Barely Something

Every once in a while I go through my file of drafts and stitch some bits together like I was Dr. Frankenstein to make a whole post. This first bit is expanded from something I wrote a few years ago for WNEW.com.

In 1976, Boston made one of the most successful debuts in rock history with their self-titled album. Because every last cut on it has gotten burned out by radio airplay, it’s hard to hear it today as people heard it back then, but it’s a remarkable record. Tom Scholz invented a new guitar sound, massively heavy but full of space at the same time, and he used it on some pretty good songs: “More Than a Feeling,” “Peace of Mind,” “Hitch a Ride.” Two years later came Don’t Look Back, which picked up right where Boston left off, sonically. The songs aren’t as strong, but that’s the difference between a project slaved over for several years and one that’s made necessary by a successful debut. But Scholz would not be hurried again. It took eight years, until 1986, before another Boston album came out: Third Stage.

Eight years, that is, if you don’t count the lost Boston album.

Several people were caught up in Tom Scholz’s obsession: his bandmates in Boston. And after a while, they got tired of waiting around for their next project. So in 1980, guitarist Barry Goudreau made a solo album with Boston lead singer Brad Delp and drummer Sib Hashian. Barry Goudreau was released in the fall. When the lead single, “Dreams,” hit the radio, listeners across the country had the following reaction: “I’ll be damned—this sounds exactly like Boston.” Some record-label promotion for the album also stressed the similarities. Scholz was not amused, and his displeasure may have contributed to Goudreau’s departure from the group in 1981. (Scholz apparently held no grudge against against Delp or Hashian, who remained in the band, or Goudreau’s bandmate Fran Cosmo, because years later, he invited Cosmo to join Boston.) Goudreau’s album reached #88 in Billboard during an eight-week run from September to November 1980. “Dreams” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 for a single week in October, reaching #103.

Maybe Portrait Records, a sister to Boston’s label, Epic, under-promoted it as a favor to Scholz. Or maybe the listening public wasn’t as thirsty for new Boston-style music as Goudreau and his mates imagined. One thing’s for sure, though: “Dreams” really does sound exactly like Boston. Also worth a listen: “Mean Woman Blues.” It’s not the Roy Orbison/Elvis Presley song but a Goudreau/Delp original about an abusive relationship.

When I got back into country radio a few years ago, I was surprised to find my station doing something that I thought nobody did anymore: pitching up the music. I intended to write about it, but this is as far as I got.

Back in the mid 70s, toward the end of the great Chicago Top 40 duke-out between WLS and WCFL, there was one significant difference between the two stations: WCFL pitched up its music, playing it at a slightly faster speed than it was recorded, say 48RPM instead of 45. For years thereafter, a lot of hit songs I first heard on ‘CFL didn’t sound right to me on any other station, where they played at normal speed.

And that’s the point. Pitching up records is mainly intended to make your station sound brighter than your competition, which sounds draggy in comparison. It is not—as I was once informed by a supercilious colleague at one station I worked for—so the station can play more music in an hour. True, this canard makes sense, until you do the math. If you’re playing 45 minutes of music in an hour, that’s maybe 10 songs. Pitch up each record by two percent and you gain a whole minute.

At a minute per hour, you can play one extra song in a four-hour show, which is something, but just barely.

Rather like this blog: it’s something, but just barely.

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5 responses

  1. Wait… Robyn Hitchcock co-wrote “Dreams”? Mind officially blown.

  2. More Boston: RTZ (Return To Zero). A band comprised of Brad Delp and Barry Goodreau. They had a hit in 1991 with “Face The Music,” a terrific song that reached #59 on the Billboard chart.

  3. Comment ported over from my Facebook page:

    Randy: “I interviewed Tom in 1987. I asked him why “Don’t Look Back” was only 35 minutes long. “It wasn’t done. I had to cater to Epic records, then I told them to take a hike.” After playing every cut from the Boston record 3,789,000 times in my on air career…(76-06) I STILL love that album. It still sounds like nothing on the radio before or since.”

  4. This blog would be a much brighter read with a +2% pitch adjustment.

    I was reminded of pitching just the other day, while making a vinyl transfer of George Jones’ “Radio Lover” and debating whether or not to hit the gas and make it sound like it did on the air as an ’83 album cut. I always felt country was the format that benefitted most from pitching, provided you didn’t transform barroom brawls into Jimmy Osmond revivals. The most I ever got away with was a two-and-a-half percent rate increase on the Oak Ridge Boys’ “I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Sometimes,” although I’m sure Joe Bonsall would not have been entirely thrilled to witness his debut adult soprano performance.

    Turntable derby was a fun toy in radio’s bag of tricks, but man, oh man, the payback is hell. The brain never, ever forgets once you’ve messed with Mother Pitch.

  5. Boston-my first concert when their debut was on the air and climbing the charts. My mind was blown by their “just like the record” live sound.

    I went a different direction musically and after not hearing the band for years (I was hiding out pretty good!) couldn’t believe how “More Than a Feeling” had never aged a day sonically.

    Of course the joke was “it took Tom Scholz eight years to make a record that sounded just like everything else he ever did.”

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