In 1976, all the “coolest” kids in my Boston-area high school – the ones wearing tattered jean jackets, not spanking new navy blue or (worse!) beige Barracudas from Filene’s – had at least three of the “coolest” albums released that year: Aerosmith’s Rocks, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Queen’s A Day at the Races, the Doobie Brothers’ Takin’ It to the Streets, the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle, KISS’s Destroyer, Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! and ELO’s A New World Record.
But the 1976 release they all had without fail – the very “coolest,” on every “cool” stereo in every “cool” kid’s room and on every “cool” radio station – was Boston’s eponymous debut. Knowing every word of every track by heart was de rigueur for any zit-faced boy who wanted any semblance of respect from his male peers…and from most of the “cool” girls, too.
Though classified as “arena rock,” Boston’s sound is infinitely more sophisticated than that term implies. The band’s founder and primary songwriter Tom Scholz, a multi-instrumentalist and the only remaining original Boston member, incorporated elements as diverse as Mozart, Muddy, Monk, and Merseybeat into his masterfully crafted material and his recording techniques were nothing short of revolutionary in an era when the word “sampling” was used at wine tastings, not in recording studios. An MIT graduate, Scholz constructed incredibly complex but irresistibly catchy multi-lead guitar harmonies that musicians and engineers have discussed, dissected and debated for almost 50 years.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how all that, combined with sublime songwriting and Brad Delp’s breathtaking vocal prowess – over 20 years before Auto-Tune hit the market in 1997 – made Boston a band that had to be discovered, had to be huge, and had to become exactly what it is today: legendary.
Boston’s backstory is a practically poetic tale of passion and persistence. It begins in 1969, when the Toledo-born Scholz – who studied basic piano from age seven to nine but is self-taught on guitar and bass – was a junior at MIT and wrote his first song, “Foreplay,” an instrumental that was on Boston’s debut album. In 1970/71, he was in a band called Freehold with guitarist Barry Goudreau of Lynnfield and drummer Jim Masdea of Worcester, and the trio recorded a demo of “Foreplay” in Masdea’s basement using a taping system Scholz rigged based on his experience at Polaroid, where he’d recently taken a job as a design engineer. By 1972, Scholz was booking studio time to make demos on which he played everything but drums, played by Masdea, and sending them to record labels.
In 1973, rejected by every label he’d approached and concluding that professional studios were a waste of money, Scholz and Masdea joined Goudreau in his new band, Mother’s Milk, which went through several lead singers before Brad Delp, a Danvers native, auditioned. With a four-octave range that suited Scholz’s guitar orchestrations ideally, Scholz began writing prolifically and the pair recorded his new tunes in Scholz’s basement, with Delp laying down both the lead vocals and harmonies over Scholz’s guitar, bass and keyboards tracks.
By 1974, however, with few paying gigs and still no label interest, Scholz had all but given up his dream of being a full-time musician. In a life-changing act of desperation, he bought a soon-to-be obsolete 12-track tape recorder – 24-track was becoming the de facto standard – and planned to record new demos, send them to major labels, then sell his recording equipment if he was rejected again. Playing all the instruments except for drums, again played by Masdea, Scholz overdubbed parts using his next-level multi-tracking skills before Delp added the vocals.
In September 1975, he mailed the six-song demo to Capitol, Atlantic, Electra, RCA and Epic. Having resigned himself to spending his next years at Polaroid, he was ecstatic when three labels showed interest and when Paul Ahern, an LA promo man for Geffen, and his associate Charlie McKenzie, a Warner Bros.’ promo rep for New England, assured him that they could get Scholz an audition in front of Epic’s key decision makers on three conditions: first, he and Delp had to sign a management contract with Ahern and McKenzie; second, Scholz needed a full band; and third, he had to replace Masdea with a different drummer.
Scholz was extremely skeptical – Epic had already rejected the demo with a terse letter saying it “offered nothing new” – but, seeing no other options, he and Delp signed a management agreement with McKenzie and Ahern and assembled the rest of the original lineup: Goudreau on guitar, Fran Sheehan of Swampscott on bass and Dave Currier of Melrose on drums, who played at the Epic audition but left the band before they were actually signed, replaced with Boston native Sib Hashian.
