This story originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Limelight Magazine.
By JOE MILLIKEN
Although not a household name to many, Charlie Farren remains not only a favored son of New England music fans, but the versatile singer/songwriter/guitarist is also most respected amongst his musical peers throughout the region.
However, despite garnering substantial national success in the 80’s with his rock trio FARRENHEIT! and before that as sideman in the Joe Perry Project, Farren truly remains one of the best-kept secrets of the New England music scene over the last 30 years.
Farren’s Formative Years
Growing up in Malden, Charlie’s interest in music was sparked at an early age after being exposed to different genres of music through radio, his parents’ record collection and his older sister, who had been in a band herself.
“I have always lived around the Boston area and always had a love for music,” Farren recently said in an exclusive Limelight interview. “When I was in eighth grade my older sister Sheila had a band with three of her friends and they were great. I would listen to them practicing and thought – I need to have my own band, but I need to learn how to play!
“The Beatles were a big early influence – but I also recall loving some of the music my parents listened to, later learning they were songs performed by some of the great singers of the day like Sinatra, Bennet, Torme, but were written by folks like Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter,” Farren continued.
“It was the play of the melody against the chords that would grab me, which is still true today. The Beatles do that well and I think that was the thing that initially grabbed me about their music.”
As Charlie’s interest in music continued to grow he formed his first band even before entering high school, as rock music was becoming a greater influence on his music.
“My first band was called the White Knights, but we changed it to The Internationals because we thought it was much cooler. We only played a few times and really only knew a few songs. Then I had a band in high school called Blue Willow,” Farren said.
“The first 45-single I owned was “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” by The Electic Prunes – awesome record! The first two albums I owned were Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (and still one of my favorites), and Paul Revere & The Raiders Greatest Hits. Then I bought Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix, and The Bee Gees.”
“Later on big influences included anything by Hendrix and The Free, the first Moby Grape record, Surrealistic Pillow (Jefferson Airplane), early Led Zeppelin, Yardbirds, Animals, Who’s Next, Steely Dan, Court & Spark by Joni Mitchell and anything by James Taylor.”
Learning The Ropes
After high school, Farren was in a number of cover bands before starting a group with some guys he had seen play in Harvard Square Common, which would become Live Lobster. With Charlie on vocals, Bob Kilbashian on guitar, Joe Bourke on bass and Bob Sutton on drums, Live Lobster would steadily develop their skills and gain regional success throughout the Northeast.
“Live Lobster toured almost non-stop regionally,” Farren stated. “Although we mostly played cover songs we didn’t play the hits, rather focusing on artists like Savoy Brown, Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Andy Pratt, with a few hits sprinkled in to keep us employable.”
In the mid-70’s Live Lobster hooked up with the late Mickey O’Halloran who put the band on the road. “Travelling in a van we played every roadhouse from Philadelphia to Albany, Maine to Providence – and of course, Boston. We played as much as 45 weeks a year – usually four to five nights a week and up to five sets per night. That band was where I learned to sing and what it would take to go further up the ladder.”
Farren and Kilbashian then formed Balloon with the plan to begin writing and performing original material. “Ken and I formed Balloon to focus on developing an all original show,” Farren said. Balloon worked hard to build a following and were regularly filling clubs such as The Club (in Cambridge), The Rat (Boston), Jaspers (Somerville), The Main Act (Revere) and Bunratty’s in Allston.
“After several sessions in area studios, we got hold of a 4-track machine and set up in my house in Malden to record “Listen To The Rock” and “East Coast, West Coast”, both of which became regional hits on several local stations including WAAF and WCOZ,” Farren said.
As a matter of fact Balloon would even have one of their shows from The Channel (then called Channel 1) in Boston, broadcast live over the WCOZ airwaves. The show is now available on CD through Farren’s web site.
Charlie’s big break would come when invited to team up with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry in 1980 for the guitar legend’s second Joe Perry Project solo album titled I’ve Got The Rock ‘N’ Rolls Again. In search of a new singer after the release of his critically–acclaimed solo debut Let The Music Do The Talking, Perry hand–picked Farren after an audition at Boston’s famed Orpheum Theatre.
“We listened to over a hundred audition tapes and picked Charlie,” Perry stated in the 1997 Aerosmith autobiography Walk This Way. “He was a good rhythm guitarist and singer, so we started rehearsing in my basement and came up with a few songs.”
