Boston Legal

Thirty years ago, Tom Scholz redefined feel-good rock ’n’ roll. The positive vibe did not extend to the members of his band, who’ve spent the decades since spinning more lawsuits than hits.

In the summer of 1976, the stink of Nixon hovered over the presidential contest between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The energy crisis dogged the U.S. economy, the CIA was embroiled in a wire tapping controversy, race riots flared in Southie, and Hurricane Belle thundered up the East Coast, dumping five inches of rain on New England and causing millions of dollars in damage. It was a long, fretful summer.

It was also the summer of Boston.

Thirty years ago next month, Boston the band released Boston the album and, briefly, Boston the city was up there with L.A. and New York in the rock-and-roll rankings. While the Hub has produced other chart-topping bands—Aerosmith, the J. Geils Band, the Cars—none roared onto the scene quite like Boston, whose first album went on to sell 17 million copies, making it the bestselling debut in rock history. Within weeks of its release, the refrain from the album’s biggest hit was everywhere, blaring from radios on Revere Beach, mangled by cover bands in Reno, paraphrased by construction workers in Des Moines:

More than a feeling
More than a feeling

Incredibly, until the release of Boston, the band had never played a note outside the Watertown basement of its leader Tom Scholz. It wasn’t even a band—just Scholz and singer Brad Delp, laboring for hundreds of hours to get Scholz’s artistic vision on tape. A lanky, 6-foot-6 MIT grad, Scholz never quite fit the rock star mold—he was too ungainly, too cerebral. While other rock-and-roll hopefuls strutted around looking photogenic, Scholz spent his time tinkering in his basement studio-laboratory. He invented an electronic device called a chorus pedal, which made his guitars sound like a symphony of six-strings. Aided by his gadgetry, he and Delp layered the singer’s voice until he sounded like a one-man angel choir. The arrangements—Boston’s big, glossy wall of sound—redefined the soft-rock genre.

“I remember how sonically advanced they were,” says Carter Alan, assistant program director for Boston classic-rock radio station WZLX, who had just arrived in the city when Boston came out. “The first thing I did when I moved into my Allston roach motel was set up my stereo. Those songs made my crappy little speakers sound incredible.”

There was another, deeper reason Boston resonated with listeners. While its sound may have been complex, the band’s message wasn’t. Boston’s joyful melodies and idealist lyrics were a bromide for the national hangover of Vietnam and Watergate. Not since the Beach Boys emerged from the tense days of the Cold War had a group so gleefully reignited the embers of the fading American Dream. The message Boston spread was: Smile.

Yet this feel-good vibe did not always extend to the people who played in the band. In fact, in the early years there seemed to be an inverse relationship between the joy Boston brought to its fans and the misery it caused its members. And with every sing-along, toe-tapping hit the band produced, that misery intensified.

FOR SCHOLZ, Boston was the American dream. When he and Delp recorded the songs for their first album—on funky equipment Scholz had stitched and bolted together—the guitarist was on the verge of going broke. He’d spent the past six years having his tapes snubbed by record labels. “I had enough money for one last demo,” he says. “I wouldn’t even say we were struggling. It was groveling.”

Whatever it was, it paid off: Three major labels expressed interest in the demo; Scholz eventually signed with a fourth, CBS Records. Still Scholz, an abidingly cautious person, refused to give up his day job. “I never thought this would be successful,” he says. “I had spent years recording and writing music for people who said it sucked.” Then, one day, a co-worker came running into Scholz’s office at Polaroid—where he worked as a senior engineer—and said that he had just heard one of Boston’s songs on the radio. “Suddenly,” Scholz says, “we were ’70s superstars.”

One of the more famous images of Boston at the time shows them on the wing of a chartered jet, the band’s logo emblazoned on the fuselage, their hair enormous and their eyes obscured by mirrored shades. Another photo has Scholz onstage, in full rock star mode, clad in a groin-hugging white jumpsuit and brandishing a Les Paul guitar above his head in triumph. The Boston brand was distinctive and lucrative—and trouble started the moment people began sparring for pieces of it. Boston’s breakthrough summer would be followed by a succession of bitter struggles for ownership of the band’s name.

