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OF BASEMENTS, BEER AND BREAD
by Jim Koziowski
"It's been such a long time,
I think I should be going'. .
Time doesn't wait for me,
It keeps on rollin'. . .
- Tom Scholz, 'Long Time'-
Ironic, in a way, isn't it? Tom Scholz wrote those lines about six years ago now, and after all that time, it only took five months for 'Long Time' and the seven other songs that comprise Boston's first album to saturate the air-waves and achieve double-platinum status, a rare accomplishment indeed. It would seem as if Boston is now moving faster than time, compressing years of touring and recording into one explosive year.
lt began as a whisper early in 1976, with tales of how this extremely talented band with the name "Boston" was going to take the record industry by the collar of its Levi's Leisure Suit and s-h-a-k-e it ever so roughly. Sure, sure, everybody said: every band claims to be Rock's current Messiah, and as for the name, well, 1976 was the You-Know-What Year, after all, and Boston (the city) was attracting lots of national media coverage as one of America's Historic Birthplaces. It would have been easy for people to gloss over, then dismiss, Boston (the band) simply because of the seeming "cash-in" quality of their name. Silly, right'? Well, it happened to some extent when Queen first appeared, for example; a band's name often creates an unwanted backlash.
However, there was one little thing Boston had going for them--their talent, a.k.a. "the goods". While all the pre-release stories were circulating on one level', tapes that had been recorded in Tom Scholz's famous basement were making the rounds of record companies and then radio stations on another level.
This was the single most significant time for Boston; here they were, a new band having no stage experience, no closet deviants among its members, no nothing to stand on, other than their music. Yet they were not only not forgotten, they were being awaited with gnashing teeth by program directors all over the country. Tom remembers, with some surprise, that ". . . we would go to radio stations now an' again, and a DJ would say, 'I really like the album, and I liked it as a demo just as well. That doesn't normally happen."
"I'm surprised that anyone even
bought the album, to tell you the
Everyone was turned on musically by the Boston tapes, but since they were circulated so far ahead of any other information about the band, the tapes actually became the band for a time. It was probably here, when the tapes were being played over and over, that people first started uttering the dread phrase, "Hey, they sound just like etc etc . . . ". It was funny in a way, and again demonstrates the different time framework that Boston works in; here were seasoned radio people claiming close alliance between Boston and Queen in songs like "More Than a Feeling" (how long did you think it would be before I got to That Song?), when in fact it had been written six years ago.
From there, comparisons became more numerous, and ridiculous, "Yeah, we have a list of between twenty-five and thirty top bands who we sound just like . . . . everybody from the obvious ones like Queen and Led Zeppelin, down to The Allman Bros., Credence Clearwater . . . Emerson Lake & Palmer . . . there's some pretty bizarre ones, "Tom states with a grin, "We've been compared to practically everybody who exists by now, so I suppose that does have a lot to do with how music is criticized today."
Indeed, some of the bands who have tried to mould a Sound of The Seventies from what went down in The Sixties have received for their efforts the sting of The Whip of Righteous Critical Backlash with its attendant cry of 'Ripoff'-BeBop Deluxe, Queen, Sweet, Aerosmith, Boston . . . the list goes on and on. With 'Boston, it wasn't as much a matter of the material being imitative (the bulk of it being 5-7 years old anyway) as it was the arrangements. A band that plays loud, driving rock lives and dies by the success of its arrangements, giving the piece its holes for solos, the dynamics for volume change; Boston's arrangements were all well-placed and constructed, but usually contained a whiff of deja vu that absolutely convinced you that you'd heard the exact same thing sometime else, even if you couldn't really nail it down.
Fortunately for all concerned, the friendships held up and proved a valuable asset as the band went out on the road. Epic had done their job well, along with the services of Paul Ahern and Charles McKenzie (Boston's managers). Every major media was well informed of the imminent arrival and performance of Boston in their market. The result, naturally enough, was a series of enthusiastic crowds that elevated Boston from support act to headline Act,in a short time. This advance willingness on the part of the crowd to accept the band helped smooth the way for Brad, who handled the lead vocals: "The audiences were extremely receptive, and at least for me, that was a real nice surprise, because the first time you go anywhere you wonder if people even know who you are. . ."
Boston found, as they toured, that they were, in fact, very well known, but as a band, not unique personalities. In this day and age of media saturation on all levels in regard to rock music, lack of individual personalities within a band is somewhat akin to exhibiting an avantgard painting that is so immersed in its own expressionism that it becomes impossible to discern a focal point, something on which to hang your interpretation of that painting. It's the same with rock acts; an audience needs to have at least one member of the group on stage on which to focus its collective definition of that band. Steve Tyler, Roger Daltrey, Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, etc., all dominate their respective stages. (A Star is Born every minute, but then so are suckers.)
