By Jay Smith
Boston's self-titled debut album, which was released in 1975, has been certified for sales of 17 million in America. Until 2008, it was ranked as the top-selling debut album of all time. Tom Scholz wrote and produced the album himself, as well as played most of the instruments on it. He recorded it in his basement.
Creating one of the greatest rock albums of all time wasn't the only thing Tom was doing in his basement. He also designed and built model airplanes. His love of aviation began in his childhood. While growing up in Toledo, Ohio, a chance to attend the Weak Signals Toledo Show: R/C Model Expo further cemented his interest in the hobby and made him think about the cool airplanes he could build.
When Tom was 6 or 7 years old, his mom bought him his first model airplane kit. After successfully building and flying a few Free Flight (FF) models, he started designing his own aircraft. He said, "My designs all center around the way I would like an airplane to look, believe it or not--oh, and brute-force power.
"I've had luck with the axiom: Airplanes that look right usually fly right. Creating a new design, solving the aerodynamic and structural problems, the reward of seeing a finished airplane, and the thrill of watching it fly are my motivations.
"Each song on the album is three to four months of work. It's like when you build an airplane that's a difficult build and you love that plane. I ‘m very fond of all my music because each song is a labor of love."
FF led Tom to start flying Control Line (CL) at the age of 10 or 11. The next logical step would have been RC, but the cost kept that side of the hobby out of reach until he was older. He continued to dabble in FF and CL until he was 16 or 17.
Tom attended the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He stated that he had learned much from tinkering with aircraft. From an early age, he was curious about how things worked and how they could be built mechanically. Learning about construction, designing, and understanding how the forces would work and why, are the reasons he chose engineering.
Fresh out of MIT, Tom found employment at Polaroid as an engineer. During his time there, he worked on several projects, mostly on his own, to include designing a plastic case for an instant movie system and building a sound system for instant movies before video cameras were commercially available. He also designed an entire viewer that was more cost effective and less noisy.
In approximately 1972, Tom picked up modeling again, starting with RC. I asked how he learned to fly RC. He laughed and answered, "The hard way." Like many things throughout his life, he taught himself how to fly and build his own designs, repairing them, and increasing his knowledge.
His favorite design is a delta wing from 50 years ago. Tom's description of the model is "... sporting a Webra.40 engine and an incredibly old Kraft 72 MHz radio, with the transmitter modified to provide three crude mixes of throttle, elevator, and rudder.
"This was the first and only RC plane I saw take off vertically back then, although somewhere there must have been others 50 years ago. I eventually built a portable aluminum launch rig that kept it held down until I hit the foot release."
The fun of building and flying airplanes had to compete with music and would later take a backseat after the first Boston album was released. "I played piano as a kid and keyboards. I adapted to the organ in school. It was something to relax on in between problem sets. I had been in an informal band with a bunch of MIT kids." Being in that band is when he became interested in guitar.
Tom's mother and father were musicians. They both played trumpet, and his mom also played piano and sang. His father was against Tom getting involved in music and being in a band. His father felt that by discouraging it, he would save Tom from the disappointment of "not making it."
While in the band at MIT, Tom felt he could play guitar better than the guitar player, but he soon discovered that it was "really hard."
"Even after 50 years, guitar is still hard. Keyboards are a lot easier. Every time I picked up the guitar, it would take me 15 to 20 minutes to get used to it. Most of my writing was done on guitar, but my natural instrument was keyboard. I also learned to play bass without a pick."
Tom had to wait until he finished MIT to seriously focus on music. He couldn't afford to buy equipment, so he built a four-track studio. When I inquired about the debut album he recorded in the basement and its influence, Tom had this to share:
"It was all music that I really liked, played, had written, and arranged the way I liked it. I didn't think for a moment that it would be a success. I was rejected by pretty much everybody, and I didn't think for a moment it could be successful. I never thought for a moment that I would leave Polaroid and be a professional musician or have the largest-selling debut album of all time.
"It was like making an airplane. It was something I was building, and it was possible that no one else would see it and hear it and it might crash and burn before anyone got to see it, but I wanted to do it right. I wanted it to be like the times I spent on the airplanes and make it be the way I wanted it."