Scholz, meanwhile, went about generating material in the way he always had—slowly, methodically, with a compulsive attention to detail—which didn’t please the executives at his record company, who placed more emphasis on volume than perfection. Before long, it seemed, everybody associated with the band was involved in a feud with somebody else. These weren’t your typical rock-and-roll battles—the squalid, operatic free-for-alls involving drugs and egos and sex and betrayal. The band’s implosion was less Behind the Music than Judge Judy—a series of squabbles that escalated, in time, into a catalog of costly lawsuits.

THE DRAMA STARTED during the making of Don’t Look Back, the second LP in a multi-album deal Boston had signed with CBS. Six months into recording, CBS lost patience with Scholz’s pace, demanding that he hand over the master tapes—which Scholz says his manager Paul Ahern eventually did—despite his insistence that the album wasn’t ready. When the LP was issued, in August 1978, Scholz received bitter vindication: Don’t Look Back sold half of the 8 million copies Boston scored right after its release.

As work began on the third album, in 1980, the tension between Scholz and the record company intensified. Again, the meticulous musician wasn’t making records as quickly as CBS would have liked. So when word got out that he’d agreed to produce an album for Sammy Hagar, the label intervened, ordering Scholz to finish Boston’s third album first.

Legally, CBS seemed to have Scholz dead to rights. The deal between him and the company—signed by his manager Ahern—stipulated that CBS was entitled to two albums every nine months for five years. All the same, Scholz stubbornly vowed to take his time on album number three, which didn’t sit well with CBS president Walter Yetnikoff, a high-octane megalomaniac once described by a competitor as “Dennis the Menace as Attila the Hun.” CBS began withholding royalties from the first two Boston albums. In 1983, Yetnikoff filed a $20 million breach of contract suit against the guitarist.

While Scholz allows that he’s not the most prolific musician in the world, he’s since framed this conflict as a David versus Goliath morality tale. “I was the goose that laid the golden eggs, and in 1981 they were not coming fast enough,” he wrote in a 2002 open letter on the fan site “Finally… the decision was apparently made to kill the goose.”

This tone continues throughout. Clearly, Scholz felt screwed over not only by CBS but also by his bandmates—specifically those who joined Boston after he and Delp recorded the demo for the first album and who, according to Scholz, shared credit and royalties for tracks they played little part in making. “Hopeful that this generous arrangement would eliminate envy within the ranks,” he wrote, “I was soon to learn some bitter lessons about human nature.”

According to Scholz, bassist Fran Sheehan and drummer Sib Hashian, two of the “Johnnies-come-lately” he so disdained, sided with CBS in a bid to force him out of the band. “Presumably,” he wrote on, “they would get to pick the spoils after the kill and capitalize on the name Boston without me. The apparent zeal with which they testified to help CBS end my career, knowing that I had found them struggling in North Shore bars and handed them this opportunity, was devastating.”

After much bickering and maneuvering, Sheehan and Hashian went on to file a suit in the late ’80s, claiming they owned 20 percent of the Boston brand. Scholz was livid. As he says now, “These guys came out of nowhere and got taught how to play the songs and they’re filthy rich and now they’re suing?” Eventually, Scholz settled out of court with his ex-bandmates, who are no longer involved in the music business.

At around the same time Scholz was fighting what he saw as Sheehan and Hashian’s plot to hijack Boston, he also had a dispute with guitarist Barry Goudreau—who, in 1980, either left the band or was forced out, depending on whom you ask. Either way, Goudreau’s departure was a blow for Scholz. The two had attended Led Zeppelin concerts together. Once, when he was between apartments, Goudreau slept in Scholz’s dining room for six weeks. They were buddies.

As with many subplots of the Boston melodrama, the details of this one are murky. The contretemps began after Goudreau released a self-titled solo album. Goudreau says Scholz had originally okayed his album but then, when CBS marketed it as a Boston spinoff, aggressively lobbied the label to get it pulled. Scholz says Yetnikoff told him CBS gave up on the disc when it failed to catch fire. Inevitably, litigation followed.

“After about six months, I hadn’t heard from Tom and he wasn’t returning my phone calls so in order to get things sorted out, I brought a lawsuit against him,” says Goudreau, who continues to pursue a relatively low-key musical career. “Looking back, with 20/20 hindsight, I would probably have done things differently. The group was not only my career, it contained my best friends as well.”

For his part, Scholz seems to genuinely miss Goudreau, with whom he recently established contact for the first time in roughly 20 years. The legal tussle between the two, he says, stemmed from the fact that “I didn’t really want him to go.”

