Holy crap, we’ve almost reached the top 10. Though because the rankings of the top 50 best-selling albums in the U.S. has shifted since I started doing this countdown, the math has worked out that less than 39 albums have been written about. To remedy this, I’ll start doing some bonus entries to make sure I round this out to an even 50. I know, that may sound insane to give myself more work for a project that’s taken me years to finish, but we gotta do this right.
Release Date: August 25, 1976
Copies Sold In U.S.: 17 million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Wants To Fulfill Their Rock and Roll Fantasies
Like most people to discover this album in the past 30 years, I became acquainted with this album through classic rock radio. For all the questionable artists that are mainstays of classic rock radio, I am still thankful for Seattle’s KZOK for introducing me as a teenager to plenty of artists I still love, even if I did have to outgrow the constraints of classic rock at a certain point. Boston’s debut album, while not being held in nearly as high of regard as some of the other great rock radio albums, is still one of the more ubiquitous album’s in this genre. Yet what’s strange to me is that unlike the other great arena rock albums that have continued to be mainstays of classic rock radio (I’m thinking Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin IV, Dark Side of The Moon), this album came from an underdog, not an already stadium-sized band reaching for something even grander.
I know that all seems a little hard to fathom, considering this album is such an established relic of an era of music that we associate with bloat and pomposity, but it was actually the product of a struggling musician making sounds in his basement. The musician being Tom Scholz, an MIT graduate who spent his 20s playing in a series of bands in Boston that never seemed to go anywhere. Scholz, being a natural techy, started building his own recording studio in his basement and tinkering around with different sounds, the likes of which he hoped to build into “the perfect rock band”, with crystal-clear vocals and piercingly melodic guitars.
To achieve this, he enlisted singer Brad Delp, who like Scholz was working a day job while playing in rock bands around Beantown. The two of them very nearly gave up on music careers as the demos they’d recorded in Scholz’s basement were rejected by most of the major record labels at the time. However, after catching the attention of one such New England representative for ABC records, the band was eventually signed to CBS records. The label also (wisely) insisted that the band change their name from Mother’s Milk to Boston.
The label wanted to fly the barely-assembled band out to L.A. to record the album with a professional engineer and producer, but Scholz was unimpressed with their recording techniques and preferred that the album be recorded in his home studio. There were union rules that most major labels had in place at the time that prevented artists from recording at non-professional studios, but Scholz worked out an operation with CBS where he basically tricked them into thinking the band was recording in L.A. Meanwhile, the more veteran producer John Boylan worked alongside Scholz to recreate the sounds of his demos while also giving it a bit more of the sheen of a professional recording.
The fact that this album was created in a dingy basement by some crazed perfectionist guitarist also makes it all the more strange that this is such an iconic product of the arena rock era. You would think that this type of album would come from a road-tested band that would come together as a cohesive unit while playing live, and then translate this to wax. Instead, you’ve got a band that was basically composed of two dudes (with the last-minute addition of drummer Sib Hashian) that were living out the sonic fantasies of a big-time rock band (not unlike the song “Rock and Roll Band”) and somehow managed to fulfill those fantasies.
Though in Scholz’s drive to create the perfect arena rock album, you have the album’s broad appeal. It’s notable that this is the 2nd best-selling debut album by a rock band next to Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, and I think both albums are similar in a way. They’re both albums that came at the tail end of an era in rock music defined by excess, but streamlined it into its most potent version of itself.
Of course, GNR had a lot more edge to them, while I think a lot of the appeal of Boston is that they took the big, boisterous guitar-driven sounds of arena rock and paired it with the slickness of AM radio, which made for something that appealed to pop fans and meat-headed rockers alike. When you step back and think about it, it’s a little surprising that radio as a format has lasted as long as it has, while it’s also equally surprising that an album that’s such a product of the ‘70s has lasted as long as it has. But because the two are so inextricably linked, and because this album sounds so good coming out of radio speakers, it’s lasted far longer than I think anybody expected.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
Unfortunately, I think Boston’s embrace of slickness and its marriage with classic rock radio ubiquity has hurt the album’s standing as a classic, even if it was declared a classic by this illustrious blog long ago. I would say that music nerds tend to have some degree of begrudging respect for the more iconic albums of the arena rock era, but not as much Boston. I think some of that has to do with how overplayed nearly every song on this album is (save for “Something About You” and “Take You Home Tonight”), while there aren’t really any deep cuts on the album that stray from “the Boston formula”. Also, I would say that unlike a lot of the dinosaur bands of the era, none of these songs take themselves that seriously, as the lyrical content was clearly not the first thing on Tom Scholz’s mind.
However, what was on Scholz’s mind when crafting this album still sounds pretty great. By 1976, the immaculately produced sounds of disco had started to take hold of the mainstream, and here you have an album that has that same kind of veneer applied to a guitar-driven rock record. Much like disco infused funk and R&B with more soaring melodies, Boston’s debut does the same for rock music. Scholz had a background in classical music, and the way he juxtaposes his electric guitar leads with acoustic guitars doesn’t feel so far off from the way disco used orchestral sounds to make pop records feel more musically sophisticated. Then when you layer Brad Delp’s lovely vocals on top of Scholz’s guitar pyrotechnics, you’ve got something that sounds like more than a rock record.
Speaking of, I mentioned that most of the songs on this album have become classic rock staples, but there’s one that stands among ‘70s rock’s most enduring anthems — “More Than A Feeling”. Whether or not this was the earliest song to be written that appears on the album, it feels like Boston’s mission statement, as it weaves together all of the band’s signature musical touches combined with a lovelorn yearning that still seems to resonate with people. Also, its main guitar riff was universal enough to influence another all-time rock anthem, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (I know, I couldn’t resist going another People’s Album without bringing up Nirvana’s Nevermind). Then when you follow it up with “Peace of Mind”, you’ve just got a great cornball one-two punch that makes the rest of the album hard to resist.
Would I Spend Money On This?
This is a tough one, because I have paid money for this album, but I’m not sure if I still would. I bought a copy of Boston’s debut on CD in junior high after becoming enamored by many of its tracks being in constant rotation on KZOK. My mom later picked up a copy of it on vinyl for me at a garage sale, so I guess I didn’t have to pay money for that copy. (The one thing that sticks out to me about the vinyl copy was that it had two copies of the vinyl wedged in its sleeve, one of which had clearly been worn out so much by the previous owner that they needed to buy a second copy.)
Though if I’m being honest, if I saw this album at a record store for any price, I would probably not feel the need to buy it. As I mentioned earlier, these songs could be easily found on any classic rock station within earshot even if they haven’t already been burned into your brain like they have mine. So owning my own copy of the album feels a bit redundant. I think my verdict also speaks for itself when I’m pretty sure I sold that CD copy of Boston in the course of a recent move and who knows where that vinyl copy is. Regardless, even though I’ve relieved myself of this album, it still feels like I’ll never quite escape it.
Next Time On The People’s Albums: Like I said, before we start on the top ten, I’ll be playing catch-up with albums that should’ve been in the countdown that I missed. So next time, you’ll know you’ve got a friend since it won’t be too late to talk about Carole King’s Tapestry.