As an equally strong vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, Farren co–wrote four tracks with Perry for the album, as well as bringing in two songs from the Balloon days, “East Coast, West Coast” and “Listen To The Rock”, both of which also got airplay on the Boston–area radio waves as Perry Project songs.
“It’s been 25 years since I worked with Joe, so I know my songwriting style has morphed quite a bit over time, as I’m sure Joe’s has as well, Farren stated. “But at the time, I was surprised that Joe was so open to ideas.
“He had a process around capturing those riffs for which he’s famous – he’d play a long time with tape rolling and then go back and sift out the cool parts – play them for us – and we’d brainstorm around that to see if we could find a song.
“I thought Joe was very open and very tireless. Hearing the Aerosmith songs before and since, I can imagine that those trademark Aerosmith riffs might still take shape at least in part, that same way.”
The Joe Perry Project would tour the country, opening for some of the biggest rock acts of the day including Rush, Boston, ZZ Top, Ozzy Osbourne, The Kinks, Heart and Def Leppard. “One night on a three-band bill we opened for Ozzy,” Farren added. “But Def Leppard opened for us, imagine that!
“I remember meeting Randy Rhodes–who was a pretty innovative guy at the time–and having this little sound check moment with him backstage. I remember just playing with him and thinking that it was really cool”.
The Rising Of FARRENHEIT!
In 1986, when it appeared that Perry was headed for a reunion with Aerosmith, Charlie, Project bassist David Hull (who recently sat in with Aerosmith for some shows while Tom Hamilton recovered from cancer) and drummer John “Muzz” Muzzy formed FARRENHEIT!, signing with Warner Bros Records’ after industry legend Ahmet Ertugen of Atlantic Records had shown interest in Charlie.
“Before I joined up with Joe some folks at Atlantic Records were interested in some demos I had sent them, but weren’t completely sold on the band. So when the chance to join Joe’s band came along I took it – but we still kept in touch with the Atlantic guys,” Farren said.
“After leaving Joe – Atlantic was still interested in my material and Ahmet got involved by coming to see us play – he also came another time to hang out with me in my Back Bay studio – and convinced me to sign as a solo artist with Atlantic. I worked for a year on songs and when nothing materialized, [getting to record in the studio] I felt I had waited too long.
“So Ahmet let me walk – and very soon after Dave [Hull] and I connected with Muzz, and got a deal with Warner Brothers for FARRENHEIT!”
The garage–rock trio released their self–titled debut and had instant success with the singles “Fool In Love” and “Lost In Loveland”, with the former receiving regular video rotation on MTV.
Although FARRENHEIT! were indeed creating strong rock songs when bands such as Smithereens, The Del Fuegos, and Tears For Fears were on the charts, once the “hair band” scene completely settled in, they no longer seemed a good fit for the masses
“FARRENHEIT! really never fit with the big hair and tattoo crowd that emerged shortly after our debut CD came out in 1987. It’s probably why that CD still sounds fresh, and why the songs still work.”
FARRENHEIT! would release two more albums, 1989’s Raise The Roof and 1994’s Farrenheit III Greasetown, on Farren’s own label, before Charlie settled into cultivating his own solo career. One in which he could make music in his own home studio and on his own terms.
The F Man
“F Man Music started when I wanted to release Deja Blue [Charlie’s first solo release] in 1999,” Farren said. “When I decided that I wanted to sell my own CDs, F Man Music began as the business vehicle for me to release my own music.”
Farren, who also works for Hewlett Packard in a global business development role, would release three solo albums of new material within a five–year span, including the aforementioned Deja Blue in 1999, World Gone Wild in 2002 and 4 Letter Word in 2003.
After the CD release of the old Balloon show, Farren put out two more live CDs in 2004; Charlie Farren Live At Club Passim and FARRENHEIT! Live At The Roxy , before embarking on his next and most recent project of new material, which would take some eighteen months to complete.
“The two live recordings were made in 2003. The Roxy was a show reuniting the original FARRENHEIT! trio, and the Club Passim, a live, solo guitar/voice recording at the venerable Harvard Square listening room in Boston,” Farren said.
“I remember starting to write songs for the new CD as I was mixing those live records, and was just couldn’t wait to get into the studio to begin sketching it all out.”
