For a brief, shining moment in the mid- to late 1980s, 8084 were among the biggest rock bands ever to call Vermont home. They toured prodigiously, sharing the stage with several of the day’s stars: Blue Oyster Cult, Whitesnake and Toto, to name a few. They signed a major-label deal, were sponsored by Coors and worked with one of the era’s most accomplished producers. 8084 lived a rock-and-roll lifestyle most can only dream about. Not bad for a hair-metal act from Burlington.
“Actually, we prefer the term ‘arena rock,’” says guitarist Andre Maquera.
8084 formed in Burlington in 1982 and remained active for nearly a quarter century, though with varying rosters in their later years. This Thursday, May 19, at the Higher Ground Ballroom, the band takes the stage with the surviving members of its original lineup for the first time since 2000. The show kicks off a string of reunion dates and harks back to what vocalist Randy Smith describes as “the golden days” of Burlington’s rock scene.
“Back then, it was a little bit different in Burlington,” says Smith by phone from his current home in Charlotte, N.C. “The scene was really starting to pop.”
8084 made their name playing the local circuit, at bars and clubs now mostly forgotten in the haze of hair spray and fog machines — places such as Neutral Grounds, Texas, Hunt’s and a large Shelburne Road nightclub called Club New England.
“If you were anybody with a name, you played Club New England,” Smith recalls. He says the club would book the band for five or six nights at a time, and they’d draw upward of 500 fans per night. “It was nuts back then.”
“Everybody knew each other,” Smith continues. “It wasn’t unusual to see all the bands in town come out for a Sunday night show. There was a nice camaraderie. You’d walk in to Nectar’s and Nectar [Rorris] would know you by name. It was a great time.”
He adds it was also a wilder time.
“Back then, DUI didn’t exist,” says Smith. “Or they didn’t have a name for it. There were things that you just did, and you did them because everybody was doing them.” Smith prefers not to elaborate on what “things” those were, exactly. But anyone who has seen an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” can likely connect the dots.
In 1986, 8084 left Burlington for Manchester, N.H., to be closer to the rock scene in Boston. There they met producer Hirsh Gardner, who helped the band write, record and release its self-titled debut album. The following year, 8084 won Rock Search International at Olympic Stadium in Montréal, a battle-of-the-bands-style contest judged by a panel of industry bigwigs. Soon after, the band signed a deal with CBS Records subsidiary MCM. 8084 were on their way.
MCM tagged Aldo Nova to helm the band’s next record. Nova was — and still is — a highly regarded producer in industry circles whose résumé includes Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper and Celine Dion.
“It was a dream come true,” says Smith, adding that Jon Bon Jovi himself wrote a song for what would have been 8084’s major-label debut. But a funny thing happened on the way to rock stardom.
Roughly five months in, and three-quarters of the way through completing the record, MCM inexplicably backed out of the project. The label shelved the album, which has sat gathering dust in a Montréal recording studio ever since.
“We have a joke we use to this day,” says Smith. “‘Don’t you realize who we almost were?’”
The end of the 1980s would also bring about the end of the original incarnation of 8084, when keyboard player Charlie Hawthorne died in a car accident on Christmas Eve, 1989.
That night, 8084 played a gig in White River Junction. Woody Harrelson, then part of the cast of the popular sitcom "Cheers," was in attendance and hung out with the band after the show.
“That was pretty cool,” recalls Smith.
Later, Smith and Hawthorne parted ways at a gas station, the former headed north to Burlington, the latter southbound on I-89.
“We gave each other big hugs and said, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and that was that,” he says.
Hawthorne fell asleep at the wheel on his way home, crashed and died. Coincidentally, Smith also fell asleep driving home. His car merely went off the road and into a ditch near Williston. He was towed out and drove home, where his wife awaited him with news of Hawthorne’s death.
“Signing a big record deal, losing a big record deal and then losing your best friend. That was pretty much the ’80s,” Smith says.
8084 continued playing off and on with a rotating cast for another 15 years, though Smith says the group was never the same.
“It wasn’t the end of the band,” says Smith of Hawthorne’s death. “But it was the end of the band as it was.”
Eventually, even aspiring arena-rock stars have to pack away the spandex, flatten feathered bangs and grow up. Now 8084’s members have families and “real” jobs. Maquera operates West Street Digital studios in Fairfield, Vt. Smith owns a web-design company in North Carolina. Bassist Frank Barnes is the vice principal at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington. Drummer Gary Spaulding works for a website provider and lives in Essex Junction.
This week, 8084 have a chance to recapture their youth, if only for a few nights. While they probably won’t don outrageous outfits or tease what remains of their hair, Smith and Maquera promise the band will evoke memories of the halcyon 1980s, in both sound and spirit.
“There will definitely be leg kicks,” says Maquera. “And maybe some splits.”
8084 play the Higher Ground Ballroom on Friday, May 20, 8:30 p.m. $12/15. AA. Justice open.
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