(Pictured: Boston in the studio, circa 1976. Tom Scholz is seated at the right.)
Forty years ago this week (actually August 25, 1976), Boston was released. Jeff Giles told the story of its creation quite nicely over at Ultimate Classic Rock; a hyperventilating appreciation by Tim Sommer at the Observer, which is one of the finest pieces of music writing I’ve ever seen, appeared here. Michele Catalano remembers Boston as part of her “defining moment of the 70s.”
“More Than a Feeling” first appears at ARSA on a survey from WBZ in Boston (where else?) dated August 20, 1976. It picked up playlist adds in great numbers during September, but at WLS in Chicago,”More Than a Feeling” didn’t chart until October 16 (which would have been about the time I first heard it). The song became a Top-10 hit in many places during November and December, although it reached #1 only at WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, during the week of November 28.
“More Than a Feeling” took over three months to climb from #86 on the Hot 100 (September 18) to #5 on the chart dated December 25, 1976. The chart was frozen the next week, so the song gets credit for two weeks at #5 before starting on its way down. It would be gone from the Hot 100 entirely after the week of January 22, 1977—but it has yet to fall out of radio station playlists.
Boston hit the Billboard 200 album chart on September 18, and would rise to #3 in a run totaling 132 weeks. In addition to the three singles (“Long Time” and “Peace of Mind” followed “More Than a Feeling”), nearly every track got radio play. If I were setting up a classic-rock radio library today, all three singles plus “Rock & Roll Band,” “Smokin’,” and “Hitch a Ride” would be in the heavy rotation. That leaves only “Something About You” and “Let Me Take You Home Tonight,” neither of which is a slouch. I’d play them, too.
I remember jocks on our college radio station joking that if you segued Boston songs just right, you could make it sound like one big song. And for many years, Boston was one of the main offenders mentioned when people talked about the pernicious, homogenizing influence of corporate rock. You can still find people who hold both of those opinions today, and they’re entitled to them, provided that it’s understood that they’re wrong.
Like other obsessed artists, Tom Scholz’s passionate pursuit of his vision resulted in something utterly original. If he had trouble expanding his sonic palette on succeeding albums, give the man a pass for inventing the damn palette in the first place. And as far as the corporate part, successful inventors need backers. Were it not for Epic Records, Scholz’s unique sound may never have gotten out of his garage. (Epic ran radio ads for the album touting Scholz’s “special effects guitar.” I heard the ads before I’d heard anything beyond “More Than a Feeling.”)
Boston is a remarkable creative achievement. It’s massively heavy—the “More Than a Feeling” riff (which Bruce Springsteen noticed was a lift from “Louie Louie”), the rolling riff on “Peace of Mind,” the lead guitar on “Smokin’,” and the production on “Rock and Roll Band” have got all the rock ‘n’ roll power a teenage headbanger could ask for. But at the same time, there’s a great deal of space and lightness in it, as on “Hitch a Ride,” and even “Smokin'” makes room for a Deep Purple-esque organ solo that transforms the whole atmosphere. The album dips into prog-rock on “Foreplay” and the quiet opening of “Something About You,” and the dialed-back feel of “Hitch a Ride” is a spiritual cousin to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Still . . . You Turn Me On.”
This may be a fool’s errand, but here’s my ranking of the tracks on Boston.
1. “More Than a Feeling”
2. “Peace of Mind”
3. “Hitch a Ride”
4. “Rock and Roll Band”
6. “Foreplay/Long Time” (Were I ranking these two individually, I’d put “Long Time” at #4 and “Foreplay” at #9.)
7. “Let Me Take You Home Tonight”
8. “Something About You”
Your mileage may vary, however, and I crave your opinions, along with your recollections of listening to Boston, in the comments.
George Carlin once described the stand-up comedian’s job as thinking up goofy shit, telling people what it is, and then going off to think up some more. I have modified that joke to describe what I do on the radio. I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a regular partner or a show with a cast; thinking up stuff is still the essence of the gig, but it’s a collaborative effort and a conversation. (Neither do I know anything about doing talk radio.) So when it’s just you in a studio, with a microphone and unseen thousands (hundreds? dozens?) out there in the beyond, the weight of the responsibility is great.
