In We’re No. 1, Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Boston’s Don’t Look Back, which went to No. 1 on Oct. 7, 1978, where it stayed for one week.
At a time when his band was selling records at a rate of about 1 million per month, Tom Scholz could walk into any Radio Shack in any American city and purchase a pack of AA batteries without fear of harassment. Even now, with Boston’s self-titled 1976 debut still firmly ensconced among the biggest selling rock albums ever—and still so ubiquitous you can hear every single track, from “More Than A Feeling” to “Let Me Take You Home Tonight,” on classic-rock radio—the record’s architect is no more recognizable than any other architect. For Scholz, this anonymity was by design, and as carefully plotted out as the ruthlessly popular music he created. He was a man who preferred to be signified by the colorful spaceships that adorned Boston’s LP covers, and the sleek, supersonic songs that helped to re-define the sound of big-time rock music in the late ’70s.
If Scholz were a run-of-the-mill rock star, this could be chalked up as mere mystique-building. But Scholz was no run-of-the-mill rock star—or a rock star at all, really. A graduate of MIT with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Scholz approached the recording of Boston as one might a science project, slaving away on meticulously recorded demos in his basement studio as a diversion while he worked a day job at Polaroid. Boston the band was just a concept in the early ’70s; even after Scholz’s recordings attracted the attention of Epic Records and the label insisted on setting up his bandmates in a professional Los Angeles studio, the guitarist instead completed work on the album at home. In essence, he agreed to let the rest of Boston diddle away time on the label’s dime in order to distract Epic from the real work he was doing on the opposite coast. But even under these conditions, Scholz would never quite create the version of that first Boston record that he heard in his head. He actually hated the album at first, though a few years later in Rolling Stone he reluctantly rated it “pretty good. Certainly wouldn’t give it a great, though.”
Unlike Jimmy Page, who dabbled in black magic and resided in spooky castles once owned by Satanists, Scholz kept the public at arm’s length to hide a rather humdrum existence. There was nothing magical about Scholz—he was a technician, and he preferred a technician’s lifestyle. Ten years after the release of Boston’s blockbuster second record Don’t Look Back, which rose to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart on the wave of Boston’s inexhaustible popularity, Scholz was living the life of an actual technician, overseeing a company, Scholz Research And Development, that created devices for electric instruments. “Actually, the equipment stuff means a lot more to me than music,” he told Rolling Stone in 1988.
Scholz didn’t retire from music after that; he continued to record and tour with various musicians as Boston even after the suicide of singer Brad Delp in 2007. (A new, long-in-the-works album featuring vocals Delp recorded before he died was said to be “85 percent complete” in 2011, though that final 15 percent has apparently prevented the record from being released in the year since.) But Scholz remains perhaps the most low-key arena-rock legend ever, and the reasons for that are spelled out more or less loud and clear on the 7 million-selling Don’t Look Back.
Those predisposed to hate classic rock normally dismiss Boston as cookie-cutter corporate rock devoid of personality or heart. It’s true: The spotless perfection of Boston’s late-’70s albums doesn’t exactly sound human. If The Stooges and Black Sabbath exist on one end of the rock ’n’ roll grittiness scale, Boston surely must be placed on the far opposite end. Boston and Don’t Look Back are the antithesis of music that’s idealized for its sloppy, in-the-moment liveliness. Scholz preferred the orderliness of a laboratory, and the methodology of a scientist—his songs sounded as if they were assembled according to well-tested theorems and then sent off in hermetically sealed packages. It was as wild and inappropriate as a bottle of aspirin.
Ironically, Don’t Look Back sounds stiffer and more mechanical than Boston because Scholz had a lot less time to work on it. Whereas the gestation period for the first record was several years, Don’t Look Back was rushed due to record company pressure to capitalize on Boston’s runaway success. Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe visited Scholz during the making of Don’t Look Back, and his article describes a man already resentful of the music business and the arbitrary deadlines it was imposing on him. Describing Boston as “the biggest debut in the history of recorded music” and “easily the most tumultuous debut since the first Led Zeppelin” (whatever that means), Crowe both stoked the fires of pre-release hype for Don’t Look Back and demystified the album’s creation story.
After moving past a washing machine, a foosball table, and a couple of basketballs, Crowe describes stepping into Scholz’s hit-making basement studio, which he writes is no bigger than “the size of a large bathroom.” There he spies Scholz trying “to record a single sustaining note that sweeps across an avalanche of guitars.” Crowe conveys precisely how tedious this process is, and Scholz’s weariness comes through plainly on the page. Later, Scholz happily takes a break from recording to eat a steak dinner with his wife and Crowe, and suggests that he’s already primed himself for Don’t Look Back’s inevitable failure. “I’ve been through all the ups and downs of realizing that I’m not going to make the perfect album,” he tells Crowe.
The main problem with Don’t Look Back is that it was made with the knowledge that Boston was going to be touring large arenas, and yet the record sounds like it was pieced together bloodlessly by an anal-retentive mastermind. Of course, that’s what Boston was in reality, too, but that record at least creates the illusion of a band playing live on upbeat tracks like “Smokin’” and the myth-perpetuating bullshit of “Rock And Roll Band.” Compare that with the ridiculous “Party” from Don’t Look Back, a would-be rafter-raiser that does a lot of talking about partying but precious little showing. “Feelin’ Satisfied” is similarly canned, a song intended to inspire mass clap-alongs that ends up feeling inorganic in the worst way.
Boston at its best was like a hard-rock ABBA: The impeccable melodies and iron-clad arrangements served as poignant counterpoints to the messier feelings underneath them. The strongest parts of Don’t Look Back are also the saddest, starting with the hit title track, which is highly reminiscent of the first album musically, while surrendering that album’s sense of ambition in the lyrics. “Don’t Look Back” is a song about the joy of giving up: In the gooey chorus, Delp sings, “I’m much too strong / not to compromise,” and recognizes that the part of himself (or Scholz’s self) that won’t accept anything less than perfection is what’s keeping him from happiness. “Don’t Look Back” encapsulates all the ups and downs of realizing that you can’t make the album you wanted to make. The music is uplifting, and the aftertaste is deflating.
This failure is foregrounded on Don’t Look Back’s best and most beautiful song, “A Man I’ll Never Be.” Boston has not yet benefitted from the revisionist critical appreciation that contemporaries like Electric Light Orchestra and Queen have rightly enjoyed, but if this band ever does become retroactively cool, “A Man I’ll Never Be” might finally become the classic it deserves to be. With a dramatic arrangement that builds from a plaintive piano intro to several soaring Scholz guitar solos over the course of six and a half minutes, “A Man I’ll Never Be” is like a funeral for the most idealistic version of Scholz’s identity. The song is about a guy addressing a girlfriend who wants him to be a better guy than he really is, but it could be Scholz looking at himself in the mirror. “And it gets harder every day for me/ To hide behind this dream you see/ A man I'll never be.”
Boston emerged at the same time as the first wave of punk bands, and the contrast couldn’t be starker in musical terms. If punk’s credo of primal rawness wasn’t written with Boston specifically in mind, it more or less stood in opposition to what Boston’s music represented in the popular consciousness. But looking at it from a slightly different perspective, Scholz actually seems punker than most punks. He created music on his own terms, he shunned rock stardom, and he’s spent his entire career railing against the music business. In the end, Johnny Rotten is the name and face everybody knows. Scholz, meanwhile, is off in some room somewhere, working on the greatest single guitar note anyone’s ever heard, happy in self-imposed obscurity.
Coming up: Prince’s Batman soundtrack