When I Hear You on the Car Radio You’re Gonna Be a Sensation

(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”
5.  “Smokin'”
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.

4 responses

  1. I will always love that Tom Scholz recorded most of this album in his suburban basement — pulling the wool over the record company’s eyes as he did so (they wanted the work done in a “real studio.”)
    For such a “corporate” record, it has home-tinkerer roots … and as you say, Tom Scholz should not be punished if the sound he crafted later became a cliche.

    I don’t differ with your Boston rankings as much as I did your Some Girls rankings — except that “Foreplay/Long Time” would be my No. 2, and “Foreplay” would rank above “Long Time” if I had to split them in half.
    Dunno why — I just think it’s a great dramatic piece of music; lyrics would not improve it; and it gets out of the way before it really wears thin.

    First memory of the album: We were visiting family friends in Glens Falls, N.Y., whose sons were a few years older than my brother and I.
    The sons had left some LPs lying around the basement — one was Get The Knack and another was the first Boston album. I picked it up and looked at it and it shone with that invisible Cool Older Kid patina.

  2. It’s definitely true that Boston’s debut is the ultimate in corporate rock but it’s the finest corporate rock ever made. It’s also one of the greatest LPs ever put on vinyl in any genre of rock & proof that you don’t need to make art to produce a classic.

    1. I disagree with the idea that Boston isn’t art. I have argued here that the purpose of art is to show people things they wouldn’t see for themselves, or to give people a new way of looking at familiar things, and Boston certainly did that. There’s also an argument that one of the purposes of popular art is simply to entertain people, divert them, or take them out of themselves for a while to someplace else. Boston does that, too.

      /waves hello from 1976/

  3. I didn’t pay much attention to Boston when the first album came out, and I never really stopped to listen too closely to “More Than A Feeling” when it was getting airplay. I finally bought all three albums in the late 1980s/early 1990s (I could find specific dates if I had to) and played them at least once. So there was never any great interest there (which I regret a little). But you know what? When I’m in the car and “More Than A Feeling” comes on the radio, I know every dip and swoop and twist and swell of the damned track, just as if I’d listened as intently to it over the years as I have to “The Weight.” And that alone tells me how effing good a piece of work it is.

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