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Class ?

Main Category: Arena Rock
Also applicable: Roots Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Boston fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Boston fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1976
Overall rating =

The best worst album ever made? Or was that the worst best album ever made?

Best song: PEACE OF MIND

Track listing: 1) More Than A Feeling; 2) Peace Of Mind; 3) Foreplay/Long Time; 4) Rock & Roll Band; 5) Smokin'; 6) Hitch A Ride; 7) Something About You; 8) Let Me Take You Home Tonight.

For a long time, people used to share the archaic, obsolete notion of "Boston" as that of a city somewhere off the Atlantic coast, mostly famous for its Ivy League associations, baseball teams, and tea parties. But in 1976 that all changed, and our eyes became finally open to the fact that "Boston" is, in fact, a gigantic alien industrial corporation, mass producing gigantic jelly-fish models and bomb-dropping them from outer space. One of these incredible machines just happened to be bomb-dropped on our planet, releasing a huge magnetic wave that affected everyone and everything without our knowing. As a result, Premier Zhou En-lai and Chairman Mao both died within a few months of each other; your humble servant came out of his mother's womb somewhat too early; Jimmy Carter miraculously won the US elections; and 'More Than A Feeling' skyrocketed up the charts.

To be fair, there's nothing supernatural about that last fact. Everybody and his grandmother (provided the grandmother still kept track of the latest developments in pop music around 1976) knows that Boston and classic rock charts were made for each other. What really is supernatural is that Boston is, indeed, a pretty cool album, one that came to define "guilty pleasure" for elitists just as proverbially as it came to define the "man, that stuff rocks!" notion for everybody else. I'm supposed to hate this album, but... well, the one analogy that I just can't get out of my head is with John Candy's character from Plains, Trains & Automobiles. You're supposed to hate that fuck for being obese, obnoxious, unfunny, cheesy, and generic, but somehow you can't. There's something there in his character that makes you want to make an exception from the rule. Know what I mean? There.

How do you define the music of Boston? It's actually hard for me to find a positive-vibration-stuffed answer to that question. Well, I suppose you could define it as "hard rock with an arena flavour", meaning that the guitars aren't just heavy, they're loud and bombastic, and the vocals are pompous and anthemic. Didn't sound too good, did it? This ain't Bruce Springsteen, after all. Let's try again. We could define it as "art pop-rock with a progressive streak", meaning that some of the melodies display classical influences and at least one of the tracks has a complex instrumental introduction. Didn't like it either? Smells like Styx, eh? Okay, one more attempt. Let's try "roots rock with a metallic sheen", meaning that much of this stuff is like traditional American folk-rock on steroids. What, that don't suit you nohow? What do you mean, "I hate the fuckin' Eagles"? This ain't no Coen Bros movie - IT'S A FRIGGIN' JELLY-FISH FROM OUTER SPACE!

All right. I think I'm getting closer to the right key now. The best way to enjoy this Boston album without consulting your confessor afterwards is to think of it as a perfectly normal power pop record, somewhere in between Big Star - who couldn't have not been a serious influence - and Cheap Trick - who couldn't have not been a faithful disciple. The biggest (actually, the only) strength of the band is its songwriting, for which Tom Scholtz takes ninety percent of responsibility (and, to tell you the truth, it would be far better if he'd taken a hundred, judging by Brad Delp's only composition on here); and the melodies are clearly poppy, hooky, catchy, and insert a couple other terms like these which progressive music lovers only use as free-distribution synonyms for the F-word. Not to mention that what helps them to be so p***, h***, c***, etc., is Scholtz' set of amazing, delicious guitar tones. This sure is one revved-up record: it seems to me like it was intentionally recorded at increased volume levels, because I can't find no other explanation for the fact that everything on there is so much louder than everything else I have got. Even Deep Purple!

The big hit, I think, was 'More Than A Feeling', but they're all radio classics, and my personal favourite is 'Peace Of Mind'. Just a classic piece of barroom R'n'B wound up to the max and crowned with a corny, but fun art-pop chorus; apparently, the lyrics are important (social comment, all that crap), but people are never gonna listen to Boston for their lyrics, so it really makes no difference whether Delp is singing about the FBI, purple wolfhounds, or being caught in an indecent act with a French maid. It's the guitar tones that make all the difference: simple jagged acoustic in the beginning, loud motor-like electric for the main riff, distorted Stones-like rock'n'roll for the verses, anthemic Townshend-like for the instrumental part. Whatever be, the song, unlike some Kansas tunes I could name, never makes the mistake of crossing the line to "Big Spiritual Art" - and manages to stay pretty adequate.

