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Monday, March 9, 2015

Boston: Boston

BOSTON: BOSTON (1976)

1) More Than A Feeling; 2) Peace Of Mind; 3) Foreplay / Long Time; 4) Rock & Roll Band; 5) Smokin'; 6) Hitch A Ride; 7) Something About You; 8) Let Me Take You Home Tonight.

«Good taste» rarely agrees with rock'n'roll when it becomes too bombastic, and even more rarely when it becomes happily, rather than tragically, bombastic. In choosing between Boston's debut record and, say, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, the latter will win unequivocally on the grounds of good taste, since, in essence, it is a deeply personal, troubled, heartfelt collection of fervent prayers, where the bombastic arrangements merely serve as catalysts, pulling the audi­ence inside the spiritual world of the artist rather than bombarding them with thunderous awe­someness from above. The sound of Boston, in comparison, represents superficial bombast, like a carefully orchestrated shiny parade — grand, complex, and breathtaking upon first sight, but shallow and trivial in the afterthought.

In other words, the music of Boston deserves our negative response if we find too many people looking to it for spiritual guidance. But if we do not, or if we manage to close our eyes on the issue, the music of Boston deserves plenty of respect and admiration. Like anything by Queen released in those years, their self-titled album represents a certain peak in the evolution of the «sym­phonic rock guitar sound», and even if the moods and individual impressions generated by these songs give little ground to judge them as «progressive», the sound that Tom Scholz and his pals engineered here had not had any direct precedent in the earlier history of prog-rock.

ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ is one of the most deceptive hits in history — beginning as a rather ordi­nary acoustic ballad in the California singer-songwriter vein, thirty seconds into the song it sends out this double guitar blast, almost literally lightning-and-thunder, as first comes the high-pitched melodic line, and then comes the grumbly distorted power-pop riff, and «arena-rock» as a sepa­rate genre is almost singlehandedly invented in a flash, or, at least, the ultimate formula for it appears before our eyes: loud guitar riffage in major keys, grand harmonies, catchy choruses for the entire stadium to sing along to, the perfect blend of bombast and simplicity. But not too simple — the colorful blend of «thunder» and «lightning», improved by Scholz's constant expe­rimentation with guitar tone, ensures that Boston sounded like nobody else at the time. (Brian May would be the closest analogy, and May is a much more inventive and technically endowed musician than Scholz could ever hope to be, but the self-educated Scholz still has plenty of pedal-related and mixing tricks of his own — let us not forget that he holds a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT itself. Then again, Brian May is a frickin' astrophysicist. Is it a coincidence that they both invented their own «cosmic guitar» styles?).

Anyway, there are two big deals with Boston. First, it is a record filled to the brim with catchy, unforgettable pop songs. Second, it is a record that has some of the juiciest electric guitar sounds to come out of the Seventies as a whole. If we have to take this in tandem with hokum lyrics, an annoying pseudo-operatic lead vocalist (Brad Delp), and a total lack of emotional depth, then so be it — but if we want to go further in our despisal and draw a straight line from here to Bon Jovi or the like, I would deem that formally impossible, because Boston's brand of arena-rock sur­mises that complex craft comes first, and bombast comes second, or, rather, that bombast should not be pushed onto the public unless it is carefully and complexly crafted. Scholz holds personal responsibility for every single note played on this album — ensuring that even the longer tracks never get boring, with all the different guitar dialogs and trialogs and quadrilogs. Boston's favo­rite formula consists of three parts — base acoustic rhythm, overlying low-pitched distorted elec­tric riff, soaring high-pitched soloing — and although these three ingredients exhaust almost all of the songs (keyboards being almost always secondary), they are combined in such different ways that all these anthems continuously hold my interest.

All the big hits are on Side A, and they are probably more interesting from a hook-based point of view, but even songs like ʽRock & Roll Bandʼ and ʽSmokin'ʼ, which seem to rely on traditional rock'n'roll clichés rather than original ideas, still sound exciting because of Boston's unique sound base — without inventing a single new chord combination (I think), Scholz shows a grasp of technological trickery for which most of the glam-rockers of the early 1970s would have killed. It only falters on the last track, ʽLet Me Take You Home Tonightʼ, which is mostly a sentimental acoustic ballad and shows how trite the band really is without its electric makeup — but then, Boston is supposed to be just that, a triumphal celebration of man's victory over electricity. What would that electric jellofish spaceship on the front cover be about, otherwise?

It is also ironic that, although today it is all to convenient to think of Boston as one of the turning events in the history of «corporate rock», due to its huge commercial success, influence on main­stream rock, and annexation of a huge segment of the radio waves on classic rock stations — in reality, the entire album was recorded in Scholz's homemade basement studio, not to mention the band spending about two years running around and offering demo tapes to disinterested music industry businessmen before finally striking a deal with Epic. ʽPeace Of Mindʼ says it all about their stance — "I understand about indecision / I don't care if I get behind / People livin' in com­petition / All I want is to have my peace of mind". Of course, this does not mean that we should be praising the band for stark humility, but it makes sense to view the album in this particular context all the same.

All in all, a strong thumbs up here along the same lines of intuition and reasoning as in the case of ABBA or any other successful act that can be suspected of vying for «cheap mass appeal». All that is left is shed a single tear over Boston's subsequent inability not only to top this record, but even to properly «advance» in creativity — which only goes to show that one must not place one's trust exclusively in the sphere of technology. After all, technology, unlike art, is limited, and even a degree from MIT can only help you get that far in revolutionizing musical standards.

