The Rock Man - Maximum Guitar
Page 1 of 3A Revealing interview with Tom Scholz, guitarist and mastermind behind BOSTON's classic-rock brilliance.
By Andy Aledort
"I had been working on some new jumps, fooling around in the middle of the rink and trying a maneuver called a 'scratch spin,' which I find very difficult. Suddenly, Whammo!, I fell, completely obliterating my left arm."
Tom Scholz, founding father and resident genius of Boston, is no stranger to taking chances. Most of the time he confines his risk-taking to the relatively safe environment of writing and recording music and designing revolutionary pieces of guitar-related recording gear, like the Rockman. But he is now talking about ice jumping, his latest passionate endeavor.
"It happened this past Fall, and it was a nasty, nasty crash," he says with a chuckle. "The larger forearm bone shattered into several pieces right at my wrist, and they had to operate, leaving me with this horrible, Frankenstein-like cast, with giant bolts sticking out of my arm. Now I wear protective gear over the forearm when I skate, because I couldn't support my weight with my left arm if I were to fall. Another big negative is that I am forbidden to play basketball with other players. But I can still jam."
As in, jam with other musicians? "No--jam a basketball," he laughs. "Playing the guitar hurts like hell! Excruciatingly, utterly painful. But I suffered no nerve damage, and my fingers all work fine. Once I get warmed up, it always starts to feel better."
As any true Boston fan knows, Scholz rules on the keyboards as well. Has the injury hampered his piano playing? "The only time it bothers me is when I play Rachmaninoff's 'Prelude in C# Minor,'" he says slyly, "because it has a lot of 'cross-handed' stuff in it. Other than that, I'm all right.
"The most important thing to remember," Scholz continues, "is that no matter how screwed up your wrist is, it really doesn't affect your ice skating."
Tom Scholz's irreverent attitude has served him well all his life. Born in Toledo, Ohio, on March 10, 1947, Scholz began playing music at the age of eight, studying piano and organ. His interest in rock music took hold when he picked up the electric bass as a teen and, inspired by Sixties rock guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page ("anyone who played with the Yardbirds," he likes to say), he dove headlong into the guitar.
Ever the realist, Scholz matched his devotion to playing guitar and writing songs with equal devotion to mechanical engineering, earning a master's degree from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the early and middle Seventies, by day, Scholz was a senior product designer for Polaroid. By night, he worked endless hours on committing to tape what would soon be known as "the Boston sound."
Boston, the band's debut, is the largest-selling debut in the history of popular music, with sales exceeding 16 million in the U.S. alone. But, hampered by litigation and record company wrangling, the band has released a mere four albums during its 20-year-plus career.
Now, with the recent release of Boston's first-ever greatest hits package, a 16-track collection that contains three new recordings ("Higher Power," "Tell Me" and "The Star Spangled Banner") along with perennial Boston favorites "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind," "Rock & Roll Band" and scads more, Boston is hitting the arena circuit again this summer. The lineup consists of original Boston vocalist Brad Delp, guitarist Gary Pihl, vocalist/guitarist Fran Cosmo, bassist Davis Sikes and drummer Curly Smith. We sat down with Scholz as he gave us a guided tour through the intricate history of the rock and roll hamlet within which he resides.
MAXIMUM GUITAR: One of the new tunes on Greatest Hits is your version of "The Star Spangled Banner." What's the story behind that track?
TOM SCHOLZ: That's actually one of my favorite cuts. I recorded that tune in 24 hours the day before the 4th of July, starting early one afternoon, around noon. I wanted to create a rock and roll version of the song, because I never liked the song at all. I figured that there had to be a way to arrange and record it so that I would like it, so I set out to do that. It was going well, so I worked all night long, and the next morning, as the sun was coming up, I put the last few lead parts down. I finished the mix at about noon, so it took just about exactly 24 hours from start to finish. That is definitely the world record for the recording of any Boston song.
MG: At that speed, you really could put out a new Boston album every 10 days if you wanted to, instead of once every eight years.
SCHOLZ: If every song sounded exactly like "The Star Spangled Banner," then, yes, I could do that. But I was almost dead the next day, so, if I tried to do that, I'd have been buried long ago. The truth is, listening back to it now, I think it's one of my better recordings.
MG: Did you play all of the instruments on the new tunes?