In mid-November 1975, the band performed for Epic executives in a Boston warehouse that Aerosmith used for rehearsals, then heard nothing from the label until late December when thunder struck in the form of Epic’s Director of East Coast A&R, Lennie Petze – a Weymouth native with enormous influence at the label who was not at the November audition – who took one listen to the demo and signed the band immediately. “They had been passed on by Epic before but as soon as I heard this demo tape, I said it was the biggest band in the world,” he recalls. The deal was for 10 albums over six years and Scholz and Delp were the only band members named on the contract.
Epic insisted that the demo tracks be re-recorded in a professional studio, but Scholz was convinced that he could only achieve “his” sound by working in his basement studio and – under a secret arrangement with producer John Boylan – Scholz ended up recording all the tracks there, sharing a producer credit with Boylan on the album. As a result, though Boston’s debut was mixed in Los Angeles, it was recorded in a basement in Watertown, and the press labeled Scholz “rock’s mad scientist” for his in-studio engineering genius.
On August 25, 1976, Boston hit the shelves, becoming the fastest-selling debut album for any American group, going platinum within three months. It was in the Billboard 200 for 132 weeks, peaking at #3, and three singles became Top-40 hits. Hitting the road, the band opened for Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult and Foghat before headlining a tour, becoming unquestionably the hottest group out of Boston since the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith. They won a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist and in April 1977 became the first band to make their New York City debut at Madison Square Garden.
In 1978, the band released its second album, Don’t Look Back, which reached #4 in the Billboard Hot 100, with the title track becoming a Top-5 hit and two other singles reaching the Top 50. The album sold four million copies within one month and Boston hit the road again, this time paired with acts including AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, the Doobie Brothers, and Van Halen.
Don’t Look Back’s release was also the start of an 11-year legal dispute between Scholz and Epic, initiated when the label filed a $60 million suit against Scholz alleging breach of contract for not delivering Don’t Look Back on time. Scholz said the label had pressured him to release the album before it was ready – calling the record “ridiculously short” because “it needed another song” – and in 1990 a judge ruled in Scholz’s favor.
Eight years after Don’t Look Back, Boston’s third album, Third Stage, was released on MCA in 1986, with Scholz and Delp as the only original members. The album sold four million and reached #1 in the Billboard 200 while the soaring power ballad “Amanda” became Boston’s highest-charting single, holding at #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 for two consecutive weeks, the band’s only Billboard #1. While touring to support the album, in August 1987 the band held an unprecedented nine-show run at the Worcester Centrum (now the DCU Center).
In 1990, Delp left the group, making Scholz the only original band member. Scholz replaced Delp with Fran Cosmo, who had been lead vocalist for Barry Goudreau’s band Orion the Hunter, and Delp joined Goudreau’s new band, RTZ. In 1994 – another eight years in the waiting – Boston’s fourth album, Walk On, was released, reaching #7 in the Billboard Top 200 Albums and producing one hit, “I Need Your Love.” Later that year, Delp returned to the group and Scholz and Delp made their first reunited appearance at the House of Blues in Cambridge. The group toured in 1995 with Cosmo and Delp sharing vocals.
In 1997, the band released a greatest-hits album, Boston: Greatest Hits, featuring songs originally released on both Epic and MCA, plus three previously unreleased tracks. The record sold over two million copies. In 1998, Scholz began work on Boston’s fifth album, Corporate America, released in 2002 with four new members joining Scholz, Delp and Cosmo.
In 2007, tragedy struck when 55-year old Delp died by suicide. In 2013, Boston released its sixth album, Life, Love & Hope, begun in 2002, and the group toured the US and Japan followed in 2015 by another tour. In 2017, original drummer Sib Hashian passed away at age 67.
In 2018, when asked if he planned to make a seventh Boston album, the ever-meticulous but ever-affable Scholz grinned and said, “Who knows? I’m only 70. I figure I’ve got 30 years.”
(by D.S. Monahan – April 2022)
Published on July 30, 2012