18 comments:

  1. "the ultimate formula for it appears before our eyes"
    We can easily grant Boston this point, but the first ones to do arena rock were of course Deep Purple with both Smoke on the Water and Woman from Tokyo. These songs already contain the points you mention. What Tom Scholz adds is the heavenly oversteered guitar sound. Brian May would do the same a few years later on for instance Spread your Wings. And that begs the question: why are that song and More than a Feeling so enjoyable, while Bon Jovi can be so annoying? "Sincerity" is not a good enough answer. Boston never was that sincere a band either. Freddy Mercury compensates by making clear that it's all theatre, so that the question of sincerity becomes irrelevant. Catchiness is not a good enough answer either - Bad Medicine is equally catchy.
    I suppose you're right that on this album bombast is put in service of the music (Dio-era Rainbow would do the same in an entirely different way) while Bon Jovi puts the music in service of bombast. Ie bombast as a means versus bombast as a purpose.
    Let me take you Home Tonight (were it entirely acoustic I might have tolerated it) confirms this when it totally unnecessarily turns into bombast at the end. I don't like the too bland Something about You either, so I always stop at Hitch a Ride.

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    1. If there is a sincere and soulful Boston song - that would be 'More Than A Feeling'.

      Bon Jovi? None, all fake.

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    2. Yeah, but how do you determine? Gut feeling is not exactly a reliable method.

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    3. What is the metric how you determine something as sincere and emotional? I hope you're human being.

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  2. Brad Delp committed suicide seven or eight years ago.

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  3. A damn good album -- and just about the only good thing they ever did. I can't think of another band that put out one gem of a record and only a handful of passable songs over the next 40 years. Cheesy and dumb for sure (as is the very nature of arena rock), but with enough flair and taste to be enjoyable -- Tom Scholz is a skilled guitarist and songwriter (at least for now) and Brad Delp's overblown vocals never get too obnoxious. Most of the songs are catchy and energetic, with a healthy mix of thunder and artsiness (particularly "Foreplay/Long Time" and "Smokin'", a ZZ Top-esque song with a Deep Purple-ish midsection).

    These days it's a vain cause to hope for a new Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple in today's hard rock/heavy metal scene, but I wouldn't mind hearing more bands that at least reached the caliber of "Boston".

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    1. You might want to check some Japanese bands: the ZZZ's and the Akabane Vulgars.

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  5. The ultimate guilty pleasure album, and the real beginning of the corporate rock. A genre that will show its ugly butt a couple of years later.

    Queen and Brian May parallels are excellent: 10000 superimposed guitars, and proud "No Synthesizers" declaration on the both bands' covers.

    After so-soish second album, and invention of the portable guitar amp, "Rockman", whatever Tom Scholz created further was a step downward.

    The epilogue today is that Scholz is an old fool, totally deprived of any creative juices that he possessed, and rambling about the superiority of compact cassettes over digital formats.

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  6. That "electric jellyfish" is, if you focus better, indeed "electric guitars" escape/escapism from this world that is breaking apart. Apparently heading to the worst possible wolds of the Boston's last two albums.

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  7. >What would that electric jellofish spaceship on the front cover be about, otherwise?

    The spaceships are guitars, actually. The same guitar-spaceships as on all the other Boston album covers (even Third Stage; it's docking with the organ-spaceship on that one).

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    1. Oh, whoops, didn't see that it had been posted already.

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  8. Dean "Toronto" LaCapraraMarch 11, 2015 at 5:32 AM

    Sorry but here's a rare case when/where the sophomore album shits all over its predecessor (not like it sucks or I don't care for at least some tunes, notably "Hitch a Ride" and "Something about You," two undeniable rock 'n' roll classics).

    I don't understand why fans and most critics have this notion in their minds: a band/artist has x number of years to write then record their debut, whereas the follow-up(s) will get maybe a year or possibly more, though back in the Seventies probably a few months if you don't count being on tour. Therefore, album #1 must be superior! In the case of Boston, Led Zeppelin & others the debut must be their finest hour! Look how much time went into composition, rehearsals, etc. It must be true!

    The historical reality of pop and rock music: the vast majority of important bands/artists peak 3-5 years after their debut, unless you're in a band like the Sex Pistols who only made one real album or are lucky enough to be part of a Supergroup like the Beatles, Who, obviously the Stones...you get my drift.

    "Boston" is likely my second favourite of a group who've only released a half-dozen albums since 1976; the last 25 years have been mostly garbage whereas the 1978 oft-ignored US chart-topper (granted, spurred on by all the hype/success of this album) is arguably that year's best. Here side one is a lesson on phoning in three corporate "hits" with of course one being their most-played song ever, plus a relatively good overall second half.

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    1. "and/artist has x number of years to write then record their debut, whereas the follow-up(s) will get maybe a year or possibly more,"

      Huh? If there's an artist with hugest gaps between albums in the history of mankind, that would be Boston. That's plenty of time for going "into composition, rehearsals, etc." Each consequent album worse than the previous.

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    2. I don't think any statistically relevant amount of people hold that viewpoint at all. You're just making up some weird mindset to justify a subjective difference of opinion. The vast majority of people don't even consider Led Zeppelin's debut to be their best, so your argument falls apart right there. Do you know anybody who thinks Please Please Me is the best Beatles album? How about England's Newest Hitmakers for The Rolling Stones? Pretties For You for Alice Cooper? White Music for XTC? High Volatge for AC/DC? This Was for Jethro Tull? The list goes on basically forever.

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    3. Dean "I don't care what others think" LaCapraraMarch 12, 2015 at 6:36 PM

      Just saying that after constantly hearing first 3 albums (plus fourth a couple of times without liking it), "Don't Look Back" remains their best and the band only needed a couple of years to follow up the overhyped-though-still-worthy debut.

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    4. The first album is definitely the only one worth listening to and the only one with songs that have held up.

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  9. If Paul McCartney, and not Robert Plant, had fronted Led Zeppelin, THIS is what it might have sounded like.

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