I solemnly swear that the juxtaposition of Todd Rundgren and Tom Scholz is entirely accidental and will not lead to a series on “Recording Geeks of the Late 20th Century.”
I’d never even considered reviewing this album until very, very recently . . . like a couple of weeks ago.
Boston was on the original list of 1000 albums marked for review when I made the decision to switch from contemporary to classic . . . way down near the bottom. The list was the product of a brainstorming session with my parents, and I agreed to follow brainstorming rule #1: “There’s no such thing as a bad idea.” My father suggested Boston late in the session and though I tried to pretend that I didn’t hear him, he was onto me quicker than flies on shit. “Put it down, Sunshine. No such thing as a bad idea.” I reluctantly entered Boston on the spreadsheet, consoling myself with the knowledge that I had not relinquished my right to determine the order of reviews and I could put it off long enough so that Dad would forget about it.
Allow me to explain my reluctance. Though I think “More Than a Feeling” was one of the greatest singles ever released, Boston clearly falls into the category of “arena rock band” and I loathe the very concept of arena rock. Wikipedia has a rather scholarly article on the subject:
Arena rock (also known as AOR, melodic rock, stadium rock, anthem rock, pomp rock, corporate rock and dad rock) is a style of rock music that originated in the mid-1970s . . .
Many of the above labels are used pejoratively,and discussions over music criticism often delve into the question of whether musicians’ focus on rock spectacle and mass appeal results in compromised artistic merit, particularly in terms of the difference between the interests of the “middlebrow” populace versus other listeners . . .
Historian Gary A. Donaldson has summed up arena rock as “big hair, big voices, and really big guitars”. In contrast to other types of music with a more raw, time-worn approach, arena rock musicians emphasize dramatic production. With bands deliberately designing their material for large audiences, the songs focus on melody, often featuring strident choruses. Guitar effects and the use of keyboard instruments are significant elements of the genre. Fireworks displays, use of smoke, and methods of sophisticated lighting have become part of the visual aesthetics of what is known as arena rock.
I deny any snobbery in my disdain for arena rock; it’s just that I have a strong preference for hearing music in intimate venues. When I go to a concert, I want to hear music, not the sound of fireworks exploding and lasers flashing. I want to be close enough to the musicians so I can see what they’re doing and I don’t want the asshole who manages the big-screen visuals to determine what I watch. I want the drama to emerge naturally from effective arrangements and superior musicianship as opposed to manufactured drama designed to give the audience a few cheap thrills. I’ve never seen some of my favorite artists (Radiohead immediately comes to mind) because the economics of today’s music business demands that popular acts play in large venues like stadiums and monstrous arenas. I was lucky enough to see Oasis in three intimate venues because I saw them late in their career after the Gallagher brothers had alienated most of their American fanbase. I don’t go to concerts just to tell people I’ve been there; I go to concerts to listen, learn and enjoy the music. Hence, I avoid concerts in large venues like the plague.
I am deeply envious of my parents, who had the great good fortune to live in the San Francisco of the Fillmore and Winterland, with the Berkeley Community Theatre right across the bay. They saw the following artists in those intimate venues: The Stones, David Bowie, The Kinks, Jethro Tull, Cream, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Beach Boys, J. Geils Band, King Crimson, Electric Flag, The Doors, Chuck Berry, Traffic . . . and many others. I’ve spent years interrogating them about those concerts because I want to experience what they experienced, but experience by proxy never comes close to the real thing. That envy has probably deepened my disdain for music designed for large crowds like arena rock.
We can credit or blame Siri for rescuing Boston and their enormously successful debut album from altrockchick oblivion. I’d just finished my annual blues jag and after a week of nothing but blues, I wanted to hear something more musically complex. “Siri, play some progressive rock.” “Okay, here’s progressive rock.” The first track she played was “Limelight” by Rush, which made for a nice transition from B. B. King. I could have sworn that the second track was Emerson, Lake and Palmer with Keith in his mad organist mode but when the vocalist entered the fray, I said to myself, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s not Greg Lake!”
