Don’t Look Back by Boston

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Don't Look Back by BostonDon’t Look Back was the much anticipated second album by Boston. After the unprecedented success of the group’s debut album, the two year wait was considered a long gap between albums. Still, producer and composer Tom Scholz considered the album to be rushed and history has shown that this album fell far short of the debut (which, by the way, was our album of the year for 1976). Still, there are moments of brilliance dispersed through this album which are among the finest ever produced by Scholz. Further, Don’t Look Back did reach #1 on the album charts, achieving one benchmark that the debut did not (Boston peaked at number 3), even if overall sales through three and a half decades were only about a fifth of the incredible 17 million of the debut.

Due to the unprecedented record sales of Boston, the group went from a virtually unknown act to a major headliner in less than a year. In fact, Boston was the first and only band to make their New York debut at historic Madison Square Garden in 1977. The fusion of Scholz’s unique guitar sounds and vocalist Brad Delp‘s vocal abilities were a major draw to catch this rock “band” live. However, Boston was never really a true band but more a conscious effort to de-emphasize Scholz as the mastermind behind the music.

Despite their incredible success on all fronts through 1976 and 1977, Don’t Look Back was recorded in a tiny home studio built by Scholz (at the time he jokingly called Boston “the one multi-million-selling basement band that never left the basement”). For the most part, this album was recorded by three of the five members of the original band with guitarist Barry Goudreau only providing leads on a handful of tracks and bassist Fran Sheehan only partially playing on one. In the end, Don’t Look Back meets (and in some cases surpasses) the sonic quality of Boston’s dazzling debut, but most of its compositions tend to pale in comparison.


Don’t Look Back by Boston
Released: August 2, 1978 (Epic)
Produced by: Tom Scholz
Recorded: Hideaway Studio and Northern Studio, Massachusetts, 1977-78
Side One Side Two
Don’t Look Back
The Journey
It’s Easy
A Man I’ll Never Be
Feelin’ Satisfied
Party
Used to Bad News
Don’t Be Afraid
Primary Musicians
Brad Delp – All Vocals
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Percussion
Barry Goudreau – Guitars
Sib Hashian – Drums, Percussion

 

A few of the songs on Don’t Look Back, came from Scholz’s early seventies back catalog, including the title song “Don’t Look Back”, which became a Top 10 hit for the group. Led by the infectious, recurring guitar riff, which is an apt beginning for an album so dominated by guitar sounds, this song contains the most variation and development of any on the album. During the choruses Scholz’s layered riff builds, offering a new variation with each iteration and the climatic lead section, while Delp’s layered vocals are well formed and melodic throughout.

Next comes the sequence of “The Journey”/”It’s Easy”, which mimics the “Foreplay/Long Time” from the debut album (although that original was considered one track). “The Journey is a short sonic instrumental with Scholz repeating the same emotional riff, adding more dramatic effects each time until abruptly breaking into the full arrangement of “It’s Easy”. Lyrically, this song goes back to the philosophical realm of past songs like “Peace of Mind”, while leaning more towards a love song. Musically, it is pretty average with only the pre-chorus vocals providing any real highlight on the song.

A Man I'll Never Be singleCompleting the first side is “A Man I’ll Never Be”, the best song on Don’t Look Back. On its surface, this is built like a typical power ballad (even though those really weren’t that typical in 1978). But what makes this song special is the layered guitar riffs, which are some of the best ever – anywhere! Particularly impressive is the Scholz’s lead during the middle section which jumps from key to key in an impressive choir of guitar mastery. Nearly all the sonic candy provided by Scholz alone, with Delp adding rather low key vocals and drummer Sib Hashian sticking to a standard drum beat. Further, the sticky-sweet, trite lyrics keep this one from being a true masterpiece, while it certainly comes close. In the end all the great guitars give way to a majestic organ to bring the climax to an end before a very short piano outro closes the song. This piano was actually the only part of the entire album recorded in a “professional” recording studio, simply because Scholz could not fit one in his basement.

