I’m cheating a bit on this random release. How so? Well, I’ll tell you -- I said one CD picked at random from each shelf of my CD case. This entry should have been Tim Buckley’s debut album. And while that’s a good one to be sure, I felt drawn towards one of its shelf-mates (and since it was a shelf-mate my OCD allowed it). This is a band that folks tend to love or hate, think rock out or fizzle out, bring the noise or just bring the cheese. You may think I mean Chicago, but head a few clicks further east…that’s right, I’m talking about Boston and their sophomore effort Don’t Look Back from 1978.
I go way back with Boston. Not as far back as their 76 debut, but as far back as their third one (Third Stage), which came a full ten years after that iconic, eponymous self-titled juggernaut (oh yes, I did call it that). Don’t Look Back was probably the last of the three I heard, but pound for pound, note for note, song for song (or at least certain songs), it’s the one that sticks with me the most when I’m in a Boston mood (though I’ll likely pick up the debut on a car ride ‘cos it’s the one Karla is most familiar with). Still, I can’t listen to any of these three albums without being taken back to a “simpler” though not always an “easier” time. I mean life can be rather traumatic for a geeky kid in love with music, discovering girls and developing a chip on his shoulder, right? But enough about seventh grade angst…this here is about the music!
Many critics and fans agree that Boston’s debut (the highest selling debut of all time I believe) is chock full of classic radio staples from beginning to end, yet few seem to acknowledge (that is realize) that Don’t Look Back is really just one or two pegs below the astounding merits of its predecessor and may be (gasp) even a bit better (though I’ll likely chalk that up to a tad bit of overplay from a few of the debut’s key tracks).
Boston had a formula. And when I say “Boston” I mean Tom Sholz, the Corgan-esque songwriter/guitarist/inventor/entrepreneur who is the pen, the brain, the drive and the heart & soul of Boston. A perfectionist in every way (I’ve read somewhere that it took him five YEARS to write More Than a Feeling), he considered the two years between the debut and the production/release of Don’t Look Back to be a rush job. And perhaps it was, though as a long time and avid listener of this album I can’t find thing one that seems to be done on the fly. If anything it’s even more meticulous and calculated than the debut, with riffs and runs and leads and pick slides sequestered, sequenced and stylized throughout these eight songs for a maximum anthem rock action experience. Not a thing here is out of place: there’s not a note that isn’t necessary, a fill that isn’t vital, a bass run that doesn’t compliment the flow of the song and the vocals…well, it is Bred Delp after all (Sholz’s secret ingredient), so they’re spot on and pitch perfect, layered to enhance the chorus of most every song so that when you’re singing along, you feel like part of the band (or at least a prominent background singer).
My old friend K-Stanley used to say that Don’t Look Back the song was their best despite the brilliance of those on the debut, and I think he might nearly be right. In a word, this song is epic. That opening riff is so recognizable, so memorable, so get-to-your-feet-raise-your-hands-and-scream catchy that I almost can’t believe the rock gods allowed it down to earth, and I just have to think that Sholz is a 20th century Prometheus bringing fire to man. And with the sweet harmonies of the sorely missed Delp lifting our spirits with lyrics about heading out for new horizons and not worrying about the past, Don’t Look Back the album could almost be one of those collections of songs where the lead track is so enormous that the rest of the album can’t hold up to the glory in spite of its worth.
Thankfully this is not the case.
Sholz knew he had a good thing with the title track and instead of blasting us with another blistering anthem, he takes us totally and literally off world, floating along aimlessly to the organ-oozing, guitar-humming bliss of The Journey before again pressing the ignition switch and kicking into the next rocker -- the equally uplifting, free-wheelin’, “takin’ it day by day” It’s Easy. This song features one of my all time favorite pre-chorus bridges both musically and lyrically -- “Cos when I get close to you, there’s not much to say…” -- which in every way embodies the spirit of falling in love to the rock n roll soundtrack, especially for a 13 year old with rock star aspirations of his own.
But Sholz isn’t all high kicks and good times. He’s got a quiet almost angry introspective side and he never expressed it better than in the finest of power ballads (and probably my favorite track on the album), A Man I’ll Never Be. I can remember being in ninth grade and bringing this record to 1st period English class to play this song as part of some sort of “show and tell” we had going on. Nobody got it as somehow Whitesnake was still king and heart wrenching “what good am I” tearjerkers from 15 years previous were way not cool. So be it.
But Tom doesn’t stay down for long. Side two (for those of us tuning in on vinyl) starts off with the rousing Feelin’ Satisfied, a shout out of rock n roll to rock n roll and for those who love it. And here is where the album really begins to feel formulaic, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feelin' Satisfied is the follow up to the debut’s Rock n Roll Band, and likewise the Delp co-penned Party is the companion piece for Smokin’ in the ambling notion of looking for a non-stop get down (get down and party) and simply enjoying life to the fullest.
Unfortunately it’s not all highlights. If ever this album does lag (and I’m not saying it does), it’s on Used to Bad News, written by Delp and really the only “clunker” in the bunch simply because it’s a touch pedestrian with it’s world weary sentimentality (and yet perhaps poignant in Delp’s rather recent death-by-suicide). I almost feel as if Tom was just throwing his buddy a bone here, tacking it on near the end of the album and being done with it. And it’s a shame to have any “filler” here ‘cos per bootlegs from 76-77, the band had two or three unrecorded songs on par with second tier tracks from either this or the debut album. By the sad standards of most arena rock at the time, anyone would have been proud to claim these lost gems as their own, so it’s anyone’s guess and all part of the myth and mystery of rock n roll as to why groovers like Shattered Images (later named Help Me) and Television Politician never made the cut (especially since two tracks from this album were played back in those days).
But thankfully the album doesn’t end here, and the closer Don’t Be Afraid -- a Twitter song of the day a week or so ago and the cousin of the debut’s Something About You -- rocks us into the sunset and after party with a noodling riff and punchy one-two chorus that has you singing out loud long after the house lights have gone on and the cleaning crew are waiting for you to vacate.
Lawsuits, solo projects and business dealings would hamper the production of the next (and for me last mentionable) Boston album (minus the entire band besides Sholz and Delp). Sholz got to take his time with Third Stage, and while the results were stellar, they were perhaps subpar when considering the two-for-one rock fest of the self-titled and Don’t Look Back. You can’t really speculate what could have been with these guys ‘cos they solidified themselves as rock legends from the beginning and it was always up in the air as to what they would do next and when -- if anything ever again. But they gave us three albums of heartfelt and powerful rock, with the underrated classic being the deuce, Don’t Look Back.
Don’t Look Back seems an album for the summer (and I think I’ll be listening to it a lot here in 09's sizzle); sitting easy, hanging back, enjoying the days but also staying mindful that you’ve got to earn where you’re at from time to time. A watered down copy of the debut or the next step ahead, it’s truly up to the listener (not the critic) to decide. I have to say that aside from the title track, Don’t Look Back on its own won’t likely garner any new fans to the Boston ranks (gotta leave it to More Than a Feeling, Peace of Mind, Long Time and (ah, the dreamy) Hitch a Ride for that sort of action), but for those who know and love the debut, it will at least give them more of the good stuff and prove that Boston wasn't just a one trick pony and could turn out at least a pair (or in my opinion a trio) of front to back LPs worth spinning again and again.