“Hey, Siri. Who is this?” “This is ‘Foreplay slash Long Time’ by Boston.” “Well, I’ll be doggone,” I said to Siri, who immediately replied, “Okay. Here’s ‘I’ll Be Doggone’ by Marvin Gaye.” Out of respect for Marvin, I let the song run for a minute or so before requesting Boston’s debut album . . . and here we are.
Though completely unintended, I will say that doing Todd Rundgren and Tom Scholz back-to-back makes for a nice compare-and-contrast exercise. Both gentlemen are recording wizards who felt they could do a better job than the record company’s hired hands. Both spent a lot of time in either an apartment (Rundgren) or in a basement (Scholz) tinkering with their breakthrough albums. In Rundgren’s case, he tinkered with the studio’s approval, openly borrowing equipment and moving it to his pad. Because Epic Records demanded that the band record in a professional studio, Scholz had to resort to sleight-of-hand to pull off his tinkering. In cahoots with his producer, they sent the other band members to L. A. to hang out in the studio while Scholz recorded the backing tracks with his self-built equipment in his Boston basement. The tapes were then forwarded to Los Angeles for vocals and mixing.
The similarities pretty much end there. Todd Rundgren wrote several songs on Something/Anything? in minutes; according to Rolling Stone, it took Tom Scholz five years to complete “More than a Feeling.” Todd Rundgren is decidedly unpredictable, jumping from one genre to another and often creating works that defy genre classification. Boston is eminently predictable—all their work falls into the category of arena rock.
Still, you can’t be an arena rock band without an arena, and at the time of the debut album’s release, Boston had rarely played live anywhere, focusing their efforts on recording demo tapes for record companies. The common wisdom at the time was that a band built a fan base through constant live performances and once the fanbase reached a certain point, the buzz would inevitably draw attention from the record companies. There is no Kaiserkeller or Cavern Club in Boston’s history; they made it big on the sheer strength of their recordings and the enthusiastic support of AOR radio stations who were desperate for fresh rock ‘n’ roll to counter the inexplicable but painfully real popularity of disco.
Please note that I deliberately used the term “recordings” as opposed to music and lyrics. With a couple of exceptions, the baseline chord structures used on Boston aren’t particularly inventive and the lyrics don’t come close to poetry. Andy Aledort of Maximum Guitar got it two-thirds right when he wrote, “The ‘Boston sound’ combines big, giant melodic hooks with massively heavy, classically inspired guitar parts.” What he missed was the focus on instrumental and vocal harmony. Tom Scholz was weaned on classical music and had a deep appreciation of the varying dynamics and multi-instrumental harmonic layering used in many a symphony or concerto—properties you hear very clearly in some of Boston’s arrangements and mixes. Ironically, Boston came far closer to the marriage of classical music and rock than anything ELO came up with during their progressive phase.
After listening to the album several times, I developed a certain respect for Tom Scholz’s production skills, with some reservations. With some albums I love the music; with others, I love the lyrics; and sometimes I’m lucky enough to fall in love with both. The best thing about Boston is the sound. Although Scholz tends to switch to power mode much too frequently, I love the clarity and cleanliness of the mixes, the harmonic bursts, the careful and effective panning that tickles my ears and the delicate layering of the instruments. The quality of the recording compensates (though not entirely) for the comparatively pedestrian lyrics and predictable trappings of arena rock.
The album went gold in three weeks and platinum in three months; the most recent figures reveal total sales of seventeen million. Their next two albums both went multi-platinum, but the commercial and critical responses to those offerings were less enthusiastic. What I find most telling in the sales numbers is despite not having released an album in eight years due to legal haggling and various other disasters, the single from Boston’s third album (“Amanda” from Third Stage) shot to #1 on the charts. As the critical assessment of that third album could be classified as piss-poor, it’s obvious the maiden album resulted in a loyal fan base that stuck with Boston through good times, not-so-good times and a hiatus that would have severed the connection between most bands and their fanbase. I think Boston fans wanted to keep reliving that magic moment when they first heard “More Than a Feeling” blasting out of their car radios.
And I can’t say I blame them.