What makes you think you’re interesting enough to spend three or four hours each day knitting together a bunch of songs on the radio?
Many people aren’t interesting enough. They may have nice voices (although not necessarily), but they never really say anything that engages you. They’re just there, playing the songs, reading the promos, taking up space. People like this can have long careers, but they aren’t getting into anybody’s Hall of Fame.
At the other end of the spectrum are the people who are endlessly engaging. They’re the chosen few of the chosen few, the Hall of Famers, people who don’t sound like anybody else, the people aspiring jocks aspire to be.
In the middle are the talented craftsmen (men and women). They’re technically skilled (although technical radio skills matter less in a world of digital automation than they did in the days of turntables and tape cartridges); they know their audience well, and they are committed to bringing something to that audience every day that only they can bring—a particular interest, bit, or story, or a unique take on whatever people are talking about on any given day. Craftsmen, while they may not be among the unique talents of the age, sound like real people communicating one-to-one instead of disembodied voices yammering about nothing to nobody in particular.
I learned early on that I wasn’t talented enough to be a Hall of Famer, so being a solid craftsman and real person became my goal.
When I arrived at KDTH in 1979, there was a big sign in the studio at eye level reading “smile.” It was the first piece of professional advice I ever ignored. If your goal is to be a real person on the radio, you can’t do it if you’re always smiling. Not everything you say should be delivered with a smile. I was on the air the day Michael Jackson died, and the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, and I’ve done countless severe weather broadcasts. At those moments, speaking with a smile on my face would have been unconscionable. Some days you don’t just feel like smiling: your kid is sick or your car is in the shop or your boss got in your face just before the show. And that’s OK. If you can’t smile, don’t worry about it. Try not to be grim, though. Strive for geniality: be as pleasant as you can under the circumstances, but don’t fake something you don’t feel, or that isn’t appropriate.
One day, I hadn’t had enough sleep when I came to work. I was not especially willing or ready to do a show that day, but I didn’t have a choice. After about an hour, one of my colleagues came into the studio and said, “You sound crabby today—but you’re funny.” I got away with being less than 100 percent by the fact that on other days I’d been at 100 percent—that I’d established myself as a real person—and on this particular day I was going to be genially sardonic.
Sometimes real people have bad days, and that’s OK.
If you want to be either a craftsman or a Hall of Famer, as distinct from one of those jocks who’s just there, ask yourself this: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” The number of jocks, young and old, who can’t answer that, or who can answer it only in vague terms, is a scandal. Pro tip: “Just being myself” is not the answer. Lots of jocks, young and old, think it is, but it’s only the first and most obvious part of the answer. If you know exactly who you are, and you know the specific things you bring to the show every day, you’ll be way ahead of those who don’t.
(Pictured: one incarnation of the Beach Boys. L to R: Bruce Johnston, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, and Mike Love, circa 1971.)
In July 1971, the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, and several new young stars headlined a two-night stand in New York City’s Central Park, part of a regular concert series sponsored for many summers by Schaefer Brewing Company. Both nights were filmed and then edited into a concert special called Good Vibrations From Central Park. (The TV crew shot from different vantage points each night, so when the producers put the show together, it looked like they had twice the camera coverage.) An hour of concert highlights was broadcast on ABC 45 years ago tonight, on August 19, 1971.
The TV show opened with the Beach Boys doing “Good Vibrations,” although I am pretty sure that at Central Park itself, Boz Scaggs went on first. Good Vibrations From Central Park was the first national TV appearance for Boz and his band, doing their lone hit to date, “We Were Always Sweethearts.” It had reached #61 on the Hot 100 in May, and was the opening track on Moments, Boz’s second album. Boz may have played other songs that night, but only one got on TV, befitting an opening act.
Kate Taylor went on next. James Taylor’s sister, who billed herself as “Sister Kate,” had released her debut album in January, featuring many of the same musicians who appeared on Carole King’s Tapestry, including King herself. Her song choices were impeccable: two by King from Tapestry (“Where You Lead” and “Home Again”), two from Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection (“Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” and “Country Comfort”), plus her brother James’ “You Can Close Your Eyes,” and “Handbags and Gladrags,” which was made famous by Rod Stewart. Any of those would have been better than the performance the producers opted to show, the R&B song “Barefootin'” which was not on Taylor’s album. Although she was enthusiastic as hell, she yelled more than she sang, and I wonder if she was having trouble with the stage monitors.