That said, I don't find the album perfect at all, unlike some of the fans. The 'Foreplay' part of the third track, for instance, is completely rotten; it's the only time on the entire record that they dare to toy with "progressive" directly, and, needless to say, the results are quite offensive. Even ELO did this kind of bombastic "arrival" idea better. Fortunately, it's just two minutes long. However, the way I see it, not all of the songs are equally good either. The riffs are sometimes sharper, sometimes duller; the choruses, after the classic one-two punch of 'More Than A Feeling' and 'Peace Of Mind', aren't consistently impressive, and occasionally the toilet stench of "formula" gets too yucky even with your nose pinched shut.

Only once does that stench recede completely - on the lovely 'Hitch A Ride', when the electric guitars temporarily give way to a bunch of acoustic tracks and organs, with a somewhat dreamy chorus reminiscent of the Byrds (and presaging some of the classic Tom Petty compositions). Later on, the song picks up steam and becomes a roots-rock-meets-sci-fi tempest of fiery electric guitars locked in battle with each other, but that's a worthy contribution, too, and besides, I'm all for contrasts. Especially since looking for contrasts in stuff like 'Rock & Roll Band', 'Smokin', or 'Something About You' is a bit like looking for heavy metal elements in the works of the Eagles: nobody can prevent you from doing that, but what's the payoff?

Even so, the first two of these songs rock - and do it far more correctly than, say, Foreigner; and the third one makes you feel good, like a proper power pop song should (well, at the very least it made me write in bad rhyme). Every now and then I wanna grab these guys by the shoulder and shout "Aha! Bad taste! Off with her head!", but every time they manage to give me the bird at the last moment, the punks. AC/DC rock harder, no doubt about that, but these guitars do sound louder, crunchier, and more colourful than almost any competition from that year. And Delp's singing is always so subtly buried in between the guitar layers that I can't pinpoint the exact location of his ego so as to dynamite it. I know he's got one - it's gotta be somewhere out there, like maybe when he yells 'I GOTTA GOTTA HAVE YOU!' during the silliest moment on 'Something About You', but whee, that's just one second, and now it's gone again. Where could it be?

Aha! Gotcha! Yes, there it is, on the last song. That one is clearly in the piss-poor Eagles ballpark. It doesn't rock (apart from the coda), it's a classically generic Seventies country ballad - restrained in tone, and thus pushing Delp's vocals to the forefront, where they suddenly come across as a second-rate Eric Stewart or a third-rate Paul McCartney. And the song is really lame, no matter how sweet and inviting the guy seems to sound. In fact, the sweeter he sounds, the lamer is the overall effect. Gimme back my electric guitar.

But other than that, I totally subscribe to the theory that says "that AOR sound of the Seventies, that was some bad bad shit, but the first Boston album, that wasn't half bad". Contrary to what the AMG review says, Boston did not invent "arena-rock" (whatever is meant by that term, bands as diverse as Queen, Santana, and Kansas had already practiced some of it), but they inarguably perfected it and polished it, and made a record that can truly be considered an ideal model for the genre. Now, since in reality "arena-rock" is not so much a genre as it is a philosophical approach to playing music, and not a very clever one, in practice this all should transform to no more than, say, a rating of 10 on the overall scale, but there's one important thing that the theory omits, and this deserves, if not a complete extra point, then at least an extra "positive vibration" that pushes me in that general direction. And that one important thing is - ....




Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating =

Indeed. Because if you do look back, you might not want to look forward again.

Best song: PARTY

Track listing: 1) Don't Look Back; 2) The Journey; 3) It's Easy; 4) A Man I'll Never Be; 5) Feelin' Satisfied; 6) Party; 7) Used To Bad News; 8) Don't Be Afraid.

This album, I believe, is single-handedly responsible for all the sarcastic "Instruction On How To Make A [insert your favourite artist here] Record" jabs in the world, which once might have been hip and cool, but today are, at worst, obnoxious, and at best, painful substitutions for creative critique. (Hey, your humble servant is guilty of it, too. Sometimes painful substitution is the only way to survive, you know). If there is one record in this world whose screams of "Commercial Recipe!" are one decibel louder than the ones on Don't Look Back, I'd like to hear it - and yes, I am throwing all of AC/DC's catalog into the deal as well.

The background on the making of the record is somewhat obscure - opinions and information vary from puzzled questions like 'it took them a whoppin' two years to come up with this?' to apologetic remarks of the 'well, this was rushed out after the debut, so they did not have enough time to write more material or to polish the already written one'. Whatever be the historical truth, one thing is certain: Don't Look Back is nothing less and nothing more than a serious attempt to fully recapture the commercially winning know-how of the band's debut record. And in my humblest of humble opinions, this serious attempt ends up being a complete and utter artistic embarrassment.

