I was going to do this anyway.
Last week, I had just barely heard about the death of Brad Delp, lead singer of Boston, before finishing and posting my column. I wrote a perfunctory farewell nestled at the end of last week’s missive, but it felt rushed, and I knew I wanted to do more.
Like I said, I was going to do this anyway, but then the news broke that Delp’s death had been a suicide. Apparently, the man had set up a pair of charcoal grills in his house, and killed himself with their fumes. He left a series of notes, calling himself a “lonely soul” and saying he had “lost his desire to live.” And the same conflicted mess of feelings I get whenever someone commits suicide washed over me, mostly anger and sadness in equal measure.
So now it’s become even more important to me to do this, to celebrate Delp’s work and its impact on me as a young man. Longtime readers will know that I was a teenage metalhead, with long-ish hair and a deep respect for the ouvre of Megadeth. But what you may not know is that one of the first real pop albums I heard and fell in love with was Boston’s 1986 opus, Third Stage.
Boston gets a lot of shit. They’re slammed routinely as a corporate rock band, purveyors of a certain slick sound that infected AOR radio in the wake of their hit songs. I said this last week, but seriously – there never was a less corporate rock band than Boston, and the stack of lawsuits filed by pissed-off record company execs should prove it. In their heyday, they wrote glossy rock songs and ballads with soaring choruses, but they didn’t do it in that Night Ranger way. Tom Scholz and Brad Delp were artists, crafting a signature sound, and it’s not their fault that a hundred godawful bands copied that sound.
Boston seemed to be well on their way to a successful mainstream rock career in 1978. Their second album, Don’t Look Back, was another smash, including such soon-to-be radio staples as “Feelin’ Satisfied” and “It’s Easy.” These joined the mega-hits from their self-titled 1976 debut, including the great “Long Time” (preceded, always, by the dazzling organ instrumental “Foreplay”), “Peace of Mind” and the seemingly ubiquitous “More Than a Feeling.” These are songs that end up on every one of those Sounds of the ‘70s collections, and it’s easy to forget that the first two Boston discs are really great little records.
Naturally, the record company (Epic) was hoping that Boston would follow the same formula of success that most of their artists had – make a new record every two years, one that sounds just like the first two, and tour the hell out of them, raking in the cash. Instead, Tom Scholz and Brad Delp locked themselves in their home studio for six years, crafting Third Stage.
Six years. Seriously. And they worked on it the whole time, and you can tell.
I was 12 in 1986, although I didn’t hear Third Stage until a couple of years later. But when I did, it struck me as heartfelt and beautiful – I didn’t know a rock ‘n’ roll cliché back then even when it was staring me in the face, and Third Stage is full of them, but the music and Brad Delp’s vocal delivery are all feeling. Some accuse Boston of over-cooking their music, processing out all the emotion, but those people obviously have never heard Third Stage as a wide-eyed 14-year-old.
The story behind the album certainly appealed to my nerdy nature. Third Stage was recorded between 1980 and 1985, but the band used vintage equipment – 1970s guitars, amplifiers and microphones, and no synthesizers. To get the sound he wanted, Scholz invented a device called a Rockman, a precursor to the more modern effects pedals, which could make his guitar sound like ringing chimes, violins and thunderstorms.
The fact that Third Stage is a concept album also appealed to teenage me. Granted, it’s not a complex novel of staggering proportions, but it does have a narrative thread. It uses space travel as a metaphor for the beginnings and endings of relationships (the “third stage” of those old Apollo flights was “separation”), and strings together a suite of songs on the second side about learning to take responsibility for yourself before you can love someone else. Sure, it’s not The Wall or anything, but it is unquestionably a cohesive, story-driven album, meant to be heard start to finish.
After hearing of Delp’s death last week, I pulled Third Stage out and listened to it again, for the first time in years. I came away with two impressions. First, this album desperately needs remastering – the 1980s CD quality is poor when compared with anything coming out now, and especially when compared with the new versions of the first two Boston albums, released last year.
Second, this is an amazing album. Start to finish, top to bottom, one of the finest pop-rock records ever made.
I may not be the most objective source for a statement like that. I know every note and every word by heart, of course, but it surprised even me how easily I slipped back into 14-year-old me while listening to Third Stage. There’s just something unidentifiable about the sound – the guitar tones, the incredible vocal layering, the organically produced effects. It’s the soundtrack to a very particular time in my life.
The album opens with its hit song, “Amanda,” a gentle invitation of sorts. “Amanda” is, to my ears, the weakest song here, even though it runs through some gorgeous chiming guitar parts and features an ascending bridge that knocks me out. But the record really kicks off with “We’re Ready,” a mid-tempo stage-setter with some absolutely monolithic lead guitar sections. There are solos on Third Stage, but the majority of the lead work on the album consists of these meticulously crafted melodic runs, often in harmony with each other. It’s a sound that very few guitarists do as well as Tom Scholz.
And then there’s Delp, who sings his heart out on “We’re Ready.” The harmonies on “sympathize a change of seasons” send chills every time, and he pulls out the stops for the high, clear “come on” that leads into the guitar sections. As good as he was on the first couple of Boston albums, Third Stage is Delp’s showcase, especially slower songs like “My Destination” and “To Be a Man.”
The next song, however, doesn’t have Delp on it at all. It’s “The Launch,” a refinement and explosion of the spacefaring instrumental “The Journey” on Don’t Look Back. I can’t even tell you how amazing I think this tune is. It starts with barely audible organ, then lifts off with a guitar-piano sound that has to be heard to be believed. Scholz’ lead guitar tone here is practically indestructible, and just when it’s at its peak, the Rockman-powered thrusters kick in, simulating a rocket ride. It’s awesome.
