O Positive

O Positive

“We just play what we like. We don’t try to write songs for anyone else,” Dave Herlihy of O Positive told The Harvard Crimson’s Brian R. Hect in 1990, shortly after the band recorded their first (and only) album on a major label (Epic). “We haven’t really worried about how [our music] is going to be received. We just try to get ourselves excited about it.”

In the hindsight that several decades has provided, those comments made it clear that any partnership between O Positive – a quintet of creatives pushing the boundaries of pop – and a gigantic record company – a band of buttoned-up execs demanding predictability and continuity above all – was bound to go south. Square peg, meet round hole.

But O Positive and Epic were dance partners for only about 18 months and in no way does that period define the band’s legacy. Prior to finding themselves in the proverbial big leagues, they’d built a fervent following in Boston and across New England with rollicking live shows and two EPs, each a raucous blend of jangly guitars and silky melodies that became staples on college and indie-rock radio. The multidimensional mix of guitarist-keyboardist Alan Petitti’s power-pop sensibilities and guitarist-vocalist Dave Herlihy’s folk-twinged ones created a lyrical/acoustical hybrid that immediately distinguished O Positive from other Boston-based bands in the mid-‘80s.

The group headlined at popular clubs while opening for some of the biggest acts of their day at larger venues, among them The Psychedelic Furs, Bryan Ferry, Sinead O’Connor and Pixies. O Positive was such a bedrock of Boston’s indie scene that they were one of the last bands played on WFNX before the pioneering indie-/alt-rock station went off the air in 2012.

FORMATION

The group’s story begins in mid-1983, when 26-year-old guitarist-keyboardist Alan Petitti, a Newton, Massachusetts native and former New England School of Art and Design student who was working as a carpenter at the time, began working on original tunes in his basement studio in Brighton. His friend, drummer Alex Lob, suggested jamming and invited another friend, David Ingham, to join on bass. Instead of playing covers in their informal sessions, though, Petitti proposed that the trio work on his originals, with Petitti handling vocals.

“We were all in some cover bands to start, but I was getting sick of doing covers and I started writing my own material,” Petitti told Teen Ink magazine in 1990. “Alex, Dave and I got together and jammed, working on some original stuff. That was really fun and we decided to meet once a week to write new material.” In the fall of 1983, guitarist-vocalist Dave Herlihy joined the band, taking over mic duties from Petitti (and later becoming the group’s primary songwriter); guitarist-vocalist-engineer Dave Martin came on board shortly afterward.

WITH YOU/PICTURES, ONLY BREATHING, CLOUD FACTORY

The quintet decided to call themselves O Positive and made their live debut at Inn-Square Men’s Bar in Cambridge in January 1984. Later that year, they recorded a four-song cassette, With You/Pictures; three of the tracks (“Pictures” “With You” and “Say Goodbye”) appeared on their first EP, Only Breathing, released in 1985 by Brookline-based Throbbing Lobster Records.

In 1985, they took part in the WBCN Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble and recorded the two other songs on Only Breathing, “Up, Up, Up” and “Weight of Days.” The disc became a top seller at Newbury Comics and saw regular airplay on college radio stations across New England in addition to WFNX. In a clear sign that O Positive was soon to become a national act, MTV put the video for “With You” into regular rotation, as did local video channel V66.

Only Breathing is a promising debut,” wrote the editors of The New Trouser Press Record Guide (Collier Books, 1985). “Drummer Alex Lob and bassist David Ingham unite to form a monstrously strong rhythmic backbone, upon which guitarist-singer Dave Herlihy drapes his clumsy-but-earnest lyrics about self-preservation in the face of obsession and unrequited love. Although this is thematic terrain which has been crossed a million times, Herlihy displays an Andy Partridge-like penchant for clever wordplay, some of which works nicely.”

In 1987, the group cut a second EP, Cloud Factory, and Link Records compiled it and Only Breathing into the 10-song disc Only Breathing/Cloud Factory, making it the length of an LP. The release increased the band’s already sizable following in and around Boston, caught the attention of FM radio program directors and deejays across the Northeast and resulted in appearances at larger venues like the Orpheum Theatre, where the group opened for Aussie rock icons Hoodoo Gurus (in October ’87) and Icehouse (in June ’88). By early 1989, O Positive were frequent headliners at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club and other 500-1,000-seat venues across New England.