“More Than a Feeling”: When I hear this song today I try to imagine myself in 1976 America, the year of the bicentennial celebration. Americans everywhere endeavored to keep their heads firmly up their asses by pretending that the country hadn’t lost any claim to moral authority via Vietnam and Watergate, waving flags and partying to the utterly empty soundtrack of disco music. As a die-hard rock chick, I imagine myself feeling very, very grumpy about rock’s apparent decline and trying to compensate for the appalling shift in popular music tastes by listening to the good old stuff by the Beatles, the Who and their compatriots.
But grumpy 1976 me wants some new rock ‘n’ roll to restore my faith in humanity.
So I do what Americans tend to do when they’re feeling restless—I get into my car and take a drive to nowhere in particular, my radio tuned to album-oriented rock. The station is about halfway into a six-song back-to-back sequence when I hear the sound of a twelve-string guitar musing on D chord variations, dropping down to C/G to complete the pattern. The sound is beautiful, mesmerizing and soothing. After a few measures, muscular drums enter the mix with a transitory fill before slipping into quieter tempo support, then the singer makes his entrance. His voice is gentle and melodic, reminiscent of Danny Kirwan on “Woman of 1000 Years”:
I looked out this morning and the sun was gone
Turned on some music to start my day
I lost myself in a familiar song
Suddenly but not jarringly, the voice jumps an octave to close the verse, the last word intensified by a perfectly timed and perfectly placed blast of reverb:
I closed my eyes and slipped AWAY . . .
Then WHAM! A gorgeous electric guitar riff completes the melodic line with bass counterpoint filling the space and the drums shift to a power rock beat then WOW! The guitar ends its pattern with a held note that melts into the incredibly satisfying sound of crunchy rhythm guitar power chords and WHAT? Is that handclapping? Oh my fucking god I think I’m going to come! When the singer and background singers engage in call-and-response on the line “more than a feeling” I shout, “YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT IT’S MORE THAN A FEELING!” Thankfully the band executes a perfect transition back to the softer verse, calming me down enough to avoid crashing into the VW bus that seemingly appeared out of nowhere while I was having an orgasm.
I decide to pull over. Thank fuck the cars back then had big ashtrays and those cute little round lighters because I need a cigarette! I light up and take the singer’s advice, closing my eyes and immersing myself in the second go-round of verse and chorus, trying very hard not to wet the car seat but failing when they repeat that overwhelmingly exciting transition. The lead solo follows with its unusually beautiful harmonies and I wonder if the band has multiple guitarists like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then it’s back to verse and chorus but I’m starting to feel my hips getting restless, so when the singer begins what turns out to be an extended octave leap, I jump out of the car and get myself ready to dance, refusing to be thrown off-kilter by the extra measure of transitional guitar. As I shake my ass on the side of the road, I pay no attention whatsoever to the drivers rushing by, who are probably wondering which illegal substance I took or speculating on how my skirt got wet on such a sunny day. Fuck ’em.
My fantasy ends with a thud, for instead of identifying the songs and performers at the end of the sequence, the station takes an extended commercial break. Harrumph! Refusing to allow that capitalist intrusion to deter me from my mission, I get back in the car and drive straight to the nearest record store and do what I often do when I hear a piece of unidentified music I simply must have: I sing a snippet to the clerk. It’s not entirely foolproof, but when you have a song like “More than a Feeling,” with a chorus that immediately activates an engram that will live in your memory banks forever, even the greenest trainee at the music store will be able to help. The clerk immediately recognizes the tune, asks if I want the single or the full album (“I’ll take the full album, please”) and as I happily exit the store with my purchase, I wonder if I should have left the clerk a tip or thrown in a blow job to express my gratitude. When I get home, I listen to “More Than a Feeling” ten times in a row then flop myself on my bed, completely exhausted from the day’s exertions . . . and as I drift into well-earned sleep I hear myself mumble, “Take that, Abba and fuck you, K. C. and the Sunshine Band.”
