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Monday, March 16, 2015

Boston: Don't Look Back

BOSTON: DON'T LOOK BACK (1978)

1) Don't Look Back; 2) The Journey; 3) It's Easy; 4) A Man I'll Never Be; 5) Feelin' Satisfied; 6) Party; 7) Used To Bad News; 8) Don't Be Afraid.

A man like Tom Scholz I'll never be, because it is really hard to understand what all the fuss was about — Scholz lashed out at Epic Records for pressing him into releasing the next album too soon, way before he was fully ready to amaze the world for a second time, but listening to Don't Look Back gives nary a hint of any idea of how it was supposed to be anything but a slightly in­ferior carbon copy of Boston. Of course, there is nothing wrong with repeating a winning formula if it works, but other than some additional feats of technical ingenuity, most of these songs really sound as if they were written at exactly the same time as the stuff on Boston, and left out in the sun to dry, waiting for another day.

Or maybe not, because there is exactly one important difference: Don't Look Back is an album produced by accomplished arena-rock superstars. Most of the songs on Boston featured huge, bombastic arrangements, but at heart they were relatively personal tunes — love serenades or personal confessions. You were invited to sing along and join in the emotional turbulence all right, but they weren't really written with the collective you, our lovely stadium audience, in mind. By the time it was time to put out a sequel, the band's status had changed, and now Scholz was making songs «for the people». Again, there is nothing wrong with this in principle, but a mind­set like that can sometimes result in extra seriousness at the expense of melodicity.

It is hardly coincidental that the record begins and ends with prohibitive invocations — at the start, we are told not to look back, and for the finish, we are invited not to be afraid. It is definite­ly not coincidental that ʽFeelin' Satisfiedʼ informs us that "the time has come to get together" and begs us to "come on, put your hands together" and "take a chance on rock'n'roll" (as if any Boston concert goer had not already taken a chance — probably much more than one — on rock'n'roll). Throughout, the choruses get louder and louder and more repetitive, and even the most intro­spective song of them all, ʽA Man I'll Never Beʼ, has its last chorus line specially singled out so that the entire stadium could brace itself for it.

These are the little details that pick up my attention. As to the actual musical advances, well, I should say that Scholz's musical perfectionism refers more to the sphere of subtle overtones and frequencies than finding new sources of inspiration for his melody-making. Like Boston, this record, too, features a brief instrumental interlude (ʽThe Journeyʼ) that merges elements of folk and cosmic psychedelia, but other than that, Boston's flying saucer shows no signs of wanting to preserve its outer space identity — being perfectly happy to churn out one power-pop anthem after another for the earthly entertainment of Earthlings. Epic Records say — assimilate or perish, oh you strange aliens from the faraway planet of Boston.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with most of these power pop anthems. The title track has a cool funky riff (later stolen by Michael Jackson for ʽBlack And Whiteʼ, as I have only just rea­lized) that somehow agrees well enough with the song's straightforward 4/4 beat. ʽIt's Easyʼ, ʽFeelin' Satisfiedʼ, ʽPartyʼ, and ʽUsed To Bad Newsʼ are all catchy and fun pop-rockers, although rather non-descript in impressionistic terms. And although I used to seriously dislike the power balladry of ʽA Man I'll Never Beʼ, I have grown accustomed to its clever trickery of successively piling up one layer of guitars upon another until, with one triumphant thunderclash, it turns into something on a truly Gargantuan scale. (And do not miss or misjudge the piano quote from Paul McCartney's ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ, the wise mother of all such power ballads).

With all these considerations in mind and impressions in the heart, there is no reason to condemn Don't Look Back — it earns its thumbs up by not letting down our expectations if we wanted more of the same. If we didn't — if we expected this band to top Boston and push its musical boundaries further forward — Don't Look Back could only be described as disappointing, as it neither pushes forward nor takes any «sideward» risks (like, for instance, Fleetwood Mac did with Tusk around the same time). But why should we have expected anything like that? Tom Scholz has his own vision of a perfect brand of pop-rock, and he is not interested in straying too far away from it. If only his head weren't so turned with his own and the band's own «bigness», Don't Look Back could probably have been as much fun as its predecessor. As it is, it is slightly less fun and a little more stadium-preachy, but only a tad so. And the staidum audiences did bite, sending the album to the top of the charts and certifying it seven times platinum. It is, however, rather telling that ʽDon't Look Backʼ never managed to earn itself such an assured place on classic rock radio as ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ — no accident, I'd say.

8 comments:

  1. Haven't heard any songs from this album in about seven or eight years. The memory I have is that they were pretty much carbon copies of stuff off the first album, only three times as bombastic and a third as enjoyable. I recall liking the title track, as stupid and overblown as it was, and hating "A Man I'll Never Be" (a title which screams "heart-on-the-sleeve power ballad"). I put a lot of stock in your musical taste and opinions (ours are very similar), so I'll give it another shot. Maybe I'll enjoy and appreciate it more at 23 than I did at 15.

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  2. Dean "Their Best Work" LaCapraraMarch 16, 2015 at 6:28 PM

    I know everybody loves the debut more but cannot understand why. Already alluded in that album's comments this has my favourite Boston songs along with a couple on the first one's 2nd half. Love the sonic improvements, musicianship, taking chances, etc. Better than most albums released that year, in my opinion.

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  3. "Tusk around the same time"
    That happens when you grow up with this stuff like I did - in my memory Tusk came eons after Don't Look Back. It was the first album of Boston I bought. My opinion hasn't changed a bit. I am not as negative as you were originally, but not as positive as you are now. The problem begins with the title song and especially the instrumental mid section. It just repeats the two main themes over and over again, which bores me pretty quickly. It's too long with 6 minutes. The two final songs are way too bland. Party is kind of fun, but shows how strong the tendency to superficiality is. The Journey is kind of nice, but just a ditty. I like Feeling Satisfied: a decent riff and a pretty melody, but the fake fade out annoys me. It's easy is better than the inferior stuff on the debut album, but not exactly a classic. So my favourite song is, hold your breath .... the ballad. I dispute it's a power ballad. It lacks an essential element: catharsis, so typical for the ballads of Foreigner and Bon Jovi. The climax is rather a lament. For the same reason Dream On is not a power ballad, even if the title screams "heart-on-the-sleeve". But what's wrong with that?
    I refer to Milan Kundera:

    “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

    The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

    In A Man I'll never Be the second tear is absent. The song shamelessly jerks the first tear though.

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  4. The title song is excellent... no, brilliant. It ends with the intriguing instrumental 'Journey'... and then the whole album flops into nice, but too calculated, programmed, cliched pop-rock songs. By the end of the side B, it is boring.

    So, this is the answer, Dean, why the general public prefers the first album. No matter what playing and producing trickery it employs, it also fascinates with sincerity and emotion.

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    Replies
    1. Dean (obviously) LCMarch 17, 2015 at 1:20 AM

      Wrong: radio play ensures people love those inferior songs whereas Don't Look Back rules without it

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    2. You know, it actually could just be that people like different things without some massive conspiracy or a strawman made of incorrect assumptions causing those different opinions. But I suppose that's just crazy talk.

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  5. "if we expected this band to top Boston and push its musical boundaries further forward"

    ...And no further album would do that push. There's no other musician than Scholz, that had an image of tech-magician, to be so stuck in time up to the present times.

    I mean, the man admits that the last music he heard from someone else is some 1972 album, be it from Spooky Tooth or Led Zeppelin, cannot remember. What is the name of this syndrome?

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