The story of how Boston became overnight million-selling US rock sensations is surely one of the greatest examples of dedication, vision and dogged determination that the history of rock ’n’ roll has to offer. For around five years prior to the ‘band’ breaking it big, Polaroid senior product designer Tom Scholz put absolutely everything he and his family had into making what he believed would be some of the best US rock music ever committed to tape.
His high-flying job provided the funds to build a well-equipped recording studio in his basement and it was there that he tinkered away, layering the sounds, writing the riffs and perfecting the song structures that would all come to define the hugely successful ‘Boston sound’.
While Tom played every instrument on his original demos, the late Brad Delp – a vocalist with extraordinary range and vocal ability – provided the soaring high notes and multi-layered harmonies. More Than A Feeling was the lead single from Boston’s eponymous debut album, which has sold over 17 million copies and remains the second biggest-selling debut album in US music history. After years of sending out demo tapes to record companies with zero success, it was the inclusion of More Than A Feeling on one final cassette mail-out that helped score the guys a deal with Epic.
“I had enough money for one last demo and sent it off to 24 companies, then figured I’d sit back and wait for the rejection letters,” Tom told Gibson.com’s Ted Drozdowski in 2008. “Lo and behold, three major labels were interested. I couldn’t believe it! Nobody knew who we were, so I wouldn’t even say we were struggling. It was grovelling.”
“Epic flat out rejected it and sent me an insulting letter!” Scholz told Maximum Guitar’s Andy Aledort, regarding an earlier demo. “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.”
Scholz spent five years working on More Than A Feeling in his basement. The initial theme was inspired by both personal experience and by US mid-60s strings-heavy pop act The Left Banke. “It started with a love affair I had when I was in school, so the song is written about something I went through myself,” Tom told Aledort. “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 Renée by The Left Banke.”
When Boston (effectively just Scholz and Delp) did sign to Epic, the label demanded that they re-record all the elaborate demos that had secured them the contract in the first place. Scholz duly did re-record the songs but not in a major studio. He simply returned to his basement and the group’s assigned producer John Boylan, agreed to acquiesce.
“[Epic] thought it was being re-recorded by a real producer in a studio somewhere,” Scholz told Jeb Wright of classicrockrevisited.com. “The only difference is that Sib Hashian played the drum tracks on those versions. I did the exact same thing. I went back to work and I played all of the parts myself. When you hear More Than A Feeling, that’s a couple of weeks of me relaying the guitar tracks down just the way I did on the demos. Brad did the same thing with the vocals. It was done entirely just like the original but the record company didn’t know it."
“There was another producer named John Boylan. I have to give John enormous credit because I told him that the only way I was going to do this was if I could do it in my basement. I told him I was not going to LA and do it in some studio because I knew it wouldn’t work. He was the chosen producer and he didn’t want to lose the deal. He told me to record it in my basement and then bring it to LA [to] mix it.”
On the final version of More Than A Feeling, Scholz played all the multi-layered acoustic and electric guitar parts, as well as all the bass lines. His guitar of choice was a ’68 Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pickups, while the acoustic was a $100 Yamaha 12-string. Amp-wise, he utilised an Ampeg V4, an old 100-watt Marshall head and one of his own prototype Power Soak power attenuator units [Scholz went on to design and build the Rockman range of amplifiers].
Boston have now sold over 30 million albums and their biggest song, More Than A Feeling, still gets regular radio play across the world. Full marks have to go to Scholz’s dogged persistence and belief in the music he was building. While it cannot be said that the Boston sound’ is unconventional, the backstory certainly is.
“I think it’s very hard for people to get their head around the idea that this ‘band’ was actually some guys overdubbing in a basement,” Tom told Jeb Wright. “They like to think that a band plays together and hangs out and writes songs and gets a contract and goes into the studio and then they jam out in the studio and an album comes out of that. This wasn’t like that at all. It was many, many years of long nights playing along with a tape deck!”