The song still excites me every time I hear it, but in addition to the erotic response, “More Than a Feeling” also brings tears to the brink. As the song is essentially a story about “the one who got away,” the lyrics cannot be the emotional trigger because my attitude regarding my exes is generally “Good riddance.” As I have similar feelings when I listen to my favorite piece of classical music (Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major), I’m pretty sure the emotions evoked by “More Than a Feeling” come from the music, particularly the carefully designed transitions that mark many a classical masterpiece, the major/minor chordal mix with a clever shift to the dissonant Eb chord when Marianne walks away and Brad Delp’s warm yet powerful voice. The drama of the song never crosses the line into excess but leaves you happily on the edge of your seat waiting for the next thrilling moment. Perfectionism can be problematic in music composition and arrangement, sometimes crossing the line into “too perfect”(which is why Mozart doesn’t knock my socks off), but in this case, I think every second Tom Scholz spent attempting to perfect “More Than a Feeling” was worth it.
“Peace of Mind”: This straight-ahead rocker stars Tom Scholz in the role of musical octopus, handling everything but the drums and lead vocal: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, special guitar effects, bass, organ, clavinet, percussion, producer, engineer and songwriter. My critical summary is that it’s a mix of good stuff, okay stuff and uh-ohs.
- The Good Stuff: I love the structure. The overture featuring the central motif in B minor is repeated in the chorus, strengthening the overall theme; the verses are in D major to provide complementary contrast. While I admire the work of the octopus, Brad Delp knocks it out of the park with a vocal that melds rock energy with perfect phrasing—his delivery of the phrase “it won’t matter” is executed with the grace and precision of a ballerina, highlighting the song’s central message without missing a beat.
- The Okay Stuff: The lyrics reflect MIT grad Tom Scholz’s experience working at Polaroid, where he liked the work but couldn’t get his head around the senseless competition between co-workers fighting each other for higher rungs on the corporate ladder. The message is solid (none of this shit matters in the long run) but the overall treatment is superficial and doesn’t result in the impact or insight you get from Ray Davies’ workaday songs (or Johnny Paycheck’s, for that matter).
- Uh-Oh: The arrangement forces Brad Delp to do more octave leaps, so what was exciting and dramatic on “More Than a Feeling” is now in danger of becoming trite and predictable, like the singers who have to ham it up for the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The bridge is one of those empty dramatic moments that arena rock bands use in an attempt to amp up the crowd, seriously compromising the overall composition.
“Foreplay/Long Time”: I guess I wasn’t crazy when I thought I was hearing Keith Emerson. “Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn said that “Foreplay” is an effective “Yes/ELP” keyboard exploration.” (Wikipedia). Rolling Stone described “Foreplay/Long Time” as “a perfect marriage of Led Zeppelin and Yes that plays musical chairs with electric and acoustic sounds.” I ran into these kinds of comparative descriptions frequently when researching Boston, not only from critics but from Tom Scholz himself. Scholz often borrowed ideas from other artists who were popular at the time but he was one of the few who actually admitted it. As noted above, Boston’s innovations were limited to production and arrangement, not the music or the lyrics.
“Foreplay” was Tom’s first composition, written in his early twenties several years before Boston came into being. It’s a pretty impressive maiden effort that reveals a strong classical influence in the repeated motifs; the dramatic presentation and fast tempo lead me to believe that it might have been something Franz Liszt would have come up with had he hit his stride during the Space Age. The transition to “Long Time” has more of a gothic flavor that might have fit nicely into the climactic scene of a vampire movie.
“Long Time” starts out in a fairly promising fashion with a solid rock beat and the soaring guitar that would become a staple in many Boston songs. Alas and alack, the semi-stop-time chorus with handclaps doesn’t quite measure up to the excitement generated by the similar passage in “More Than a Feeling” and the lyrics are just plain dumb. I think its similarity to “More Than a Feeling” lifted the song to #22 on the Billboard charts, but that familiarity also prevented it from reaching a higher spot.
“Rock & Roll Band”: This tale about a band paying their dues through long nights can be classified as either fantasy or absolute horseshit, depending on your linguistic preferences. As noted above, “Playin’ all the bars, sleepin’ in our cars/And we practiced right on out in the street” was not part of Boston’s experience, so it would have been impossible for the band to inspire “Dancin’ on the streets in Hyannis.” Scholz essentially pasted together tales told by band members who experienced the smoky bar club circuit and weaved those stories into a mythological version of Boston’s origins. As for the music and general feel, it’s pretty much the “big hair, big voices, and really big guitars” of arena rock. Yawn.