Boston in 1978

By all accounts, the second side of the album is where the weak spots lie and Scholz later conceded that only the first side of Don’t Look Back was truly completed. The best part of the upbeat “Feelin’ Satisfied” is a long riff-driven outro following the second verse. The next track “Party”, the weakest song on the album which sounds like a cheap filler to emulate the far superior “Smokin’” from Boston. A much better song is the moody yet melodic “Used to Bad News”, written solely by Delp. Here Scholz completely puts down the guitars to focus on the fine melodies of the Hammond organ. Delp fills in with a great acoustic (along with his vocal melodies) and Goudreau provides a short guitar lead before the organ returns for some fine riffing during the final verse. Although the shortest song on side two, “Used to Bad News” seems to pack in more quality than the other three combined. “Don’t Be Afraid” finishes things off, again offering sonic quality and vocal mastery with the added dynamics of some mean drumming by Hashian. Still, the composition itself is rather weak, making this an unsatisfying conclusion to what potentially could have been a much better album.

Boston went on another tour following Don’t Look Back, but management problems soon plagued the band. Further, Scholz refused to be hurried in producing Boston’s third album and CBS Records filed a lawsuit, alleging breach of contract. A long court battle ensued and that album, Third Stage took more than eight years until it was finally released at the end of 1986.

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1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.
 

Boston

Review of Boston

Classic Rock Review Album of the Year, 1976
BostonAlthough portrayed as a true “band”, Boston was really pretty much a solo project by engineer Tom Scholz. An M.I.T. graduate then working for Polaroid, Sholz built a home studio in Massachusetts in the early 1970s and began experimenting with innovative sounds and developing songs. Sholz formed a band called Mother’s Milk with singer Brad Delp and guitarist Barry Goudreau , but was soon unsatisfied with the live sound and disbanded the band in order to concentrate on the studio work (although Delp continued as the primary vocalist). A perfectionist, Scholz worked on the demos for about seven years, frequently submitting tapes to record labels only to be rejected. Finally, in 1975 Sholz got the attention of Epic Records who signed Sholz and Delp under a few conditions. They had to perform a live audition, which meant that a full band had to be assembled. Also, Epic refused Sholz’s request to use his demo tapes from home, insisting that all material come from a “professional studio”. It appeared the entire album had to be re-recorded and seven years of work scrapped.

However, Scholz found an ally in producer John Boylan, who had the makeshift “band” doing sessions at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles while Sholz was back in Massachusetts finalizing his demos and transferring them to a professional, 24-track format. It was a very elaborate (and Expensive) diversion, but in the end it was well worth it. Aside from Delp’s vocals and most of the drum tracks, very little of the recordings from Capitol Studios was used in the final mix of the Boston album, which is all the more incredible when you consider the absolutely innovative nature of the album’s sound.

Arriving in August 1976, Boston resurrected the classic rock format which seemed to be giving way to the new, divergent genres of punk rock and disco. Scholz’s innovative use of self-designed equipment would be reproduced and replicated throughout the subsequent years, especially the 1980s. While the fusion of hard rock with delicate motifs and layered melodies and harmonics had been done in the past by artists like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, and The James Gang, it was mastered by Boston.
 


Boston by Boston
Released: August 25, 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: John Boylan & Tom Scholz
Recorded: Foxglove Studios, Watertown, MA, October 1975 – April 1976
Side One Side Two
More Than a Feeling
Peace of Mind
Foreplay
Long Time
Rock and Roll Band
Smokin’
Hitch a Ride
Something About You
Let Me Take You Home Tonight
Band Musicians
Brad Delp – All Vocals, Acoustic Guitars
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keys, Bass
Barry Goudreau – Guitars
Sib Hashian – Drums

 
If there is any any flaw in the Boston album it is that they got the sides wrong. While each side works well as a cohesive unit, the album should have started with side two, with the introductory “Rock and Roll Band”, and worked its way up to the fantastic side one, closing with “Long Time”. In this spirit, I’ve decided to review the second side first.