Let's begin by restating the obvious: that old winning know-how just wasn't very good in the first place. The songs - the melodies - were decent, occasionally excellent; the sound was God-awful. Maybe if it hadn't been up to my soul to get trapped in a human body that summer of 1976, I could have asked the Lord to become the band's guardian angel, after which I'd slink up behind the back of Tom Scholz and whisper in his ear: "Say! Perhaps it'll be a good idea to cut down on that cheap arena-rock sound while retaining the good melodies next time?". Alas, things turned up differently. In 1978, I was a two-year old kid much more concerned about the chamber pot than about the twists and turns of Boston's career; and as for Tom Scholz, well, he simply had to have the brilliant idea of cutting down on the good melodies while retaining the cheap arena-rock sound.

Not that I can blame him. After all, Boston's audience, as much as I hate to admit it, was going after the cheap arena-rock sound rather than the melodies. The riffs could be recycled twice and thrice for all they cared; but every Boston song - correction: every Boston song with hit single potential - just had to have that moment when it was being very very very loud and then BOOOOM! Jupiter Scholz would strike out with one more guitar overdub and that was, of course, the song's main riff and you could hit a hundred and twenty and bask in the glory of AOR Olympus. That, according to the majority, was what made up a good Boston song. Nothing else mattered.

Predictably, there is not one song on Don't Look Back that I want to ever hear again right after I have finished this here review. At the very least, the debut record was moderately diverse. It had its subtler moments, like the acoustic passages on 'Hitch A Ride', and even 'Let Me Take You Home Tonight', although a piss-poor tune by itself, made a slight dent in the album's monotonousness. Don't Look Back is thoroughly and completely calculated from first to last second; and the fact that it does not blaze any new trails at all makes the realisation of this even more irritating. There are different types of calculation in this world. Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, for instance, is also almost mathematically precise in its goals, but it is precise in a "forecast" manner; Don't Look Back is simply a dull, primitive exercise in self-plagiarizing. And they're not even plagiarizing everything on Boston - only the most obvious elements.

The title track, for instance, obviously intends to have the "instantly uplifting" effect of 'More Than A Feeling'. But 'More Than A Feeling' actually lifted you up with its tremendous build-up, from a quiet, unassuming ballad to rip-roaring level courtesy of Scholz's extraordinary "astral" riff - unforgettable for anybody who's heard it even once. 'Don't Look Back' has no real build-up to speak of, no exceptional riff apart from a moderately enjoyable semi-funky rhythm part, and a very nasty-looking moralising atmosphere. Geez, I don't need these guys to pat me on the back and give me their friggin' advice. Maybe somebody else does, but spare me the need of justifying your neighbour's musical tastes.

Okay, one thing on here is moderately new in comparison to the original, but wait until you hear. Going back to my previous review, I can make the happy observation that never once did I feel the need to employ the word combination 'power ballad' when describing the songs on Boston. Alackaday, the time has come: 'A Man I'll Never Be' is nothing if not a power ballad, and much farther from the best representative of the genre than Bill Murray is from an Oscar, which, unfortunately, is quite a distance. If the predictable 'VROOOOM! BOOM BOOM BOOM...!' of Scholz's guitar in all the predictable spots isn't nearly enough to offend me, then the sacrilegious borrowing of the same chords that Paul McCartney used to open 'Maybe I'm Amazed' (now here's a truly classic 'power ballad' that a million Tom Scholzes couldn't have the talent to put together) for the song's coda definitely is.

The second side opens with 'Feelin' Satisfied', easily the most obnoxious "people-I'm-gonna-teach-you-what-true-rock'n'roll-is"-type song ever recorded. I can almost imagine the kind of dialogue that could have taken place in the studio: "Hmm, well, there still seems to be something missing to the thing. It's, like, you know, we gotta have the fuckers rising up in the aisles, you know, giving the people a good time and all that. Audiences are tough today, you know, they just might not want to clap their motherfuckin' hands together. - Uh, what about, I dunno, if we told them to clap the motherfuckin' hands? Like, Brad goes, 'clap your hands together', and they go and clap their hands together, that kind of shit. - Hmm? Yeah... yeah, that might work. You sing 'clap your hands together' here and that might just get 'em in the mood. - Uh, and what if they don't? - Don't what? - Clap the fuckin' hands, that's what! - You think they won't? - Well, I'm not saying they won't, but you know, the music's loud and all that, and they might be stoned or something... - Well then, how about repeating the line? Like you go and sing 'come on, clap your hands together' one more time. This'll get the fuckers. - Yeah, and we should also get some real handclaps to add to the song, you know. Like some of these comedy guys do with backstage laughter and stuff. Comes across as infectious. - Good idea. Hey, who the fuck stole my donut? What this, some kind of a joke? How many times have I told you guys I just don't get enough power in my fingers if I'm not eating properly?..'.