SITTING IN HIS Waltham rehearsal studio, surrounded by banks of the equipment he built, Scholz seems a far cry from the man in the mirrored shades photographed on the wing of Boston’s branded jet. The white jumpsuits are gone. His hair, while still long, lacks the feathery bounce it had in 1976. A vegetarian, he leads what he calls a “drug-free, natural lifestyle.” He seems like a straight-up guy, more so when he talks of the time-consuming meticulousness that so upset his record company.

“There’s something in me that drives me to perfection,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why I’m like that. It can hold things up.” This bout of introspection fails to impress a disgruntled former colleague. “Paranoia,” he says. “Tom’s afraid people are trying to take advantage of him financially and in other ways.” For his part, Scholz insists he simply refused to be bullied and manipulated by music execs—the “cunning and ruthless” people who care more about money than art.

Even as a boy, Scholz harbored a mistrust of men who wield wealth and power. He’d spent most of his childhood in a blue-collar Toledo neighborhood, until his father hit it big in prefab homes. Then the Scholzes moved into the world of prep schools and private golf clubs. “Living in those surroundings,” he says, “I realized I had a strong dislike of businessmen. After getting to know some of them, they seemed to have a lack of compassion and were so disingenuous that I developed a dislike of business. It just brings a trembling sneer to my lips.”

His experiences with Boston can’t have done much to improve Scholz’s opinion of businessmen. The pressures piled on him by his record company during nearly a decade of litigation played havoc with his nerves and his finances. By withholding royalties during the protracted legal battle, CBS’s Yetnikoff had tried to wear his opponent down. But Scholz—who has implied that Yetnikoff’s beef with him was “personal”—proved to be a scrappy opponent, and a resourceful one.

Scholz has always been a tinkerer. At Polaroid he devised a recording module for cameras. For Boston, he built the device to expand the tonal characteristics of his guitars. His geeky streak paid off when he founded Scholz Research & Development to market some of his sonic gadgets. The most lucrative of these was the Rockman, a portable amplifier that packed the Boston guitar sound into a Walkman-sized box. Musicians bought tens of thousands of them, helping Scholz pay legal bills in the war with CBS that totaled more than $1.7 million.

In 1990, Scholz finally trumped CBS when the breach of contract suit Yetnikoff had brought against him was settled in Scholz’s favor. “Goliath lost in a surprising upset,” he crowed on, “and all who placed their money on the giant lost.” But by then he’d already had the ultimate revenge: a big-dollar bonanza with the album Third Stage—released in 1986 by his new record company, MCA.

As he’d vowed, Scholz took his time making Boston’s third album—more than five years—but once released it soared to number one and stayed there for four weeks. The single “Amanda” gave the band its first chart-topping hit. Third Stage rapidly joined Boston in the annals of record-sales history, becoming the first compact disc to go gold and eventually selling 4 million copies.

THREE DECADES AFTER their debut album was released, it seems absurd to describe Boston as musical innovators. Punk, grunge, hip-hop, and a slew of other styles have come and gone. Next to the music of, say, Radiohead, the big guitar sound Scholz pioneered sounds kind of hokey. The band’s last CD, 2002’s Corporate America—released eight years after its previous album—sold only 138,000 copies.

But one thing has remained constant: the antagonism between Scholz and CBS Records, now owned by Sony. In March, Scholz learned that Sony had remastered Boston and Don’t Look Back, adding live tracks from a 1977 radio broadcast, with an eye to re-releasing them. “The albums’ sound was horrible,” he says. “The live tracks sounded horrendous.”

So Scholz made a deal with Sony: He would digitally remaster the original tapes himself, and the record company would remove the live tracks before they were re-released. Nonetheless, a few weeks after we first spoke, Scholz got in touch by e-mail and then phone saying Sony had reneged on their deal and put out “the abortions that they call their reissues of Don’t Look Back and Boston.” A veteran Sony insider, meanwhile, downplays the incident, describing it as the result of “some miscommunication.”

Scholz isn’t buying that explanation. “How ironic that the thing most people associate CBS and Boston together with is a huge lawsuit that dragged on for years when they were trying to break me,” he says. “What a fitting way to celebrate the 30th anniversary. Let’s start the hostilities up again!”