“Smokin'”: Scholz credited ZZ Top as an influence for this number (duh), a trite arena rock crowd-pleaser with plenty of lyrical hooks designed to inspire the many stoners in the audience to break out in rounds of “Woo!” and “Par-TAY!” “Smokin’, smokin’/We’re cookin’ tonight, just keep on tokin'” (Par-TAY!).”Everyone’s jumpin’, dancin’ to the boogie tonight” (Woo!). Delp gives the stoners a leg up early in the song by throwing in a “Woo!” just in case the Maui Wowie had temporarily numbed their brains. Yawn.
“Hitch a Ride”: I guess I’m thankful that this did not turn out to be a cover of the Vanity Fare hit but that’s about it. At this juncture in the album, an acoustic number would have been nice, and “Hitch a Ride” does begin in acoustic mode. The melody is rather weak and sing-songy but Brad Delp has such a nice voice that I look forward to the rest of the song with fingers crossed.
Alas, at the 48-second mark they shift to electric guitar and as the song gets louder and louder I rip the headphones off my head and fling them to the floor—but not soon enough to avoid one of the most awkward lyrical passages I’ve ever heard:
Life is like the coldest winter
People freeze the tears I cry
Words of hail their minds are into
I’ve got to crack this ice and fly
“Something About You”: Ooh—is this the obligatory power ballad moment in the arena rock concert where the lights go dark and fans reach for their lighters? It sure feels that way in the intro . . . nah . . . just another loud song with big guitars. I love Brad Delp’s voice, but he really needed to cool it with the yeah-yeahs and yeah-yeah-yeahs and yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeahs.
Question: Since I haven’t been to an arena rock concert since smoking bans appeared all over the world, do fans still bring cigarette lighters to concerts in order to raise them during tender moments and pleas for an encore? Are there enough people smoking dope at concerts to compensate for the loss of classic smokers?
“Let Me Take You Home Tonight”: What’s Boston without Tom Scholz? Well, we’re about to find out! This Brad Delp composition wound up becoming a key element in the subterfuge that allowed Tom Scholz to work from home. According to Songfacts:
When the band was signed to Epic Records, it was on the strength of the demos Scholz made in his studio with drummer Jim Masdea. Per convention, the label arranged sessions to record proper versions of the songs with the full band at a studio in Los Angeles with producer John Boylan. But Scholz had worked for years to perfect those songs on his own turf, so there was no way he could improve them with a new producer in Los Angeles. To appease the label, he let Boylan and the band record “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” while he re-recorded the other songs himself. As a result, it’s the only track on the album with contributions from every band member.
Actually, the boys in the band did pretty well without Scholz. Though I cringe at the frequent use of sexual euphemisms and would probably laugh my ass off if a guy promised to show me “sweet delights,” the production is clean, Brad’s vocal is excellent and the slight touch of country gives the album a much-needed shot of diversity. They do go overboard on the fade, but you can fix that by keeping your hand near the volume knob and starting the fade at about 3:30 after the second repeat of “I’ll show you sweet delights.” I’ll add what should be pretty obvious by now: Brad Delp was a very versatile and highly underrated lead singer.
Despite Scholz’s well-earned reputation as a perfectionist, Boston is hardly a perfect record. The album suffers from too many predictable compositions and throwaway lyrics to qualify it as anything but a solid and promising effort. Still, I can see why the album became a sensation, as it provided a desperately needed shot of powerful melodic rock ‘n’ roll at a time when the fortunes of rock seemed to be flagging.
Let’s add up the score. We have one eternally great song, three pretty good tracks and four skips, which works out to a batting average of .500. Pretty good for a debut album! If you want to use more advanced statistical methods like WAR (wins above replacement), you’d have to attach extra weight to “More Than a Feeling,” so I would assign Boston a WAR of 4.0 on the basis of that song alone. In baseball, that’s an above-average WAR!
And it would go a lot higher if the replacement was Journey.