Graded on a Curve: Boston, Boston

Boston: Home of the Boston Tea Party! And Boston baked beans! But who gives a shit? Boston is first and foremost the home of Boston, the “corporate rock band” that sold like 80 billion copies of its first album, 1976’s eponymous Boston, thanks to its power pop melodies, Brad Delp’s histrionic vocals, band mastermind’s Tom Scholz’s big guitar, and a production job that was slick as jizz thanks Scholz’s notorious perfectionism—he once made his drummer play the kick drum some 18,000 times because it “Just didn’t sound perfect”—which gave the album the luster and sheen of a fresh-off-the-line Lamborghini. I mean, this baby was so slick you could hardly hold onto it long enough to put it on your record player.

But it sounded great back in 1976, even though I can remember debating with friends over whether Scholz was playing an actual guitar or some synthesized approximation of such, that’s how good his guitar sounded. Me, I loved it when Boston came out, and it still makes me nostalgic because it was the first LP I ever got high to—with my friend Dave beneath the Littlestown Railroad Bridge, and on 8-track no less.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Boston’s debut is that, despite its reputation for over-production, it was actually recorded for several thousand dollars—a pittance in those days. This is largely because Scholz recorded the bulk of the album in his tiny home studio in Watertown, Massachusetts, sidestepping Epic, which wanted the LP to be recorded in a professional studio. In addition, he recorded the acoustic guitar parts with a $100 Yamaha guitar.

No matter what you think of the LP—within two years the albums sounded unbearably slick to my ears, and I wondered why I’d ever loved it—there is no denying genius of the sheer guitar histrionics and cool riff that make “More Than a Feeling” a staple of FM radio, or that chorus for god’s sake. Boston’s lyrics were never better than mediocre, although they touch on universal teen themes. On the hard-charging “Peace of Mind,” for example, Delp utters the trite lines, “People living in competition/All I want is my peace of mind,” but by god the words sound good coming out of his mouth, especially with Scholz’s guitar roaring behind him.

“Foreplay/Long Time” opens with some neo-classical organ noodling by Scholz, who is then joined on guitar by Barry Goudreau, and I just don’t need this prog shit. It’s set civilization back by centuries. Fortunately the foreplay goes no further than second base before segueing into ‘Long Time,” which boasts one ferocious electric guitar, great lead vocals by Brad Delp, some righteous handclaps in synch with an acoustic guitar, and a guitar solo that always makes me happy. This is one slinky and syncopated rave-up, and a small masterpiece of sorts, I don’t care what the world’s legion of Boston haters say.

“Rock & Roll Band” is a completely fictional piece of self-hagiography, and has never done much for me despite the frenetic guitar solo and Delp’s acrobatic vocals. Meanwhile, “Smokin’” opens with a dirty-faced boogie riff that is unfortunately undermined by Delp’s too-slick vocals. I do like Scholz’s funky organ solo, that is until it goes prog on my ass and I think I’m listening to the Phantom of the Opera. Yeah, this one may smoke, but if so the smoke smells suspiciously like the exhaust fumes from Rick Wakeman’s tour van. “Hitch a Ride” doesn’t convince, and it’s not until the organ/guitar instrumental, which is followed by one keeper of a guitar solo, that I’m willing to hitch a ride on this one. And it’s worth it, if only for the dueling guitars that take the song out.

“Something About You” opens on an atmospheric note; the planets and their moons are in orbit when the band kicks into overdrive, and this one is pure power pop candy. Big crunchy guitar riffs run roughshod over some great vocal harmonies, and if I’m not crazy about the guitar solo Delp makes up for it with his Raspberries-influenced vocals. The LP ends with the Delp-penned power ballad “Let Me Take You Home Tonight,” a merely serviceable slice of pure treacle that I just can’t get myself to despise, in part because the tempo picks up at the end, the backing vocalists repeat the title, and it has just enough power pop in its DNA to almost win me over.

Despite the mammoth success of their debut Boston would go on to blow it, in part due to legal squabbles and in larger part due to Scholz’s OCD tendencies. It took two years to see the release of the band’s second LP; another SIX years would pass before the release of Third Stage. And while Scholz was twiddling knobs and aiming for perfection, the world, or a large part of it, moved on. I mean, it took 10 years for Boston to go from album No. 1 to album No. 3, and by that time, punk, new wave, and post-punk had all rendered Scholz’s painstaking releases touchingly out of touch.

Seriously, there was something moving in his adamant refusal to release nothing but the perfect product, even when the masses had ceased to care. I know I never listened to another Boston LP; nobody I know did. While Scholz tinkered in the studio, the rest of us moved on. Which doesn’t mean I don’t still have a spot in my heart for “More Than a Feeling” and “Peace of Mind.” I just wouldn’t set myself on fire for them anymore. And that’s too bad.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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  • Joe Como

    You’re too hard on Scholz, who produced a rock masterpiece, and not hard enough on the pigs in the record company that tried to screw the pooch that laid the golden eggs. If they just would’ve left Scholz alone to create the follow-up album that he wanted to make, rather than pressuring him to release it before it was ready, he probably would’ve come much closer to repeating their debut’s success than he actually did.

    The record company got greedy, as they are wont to do, so let’s reserve a bit of that derision and bile for them, and lay off the genius who created the music in the first place that you, and millions of others, got so much pleasure out of, eh?

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