Wednesday, January 21, 2015

TMFW 72 - The Basement Recording That Sold 25 Million Copies

[NOTE: This week's TMFW is admittedly a bit dry, but I love the album and think it's a cool story.] 
"Rock and Roll Band," the 4th track from Boston's all-time great debut album, tells in detail the story of the group's rise from scrappy working band to Big Label act.  In the first verse, they are "just another band out of Boston / on the road to try to make ends meet / playing all the bars, sleeping in [their] cars, and [practicing] right out in the street."  In the second, they are playing in Hyannis, refining their act, and enjoying larger and more enthusiastic crowds.  Finally, by the third verse they are approached on stage by a man who "smoked a big cigar [and] drove a Cadillac car."  He praises their act, signs them to the Big Label, and off they go.  All of their hard work - all of the blood, sweat, and tears - pays off in the end.
The song is catchy, and as a former garage band member who dreamed of stardom I am fond of the storytelling.  As it turns out, though, the song bears no resemblance whatsoever to Boston's actual history.  It is almost a complete fiction. 
Boston's real story starts with Tom Scholz, who was born in Toledo, Ohio and raised in a suburb of that city (yes, Toledo has suburbs.)  After high school, Scholz went to MIT, where in 1969 he earned an undergrad degree and in 1970 he earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering.  While at MIT, Scholz played in a band called "Freehold," but the group was by all accounts unremarkable.
Being a double MIT grad, Scholz was obviously a smart dude, and he went to work after college as a product designer with Polaroid.  While there, Scholz still wanted to make music, and he used much of his take-home pay to build out a home recording studio in his basement.  After an initial set of demos (made with the musicians that comprised Freehold) failed to gain any interest, Scholz continued to work on recording music but he did it mostly alone. 
By 1975, Scholz had created a new batch of demos.  With the exceptions of drums and vocals, he did everything himself.  He played all of the other instruments (lead and rhythm guitars, keyboards, bass) himself; he mixed and overdubbed and layered the tracks himself; he even designed and built some of the pedals and electronics that he needed to get the sound that he desired. It's fair to say that, in that second round of demos, there was no "band" to speak of behind the songs.  It was Scholz, with targeted help from a drummer and a vocalist.  (A supremely talented vocalist in Brad Delp, but still.)
The new round of demos included "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind," and "Hitch a Ride."  Those songs got the attention of Epic Records, who wanted to sign the band but wanted to see a live performance first.  Uh-oh.  Faced with his Big Break but without any musicians to play his songs, Scholz teamed up with Delp and they (like Dave Grohl in TMFW 50) set out to find a group of musicians who could play the songs that they had already recorded.  The newly-assembled group learned the "band's" songs and for their first ever show together they played the Epic Records audition.  Remarkably, they passed the audition and signed a record deal.
That whole saga is a pretty cool True Music Fact: Boston was born from one MIT-grad genius making demos in his basement, and he had to put together an actual band when the songs were discovered.  But what inspired today's entry was what came next. 
After signing their record deal, the label insisted that the band should re-record the demos in California with a professional producer.  But Scholz was a perfectionist when it came to his recordings - the demos had taken more than a year for him to make - and he bristled at the idea of ceding control to someone else.  The solution that the band found was an elegant ruse.  While Scholz and his drummer stayed on the east coast and recorded in his basement, the rest of the band went to California and hung out with a producer named John Boylan.  Boylan was a friend of the band's new management, and he recognized Scholz's technical skill. So he agreed to stay out of the way and acted mostly as a sounding board and a record-company liaison.  In exchange, Scholz agreed to share producing credit with him on the final product.  (The band did record one song with Boylan in California that made it on to the album: "Let Me Take You Home Tonight." It appeared as the final track.)  
Working at home day and night, Scholz essentially cloned his demos, and after only a few weeks he was ready to join the band in California, where Delp would add his vocals and they would deliver the album to the label.  Recognizing that the ruse would be in jeopardy if he brought his basement tapes to the professional studio, Scholz needed to find a way to make the tapes appear more fancy than they were.  So he hired a remote truck (essentially a studio-on-wheels) to park outside of his house, he ran a cable through the basement window from his tape machine out to the truck, and he transferred his basement tapes to professional 24-track studio tapes.  Those tapes became the final record.
So that's your true True Music Fact for today: but for vocals and the final track on the album, the large majority of Boston's first "studio" record was done in in a do-it-yourself basement studio.  The recording was simply dressed up in prettier clothes to satisfy the label that it had been "professionally" done.  
When Boston was released, it was an instant worldwide hit.  The record spent 132 weeks on the charts, and it has sold 17 million copies in the US and another 8 million worldwide  For more than a decade, it held the title of "best-selling debut album," until it was eclipsed in 1989 by Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction.  The record has held up remarkably well; all 8 tracks are still classic rock radio mainstays. 

BONUS FACT:  In addition to recognizing Scholz's technical talent and letting him stay in the basement, John Boylan gave a big gift to the band by suggesting "Boston" as the group's name.  Though Scholz was from Toledo, and though the band worried that Boston may be too derivative in light of the success of the band Chicago, they went with it.  It's hard to imagine them differently.

BONUS FACT 2:  Not knowing how the record would be received by the public, Scholz briefly kept his day job at Polaroid even after Boston was released by Epic.  By his own admission, the song "Peace of Mind" (with anti-corporate verses and a blunt refrain: "I understand about indecision / but I don't care if I get behind / people living in competition / all I want is to have my peace of mind") was about his experience working there.  When the album hit, it was no doubt some awkward times around the office.

BONUS FACT 3:  As noted above, Scholz was a perfectionist when it came to recording.  Here's a fun 1978 Rolling Stone article by Cameron Crowe that highlights the two-year process of making the band's second record.  (That's a pretty standard timeframe these days but back then it was a looooong time, especially given the giant success of the debut record.)

BONUS FACT 4: A throwaway plot on one episode of TMFW-favorite Scrubs features Dr. Turk joining an air band called The Cool Cats with Ted, Janitor, and Lloyd the delivery guy.  Their big finale is a performance of "More Than a Feeling."
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Details for today's entry were largely drawn from these two posts - an article from Goldmine magazine by Chuck Miller and the band's history page on their website.  Both are good reads if you are interested in learning more.  The Chuck Miller article in particular features a number of quotes from the band and is written with great respect for the production aspects of the record. 

No comments:

Post a Comment