Old & Young
Produced and recorded in his Chelmsford home studio, the new CD titled Old & Young, features 10 original tracks penned by Farren, with one of the songs co–written with old friend Ken Kalayjan from the Live Lobster days. “Half of these songs are brand new and half were ‘diamonds in the rough’ that had been begging for attention for some time. I was just waiting for the right forum to present them,” Farren said.
“Some song I wrote when I was signed by Atlantic Record’s Ahmet Ertugen directly after my time with Joe Perry. At the time we liked the melodies and grooves, but I never really finished them because they were so far from where pop music was at the time. While other songs such as ‘Lies, Lies, Lies’ and ‘Woman In My Life’ go all the way back to the Balloon days–songs that went on the shelf and waiting for the right moment.”
Farren and Kalayjan had reunited after many years, when Charlie had invited him (along with the other members of Live Lobster) to record a song called ‘Poor Old Romeo’ for the Farren solo album Four Letter Word released in 2002.
“It was great to connect with those guys again – great musicians all – and Ken plays some spectacular guitar on ‘Lies’ and ‘Woman In My Life’ from Old & Young with that signature clear, soaring tone and trademark melodic style.
Guest appearances on Old & Young also included a couple Boston–music legends, veteran guitar slinger Jon Butcher, and Barry Goudreau, formerly of BOSTON.
“Barry and I have been friends for years and I had always wanted to recruit him for one of my songs,” Farren said. “Barry and I had recorded an album of demos together at his studio in the mid–1990’s and one of those songs, ‘Nobody’s Somebody’, still remains a cornerstone of my current live solo show.”
“I did a couple shows last year opening for Extreme, where they had invited Barry and BOSTON lead singer (the late) Brad Delp onstage. Barry sounded great, so I grabbed him backstage and asked him to play,” Farren continued. “I thought his trademark slide guitar would be perfect for a song I had just written called ‘Sorry’.”
“Barry’s lead is perfectly tuned emotionally for the message of the song, and as he wraps up his solo he delivers that classic Goudreau twist that he brought to so many BOSTON hit songs.”
Jon Butcher, whose band Jon Butcher Axis was another up and coming Boston band during Farren’s Balloon days, also delivers a dynamic performance on “Too Far Gone” from the new CD.
“Jon was a buddy from the Balloon days and remains a friend and inspiration to this day. I asked him to play lead on ‘Too Far Gone’ because the song has its’ roots in a band for whom Jon and I share an affinity, The Free. He delivered an explosion that lifts the song to another level.
So how did the “Old & Young” concept itself, in which the cover depicts Charlie with his favorite “old and young” guitars, come about?
“The concept just came to me as I was writing the song, which was one of those tunes that almost fell out of my head in complete form,” Charlie said. “I had tried a friend’s full-size jazz box guitar and after getting some tips from Johnny A, who worked closely with the Gibson Custom Shop designing his own Signature “Johnny A Model” Gibson, I knew I had to get one of my own. I went home and wrote that song in an hour, then went and found my own arch top guitar,” Charlie continued.
“So this became one of those inspirational moments that was to define my new project. I could introduce the CD with this new song, and I could blend the best of my unrecorded older songs with my new songs… and I’ll record them with both my new arch top, and my old mainstay 1968 Telecaster that I got when I joined the Joe Perry Project in 1980.”
The combination works well as Farren blends the tracks nicely, despite the fact some of the songs were written as many as 30 years apart. Additional tracks like “Say That You’ll Be Mine”, “Forgot To Remember” and the closing “All The Way Home” show that Charlie’s song writing abilities have clearly evolved, carefully crafted songs full of insightful lyrics, tasteful guitars and a lot of interesting hooks. The CD clearly states how far Farren has come and grown as a musician and songwriter.
Since the release of Old & Young, Farren has kept quite busy, playing both solo and FARRENHEIT! shows throughout New England, as well as making guest appearances with Dave Mason, James Montgomery and the tribute show Come Together, celebrating the life of the late BOSTON vocalist Brad Delp.
To learn more about this true diamond in the rough, visit Charlie Farren and F Man Music at http://www.charliefarren.com.
Joe Milliken is a freelance writer and music journalist based in Southern Vermont. Contact Milliken at firstname.lastname@example.org