Love 'em or hate 'em, there's still more than a feeling
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Boston Globe

In 1976, a little band called Boston released its self-titled first album: a slim collection of hook-drenched arena-rockers that clocked in at 37 minutes and went on to sell 17 million copies -- making it the biggest debut in pop history until Whitney Houston came along. Three decades later such stick-to-your-ribs singles as "More Than a Feeling" and "Foreplay/Long Time" are staples of classic - rock radio. To celebrate the album's 30th anniversary, Boston mastermind Tom Scholz -- an MIT grad who basically cooked the whole thing up in his basement -- digitally remastered the band's self-titled debut and 1978 followup, "Don't Look Back." Reissues of both discs arrive in stores today, inspiring the Globe's pop music critics Joan Anderman and Sarah Rodman to sharpen their knives for a debate about the merits of a band reviled by some as the creators of corporate rock and beloved by many for their pristine, lighter-raising anthems.

Sarah Rodman: Well, it's the 30th anniversary of the first Boston album and I think that in a lot of ways it sounds as fresh as it did 30 years ago. I don't feel the same way about "Don't Look Back," but we'll get to that later. I think the thing that I enjoyed about listening to this record again, not having listened to it in a long time, is that it's only 37 minutes long, and I think people think of Boston as this bombastic, indulgent, sort of almost prog-rock type band, and it's only eight songs, 37 minutes. There are records now, like hip-hop and R&B, that are an hour long with so much filler. This is all killer, no filler in my opinion.

Joan Anderman: Well, I have to say that 37 minutes long is reaching the outer limits of what's acceptable. And I would venture to say that 30 minutes worth of ideas is all that this band has. Eight songs, they all sound the same to me. I mean Tom Scholz came up with four chords, a few good riffs that basically recycle Yes and Led Zeppelin, didn't do much in the way of songwriting but spent what -- five, six, seven, eight years in the studio layering guitars, getting the production just right? The guy's an MIT student, he was an engineer at Polaroid, and it sounds very much to me like the work of a guy in a studio, not a band with a heart and a lot of musical ideas. I confess that there's a certain insidious appeal to these songs. I read a great quote -- I can't remember who said it and I would love to credit them -- but he said, "These songs stick in your mind like dirt to a dog," and that's pretty much how I feel about it.

Rodman: I would disagree. I would agree about the craft part and I actually think listening to it now, that's something that impresses me even more. This is pre-[producer] Mutt Lange and his ability to layer all those vocals; this is pre-autotune and pitch correction; this is pre- a whole lot of overdubbing in the studio kind of stuff. Brad Delp is hitting all these notes, his guitar players are playing all these notes. There may be some editing and splicing after the fact, but they're playing their [butts] off and Delp is just hitting these incredible notes and these beautiful harmonies that are Beatle-esque in some places and Queen-y in other places, and I think there's a lot of variety to the record. Some of it's boogie, and some of it is acoustic, and some it is really hard rock. They were criticized a lot for being like a corporate rock band, but I think the craftsmanship, if that's part of what people were talking about, is really impressive 30 years later, considering how little they had to work with.

Anderman: Well, you know, relistening to this album, especially the first one -- the second one I can't really talk about who they borrow from, because they just borrow from themselves on the second album -- it's basically a retread of the first one. But [the song] "Peace of Mind" I have to say, listening to it 30 some years later, is basically the Doobie Brothers' "China Grove." [To the recorder]: Sarah agrees with me. She's not going to confess it on tape but she's nodding her head.

Rodman: But are we sure that "China Grove" came before?

Anderman: 1973, I checked it, baby. And then the song that comes right after that, "Foreplay/Long Time." It's Yes. It's a Yes/Emerson, Lake & Palmer mash-up. There aren't really a lot of original ideas on this. I agree with you, I concede, the craftsmanship is impeccable. But that's all there is really. There's a lot of polish, there's a lot of knob twiddling, there's a whole lot of guitar playing going on, but not a lot else. It took them two years to make the second record, it basically retreads from the first record. It's worth mentioning that they're only releasing these two albums because they don't have anything else worth releasing.

Rodman: I'm totally with you on at least the "Foreplay" part of "Foreplay/Long Time." That big, honking organ intro -- it's like this is what people who hate Boston hate about Boston. I don't necessarily love Boston, but I love some of these songs. But when I hear something like that I'm like, "Yeah I think I'll be skipping to the part with the acoustic hand claps and the fun harmonies and the sing-along chorus." I feel like the difference between the first record and the second, listening to them back to back, it felt more heartfelt on the first record. The second record not only is recycled riffs, I mean little pieces of all the previous songs, but it seems more melancholy and darker, and like their heart's not in it as much. I still feel like this first record -- and also, you know if it was good enough for Kurt Cobain, it's good enough for me.

Anderman: OK, whoa. I have to respond to the Kurt Cobain comment, and also I have a personal analysis of why the second album is darker and less heartfelt. Personally, I think that they felt kind of paranoid after the success of that first album -- they didn't really deserve it. I mean, people love this album, it sold a gazillion copies, people obviously still love it. I think it's going to probably fly off the shelves when it comes out [today], but the second album to me is the work of a man who just doesn't really feel like he can measure up. I think there's even a song title -- what is it?

Rodman: I'm Not the Man That . . . I'll Never Be the Man . . . [Note: the title is "A Man I'll Never Be"]

Anderman: Yeah, I mean I think he's basically copping on that second album to his feelings of inadequacy.

Rodman: And that's a total Queen rip-off.

Anderman: It is, isn't it? And about Cobain, he quotes "More Than a Feeling" basically in the riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and I would argue that it's not a case, certainly, of Cobain being inspired by that song or by that band. I think that Cobain was basically quoting the ultimate corporate anthem to sort of underscore his point in the lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Rodman: I think that's giving him much more credit than he deserves, and I adore him. The other thing I thought was really impressive about the Boston record that resonates now was that they were one of the first groups to coin that sort of soft/loud/soft dynamic that become huge in the indie/grunge thing. Where you start out quietly and then you explode in the chorus and you go back down to an acoustic guitar. A lot of Nirvana songs are like that.

Anderman: Let's call [former Nirvana drummer] Dave Grohl, shall we? We got to get to the bottom this.

Rodman: All right, final word Joan Anderman.

Anderman: Final word? You know, I've got these albums, but I wouldn't buy them if I didn't have them yet.

Rodman: My final word is that, you know, sometimes holding up your lighter, rocking out, and playing air guitar is a fun thing to do. And if you're going to do it with any band, I would choose Boston over almost any other band from that time period.
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