One-Man-Band... Sort Of
For those who came of age in the 1970s, they might recall the convoluted nature of music in the latter part of the decade. The landscape resembled a deep sea feeding frenzy, with an array of genres and bands jockeying for the public’s attention and disposable income. As America’s Bicentennial unfolded, punk had taken root on UK and US soil, glam was in its death throes, disco was in its infancy, Frampton came alive, and lumbering rock behemoths Led Zeppelin and the Who continued to bask in their respective glows as the planet’s biggest concert draws. Similarly, KISS and Ted Nugent had proven to be formidable musical forces, while teen heartthrobs from Leif Garrett to the Bay City Rollers garnered headlines and enjoyed massive popularity. Lynyrd Skynryd led the southern rock movement (albeit only a year before meeting its tragic fate) and Elvis had not yet left the building. As diverse as the musical offerings of the mid-‘70s were, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that an M.I.T. graduate (and guitarist/technical wizard) could record a handful of songs in his basement studio, and spawn the pop-rock sensation Boston. Yet it was surprising, as Tom Scholz, in the guise of nearly-one-man-band, unleashed the debut album Boston on the mainstream, thereby cementing his legacy as one of music’s most awe-inspiring success stories. Thirty years after the album’s release, Boston (and its 1978 successor Don’t Look Back) have been digitally remastered with Scholz at the helm, affording nostalgic boomers and curiosity seekers the opportunity to revisit the phenomenon of Boston.
As a result of three decades of radio airplay, there are few song intros as recognizable as Boston‘s lead track, “More Than a Feeling”. Scholz’s breezy guitar rings out for less than 20 seconds before Brad Delp’s vocals step to the forefront and seize control of the song. What made the track so powerful in ‘76 was its uniqueness: Scholz’s guitar sound was unlike anything else at the time, and Delp’s voice resonated with little, if any, points of reference. Additionally, “More Than a Feeling” embodied the model for flawless pop rock; it was sensitive without being sappy, and it was anchored by strong guitar riffs without being too heavy. Whereas bands like the Eagles gravitated toward lighter, less muscular content, Scholz pointed Boston in the direction of a decidedly tempered rock sound, one that could be played on prom night as easily as on an FM station.
Since Scholz’s technical and production skills were so strong, Boston‘s material segues seamlessly from one song to the next. The closing notes to “More Than a Feeling” have barely faded when Scholz’ guitar introduces “Peace of Mind”. Once again, Delp’s vocals takes center stage, supplanted by wave upon wave of meaty riffing. The two are equally strong components, yet never intrude upon one another. “Foreplay/Long Time” follows suit, with its 2:45 frenetic instrumental opening that invites Delp to join the fray at exactly the right moment. Scholz alternates guitar parts, from soaring solos to melodic strumming, and the song ebbs and flows its way to just under the eight-minute mark.
Boston retains a noticeable balance within its remaining songs; “Rock and Roll Band” incorporates a generous amount of Scholz’s best six-string work, while “Smokin’” ambles along to its own rollicking tempo, thanks in large part to the give-and-take between guitar and organ, making both tracks tasty pop rockers. Conversely, “Hitch a Ride” approaches early power ballad status, though Delp avoids crossing into tear jerker territory by following Scholz’s guitar from start to finish. “Something About You” and the Delp-penned “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” are multi-textured gems which feature crisp layers of vocals and instruments. The latter merits special mention, as it is the album’s lone song in which Scholz does not participate on guitar, manning the organ while leaving Barry Goudreau to the fretboard filler. When revisiting the eight tracks, it’s somewhat surprising to realize that Boston is an entirely (and expertly) guitar-driven record, no different than the heavier offerings of ‘70s hard rockers like Deep Purple and Aerosmith. However, Delp’s engaging vocal style is what stabilizes the album in a radio-friendly, pop-rock realm.
The resounding commercial success of Boston set Scholz up to crash and burn with a sophomore slump recording. Yet, after a two-year wait, Scholz emerged with another basement beauty in Don’t Look Back. Though history will note that Scholz’s second effort did not sell as well as its predecessor, the album is still an impressive follow-up to Boston. Crafted in an identical fashion, with Scholz’s guitar laying the foundation from which Delp propels himself, the eight tracks cruise along comfortably, alternately rocking and coasting as necessary. Don’t Look Back opens the same way it closes. The title track and “Don’t Be Afraid” showcase what, by this point, had become Scholz’ signature sound: a sophisticated, yet incredibly accessible, guitar. As was the case with Boston, Scholz’s efforts are perfectly married to Delp’s vocals, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing Boston songs.
Despite the two albums bearing tonal and thematic similarities, Don’t Look Back differs slightly from Boston by plumbing the depths of emotionality a bit more. “A Man I’ll Never Be” traverses the power ballad template (much like “Hitch a Ride”) with Delp at his most earnest. Clocking in at over six-and-a-half minutes, the track is twice the length of standard songs and feels forced in certain areas. That said, it sits comfortably between “It’s Easy” and “Feelin’ Satisfied”, each reverting back to the (now) predominant Boston (and Scholz) sound. The former is preceded by a 1:20 intro given its own track status and titled “The Journey”. Less than a genuine song, it is essentially Scholz enjoying some electronic stretching exercises, weaving guitar and organ into something attractive rather than merely exploratory.
The remaining two tracks, “Party” and “Used to Bad News”, maintain an upbeat tempo like the majority of both albums’ material, and continue to boast the twin ingredients in Boston’s success: Scholz’s instrumental and production prowess, and Delp’s steady vocals.
Based upon Scholz’s penchant for perfectionism, it seems surprising that either album would be subjected to the remastering process. But remastered they are, with Scholz getting even greater clarity from his original recordings. Audiophiles and Boston fans will be equally pleased with the results.
When compared side-by-side, Boston has aged better than Don’t Look Back more due to familiarity, rather than superior content. Both albums sound remarkably similar, as they are products of Scholz’s fertile artistic mind and basement laboratory, and it’s interesting to imagine the impact Don’t Look Back might have had if it were the first Boston release rather than the second. Revisionist history aside, there is no denying that both albums were groundbreaking, as home studio efforts gone multi-platinum, and for galvanizing the concept of ‘70s corporate rock. This latter sentiment will forever be held by naysayers who contend that Boston was little more than a musical contrivance, an opinion that is as ironic as it is incorrect. There is no disputing the extent of Tom Scholz’s creative talents or the success of his brainchild band. Scholz’s professional corporate resume and employment history have little in common with the output of Boston, and in no way diminish the magnitude of Boston as an impressive debut album, or Don’t Look Back as its successor.
Three decades after putting Boston on the musical map, Tom Scholz has reintroduced his first two recordings via the remastering process, proving that one doesn’t have to be a basement dwelling, home-studio genius to create a chart-topping album. But it sure doesn’t hurt…
Boston - More Than a Feeling
Don't Look Back