Better guitar playing through technology.
This was the mantra of former Poloroid tech whiz Tom Scholz, who created the most successful debut record of all time, the self-titled premiere of the band Boston, in the basement of his house. Playing most of the instruments himself without a synthesizer to be heard (despite a photo of a five-piece band on the back cover), Scholz's masterpiece went on to sell 17 million records.
Now when one of the songs from Boston comes on the radio, it almost seems like background music by now to my ears. I feel like I've heard that album so many times, that my senses are completely used to it, and it seems old hat. Not to diminish that album's incredible musical accomplishment and countless times I and a million other college students and radio stations played it infinite times. It's like knowing every moment of a movie before it happens... it's not very exciting anymore.
On the other hand, the title song from their second album Don't Look Back hasn't had that effect on me yet. To me, it's still one of the most upbeat, catchiest, best roaring rock anthems written, played and produced.
What I remember about that second album was that after the debut selling enough copies to equal the population of Beijing, Epic Records wanted that follow up album "yesterday." Scholz would not budge because he was famous for being a perfectionist. In those days, group put out an album a year, sometimes more. Taking more than that was unheard of until Bruce Springsteen started taking his sweet time between records. That's life as a rock perfectionist... you assume you now have the clout to spend more time making the idea followup.
So it was with Scholz, a rock purist who lived very strictly in an analog world of no synthesizers, recording and mixing to magnetic tape, and damn if everything had to be perfect. After all, he played most of the instruments himself, but you'd never know because it truly sounded like a band. He kept pushing Epic back, telling them to bug off until he was good and ready.
Apparently, Epic had pushed Scholz to the point where he finally delivered them album number two, even though he hinted that he still didn't think it was finished. And in August of 1978, the world got Don't Look Back, which on the heels of selling 17 million copies, was bound to be a letdown. Personally, I thought the album was a mixed bag and overall not up to the songwriting of the first one, but that's a tough act to follow.
Rising above it all was the amazing title track, layers of perfectly synchronized distorted Gibsons, and another magical riff that Scholz clearly lived to produce. The Boston sound was the ideal marriage of Scholz's mastery of guitars, basses and B-3 organ, along with lead singer Brad Delp's certified one in a million voice. The late Delp was born for the high register, not like Rush's Geddy Lee, but it just rang out in an upper range as clear as a bell, calling out the charge.
"Don't Look Back" was all optimism, look straight ahead, and who cares what others say... major chords throughout, tambourine waving. It was probably Scholz thumbing his nose at Epic Records, since he had the keys to the kingdom.
As with a typical Boston song, the bass is very rudimentary, going up, down, up down... and the drums are functional. However, the heavy guitar chords, dual guitar line melodies, complex chord structure and swooping arrangement take this baby over the top.
Don't look back
A new day is breakin'
It's been too long since I felt this way
I don't mind where I get taken
The road is callin'
Today is the day.
I can see
It took so long to realize
I'm much too strong
Not to compromise
Now I see what I am is holding me down
I'll turn it around.
I... finally see the dawn arrivin'
I... see beyond the road I'm drivin'
Far away and left behind.
You had to hand it to Scholz to start with the chorus first, and then a break to follow each one. Each chorus acts like a verse, that it's kind of hard to nail down exactly what it is!
"Don't Look Back" is filled with those little moments I always talk about, the ones that catch your ear like candy: the hard chords of "turn it around" with the picks scratching down the guitars... the fade away in the middle of the song ("Left behind... left behind....") where it's just the kick and the hi hat, then the song's riff coming in louder until it climaxes with this roaring pulled guitar string taking it back to the song's minor chord break... and that insane ending chord led by the drums.
I just don't tire of this song.
For some reason, Boston got tagged with this "corporate rock" label, almost as a backlash to their out of nowhere success. But I do not see where that applies, as Boston has truly been the vision of an individual, Tom Scholz, and not the marketing mechanism of a record label.
Below is the official video for the song, which is notable for two things: 1) the band is lipsynched to the song in concert (??) and 2) this is an edited down version, which the band would never play in concert anyway. So I'm sure this whole concert was just staged for the video. The second is a 1987 performance in Pittsburgh -- not top notch quality, but good enough to see how this song was performed in concert.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Better guitar playing through technology.