Next on the bill was Carly Simon, also making her first national TV appearance. Carly turned 26 in the summer of 1971, and she was already a showbiz veteran, having recorded two albums with her sister Lucy as the Simon Sisters, in 1964 and 1969. She came onstage in Central Park with the confidence of someone who knows she’s a star already and is going to be a bigger one, and she’s smokin’ hot besides. The broadcast featured “Anticipation,” which wouldn’t be a hit for six months, and “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” which was on the radio at the time. (If you watch the video, you’ll easily spot a couple of famous spectators at the show.)
Ike and Tina Turner took the stage next, although they followed the Beach Boys on the concert broadcast. They were shown doing “Good Lovin’,” their recent hit “Proud Mary,” and a version of “Higher and Higher.” Then it was time for the headliners. The Beach Boys’ part of the program opened with “Heroes and Villains.” Next, either because it was on the set list or the producers edited the show that way, came a decent-but-ultimately pointless version of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” sung by Mike Love. They had jammed on the song with the Grateful Dead earlier in the year, but it’s doubtful that people would have turned on a Beach Boys TV show at the height of summer to hear it. In fact, if you tuned in for the sun-splashed classics from the 60s, you didn’t hear many, just “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around.”
Good Vibrations in Central Park was one of the forerunners of the concert shows that proliferated on TV within the next couple of years, including Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special. It has never had a DVD release, as far as I can tell.
I am reading John Irving’s latest novel Avenue of Mysteries this week. At one point, two of the characters disagree over the meaning of a line from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
“Well, of course the future begins in childhood—where else would it begin?” Juan Diego asked the Iowan. “But I think it’s bullshit to say there is one moment when the door to the future opens. Why can’t there be many moments? And is Greene saying there’s only one door? He says the door, like there’s only one.”
I am on Team Juan Diego in this, although I’d offer the following twist: if you believe the passage of time should equal the growth of wisdom, all the time we have lived through on the way to this day is a kind of childhood, leading to the adult we can claim to be on this day. And if that’s true, that “childhood” can have many moments and doors.
One of my doors opened in the summer of 1986, and the future came in. In that summer I made a decision, and I have been living with the consequences of it ever since. It may have been inevitable, but whether it was or it wasn’t, my future was affected by it, from that summer to this one.
During the first eight years of my career, from 1978 to 1986, radio was it for me. There was simply nothing else, no Plan B. I wanted to be on the air (and later, to be a program director) more than I would ever want anything else, ever. I clocked my time at the station every day, but I when I wasn’t there, I thought about it constantly. After I became a program director in 1984, I listened all the time. I was on 24-hour call for emergencies, and that was exactly what I had always wanted to be.
By 1986, in addition to being the PD, I was doing mornings, which seemed like necessary career evolution. I didn’t have a plan for my career beyond that, however. I didn’t have the goal of being in Market A by the age of 28 and larger Market B by the age of 31 or anything like that. I naively assumed that in the fullness of time, my talent would take me up the market ladder. And although I didn’t know it, that lack of a plan was building a door for me.
But the decision that made the door open involved something else. Some morning DJs are in bed every night by 7:30, but I didn’t want to live like that. So I went to bed at 9:30 or so, got up at 4:15, and started napping for an hour in the afternoon, sometime around 3:00. That way, I could be functional and pleasant when The Mrs. got home from work, and we could have our evenings together. But I had trained my staff to call me if they had questions or problems, any time of the day or night, and several times in those first months of 1986, my nap was annihilated by the telephone. So in the summer, I started taking the phone off the hook. My desire to live a halfway-normal home life had become more important to me than dealing with radio emergencies.
We don’t always see the doors as they open, and it can take us a while before we understand the future that’s been let in. Only much later did I realize how important that phone-off-the-hook decision was, because it marked the end of my youthful obsession with radio.