“Rock and Roll Band” is an ironic song in that Boston never really was a “band” before the production of this album. The project started just with Sholz, Delp, and drummer Jim Masdea trying to recreate the recordings that Sholz was recording, but never really reaching any point of notoriety live. Masdea, who left shortly before the Sholz and Delp were signed to Epic, did perform the drums on this track but none others. When the record label insisted on a full band doing a live audition of the material, Sholz enlisted the rest of the players and the “band” was formed.

Boston

“Smokin” was originally written by Brad Delp as a piece called “Shakin” and contains an upbeat grove in the same vein as Grand Funk though topped off by the unmistakable sound of Boston. A long jam in the middle is dominated by Sholz’s organ work and the steady, consistent drumming of Sib Hashian. “Hitch a Ride” is a beautiful ballad and a true classic by Boston. It is first dominated by the acoustic guitar through the verses under the restrained vocals by Delp. A peculiar yet entertaining organ lead comes after the second chorus, but the long ending featuring a double-tracked electric guitar lead may is the real treat. It may be one of the finest guitar leads ever performed. The song’s meaning has long been in dispute. With lyrics like –

Life is like the coldest winter, people freeze the tears I cry”

and –

Gonna hitch a ride, head for the other side
Leave it all behind, never change my mind…
Freedom on my mind, carry me away for the last time”

Some may be led to believe that this beautiful song is actually about taking one’s life, especially in light of Delp’s suicide in 2007 (although Delp did not write the song).

Closing out the second side, the album’s final two tracks are the closest to standard pop songs with standard subject matter. “Something About You”, although a fine song by any standard, is the closest thing to a throwaway song on this album as it is nothing spectacular compared to the rest of the material on the album. “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” is much better, a true pop song with the highest production value. It has a beautiful arrangement among the acoustic, electric, and organ parts and a very melodic bridge with a counter-melody. It all wraps up with an upbeat, revival-like coda section that fades to the end.
 

 
With a rather unique fade in which only serves to add more mystique to the song, “More Than a Feeling” the first song on the first album, is the greatest song Boston would ever create. It is a perfect rock song in many ways, beginning with a pleasant acoustic folk riff that launches into an incredible rock riff linked by a short, space age guitar lead previewing the fantastic harmonized electric guitar of Tom Sholz. The most fantastic item in this department store full of ear candy, Sholz would go on to patten this sound with the development of the Rockman. In “More Than a Feeling”, the guitar lead is played over a quite complex yet totally melodic progression, with the final note seems to sustain into infinity under the vocals of Brad Delp vocals in the final chorus. The song itself took five years for Sholz to perfect and his diligence sure paid off.

An acoustic intro betrays the hard rocking tenor of “Peace of Mind”, a commentary on work/life balance. Here Delp’s harmonies shine brightest through the choruses and there is also some great bass by Sholz, proving his talents on yet another instrument. On “Foreplay”, the album’s oldest piece, Sholz plays the organ and clavichord in a space age instrumental consisting of rapid triplet arpeggios played on a Hammond M3 organ. All “effects” were performed on guitar by Sholz, as the band swears that not a single synthesizer was used on the album. “Long Time” is the perfect closing song, starting with a great lead guitar which pierces through the very basic rhythm by the organ and bass as the song kicks in and accents each verse nicely. The choruses switch up and are dominated by a strummed acoustic guitar and what sounds like an electronic hand clap. But even with this radical departure, the song flows perfectly from one section to the other.

Boston became the most successful debut ever by an artist and remained so for over a decade, selling a million albums in less than three months and nine times that figure over its first decade. The band would put out a similarly-styled follow-up with Don’t Look Back two years later, but Sholz felt that effort was “rushed” and it did not fare nearly as well critically nor commercially. In reality, Boston would be that unique super nova by the band which could never be replicated. It was also the rare piece that was extremely excellent, extremely popular, and has held up over the decades, and that is what makes it Classic Rock Review‘s album of the year for 1976.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Third Stage by Boston

Tom Scholz is a figure unlike any other in the history of rock n roll. A natural inventor, Scholz studied at M.I.T. as a mechanical engineer. After graduating, he worked at Polaroid, where he learned the basics of audio engineering and began experimenting with his own sounds. Starting in 1969, he recorded and re-recorded the music that would comprise the debut album Boston, a masterpiece that was finally released in 1976 (Classic Rock Review will look at that album in December). After the phenomenal success of their debut, the band produced the follow-up Don’t Look Back in the relatively short time of just two years. Released in 1978, Scholz never felt like it was quite “done” and swore that he’d not rush out another album. It would be eight solid years before the next album, Third Stage would see the light of day.

