The Story of Boston’s Blockbuster Debut Album
There's a lot to be said for the guiding hand of an A&R executive while an artist is working on new material — and much as fans tend to blame the industry for all of their favorite acts' biggest problems, the music hasn't really benefited from the collapse of the record business over the last decade and change. But every so often, an artist manages to make a perfect statement without any help from anyone at a label — and Boston mastermind Tom Scholz served up a multi-platinum example with his band's debut record in 1976.
Scholz, an MIT grad with a lifelong affinity for tinkering with gear, came to rock 'n' roll by way of Polaroid, where he took a job out of college and used his paychecks to subsidize a burgeoning home-recording habit. A classically trained pianist, Scholz picked up guitar in his early twenties, and though he initially didn't think of it as much more than a hobby, he built a basement studio for tracking a growing set of demos.
To help get his songs onto tape, Scholz enlisted the aid of drummer Jim Masdea and guitarist Barry Goudreau, with whom he'd played in a college band during his tenure at MIT. Goudreau introduced Scholz to singer Brad Delp, completing the collective that circled around his creative orbit throughout the early '70s — occasionally in the studio, and occasionally onstage, where they performed local gigs for years while sending out demos in a seemingly fruitless effort to get signed.
The years took their toll on the band members, who'd more or less hung it up as a performing unit by 1974. Scholz persisted, however, bringing Delp and Masdea back to the basement studio for another round of recording on six new songs — and it was those final demos that finally brought some backing in the form of promoters Paul Ahern and Charlie McKenzie, who assumed management of the band and started shopping the tapes through industry channels still out of Scholz's reach.
Ironically, one of those channels happened to be Epic Records — where, as Scholz became fond of telling people after the band made its breakthrough, exec Lennie Petze had already aggressively passed on the demos. "I understand Lenny has been very quick to mention in public that he was a big part of [us] getting signed to Epic Records, so I always keep the letter that he signed, saying that they had no interest," he said years later. "I have one framed and hanging on the wall in my office."
The band ultimately signed to Epic, even though they weren't technically much of a band at that point. Masdea had left the lineup, leaving Scholz to improvise when it came to rounding up personnel for a live showcase; when the dust settled, drummer Sib Hashian and bassist Fran Sheehan were in the fold.
Another hurdle arrived in the form of Epic's insistence that they wanted an album that sounded like Scholz's demos — but one recorded in a professional studio instead of his basement. The label assigned producer John Boylan to the project, and lined up session time in Los Angeles. For a lot of budding rock stars, the prospect of cutting an album in L.A. would have sounded like a dream come true, but Scholz flatly rejected the idea; instead, he and Boylan hatched a plan to send Goudreau, Sheehan, Delp and Hashian to Los Angeles while Scholz stayed home, fastidiously gussying up the demos to give Epic something that sounded like a more polished version.
"I worked alone, and that was it; I had been doing it for years and years, and I had adapted to it," Scholz told Guitar World. "So I took a leave of absence from my Polaroid job — I was gone for several months — and I would wake up every day and go downstairs and start playing. It was a little bit annoying, because I was basically reproducing the same exact parts that I had played on the demo, and I don’t usually do that. What you hear on most Boston albums, the licks I play, that's the first time it ever happened. But in this case they wanted the same thing, so I had to replay the same parts exactly the same way with the same equipment — and in the same basement, for God’s sake!"
Aside from running interference between Scholz and the label, Boylan — who ultimately took a co-producer credit on the album — made another crucial contribution by suggesting that the band, which had been calling itself Mother's Milk, change its name to Boston. Fatefully rechristened — and with a new sci-fi-inspired logo to match — they put the finishing touches on their self-titled debut in the spring of 1976.
Boston arrived in stores on Aug. 25, and brought with it a new sound that would eventually be scornfully dubbed "corporate rock." With Delp's soaring vocals and Scholz's precisely mapped guitars swirling through the smoothly blended mix, the record balanced pop and rock to such a finely calibrated degree that it was easy to deride the end result as lacking any grit or soul — even as it was impossible not to turn it up and sing along with the band's best tunes.
The album's appeal — and the band's — was perfectly summed up in opening track and lead single, "More Than a Feeling." If Boston could occasionally be rightfully accused of being little more than a brand name hung over Scholz's musical mantle, "More Than a Feeling" proved irrefutably that he really was capable of genius — and that even if they were something of a de facto band on the first LP, they could still come together to make magic. Taste is subjective, but it's awfully hard to make any kind of sensible argument against this song: As an album opener, a first single, and an enduring AOR anthem, it's something close to perfect.
"More Than a Feeling" blew the doors wide open for Boston — and for Boston, which sold half a million copies over the span of a few weeks as the single shot into the Top 5 on the pop charts. Scholz quit his job at Polaroid, and the rest was history.
Future successes wouldn't come as easily to Boston, who found themselves railroaded into recording a less enthusiastically received follow-up (1978's Don't Look Back, which still topped the charts and went platinum) before Scholz took back the reins and spent the better part of a decade slugging it out in court with Epic over the right to spend as long as he pleased in the studio. He ultimately won, heading to MCA for Boston's third LP, but it was a Pyrrhic victory: The band's prolonged lapses between projects made it difficult to maintain momentum, and disagreements between members created so much turnover that the "corporate rock" label started to feel appropriate.
Boston carry on today, with Scholz leading a lineup that no longer includes any original members — and lacks those trademark vocals by Delp, who died in 2007. Still, as complicated as the group's legacy has become over subsequent decades, that first album remains a classic rock touchstone for generations of listeners — and the gateway into a career that none of Boston's members could have imagined in 1976.
"I was basically a dork that hit the books and liked to build things and did all of the things that you weren’t supposed to do to be popular," Scholz marveled years later. "But somehow I ended up onstage, playing guitar in front of everybody else."
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