There’s nothing wrong with that. We age, we change. You can’t stay 26 years old forever. But once I lost that youthful obsession, my career was never the same. I would spend seven more years working full-time in radio stations, but the drive I needed to propel me toward new opportunities diminished. I settled for jobs I could get instead of going after the ones I should have had. And eventually, disappointed by the course my career had taken, I decided I didn’t want to do radio anymore—something that would have completely flummoxed the guy with no Plan B.
In the years since, I have been a writer, mostly, also a teacher, and a radio guy as a sideline. That future was let in through a door I didn’t know I was opening, 30 years ago this summer.
(Pictured: Paul, Ringo, John, and George want you to read this post.)
You are an executive at EMI Records in early 1976. You have seen the resurgence of interest in the Beach Boys thanks to the Endless Summer and Spirit of America compilations during the previous two years; you notice the general mood of nostalgia, at least in America, thanks to the TV success of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley; you recognize that Paul McCartney is at the peak of his solo stardom. So a new Beatles compilation seems like a good idea to you, perhaps one focused on rock ‘n’ roll covers from their earliest days. Rock ‘n’ Roll Music will feature “Twist and Shout,” “Kansas City,” “Money,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” and “Roll Over Beethoven” among others. You will plaster the jacket with images that are more 50s than 60s, even though the Beatles themselves will be critical of the cover. So you won’t do anything to counter the urban legend that the album was released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of John and Paul’s first meeting . . . except that happened in 1957, not 1956.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Music is, then, mostly a celebration of the Beatles before the drugs took hold, although it doesn’t ignore that part of their career. The result is that the album ends by straying from the happy rockin’ vibe to darker places: “Helter Skelter,” with its Manson Family connections, “Taxman,” with its bitter indictment of Britain’s Inland Revenue, and “Revolution,” in which the lyrics say “no-no” but there’s “yes-yes” in the music, are a little too serious given what’s come before, but they’re well-cushioned by “Birthday,” “Get Back,” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Whatever its flaws (and when the music is this good, any flaws are minor), Rock ‘n’ Roll Music was a smash, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 in mid-July, kept out of the top spot by Wings at the Speed of Sound.
“Got to Get You Into My Life” was the single from Rock n’ Roll Music, backed with “Helter Skelter.” It first appeared on a survey at ARSA dated May 28, 1976. It hit the Hot 100 on June 12 at #54, and reached the Top 10 on July 3. It would hit #1 at WLS in Chicago on July 10 and spend three weeks at the top; it would reach its Hot 100 peak at #7 on July 24 and remain there for the weeks of July 31 and August 7, 1976.
In the spring of 1966, Brian Epstein had traveled to Memphis to investigate the possibility of the Beatles recording at Stax, which was at a creative peak. Revolver might have been made there, but when word of the possibility leaked out, it quickly became an impossibility. “Got to Get You Into My Life” is as close as we ever got. After trying the song with fuzztone guitar, Paul rounded up three trumpeters and two tenor saxophone players. Microphones were placed in the bells of the horns and recorded so that they’d hit hard without distortion. The horns were overdubbed at one point to reinforce them still further, and the result is a sound that positively jumped off the radio and remains unlike anything else in the Beatles’ catalog.
According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), “Helter Skelter” was originally scheduled to be the A-side. It’s doubtful that it would have had the same impact that “Got to Get You Into My Life” did, in a summer when many things old seemed new again. Especially considering how that nostalgic vibe was reinforced by another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” the Beach Boys’ recording of the same Chuck Berry song that gave the Beatles’ compilation its name. During the three weeks that “Got to Get You Into My Life” sat at #7 in Billboard, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” moved from #9 to #8 to #6, meaning that 40 years ago this week, the Beach Boys and the Beatles were back-to-back in the Top 10, together there for the first time since 1966.
As someone who came of radio-listening age just after the heyday of both groups, it was my only taste of how that heyday must have sounded in real time.
So the 50th anniversary of Revolver is the 40th anniversary of the return of the Beatles to the top of the charts, and the return to the radio of one of Revolver‘s tracks. Even though it was born 10 summers before, “Got to Get You Into My Life” ended up one of the most memorable songs of summer 1976.