With Boston, again it's the music that sustains them, the conception of the bank. There haven't been any great individual personalities to merge from the lads. As Brad, who has every right to feel the pressure as front man, says, "I really don't consider myself a front man, either, except that lots of times I have nothing else to do but be a front man, I guess . . . I try to relate more to an audience on a personal level than a big, choreographed thing . . .". If comparisons can be made on both a philosophical and a metaphysical level, Boston more resembles Foghat or Rory Gallagher then, instead of Led Zeppelin.
lt was at this point that the business slice of the industry took over, creating the excitement that the band needed to find themselves when tour time came. It's one thing for a band to put themselves on tape for someone to listen to in their own homes; it's quite another to hit the stage night after night faced with the ever-present spectre of The Flop, having to perform your numbers flawlessly. Even though the band had been, in Tom's words, ". . . friends for years . . .", living with one another day in and day out on a long tour builds an internal personality structure that's easy to disrupt. Translation: a brand new band like Boston was more likely to fall apart internally than it was instrumentally.
"The tour gave us a lot Of
confidence... the audiences were
extremely receptive, and that was a
So, with or without an outstanding personage, Boston hit the road, appearing with the likes of Black Sabbath, Jeff Beck, and Robin Trower, among many others. It's always been a truism in music that a band a) makes its name by a lot of little tours and b) sells albums by doing big tours. Boston has ignored both these rules, but with the sound reasoning faculties of the M.I.T. graduate (complete with slide rule) he is, Tom Scholz points out the illogic of the current system, as he sees it. "The whole approach to this thing has been completely backward to that (constant touring prior to signing). The whole idea was to put down what we could do and get it to the most people possible. That involved making a recording, number #1, and number #2, finding somebody that could push it, and that was Ahern and secondly, Epic . . . that was the whole approach, basically. I don't know why it worked, exactly (Brad injects a hearty `Stumbling Successes' here) . . . it always seemed backwards to me to try and make a name for yourself by playing to people. When you play to people, they usually don't hear the sound at its best, unless it's a real good hall, and they only hear it once and they might not be listening, an' they're probably there to hear somebody else. Not that many people walk out thinkin' how good you were, whereas with records, if it gets out to the stations, hundreds of thousands of people get exposed to it.
Ah, yes, the record. In a year of records with staying power on the charts far beyond belief (Peter Frampton, Beorge Benson, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Starship, etc.) boston's album attained a rate of sale that blew out the competition. Examined critically, and from an engineering standpoint, the album lacked some refinement and polish. The remarkable thing about the album, of course, is the fact that it was recorded almost exclusively in Engineer Scholz's basement. Only the mixing and some vocal overduos were done elsewhere. Homemade recordings rarely make it beyond an A&R man's 'Out' file; the fact that this one went out virtually unchanged and exploded on the market is nothing short of miraculous, and gives some hint as to the recording prowess of Tom Scholz. Yet was he really satisfied with it?
"No, I'd change about 70% of the mixes . . . put on one song that was different. I wasn't, y'know, overly annoyed ,with the album, but I was far from being elated by it. I thought it had to be compromised on account of time, an' we got kicked out of our regular studio (Tom's basement), and stuck in a real studio which put us on a money budget. . ."
It's an interesting method of recording in this day and age of closed circuit playback, 24, 32, 48, 64! track recordings, and so forth; the relaxation of recording at one's own pace in familiar surroundings is a luxury only the top (read that as $$$) bands can afford. This, I believe becomes important when a band reaches the road. Think of it like this: there are two separate and distinct halves to a band--the band that records, and the band that tours. lt is in the studio that the various band members learn about each other, discover when someone's liable to change key and tempo and why, in short, become an integral part of their little enclosed machine. In the days of old, when bands were generally in the studio together, the magic flowed. Too often today, a band member comes to a session only to find out that he's just going to play his part to an already recorded backtrack. There's no flow, just tape hiss. When a band like this gets on the road, it takes a while to sort out who's doing what, when, where, and why; two weeks of strict rehearsals right before a tour isn't a valid substitute.
For Boston, Tom Scholz's basement became both a studio and college, wherein the guys learned what they were putting on tape while working it out together in the studio. This cohesiveness would prove a valuable asset when the tour arrived. They were ready, mentally with each other, and more than ready musically. The early date shakiness was due, of course, to a collective wariness of playing a bunch of basement tapes to thousands of fans/consumers/music lovers, all of a sudden.
When things happen as quickly as they have with Boston, it becomes difficult to keep hold of some self-reference point. Toffler refers to this as a form of 'future shock" wherein a person's environment can and will be both suddenly and consistently yanked out from under him; sanity, Toffler believes, belongs to those who will be able to cope with sudden and drastic change. Boston is perhaps a good test tube for those theories; in the space of some fifteen months overall, Tom Scholz, Brad Delp, Barry Goudreau, Fran Sheehan and Sib Hashian have gone from not being able to scrape up beer money among themselves after a practice to a double-platinum album, national and international fame, and a blurred ride through time. Maintaining one's own personal center of self is necessary in rock if one is to survive.
Survival doesn't seem to be a concern for this band though; as with everything else, Boston's success has been taken in stride. The final word here rests with Brad: "Everything's changed so much in the last five months, and it's just so ridiculous, that I know I haven't changed in the last five months, so what's the sense of thinking anyone else in the band has? The only difference is that a lot more people know us, an' that's nice."
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