Market Days: George Belli and the Retroactivists

George Belli sings songs from a different era, tells stories from a different era, is from a different era.

He likes some modern-day rock music, he says, but nothing these days gets him worked up and excited like it used to. 

Nothing leaves him star-struck and in awe like John, Paul, George and Ringo did when they belted out “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to a sea of screaming fans on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, their biggest years still far ahead of them then. 

Nothing moves him these days quite like Mott the Hoople did when they released glam rock’s magnum opus, “All the Young Dudes,” in the early 1970s, with its sweet and melodic chord changes.

“The songs that are important to me are already there,” said Belli, the frontman of George Belli & The Retroactivists, one of the bands that will be playing at the homegrown music stage during Saturday’s Market Days festivities.

Belli isn’t a musician you’d recognize if you saw him walking down the street. He’s not a guy who can sell out shows at Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium or Madison Square Garden in under five minutes and have scalpers charge $500 for a seat.

But give him a few minutes of your time, and you’ll hear of how Belli, 63, got started in the music business, of how The Kinks and The Small Faces and Squeeze changed his life, of how he played in a band that made a name for itself on the Boston punk scene in the ’80s and managed to get a few hits on the radio. 

His story, like many others, begins with the Fab Four.

“The Ed Sullivan Show, February 1964. When The Beatles blasted out tunes right at me, that changed my life,” Belli said on the phone the other day. He talks in expressive but measured tones, hinting at the excitement he gets discussing one of his favorite things but maintaining his cool.

Later, he said, glam rockers like David Bowie and the New York Dolls did the same thing. And so did early members of the punk movement like The Clash and Sex Pistols.

They got Belli hooked.

Soon, he was jamming on stages in and around his hometown of Reading, Mass., plucking chords on his Gibson Les Paul guitar, playing at local clubs, covering the music that he loved and writing some of his own. 

He played in several different bands during those days, when most everyone listened to the radio in their cars, went to a record store to pick up an album, and had to be skilled at operating a needle on a turntable. 

A few years later, he made the rounds on the Boston punk scene with a band called The Real. They became a staple at many of the nightclubs in the area, playing homegrown cuts inspired by some of Belli’s musical heroes. A couple of their hits even made it on the late WBCN-FM, a radio station known just as much for helping many struggling, up-and-coming bands get mainstream exposure as it was for its slick and cool DJs. 

One time, they opened for local rock band Extreme at Boston’s stately and historic Orpheum Theatre. It was the biggest venue Belli’s ever played.

Nowadays, Belli can be caught just about every weekend at a local club or bar or restaurant playing the tunes his heroes made famous along with mix of some of the cuts he wrote. He’s played with the Retroactivists for the last eight years, covering the same stuff that made him get into music all those years ago.

He’s joined on stage by bassist Rich Blumenthal and drummer Jim Wayda, both of whom are Granite Staters who, like Belli, can trace their paths back to Boston. His wife, Louise, who learned to play guitar six years ago, also joins the band for about half of each show or so. And sometimes Belli’s songwriting partner, Mike Scannell, provides backing vocals for the group.

If you go to see the band, you can expect to hear some lesser-covered tunes by The Beatles, The Zombies, Bowie and others.

And if you happen to talk to Belli, you can expect to hear some stories about the musical geniuses of his time. Ask about that time he performed “Dead End Street” with Dave Davies of The Kinks. Or about his friend Johnny Thunders, the late guitarist and singer of the New York Dolls.

But don’t ask to hear standard, run-of-the-mill covers or typical bar room favorites. Not from Belli, at least. Not from this band.

“We try to keep the beaten-up bar standards away from us,” said Belli, who added: “I like to call the band the least rootsy in New Hampshire and proud of it.”

It’s just rock with these guys. 

Ben Conant

Author: Ben Conant

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