EPIC SIGNING, TOYBOATTOYBOATTOYBOAT

In late 1989, O Positive signed with Epic, several months before their Boston-based indie-rock contemporaries Big Dipper did the same. “There came a point after the first record when we all decided we were going to get a major-label deal,” Ingham told Teen Ink shortly after joining Epic’s roster. “Once we decided that, we just kept fighting towards that end. You’ve got to. If you don’t, then you’re going to quit because there are a lot of points where morale gets low and quitting seems to be the easiest way out.”

The result was toyboatToyBoatTOYBOAT, a 10-track LP issued in August 1990 that turned out to be O Positive’s only album for Epic or any other major label (mirroring Big Dipper’s experience). Though the album was received well in the press and MTV gave solid airplay to the video for the single “Imagine That,” a major management shakeup at Epic limited the promotional campaign, sales were less than stellar and the label decided that the ROI on O Positive didn’t warrant a second studio effort. Epic dropped the band in mid-1991.

As for the oddball album title, while some fans theorized that it had some sort of deep, profound meaning – The Harvard Crimson’s Hect wrote that it “conveys an unexplained innocence a child has when he’s growing up” – Herlihy insisted that it was nothing more than amusing word play. “It’s just a tongue twister,” he told Hect in August 1990. “We just wanted to have some fun. We wanted to hear the deejays say it, like they were chewing molasses.”

While there’s no reason to doubt Herlihy’s claim, the LP does have something of a nautical theme given the inclusion of the songs “Overflow” and “Hope the Boat” and session player Sonny Barbato’s accordion lines invoke traditional sea chanteys. According to Herlihy, that was no accident since the idea of floating on a boat – “being safe but not really that safe,” as he once described it – was on his mind while writing the material. “It’s a thin separation between you and drowning, but it feels like you’re safe,” he told Hect. “For some reason, that kept coming up and coming up, the idea of moving along through a big space and you’re a little vessel.”

HOME SWEET HEAD, DISBANDING

Interestingly, the title track for toyboatToyBoatTOYBOAT does not appear on the album of that name; it’s on the band’s next and final one, Home Sweet Head, recorded after Ken Hickey had replaced Alex Lob on drums. Released by Smashing Records in 1993, the 14-track LP failed to make much of an impact beyond the band’s existing fan base and O Positive decided to call it quits in January 1995.

“Everybody got tired of being in the van and everybody wanted to do different things,” Herlihy told WBUR’s Jim Sullivan in January 2023. “We had really given it our shot and after about 10 years, you become ‘not the new thing’. The music industry wants to find the ‘next new thing’ and if your band doesn’t connect or break through, there’s no shortage of others trying to do so. It just didn’t work out with Epic. The O Positive vehicle busted a flat, the first real pothole we hit career-wise.”

LATER ACTIVITY, REUNION SHOWS

After the split, Herlihy, Hickey and Ingham played occasionally as a trio under various names including Hurl, Toyboat and Hey Dave. Herlihy went into music-business law and taught at Northeastern University; he recorded a five-song solo EP in 2023, Postcards from Kindergarten (Volume 1), released by Lunch Records. Ingham went on to run a recording studio in the Boston suburb of Newton and Martin has recorded both solo and with other artists, including Brooklyn-based dream-popper Sea Glass. In 2011, Hickey played on Boston-based singer-songwriter Scott Damgaard’s second album.

In the 30-odd years since officially parting ways, O Positive has reunited for a number of benefit gigs, memorial events and special celebrations such as the Boston Music Awards and the WBCN and WFNX farewell concerts. In July 2015, they co-headlined the last show at T.T. the Bear’s Place (with Scruffy the Cat) and in January 2024 they co-headlined a benefit concert at the Paradise Rock Club (with Connecticut-based ‘80s trio 3 Colors) to raise funds for a friend who was battling brain cancer.

REFLECTIONS ON EPIC EXPERIENCE

Asked in January 2023 about signing with and being dropped by Epic, Herlihy said he and his bandmates always understood the ruthlessness of the record business, stressing that the group always enjoyed writing and playing together and did so for as long as they possibly could. “We always loved what we were doing,” he told Jay N. Miller of The Patriot Ledger. “We had steady work and a pretty fast climb after ’85. By the time Epic came calling in ’89, we were a really good band that had worked really hard and it seemed all those music business stars were aligned. Then we went through the big conveyor belt of the industry and the timing was not right. If you’re on a major label and don’t get a gold record pretty quick, well, there are always newer bands to sign.”

“We never quite reached the level with [toyboatToyBoatTOYBOAT] where we could hold on and try to build on it,” he added. “We held on for a while and we still loved to play. But admittedly, the fire in my belly was not as hot at 38 [in 1995] as it had been at 28 [in 1985].”

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published On: April 26, 2024