In the end, you may guess I'm just not overflowing with positive emotions. After quite a bit of yoga-like training, I finally learned to enjoy 'Party', the kind of simplistic, although, naturally, still overblown in a Boston way, boogie akin to "Smokin'" - mainly because there's some authentic (but probably unintentional) hilarity to the line 'if you got something for me, I got something for you'. Likewise, 'It's Easy' and 'Used To Bad News' are moderately decent songs, slightly above the flatness and inadequate pompousness of the rest. But there's something deeply wrong with this anyway - a band like Boston is supposed to get to you on the spot; the very idea of "getting used" to a Boston record is about as absurd as the idea of "getting used" to a movie like Rocky - if you don't like it here and now, you are much better off spending your time on other types of entertainment. The only reason I willingly submitted myself to more than three listens of Don't Look Back was a purely scientific desire to crack this formula, see what it is exactly that makes Boston so special and its successor so miserable. I can't admit to having actually succeeded, but it was fun trying.



Year Of Release: 1986
Overall rating =

If this is an album about maturation, then please let me be its Peter Pan.

Best song: I THINK I LIKE IT

Track listing: 1) Amanda; 2) We're Ready; 3) The Launch; 4) Cool The Engines; 5) My Destination; 6) A New World; 7) To Be A Man; 8) I Think I Like It; 9) Can'tcha Say (You Believe In Me) / Still In Love; 10) Hollyann.

"Tears Of Rage". Good Dylan song, by the way. But for the moment, rather a perfect summary of my truncated feelings towards this album. Sometimes the not-less-than-three-listens requirement becomes a real bitch - like the other day, for instance, when I was riding on the subway to some irrelevant destination and all of a sudden 'I'M GONNA SAY IT LIKE A MAN AND MAKE YOU UNDERSTAND' came up in my head and it was like "uh-oh, listening to music just isn't quite the same as it used to be".

There's some undeniably catchy stuff on Boston's third album. Well, it would be a big surprise if there wasn't any, given that it took Scholz and Delp eight bleeding years to come out with it - and a lot of guts for coming out with it during rock music's most critical year. But just as I would be disinclined to read a pretty interesting piece of fiction if the book were thoroughly stained with skunk excretions, I find myself unable to appreciate this sort of catchiness. Granted, there have been much worse bands than Boston, and these bands would often write the same pathetic, overblown, ridiculously religious ballads as 'Amanda' and not back them up with memorable guitar lines. For that reason alone, 'Amanda' is not the worst song ever written, that much I can surely state. But it's close. I could live with the quiet acoustic verses, I could even imagine them woven into something different, something actually good. But the chorus... ooh, the chorus. Ooh, that chorus. I'm not a cynic. I have shed many a tear while listening to music - including balladry. Heck, I'm all for chivalry and medieval ethics if the situation calls for such. But this is atrocious. Boston going soppy and sentimental? C'mon now, the only chance they have of keeping afloat is to rev it up and pound on all the cylinders!

Besides, what does the song even have to do with the rest of the album? Nothing, except for being rewritten as 'My Destination' on the second half of it. Apparently they just had a concept album and a hit single, and decided to merge them because it never hurts to boost the commercial potential of a long playing gadget. As a result, it forms a pretty weird contrast with the closing 'Hollyann' - it's not that often you see an album bookmarked by two songs of romantic passion addressed to two different women. Both penned by Scholz, too. Granted, 'Hollyann' has a nostalgic feel to it, whereas 'Amanda' is all about the present, but you'd have to consult the lyrics for that, and personally, I feel dirty every time I have to open a Boston lyrics page.

Anyway, like I said, a concept album. Third Stage refers to [a] the idea of yet another spaceship journey - this time quite a realistic one, not one jelly-fish being harmed during the process; [b] the fact that Boston had, in fact, miraculously overcome the strains of releasing a third album; [c] the protagonist's - or Man's in general - coming of age and the gradual shift from immature adolescent dreams and fantasies to being able to handle the responsibility of life. Ain't that clever? Go on, tell me that ain't clever. It's so clever that it's a goddamn pity it's pretty much the only clever thing about the album. And you'd better not look too close at those lyrics, unless you sign this here paper that says "I hereby agree to be bound by all of the terms and conditions of this license agreement between me and Tom Scholz, including his right to subject me to trite psychological cliches that he originally learned in kindergarten."