This wasn’t intended to take so long. In fact, the first side was written and recorded between 1980 and 1982, but technical difficulties and an eventual lawsuit by the record company CBS slowed the whole process down. To Scholz, the successful completion of this third album turned into an obsession. He claimed to have pushed the record button over 1 million times and filled over 100 reels of tape with music. He decided to use separate 24-track tapes for music and vocals and synchronize via a new digital machine. But it turned out that the high tech machine “was a lemon” and so an engineer was hired to “use his thumbs” to keep each machine running in sync. Further, Sholz refused to use any orchestral instruments, synthesizers or MIDI synchronization on Third Stage – making his job as producer infinitely harder in the process, but preserving the sound’s integrity. The only deviation from the sound of the 1970s albums, was his own invention The Rockman, which he developed over the long course of this project and which would prove to be a much more lucrative product than the album ever was.

Once the CBS lawsuit was settled in Scholz’s favor, he was free to sign with MCA and release Third Stage in late 1986. It would go to become the most successful album commercially and spawn the band’s only #1 hit.
 


Third Stage by Boston
Released: September 23, 1986 (MCA)
Produced by: Tom Scholz
Recorded: Tom Scholz Hideaway Studio, 1980-1986
Side One Side Two
Amanda
We’re Ready
The Launch
Cool the Engines
My Destination
A New World
To Be a Man
I Think I Like It
Cancha Say / Still In Love
Hollyann
Primary Musicians
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Drums, Percussion
Brad Delp – Lead & Harmony Vocals   Jim Masdea – Drums

 
Although portrayed as a band, Boston was more like a duo with Scholz providing on the music, production, and performing most of the instrumentation and Brad Delp doing all the lead and harmonized vocals. The result is musically excellent but a bit weak lyrically. There is also a bit of disparity between the album’s earliest tracks on side one and the more recent material on side two, especially when it comes to Delp’s vocals.

“Amanda” was the very earliest song written for the project in 1980. A sweet and beautiful love song, with excellent, harmonized guitars, the song immediately reminded fans of the immense talent of Boston and, in turn, it became the band’s first and only #1 hit. “We’re Ready” follows as a nice compliment to “Amanda”, with it’s moderate, deliberate riff and beat, that does pick up at parts, but always manages to come back to earth and ease into the mood of the song.

The band then “launch’s” into the experimental and very majestic intro to “Cool the Engines”, in keeping with the their tradition of intro pieces. The song itself is musically superb with many areas of creative stop-and-start throughout. The lyrics do have a tinge of preachiness that may be a bridge too far for casual fans.

This brings us to perhaps the downside of “Third Stage”, the concept itself. Apparently coined by Scholz, the “third stage” is supposed to be that age of enlightenment beyond childhood and adulthood. It is portrayed most vividly in the song “My Destination” – a variation on the tune of “Amanda” that ends the first side and contains the lyric;

It’s not who you can be, it’s what you can see that takes you there, your destination…

In all, the theme comes off kind of new-age-y and forms a slight chasm between band and fan, especially during some of the more forgettable songs on the album’s second side, especially “To Be a Man” and the dreadful “Cancha Say (You Believe In Me)”.

However, the second side does contain a few highlights; the smooth and straight-foward rocker “I Think I Like It” and the pleasant closer “Hollyann”, which bleeds nostalgia for the 1960s and contains an interesting little organ solo in the middle, accompanied by little more than a strumming, acoustic guitar.

In the end, Third Stage would prove to be Boston‘s commercial peak. It would take yet another eight years for the band’s fourth album in 1994, Walk On (a project which, ironically, Delp “walked off”) and another followed near the end of the century. But Boston would never quite reach that sound again.

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RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.