By Gary Graff
Special to the Plain Dealer
As he set out to make Boston's latest album, the desire for change was, well, more than a feeling for group majordomo Tom Scholz. Consequently, "Corporate America," the veteran rock outfit's sixth album since 1976, sounds like nothing else in the Boston catalog, from its array of musical styles to the presence of a female singer on many of the tracks.
"I definitely made a premeditated decision that I was not going to constrain myself to what people thought a Boston record was supposed to sound like, which I have done pretty much for the last 15 years," says Scholz, 56, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who recorded the first Boston album in his basement studio while he was still working as a product engineer at Polaroid.
"Boston fans are and have been very supportive. I have always felt a sort of obligation to give them what they want - which is fine, because I love Boston music. But it's been 25 years-plus since I started doing this on a professional level. I think that people will be able to accept some change."
There's no question that the Boston sound, introduced on 1976's 16-times platinum self-titled debut, is one of the most instantly recognizable in rock. Mixing big, Led Zeppelin-influenced power chords with Beatles-steeped melodies, rich harmonies and Teflon smooth production, Scholz crafted a sonic signature that became a template for myriad bands that followed - Foreigner, Journey, Bon Jovi - and still has a discernible impact these days.
Boston's success did not bring Scholz enduring peace of mind, however. A counter-culturalist who actively promotes and donates album proceeds to organizations such as PETA, the Humane Farming Association and the Sierra Club, he was ill fit for the constraints of the music industry. Scholz has endured legal battles with Boston's original label, CBS, and with some of the musicians who have played in the band.
This week he filed suit in New York against his current label, Artemis Records, for failing to adequately promote Boston's latest album.
Meanwhile, he also takes his time making music; "Corporate America," released last fall, came eight years after Boston's last album, "Walk On."
"When CBS forced me to release [1978's] 'Don't Look Back' before I thought it was ready, I hated it and vowed I would never let that happen again," says Scholz, who also supports himself with 34 United States patents - including the popular Rockman headphone guitar amplifier.
"I work at my own pace, which is slow, and, yes, I'm a perfectionist. What I've learned is not to work with people who can't handle that."
But Scholz also has music on his mind at all time - even when he's being a recreational figure skater navigating his 6-foot-7 frame through lutzes and axels. The ideas for "Corporate America," he says, have been fermenting since Boston's 1997 tour, when Fran Cosmo, one of Boston's singers, played him a demo tape by his son, Anthony.
"I was just blown away," Scholz says. "That is what inspired me to get started on a new CD, and very intentionally with the thought that I was going to let my musical thoughts come out however they were going to come out and not try to fit in to some mold to fit somebody else's interpretation of what Boston should be."
Moreover, the self-confessed control freak opened himself up to song contributions by Anthony Cosmo and Kimberley Dahme, Boston's first female member. Cosmo wrote three of "Corporate America's" 10 songs, while Dahme penned one. Scholz is unquestionably still the power broker in Boston's universe (singer Brad Delp is the only holdover from the first album's lineup), but he says that having other writers in the band is "a wonderful adjustment."
"I really have wanted this since I started," he says. "I never wanted to be the person that had to write most or nearly all the music. I never wanted to be the one responsible for coming up with the ideas all the time.
"So it's a breath of fresh air hearing real creative stuff by other individuals who are excited about it - and who can actually pull it off. [Cosmo and Dahme] have not only caught my ear as writers but also as musicians and performers; they're really capable of pulling it off in the studio and doing it in a fashion I don't think I could improve on, which is why their tracks are on there.
"That really hasn't happened before to me."
Another new development on "Corporate America" is Scholz's first released attempt at social commentary via the title track. But he hastens to explain that it was not inspired by the financial scandals of 2001-2002 but by his environmental interests.
"I watch the news and I see documentaries and read, and you hear about all these horrible things of people dying from toxic waste dumps and birth defects and horribly increased cancer rates and ozone depletion," he says. "And I thought, 'How have we come to this?' And as I tried to piece it together, I started realizing this is happening because big business makes it a byproduct of being successful.
"The bottom line is it's a free market system, unrestrained. That does create more wealth, but does it do what we want it to do to the world we live in? People don't realize all this stuff comes from the major, corporate sort of stranglehold on everything from politics to public opinion to. . .our medical care. Everything is run by corporations. So that's how I got the idea for the song. I felt like this has to be said, somehow.
"And it was very hard for me. I had never written a piece where I tried to express a really important point of view about a social issue. But I'm glad I did, and I think it's something our audience will understand and appreciate, too."