Slight personal digression – when I was in high school, my friend Mike Ferrier and I made a pair of really bad movies about these two space cadets who save their solar system, then get trapped on Earth. Near the end of the second film, our two heroes (named Sourcil and Nez) find a spaceship and make it fly, enabling them to get back home. The scene was accomplished with state-of-the-art digital technology (a Commodore Amiga, I believe), and the music I chose to accompany it was, of course, “The Launch.”
On the album, that song leads directly into “Cool the Engines,” (see the theme taking shape?) the most rocking track here. “Engines” has a surprisingly live band feel to it, considering the obvious work that went into making it sound just right. Delp whips out his ‘70s rock voice here, holding “cool it doooooown” for a ridiculously long time, and harmonizing with himself on the backing vocals. For all its bluster, though, this is the song that signals a sea change in the album – it’s all been rising action to this point, and we’re about to settle into orbit, as the gentler coda suggests.
“My Destination” is beautiful. It’s essentially a reprise of the melody of “Amanda,” played on a real live Wurlitzer electric piano, with some of Delp’s finest vocals in the second half. The lyrics are no giant leap forward for mankind, but they point to the self-realization themes of the second half: “It’s not where you can be, it’s what you can see that takes you there, your destination is here inside…”
The second half of the album traces the waking epiphanies of its hero and the sad dissolution of the relationship depicted on side one. We start with “A New World,” almost a cousin to “The Launch,” complete with a string section that sounds real, but isn’t – it’s guitars through the Rockman. “To Be a Man” may be the loveliest Boston song, and is certainly the fullest realization here of Scholz’ vision. It’s a simple piano piece that is lifted into the stratosphere by some shimmering lead guitar melodies, and Delp in three-to-five-part harmony. You just have to hear Delp sing “it’s not what you are, it’s what you can feel” over Scholz’ soaring guitars.
It also contains my favorite moment on a record full of little favorite moments. The first time Delp ends a verse with the line “What does it take to be a man,” it’s in full choral splendor, overdubbed what sounds like half a dozen times. You’d expect the same the second time, especially since the music builds and builds through the second verse, but no – it’s a lone voice, full of emotion, that delivers the line. The lyrics then answer the question: “The will to give and not receive, the strength to say what you believe, the heart to feel what others feel inside, to see what they can see…”
“I Think I Like It” turns the focus outward, as “changes really open your eyes” to the state of the world. It’s a rewrite of an old John English song, apparently, but I’ve never sought out the original – the Boston version is enough for me. Perhaps the most standard rock song on the album, “I Think I Like It” includes some absolutely killer leads from Scholz and original Boston guitarist Gary Pihl. Somehow, even when whipping out the solos, Scholz sounds like he’s playing on another planet, so unearthly is his tone.
Then there’s the epic, “Can’tcha Say/Still in Love.” The back cover will tell you this is 7:14, but don’t believe it – it’s a trim 5:13, even though it runs through half a dozen moods. It opens with the great Brad Delp overdubbed into a celestial choir, pleading, “Can’tcha say you believe in me, can’tcha see what you mean to me,” before the lovely piano comes in. “Every night I think of you, you’re on my mind,” Delp sings sweetly, and as the music builds up, it becomes clear that this is the song of loss, the third stage.
When the “Layla”-esque guitar lines come in, it’s practically transcendent. The guitars snake their way through the perfect pop-rock chorus, leading back into the perfect pop-rock verse. And when that chorus loops around again, and Delp sings “I still love you,” the whole mood changes. “Still in Love” is an interlude, with sad-sounding clean guitar lines, little bursts of lead six-string, and Brad Delp in full breakdown mode. “Can’t you see I need you, baby,” he wails, as if no one had ever sung those lines before. And then it builds back up, crashing into perfect pop utopia once again.
And finally, there is “Hollyann,” the closer, bookending the album with another first-name song. This one is a look back on a happier time, made sadder by its placement on the album after “Can’tcha Say.” The chorus of “Hollyann” even brings its predecessor to mind, with another soaring lead line from Scholz, and some thunderous drumming. And seriously, just listen to Brad Delp belt out this song: “We made the dark into light, we saw the wrong from the right, we were for life and we would never concede it…” The end is, if anything, too abrupt – Third Stage is a tight 36 minutes, which means the band recorded an average of six minutes each year they were working on it, and it seems simultaneously too short and just the right length.
I could go on and on. Third Stage took up residence in my heart 18 years ago, and it’s still there. I bristle whenever anyone calls Boston soulless, or cold, or faceless. They are none of those things, and even though the lyrics are plain and simple, Third Stage has always struck me as a very emotional record. Parts of it are practically dripping with feeling, and the band uses their thick and layered production to enhance those qualities, not mask them. Later-period Boston sounds made by computers in places, but Third Stage is an almost achingly human piece of work.
Perhaps I’m lending it those qualities, since the album meant so much to me as a teen, and perhaps, after reading this long and effusive tribute, you’ll press play and just hear a bunch of mainstream rock songs and ballads. I don’t know. But to me, Third Stage will always be one of my favorite records. In my younger days, I called it the best rock record ever made, and even now, in my 30s, I can listen to it and remember why I once felt that way.
I have no idea what drove Brad Delp to do what he did. I actually know very little about the man. But the most important thing I know about him is this: 21 years ago, he and his band put out an album that changed and brightened my life, and I’m grateful for that. So long, Brad. Hope you reach your destination, and thanks for Third Stage.
Next week, Modest Mouse, Type O Negative, Aqualung, and Joy Electric. This being 2007, the best year ever, it should be no surprise that they’re all terrific albums.
See you in line Tuesday morning.