Hittin' the high notes with Brad Delp, and assessing Boston's legacy
Like tens of millions of people, I like to sing along when I’m scanning the dial and come across a song from Boston’s first album (pictured). And also just like the rest of those tens of millions, I’m being a complete a liar when I say I sing along. We can generally keep up with Brad Delp up to a point, that point being somewhere toward the end of a typical first verse, and then he leaves us behind, soaring into a stratosphere that has mere vocal mortals just doing the vocal equivalent of air-guitar. When other male rock singers hit those notes, we generally call it “falsetto,” but there is nothing the slightest bit pseudo about Delp’s upper range, our proxy in exploring musical outer space.
Delp died last weekend at 55 and left a lot of us who grew up on Boston pondering the band’s legacy. The death came a few days before the latest Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions, and while a non-singer like Patti Smith got in this time, Boston’s chances of ever making the hall are about on par with the odds that I’ll unexpectedly and accidentally hit high C while driving down the Ventura Freeway. Coolness? Never had it, never will, and some would make the case that their studied slickness actually had a detrimental effect on rock. Yet they’ve got other accolades to show for themselves, like the best-selling debut album of all time, a 1976 disc that is certified 17 times platinum and is irresistible enough that it’ll sell to new generations of teenagers as long as classic-rock radio exists.
Brad’s death prompted a back-and-forth discussion between me andsome of my e-mail pals, and we weren’t all in agreement. My friendScott, an entertainment lawyer, was the first to make a stand. “Inhonor of Brad Delp’s passing, I listened to the first Boston albumtoday,” he wrote. “It still holds up as a great album. I realized thatEVERY SINGLE SONG on the album received sizable FM radio airplay.Other than the Beatles’ albums, I can’t think of any other albums wherethat’s the case. Not Rumours (‘Songbird’?), no Stones albums (not Sticky Fingers, not Some Girls), not Who’s Next (‘Love Ain’t For Keepin’?), not Purple Rain (‘Darling Nikki’?), not Aja (‘I Got the News’?), not Born to Run (‘Meeting Across the River’? ‘Night’?), not even Thriller.”
This idea fascinated me, and I think he’s close to right. FM wasstill largely free of playlists in the mid- and late ‘70s, and there isno Billboard Book of Free-Form Radio Smashes to independently verifythe contention. In fact, I think there were a couple of others —namely, Dark Side of the Moon (just because jocks would play an entire side rather than try to break up the sequentiality) and Wish You Were Here(let’s face it, LPs that only had seven or eight tracks had anadvantage here). But Boston still seems unique, in that it wasan album of eight individual, pop-style, undeniable smashes. Tracks 1-5and 8, at least, are still all over the bandwidth.
Then my rock critic friend Steve Hochman entered our discussion. “Iconfess I was never very fond of Boston,” he wrote. “It was thatcorporate-rock-arena-slick sound that, to me, was anathema to myaesthetics — neither rough enough to be real rock, not arty enough to beprog.” (Steve is a major, major prog-rock fan, I should note, and wouldbe the first to say Yes should be in the Hall of Fame.) “That said,there were some strong power-pop songs on that first album and someterrific hooks. ‘More Than a Feeling’ was used on an episode of Scrubs with some of the hospital staff forming an ‘air band’ to‘perform’ that, and how could I not air guitar right along with them?On the other hand, from the first time I heard that song, I had greatresentment for how it so blatantly ripped off the Left Banke, thoughwithout any of the original’s nuance and vibrance.” (If they did copfrom the Left Banke, they certainly had it done to them in turn:Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff owes a fairly obvious debt tothe key one from “More Than a Feeling,” and Kurt Cobain evenacknowledged it once by covering the Boston song live.)
A younger friend of ours, soundtrack composer Alan Elliott, joinedin. “I still remember hearing that record when it came out,” wroteAlan, who wasn’t yet a teenager in 1976, “and in hindsight, it was likea rough edged Roxette or Britney Spears type thing. Every kid i knewliked it — but it really FELT wrong. Also in hindsight and older age, Ilove Britney, Roxette and… Boston.”