Tom's guitar of choice is a Gibson Les Paul. While working at Polaroid, he heard a Les Paul guitar and thought it sounded amazing. He had the opportunity to purchase the actual guitar that he had been so interested in from a fellow guitar player. According to Tom, "It was basically a log with strings on it. It was like I had never played guitar before. Eventually, I really couldn't play a ‘regular' guitar. It was a 1968 Les Paul Goldtop."
When Boston began touring, he decided he needed a backup guitar and bought a second Goldtop at a pawn shop and was happy that both guitars felt and played similarly.
Later, he tried to buy a new Les Paul. It didn't have the thick neck he had become accustomed to, and he found it uncomfortable to play.
Gibson later released a 1968 Tom Scholz Les Paul. Gibson describes it as "a landmark of rock history," recreating the star's own stripped-down and hot-rodded '68 Goldtop Deluxe just as it was used by Tom to create his most notable recordings.
Tom shared with me that he was extremely honored to have a signature Les Paul from Gibson. He provided the measurements of the neck so that the company could closely match the original. Only 300 were produced, and he has a few in his lineup of guitars.
Although the conversation was focused on music, I eagerly inquired about the name Boston and why he selected it. I assumed that it might have had something to do with him attending MIT or that he lives in the Boston area, but the true reason is much more interesting.
He told me, "It was more than where I live. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio. I was interested in the Kinks and the Yardbirds. At night, you could get a Boston AM rock station and I would listen to the Boston sound on WBZ in Boston. I could only get it at night while I did my homework, and I would listen. Listening to the music from the city of Boston got me into rock and roll. My influences came from Boston long before I ever got to Boston."
I followed up with the question that I was most eager to learn about the band--or the artwork, to be more specific. Why are there spaceships on the album covers and on stage? Tom laughed, and I understood why after hearing the story about the artwork of the first album.
He told me, "The creative service department for the cover provided three ideas: Boston lettuce, Boston cream pie, or a pot of Boston baked beans. What does this have to do with the music? This music is from another world and should have a spaceship on it or a guitar that looks like a spaceship."
Roger Huyssen was able to deliver the iconic album cover that many of us are familiar with. Tom admitted to being a science fiction fan and stated, "That image has stuck with everybody and it really captures the idea of the music that is on the album. When I thought about visuals for the next tour, it always started with a spaceship. Sci-fi space adventures are my whole thing."
The song "More Than a Feeling" would become the band's first big hit, and many more hits would follow throughout the years as additional albums were released. The supporting tours have taken the band all over the world. Boston's last tour was in 2017 and was the band's 41st year of touring.
Having a music catalog with so many hits, I inquired about which ones were Tom's favorites. It wasn't an easy question for him to answer because he only works on music he likes. If not, it gets put away and possibly revisited. He ultimately named the following songs as favorites: "More Than a Feeling," "Foreplay," Smokin'," "The Journey," and "My Destination."
Back to Model Aviation
Since completing the band's last tour, Tom has immersed himself in electric RC aircraft. He is retrofitting models in his collection and building new ones. He stated that his most recent addition is an electric motor 3D glider.
He described its flight characteristics as long, slow glides interrupted by occasional dazzling power and speed--sort of like Vivaldi, only with a wing. "The most important goal was to use up as much of the old airplane and unfinished project parts cluttering up my workshop for the last 25 years. It features the longest, high-aspect-ratio wing that will fit in my '96 Camry (roughly 5 feet, 6 inches). Four flaperons offer maximum low-speed lift (the inboard ailerons are necessary for low-speed vertical roll control)."
Tom and I talked on the phone for 2-1/2 hours. We talked more in-depth about music, guitars, and the Rockman headphone system that he designed and I had used growing up. Although it was similar to a Walkman, Leo Fender's later guitar company inspired the name, Music Man. Rockman morphed from Music Man, and the headphone guitar amplifier began being sold in 1982 and is still sold today.
Much like the hobby of model aviation, Boston was a large part of my musical interests growing up and continues to this day. As I listen to music--and especially while I work on my aircraft--I smile every time I hear Boston. I am thankful that when I think of the band, I see cool spaceships and not baked beans!