Classic Tracks: Boston's "More Than a Feeling"
In 1976, mainstream American rock was making the transition from blues-based proto-metal to what would become a decade-and-a-half's worth of power pop. It was an era when the recording of the pistons of rock - guitars and drums - made the transition from a crude craft to a true science, as guitar sounds began to receive the kind of data processing heretofore reserved for NASA telemetry.
"More Than A Feeling," the first single from Boston's eponymous debut album, hit the airwaves that autumn (making it to Number 5), and acted as a pivot in this transition, combining some of the ebullience of the rock era's early days with the precision and technology that would mark rock record productions from then on. That song and album also set benchmarks for the record business. Boston became the best-selling pop debut effort in history, a title it held for a decade before it was supplanted by Whitney Houston's first album. It ultimately sold 16 million copies in the process of creating a reference point for production values and studio technology that would stand for years.
Not surprisingly, the group's main muse - guitarist and songwriter Tom Scholz - was an interesting blend of Brian Wilson and Albert Einstein. The M.I.T. graduate was working for Polaroid when he hooked up with vocalist Brad Delp and his local rock band. Though Scholz signed on as a keyboardist, he also began learning guitar, and his quick mastery of the instrument soon allowed him to take full control of the band. Scholz's innate technical wizardry allowed him to build one of the first project studios, a 12-track Scully recorder/Dan Flickinger console affair where the band recorded demos that led to their signing by Epic in 1975 and which served as the basis of much of the first album's tracks.
When producer John Boylan was brought into the picture, "More Than a Feeling" and most of the songs on the debut record were just about completed. Boylan, who had previously produced records for Linda Ronstadt, Brewer & Shipley, Pure Prairie League and Roger McGuinn, was contacted by old friend Paul Ahern, who along with local promotion manager Charlie McKenzie, had recently formed a company to manage Boston and were in search of a deal. "The band had been turned down by several labels already, including Epic," Boylan recalls. "Up to that point, Tom [Scholz] had been sending tapes to record companies over the transom, sending them in cold. He needed someone who knew the business and was conversely known by it. Paul was an old friend I'd met through my connection with Linda, and I liked Charlie's flamboyant style of promotion - he would send telegrams to radio stations asking them to play his songs."
Boylan came to Boston and listened to Scholz's 12-track tapes. "I loved it and wanted to work with it," he says. "I knew what was wrong with the recordings immediately: Tom was an obvious genius, but he didn't know how to record acoustic instruments. The drums and acoustic guitars were amateurish, but the guitars sounded amazing."
Scholz's Scully 12-track had a linear-restoration circuit built in, which could restore the uppermost transient lost in the analog circuitry. It seemed to Boylan that some of the sharpness of Scholz's genius came from his own conflict with analog and digital audio technology. "Tom knew what digital technology was capable of," Boylan recalls. "The first Eventide sampler was out then, though it had a terrible sampling rate. But Tom would then invent analog devices to do what the digital boxes were trying to do. His first doubler was actually an analog bucket-brigade device."
Bringing Boylan to the project, along with management, completed the team that Boston needed to get a major-label deal, and the band signed with Epic, though not before the label, responding to rumors that the "band" was actually a mad genius at work in a basement, asked to see them perform. "They needed to see some bodies on a stage, and they quickly added a live drummer [Sib Hashian] and bassist [Fran Sheehan] to the core of Scholz, vocalist Brad Delp and Goudreau.
When Boylan arrived in Boston in early 1976, he found Scholz still working at Polaroid, deeply involved in a pet project for company founder Edward Land, developing an instant-movie camera, a project Scholz confided to Boylan that he felt would never work, and despite the millions of dollars that and threw at it, it was quickly decimated by the arrival of the VCR. But the fact that Scholz would stay on at Polaroid, even as he and the band were on the verge of the big record deal, underscored to Boylan Scholz's own insecurities - about money and his way of working. "Tom didn't want an outside producer; he wanted to do this all himself," Boylan says matter-of-factly. "He accepted me because he knew it was politically necessary. I looked at the situation and told Charlie and Paul in a meeting that this project will sound better if Tom gets to do it the way he wants. What I could do to help it is to make his acoustic sound better, and to run interference with the label while he works out of his basement."
Boylan recognized Scholz's talent, and had already formulated in his mind that once he had gotten Scholz on the right track with drums - achieved by flying in engineer Paul Grupp from Los Angeles to instruct Scholz in microphone technique ("Tom proved to be a very fast study," Boylan says admiringly) - his own hands-on involvement would center on recording the vocals and mixing. Scholz was relieved and agreed readily to that arrangement, Boylan recalls. But before he could get to that stage, Boylan had to orchestrate one of the most complex corporate capers in the history of the music business.
"I had gotten a budget from Epic [he estimates the amount spent in the end was just $28,000], but the more important question from Epic's admin. department was,`Where are you guys going to record?'" Boylan explains. This was a loaded question. Several years before, Epic, which is part of the Columbia Records corporate family, had signed a disadvantageous agreement with NABET, the union representing electrical and broadcast engineers. The agreement had a "featherbedding" clause that, according to Boylan, "would have made Karl Marx grin from ear to ear." Any recording done outside of a Columbia-owned studio [the company's facilities were in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville at the time] but within a 250-mile radius of one of those studios required that a paid union engineer be present, even if all he did was file his nails. Boston, where the band called home and wanted to work, is 211 miles from New York City.blog comments powered by Disqus