Not Fade Away: Boston’s Self-Titled Debut Turns 40

"We were just another band out of Boston" they sang. Well, that wasn't quite true.

By Brian Ives 

Boston’s self-titled debut album, which has sold over 17 million copies, turns 40 today (August 25). Here, Radio.com discusses the album with legends from CBS Radio affiliate WZLX, Boston’s classic rock: Carter Alan, the station’s music director and DJ, and afternoon drive DJ Chuck Nowlin, currently celebrating 25 years with the station. 

“I looked out this morning and the sun was gone,” the late Brad Delp sings, with crystal clear tone, over mad scientist Tom Scholtz’s delicate guitar picking. “Turned on some music to start my day/I lost myself in a familiar song/I closed my eyes and I slipped awaaaaaaaay….”

So begins “More Than a Feeling,” the leadoff track and lead single from Boston, one of the most successful debut albums of all time. It’s received massive play on classic rock radio (every song has gotten airplay, a rarity for any album by any band), and it happened almost immediately after being released, which was odd, as the band had no backstory. No one knew who they were, even in Boston.

The lyrics to “Rock and Roll Band” seemed to be telling the band’s story. They sang about being “on the road and tryin’ to make ends meet/Playin’ all the bars, sleepin’ in our cars.”  To hear them tell it, they were grinding in the clubs, just like any other band: “We practiced right on out in the street/No, we didn’t have much money/We barely made enough to survive/But when we got up on stage and got ready to play, people came alive!” But strangely, no one could recall seeing Boston in concert. And there’s a good reason for that.

WZLX’s Carter Alan explains: “The lyrics are as fictional as the live audience sound effects that make it sound like a live track. The band had never played live when that song was written or recorded.  A local Boston fanzine lists an August 27 show in Manchester, NH as the band’s first official gig, in front of 200 people.” That was two days after they released their debut.

So unlike the rock bands of earlier years, Boston didn’t cut their teeth on the road: rather, bandleader Tom Scholtz labored over the album for years in his home studio, and recorded most of the instruments himself. As Scholtz told WZLX’s Chuck Nowlin in a recent interview, “It was six years of experimenting and recording and spending all the money I could make, and working nights.”

And, in fact, it was “More Than a Feeling” that got them their deal: “I completed it really just to finish it, because I didn’t think anything was going to happen. The very last song that I submitted to a couple of interested record companies was ‘More Than A Feeling.’ Two weeks later, Brad [Delp] and I had a contract in our hands that we signed.”

When the album came out and “More Than a Feeling” went to radio, the band seemed to have no history. Which didn’t seem to make a difference at all; not to rock stations who found a new superstar band, and certainly not to the fans that immediately fell in love with them.

Chuck Nowlin recalls, “I first heard Boston on the radio when I was in high school. Everybody I knew had a copy of that first album, but nobody actually knew anything about them!”

Alan, three years away from starting his famed radio carer, recalls hearing them for the first time. “I was actually unpacking my stuff in my apartment in Boston after having moved there. As soon as I set up my stereo I heard ‘More Than a Feeling’ for the first time. WBCN [a local rock station, which is currently streaming on Radio.com] was making a big deal about it; it was the first day they played it. I thought it sounded fantastic sonically and it mixed the arena rock sound of bands like Journey and Peter Frampton with the progressive rock of Genesis and Yes.”

And he says that although they hadn’t logged much time on the road, they got good, quickly: “I saw one of the earliest shows on October 9, 1976 at New England College in the college gym in front of 300 people. The band was loud, but had their s— together. I remember [guitarist] Barry Goudreau and Tom Scholz had the dual guitar thing completely down. Brad Delp could hit all the notes, even the high ones in ‘More Than a Feeling.'”

Still, the fact that they lacked a backstory, combined with their FM-ready sound, caused them to be dubbed “corporate rock.” Critical darling Elvis Costello famously dismissed them, “They’re just a wet dream for an accountant.” (Scholtz’s response: “He is just jealous,” and given the fact that Boston is 17x platinum, while Elvis has just two 1x platinum albums in the U.S., maybe that’s true.)

The band has never been even nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Alan says, “So many of those who cast ballots are too cool for the room, and to them, Boston will never be ‘cool.'” But Nowlin is a bit more optimistic: “I think they’ll make their way into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame eventually. How can you ignore a band that created a new sound and sold over 17 million copies of their debut album, which was created in a dusty basement next to the washer and dryer, just outside of Boston? It’s the great American success story!” Nowlin may not be wrong: critically reviled bands including Rush, KISS and Deep Purple have finally gotten their due in recent years. And it’s worth noting that critically hailed bands including Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins have cited Boston as an influence.

Not that any of that matters to radio, or their fans. Boston is, start-to-finish, an album that many have memorized, and has—as cliche as it sounds— provided the soundtrack to the lives of millions of fans, many of whom caught them on their 40th anniversary tour earlier this year. Alan has spent considerable time listening to the songs in his years as a radio DJ. “Boston is a defining album of the ’70s for certain; it is an enduring album because all of the songs are so good and the sound of the record literally jumps out of the speakers. I makes even a crappy system sound good.” Which is true: whether on LP, cassette, 8-track, CD or on Spotify (where “More Than a Feeling” alone has streamed more than 81,000,000 times) the album hasn’t lost any of its power in 40 years.

So, even if the lyrics to “Rock and Roll Band” weren’t based in reality (and, as Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”), it turned out that the words to “More Than a Feeling” were at least prescient; the song now has become “That old song they used to play,” as Brad Delp sang, 40 years ago. Here’s to another 40 years of radio dominance. And who knows, maybe that’s how long it will take for music critics to catch up with fans and radio programmers.

 

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