And the music? Well, that's the thing that burns. It's quite catchy, at times. But it's all absolutely the same: phoney Eighties metal guitars, tacky Seventies keyboards (I think the band used to make a proud point of not using the decade's trademark hi-tech synths, but somehow they manage to sound like shit even without them), ecstatic vocals from a locked oaken cabinet high in the sky, and pomp, pomp, pomp a-plenty. Technically, they really don't sound different at all; it's the production that has finally transcended all the limits of decency. Where that sound once used to be at least half alive, it doesn't any more. The same thing happened to many bands of the time - you only but have to remember Rush, for instance - but Boston bear the brunt of the change more heavily than most of their contemporaries because they weren't too "fresh" to begin with. Also, why the heck isn't Delp playing anything? Not even credited for a teensy-weensy bit of 12-string guitar? Is that what happens when you reach maturity - a complete and merciless division of labour?

The only song on here that Scholz does not take any credit for is drummer Jim Masdea's 'To Be A Man' (which sort of makes an absurd contrast with the previous album's 'A Man I'll Never Be', but then again that was the second stage and self-opinions are known to change). He tries to be different by making it piano-based instead of guitar-based, but that doesn't help matters much because he ain't no Elton John, and besides, it still shifts into power ballad mode midway through. Elsewhere, however, Scholz engages the help of Gary Pihl (formerly the bass player for Sammy Hagar) to work on 'I Think I Like It', and yet another former bassist, Franz Sheehan, along with Delp, gets co-credited for 'Cool The Engines' - and these are the two best songs on the album.

What really worries me - and, I'm sure, many other innocent souls - is just how fuckin' B-I-G this album was supposed to be. Eight years in the making, no less. Scholz locking himself in his ivory tower to work on all kinds of technical gizmos, including 'The Rockman', a special electronic device to boost the guitar's sonic capacities. CBS bosses fighting to wrestle the tapes from Scholz, stooping as low as withholding the band's royalties. Courts and litigations. Switching to a new label. Writing extensive liner notes detailing the creative process behind the thing, right down to specifying the brands for guitar picks. Building the hooplah up to the highest levels of intensity. Hitting gold, platinum, and mithril with both the single and the LP. You could write a War And Peace over all that story, film a Lawrence of Arabia around it. And all of this toil, all of this hullabaloo - for this? Just so we can hear some schmuck wailing "CAN'CHA SAY YOU BELIEVE IN ME?"

I mean, this is probably one of those few times when I think fondly of Gene Simmons and his controversial "I believe that anyone who gets up there and says what they're doing is art is on crack and delusional" statement. For all of Scholz's boasting about the 'Rockman' and how awesomely cool it is, sounding alternatively like a spaceship rumbling and a violin quartet, I'm not sure if he ever heard about a thing called "Frippertronics", which was developed way, way before his experimentation, not to mention that a certain guy called Jimi Hendrix used to have credible spaceship imitations without resorting to electronics. Okay, so maybe it didn't actually sound like a spaceship, but then neither does 'The Launch', to be sure, and besides, if I want to hear the sound of a real spaceship, I'll just go rent a documentary instead. Finally, Adrian Belew is today doing things with his guitar that make "The Rockman" look more like "The Caveman", if you know what I mean.

To sum it up, 'Cool The Engines' is a pretty good metal rocker which would have been even better without the vocals; and 'I Think I Like It' is a potentially first-rate power-pop song where the vocals don't hurt one bit because they're not as annoyingly high-pitched. The rest ranges from dated space filler ('The Launch') to painfully memorable anthems ('We're Ready') to songs that could have honestly taken half an hour to compose, like 'Hollyann'. In fact, I don't even think any composing was involved in the creation of 'Hollyann': it reads like a synthesis of whatever adult contemporary crap motives were playing on Scholz's radio the day he actually took a break from working on 'The Rockman' in order to consult his creative muse.

Amazingly, many Boston fans still persist in calling the album a masterpiece, just the way Scholz would undoubtedly like to hear them say. But no rock album that's been eight years in the making could even theoretically be a masterpiece. Not even progressive rock works that way, and it would be one hell of a stretch to call Third Stage "progressive rock". Rather, it is "simplistic pop-metal with progressive aspirations", and when you succeedingly multiply this by nine songs, eight years, two lost band members, and thirty-three Rockman effects, the result is the exact amount of years Tom Scholz is going to burn in hell for deliberately making hell out of the lives of so many poor innocent girls called Amanda.


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