SCHOLZ: Pretty much. There is a great harp solo on "Higher Power" that was played by our drummer, Curly Smith. Dave Sikes, the bassist, sings "Tell Me," and Brad and Fran sing "Higher Power" together. And I got to sing on "Higher Power," too, one of my very rare vocal appearances. It's almost an a capella solo part, and I'm singing extremely low. You can't miss it. I get very excited when I hear it.
MG: Live, who handles the keyboard chores?
SCHOLZ: Except for Fran, every single person in the band plays keyboards. And each has to take over the keyboards at different points of the show, because there are a lot of keyboard parts in the music. We have keyboards on both sides of the stage so people can get to them without tripping over each other. Brad ends up playing just about every keyboard that's up there at some point.
MG: Besides yourself, Brad has remained the only constant in the Boston lineup. Where did the two of you meet?
SCHOLZ: At Natural Sound Studios in Manard, Massachusetts, back in 1970. Someone had given me his name, and I had him come down and sing on a demo I was recording. We were also working on another tune that night called "She's a Looker," but I wanted to call it "She's a Hooker." The song probably wouldn't have died if it had been called "She's a Hooker." [laughs]
MG: Except for drums, you played every instrument on Boston. How do you feel about writing and recording all of the music by yourself?
SCHOLZ: Usually, I would prefer not to do that. I prefer to have some other input, because it can sometimes get a bit homogenous when the music comes completely from one person. I like to have Gary play a variety of different parts, or solos, just to get another musical personality in there. Originally, the plan was to have this greatest-hits package out last year, but I decided instead to bury myself in it and do it this way.
MG: Besides playing the lion's share of the guitar parts, you also play bass on virtually every Boston studio track, right?
SCHOLZ: That's right. I used to think that bass playing is what I did best, but I couldn't play bass, guitar and keyboards all at the same time when we were on stage. I love playing the bass in live situations-so much power!
MG: Back in '76, when "More Than a Feeling" became a hit, it really sounded different than anything else at the time. This is records that sold at least six million copies!! That proved that all of those A&R people had their heads where the sun don't shine. Epic flat out rejected it-and sent me an insulting letter! I have that letter framed now, but it said that there was nothing new about this music, and they were in no way interested. Then later, someone went through the proper political channels with Epic and, all of a sudden, they were interested. Still, we didn't get signed until they heard "More Than a Feeling."
MG: Was "Peace of Mind" written before "More Than a Feeling"?
SCHOLZ: It was completed before "More Than a Feeling." "More Than a Feeling" was actually written over a five-year period.
MG: Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write "More Than a Feeling"?
SCHOLZ: It started with a love affair I had when I was in school, so the song is written about something I went through myself. There was another song out then that, whenever I heard it, caused me to pine miserably for this particular girl, and so I decided to write my own song about those feelings. That song was called "Walk Away Renee," by the Left Banke.
MG: There's a chord progression in "More Than a Feeling," right after the line, "I see my Mary Ann walking away," that goes G-D/F#-Em7-D, which comes right off of "Walk Away Renee."
SCHOLZ: Oh my God, you're right! It's right there in the song! [Hysterical laughter] You know, I never realized that! The Left Banke was one of my favorite groups at that time, and they were very classically-inspired.
MG: The definition of the Boston sound, besides the high-energy rock and roll thing, is the pure pop sensibility of big, giant melodic hooks, combined with massively heavy, classically-inspired guitar parts.
SCHOLZ: Left Banke had the same basic formula, but they had none of the raw energy behind it. I always wanted to write music with beautiful vocal harmonies, but what first got me into music was the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Blue Cheer... I was definitely into heavy-handed guitar playing.
MG: What kind of 12-string acoustic did you use on "More Than a Feeling"?
SCHOLZ: That was a $100 Yamaha. When the band was first signed, the so-called "band" went to L.A., booked studio time, and went into the studio every week. They stayed out there as a cover, pretending to record the album, while I recorded the album back home in Massachusetts in my basement studio. There is only one song on the album that was recorded in L.A., which is the last song on side two, "Let Me Take You Home Tonight." While Brad was in L.A., they bought him a custom-made 12-string that was $2000, and, meanwhile, I'm back in my basement with a $100 Yamaha, recording a track that's going to sell about 20 million records! I wish I still had that guitar! [laughs]
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