Scott came back to the discussion table. “Actually, I was neverparticularly fond of Boston when the album came out. I lumped it inwith ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ by Kansas and similar stuff. While theKansas stuff hasn’t aged well (it went from bad to unlistenable), I gotthe Boston CD in 1998 (after never getting the album before)and was surprised (1) that I knew EVERY SINGLE song and (2) how itactually sounded BETTER than I remembered it. Sure, some of it isnostalgia, but Delp’s multilayered harmonies sounded great, the guitarriffs are awesome, and like you said, each song has a terrific hook.”
Agreed Steve, “I definitely considered Boston kin to Kansas,Foreigner, etc. [at the time].” He meant that as an insult, I think.“And yes, today some of the Boston stuff sounds closer to, oh, theRaspberries than to Kansas.” He meant that as a compliment, I’m quitecertain.
Basically, all four of us who were shooting these e-mails back andforth loved Boston at one point or another, and all four of us feltconflicted about it at one point or another. For my part, I bought theLP the day it arrived at Melody Lane Records in Lakewood, Ohio in 1976,and I was certainly in the house when Boston hit Cleveland’s PublicHall on their first tour later that year. (Somewhere, I still have ayellow T-shirt from that night with the iconic UFO-upside-down-guitarlogo.) But even as an impressionable kid not quite old enough to drivehimself to the show, I had the feeling that this might be a guiltypleasure: that the band borrowed some of the prog elements of Emerson,Lake & Palmer for their instrumental bits without being a “serious”group, that they lacked the rough edges of great glam-rockers likeBowie, Mott the Hoople, and Alice Cooper, and that the group lacked the savingwit of some of the slicker stuff I also loved, like ELO. Delp was thefrontman, but everyone knew the mastermind of the group was Tom Scholz,whose studio perfectionism was beyond legendary. And there wassomething about Scholz’ approach — including the stacked layers of Delpoverdubbing his own background vocals — that seemed hermetically sealed,a term that just doesn’t go well with rock & roll. By the timetheir second album, Don’t Look Back, came out in ’78, I didn’tbother buying it — though I didn’t have to, since the LP’s one greatsong, the title track, seemed to play on the airwaves almost in acontinuous loop.
And then most of the ‘80s went by without a new Boston album, butwith a new generation of faceless bands, like Loverboy and Toto, alltechnically proficient and with terrific singers and excellent pophooks, and all disturbingly personality-free. The lineage of thefaceless rock genre could be traced directly back to Boston. And thatimpact, as much as any other factor, may be why they’ll never make the Hall of Fame. Which reminds me of an argument that’s been going onaround Patti Smith’s induction. Some rock fans are claiming that she’snot getting in because she was great herself but because sheinfluenced so many greats that followed — and being influential, in andof itself, shouldn’t be enough to land you a spot in the Hall’shallowed rotunda. By the same token, then, you could say that the factthat Boston influenced a whole wave of soulless, anonymous, alreadylong forgotten melodic-hard-rock bands to come into being isn’t reason enoughto keep Delp and Scholz out of the Hall of Fame. Truth be told, I thinkthey can be excluded from contention on some of their own merits: Toactually listen to the lyrics of “Rock and Roll Band” or “Smokin’” isto cringe. Yet even the cheesiest songs on that first album are stillthrilling, in their fashion. And if Boston, the 1976 LP, isbasically rock & roll as a laboratory experiment, well, who intheir right mind wouldn’t want to set up camp and live in that gloriouslab?
It’s heartening to know that some of what we took for “facelessness”was actually just kindness and humility on Delp’s part. Since hisuntimely death, story after story has come out about the singer’sshocking, willful normalcy — how he fronted a Beatles cover band on theside and didn’t mind playing for a few hundred people in a club; howhe’d help other bands on the bill load up their equipment, and it wasonly later they’d realized they’d gotten a sweaty assist from apart-time superstar and not some kindly local band dad. It’s odd thatrock’s nicest guy was hooked up for decades with one of rock’s mostnotoriously prickly guys, Scholz. Who can fathom the mysteries of amarriage, musical or otherwise? We can be sad and suppose that maybe itis only the good who die young. Or we can think of that voice, alwayslifting toward a realm that only dogs can hear, and imagine it finallyreaching its inevitable, celestial sphere. But will the angels befrustrated that they, too, can only hope to lip-synch along?