In 1976, all the “coolest” kids in my high school – the ones wearing tattered jean jackets, not brand new navy blue or (worse!) beige Barracudas – 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” LP on every “cool” stereo in every “cool” kid’s room and on every “cool” radio station – was Boston’s eponymous debut. Knowing every word and every riff 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.
Though most often classified as “arena rock” or “stadium rock,” Boston’s sound was infinitely more sophisticated than either term implies. The band’s founder, primary songwriter and technical mastermind, multi-instrumentalist Tom Scholz, incorporated elements as diverse as Mozart, Muddy, Monk, Mingus and Merseybeat into his painstakingly crafted songs and his recording techniques were revolutionary in an era when the word “sampling” was used exclusively at wine tastings, never in recording studios. An MIT graduate, Scholz constructed incredibly complex but irresistibly catchy multi-lead guitar harmonies that musicians, engineers and fans have discussed, dissected and debated for almost 50 years.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how all that, combined with sublime songwriting and frontman Brad Delp’s breathtaking vocal prowess – more than 20 years before Auto-Tune hit the market in 1997 – made Boston a band that just had to be discovered, just had to become huge and just 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.
Mother’s Milk, Brad Delp
In 1973, rejected by every label he’d approached and thus concluding that professional studios were a waste of money, Scholz, along with Masdea, joined Goudreau in his new band, Mother’s Milk, which went through several lead singers before Brad Delp, a Danvers native, auditioned. With Delp’s four-octave range being perfectly suited to his guitar orchestrations, Scholz began writing prolifically and the pair recorded the new tunes in Scholz’s basement, with Delp laying down both the lead vocals and harmonies over Scholz’s guitar, bass and keyboards tracks.
Last-Ditch Effort Demos
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 all of his recording equipment if he was rejected again. Playing every instrument except for drums, again played by Masdea, Scholz overdubbed parts using his next-level multi-tracking skills before Delp added the vocals.
Management Agreement, Revised Lineup
In September 1975, Scholz 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.
Epic Audition, Signing
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; Scholz and Delp were the only band members named on the contract.
Secret Recording Arrangement
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, Massachusetts; the press immediately labeled Scholz “rock’s mad scientist” for his engineering genius.
Debut Album, First Tour, Grammy Nomination
On August 25, 1976, the band’s first LP, Boston, hit the shelves and became the fastest-selling debut album for any American group, going platinum within three months. It remained 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.
Don’t Look Back
In 1978, the band recorded its second album, Don’t Look Back, which reached #4 in the Billboard 200, with the title track becoming a top-five 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 major-venue acts including AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen.
Legal Dispute With Epic
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.
In 1986, eight years after Don’t Look Back, MCA issued Boston’s third LP, Third Stage, with Scholz and Delp being the only original band members playing on the album. The record 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 DCU Center).
Delp’s departure, Walk On, Delp’s return
In 1990, Delp left the group, making Scholz the only original remaining band member. He 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 – MCA released Boston’s fourth album, Walk On, which went to #7 in the Billboard 200 and produced the hit “I Need Your Love,” which reached #4 in the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. 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.
Greatest Hits Album, Corporate America
In 1997, Epic/Legacy issued Boston: Greatest Hits, featuring songs originally released on both Epic and MCA, plus three previously unreleased tracks; the LP sold over two million copies. In 1998, Scholz began working on Boston’s fifth album, Corporate America, recorded with four new members joining Scholz, Delp and Cosmo, which independent label Artemis released in 2002.
Life, Love & Hope, Delp, Hashian Deaths
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.
Scholtz comments on seventh album
In 2018, when asked if he planned to make a seventh Boston album, the ever-meticulous but always affable Scholz grinned and said, “Who knows? I’m only 70. I figure I’ve got 30 years.”
(by D.S. Monahan)