For one, when the BossToneS began, the group prided itself on writing “anti-songs.” They’d start with a ska riff and make a “left turn” to a punk rampage. At one point, a famous record executive challenged Barrett, saying he was “afraid” to write genuine songs. With the gauntlet thrown, Barrett and the BossToneS dug in and began writing in earnest. Not long after, they became household names. Now, the band is set to release its latest record, When God Was Great (out May 7), which is also one of its best.
Today, American Songwriter is premiering the band’s newest music video for their new single, “I DON’T BELIEVE IN ANYTHING.”
“Danny Goldberg became the president of Mercury Records,” Barrett says. “Danny also managed Nirvana, that’s what he was most famous for. He was a great guy, a great business man. He said, ‘You’re afraid to write songs.’ And me at that age, I was like, ‘Fuck that! I’m not afraid of anything!’”
But, in truth, some part of Barrett was unsure of himself. He loved songwriting and songwriters. Growing up, his idols were songwriters. But as a musician he kept taking left turns and never arriving where his initial instincts wanted to lead.
“It has a lot to do with New England and Boston and being Irish and living in the shadows of New York,” Barrett says. “It’s some sort of inferiority complex. Like, ‘Ahh, don’t get too ahead of yourself there.”
When the BossToneS hit it big with their ubiquitous single, “The Impression That I Get,” and were on every pop radio station in the country and more around the world, Barrett says he was embarrassed. He had a hard time swallowing the fact that he and his friends were successful. He worried constantly that he and the band were somehow betraying the fans who’d propped them up from the underground. Like someone listening to their voice on a telephone answering machine, he hated what he heard. At one point, he remembers winning a Boston award for best male singer ahead of the likes of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. When he won, they played the hit single and Barrett ran to the stage so they’d stop playing the song.
“As it was going on,” Barrett says, “I didn’t go, ‘Hey, this is great. I’m going to be on Saturday Night Live tonight.’ And I actually love that show, I love watching the bands perform. I often think of the way I went into TV shows, like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to play this song again, we have other songs.’”
Today, Barrett works as the announcer for ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! late night show. As such, he’ll often see new bands come in and each time, Barrett says, he has to fight the impulse to pull the groups aside and tell them, “Enjoy it. Take it all in.”
But while hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to second-guess every decision one makes when looking at the past, Barrett also expresses gratitude and relief. After all, he and the band made it. Not only that, they got through the peaks of fame relatively unscathed. This spring, the group is poised to release its latest LP, which is the result of renewed dedication born from simply having the time. To produce the album, Barrett says the band “circled the wagons.” The BossToneS, which has been together since the early ’80s, has endured plenty of ups and downs. In a way, making this record was both therapeutic and a way to make something positive out of something negative.
“It got us through it,” Barrett says.
As the great American poet, Robert Frost, once wrote, “The best way out is always through.” If one is to believe this, then by getting through the pandemic and the tumultuous 2020 with a new record in hand may indicate for Barrett that he’s gotten out of his past tendencies of self-doubt. Another member of the BossToneS noticed this too. While reflecting on the album, keyboardist John Goetchius pointed out to Barrett that his talents are important. Talking with Goetchius, Barrett noted that he was surprised that so many lyrics were bubbling up last year. He was happy they were, but still rather astonished.
“And J.G. was like, ‘Listen asshole, that’s because you’re an artist.’” Barrett says. “That’s one of those words that I’m uncomfortable with. I’ve run from stuff like that. But he was right. In times like this, that’s what artists do. They create. And for the first time, I allowed myself to accept it.”
Barrett says he loves language, loves words. He’s particularly enthralled with what songs can do and how they can say so much in such short periods of time. In the late 1990s when the BossToneS were on every radio station, it was rare to have such a platform. And to have one while playing ska music that originated in Jamaica, flourished in England in the 1970s and now found popularity with a Boston band—that was a lot to handle for Barrett and company at the time. But the group ultimately rode the wave. They made it out and their latest album, recorded in a nearly-100-year-old studio formerly owned by the bassist, Flea, and now owned by Tim Armstrong of Rancid, should be helpful to the resume. Not only for its musicianship, but for its sense of honest camaraderie.
“I think what it comes down to,” Barrett says, “is that it’s about family. It’s friends and it’s community. That’s what the whole record is about, the strength of other human beings you’ve surrounded yourself with. Those who have gone on the journey with you.”
Illustration by YoYo Yosef