Monday, September 21, 2009

Songs About Bands Singing Those Songs

Before the Internet, it was harder to figure out what songs meant.

I've always been a sucker for songs with bizarre and complex lyrics.

In the pre-Internet days, I spent way too much time listening to Don McLean's "American Pie" and trying to dissect the various references. These days, all you'd have to do is go online.

But I've also always been a sucker for autobiographical songs, especially songs about how bands formed. Probably the best example is "Creeque Alley" by the Mamas and Papas, which namechecks various members of the Lovin' Spoonful, a club in the Virgin Islands, Roger McGuinn, Barry McGuire, and the various crushes between the various Mamas and Papas. (John Phillips, having turned down Cass Elliot's advances, was cruel enough to write a song where the overweight Elliot had to sing the line "no one's getting fat except Mama Cass.") These days, there's no need to learn the history or figure out the references when a quick Google search exposes you to the wisdom of a thousand obsessives who've poured over the song for you. (Embedding is disabled, so click here for the video.)

But my favorite rock song about a band's history is "Rock and Roll Band" by Boston. It tells the story of a scrappy band that toured up and down New England, building an audience one crappy gig at a time before getting signed to a big record company contract by a man smoking a big cigar at one of their shows.

The best part of the song? It's all made up. None of it happened -- at least not to the band Boston.

Instead, Boston was the brainchild of Tom Scholz, who worked as an engineer at Polaroid, built one of the first home studios in his basement (12 tracks of analog wonderousness), then wrote all the songs, recorded them himself (playing nearly all the instruments), and brought in singer Brad Delp to hit all those seemingly impossible high notes. The "band" got a deal with Epic Records based on Scholz's demos without once performing live. Epic added a few small overdubs, but the first Boston album was basically what Scholz and Delp recorded in Scholz's basement -- and arguably Scholz invented Arena Rock with that record (long before the "band" every played an arena).

It was only after the record came out that Scholz put together a band to go out on the road and play the songs. (Scholz would later invent a must-have small electric guitar amp that made him millions, which let him take a long time finishing future Boston albums and gave him the luxury of dragging out his various court battles with record companies for years and years.)

It's still a great song, but the lines "playing all the bars, sleeping in our cars," "playing for a week in Rhode Island," and "dancing in the streets of Hyannis" were all made up -- maybe because they sounded better than "spending months in the evenings in the basement after working at my day job."

And since the history in the song is all made up, who am I to say that the music wasn't really made by stop-action clay figures with guitars and a Lego drum riser?

(Note: Oops... as Kinky Paprika pointed out in the comments, it's Tom Scholz, not Tom Schultz. Clicks and Pops regrets the error.)


Anonymous said...

Wow. I always thought that song was about the band!

Kinky Paprika said...

Not to be jerky, but it's Tom Scholz, not Schultz.

Also, I would imagine Scholz gigged around (before the first album was recorded) with many of the musicians who later became Boston.
I can imagine that the events in the song happened, just not in the order cited and not to the precise lineup of five people credited on the record.

What I want to know is, how could Tom Scholz write a song about his band without mentioning Sib Hashian's prodigious Afro?

Alex said...

Yup, you're right Kinky... my bad.

Guess now I have to fire my army of highly paid proofreaders!

Songfacts said the song came out of conversations Scholz had with sometime Boston drummer Jim Masdea.

I'd read somewhere that Scholz had never played live before he got his deal with Epic, but that might be wrong, too...

Robert said...

For me, Ian Hunter's Ballad of Mott The Hoople captures the essence of life with a rock n roll band:

All The Way From Memphis is a true story, too.


Alex said...


That's great! I forgot all about Mott the Hoople -- maybe because I didn't really discover them until after Ian Hunter's You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (still an amazing record).

Speaking of Amazing, Mott the Hoople is reforming for a series of 40th anniversary reunion shows at the Hammersmith Apollo in Early October. And if you're in New York on October 17, Ian Hunter and Graham Parker are doing a "conversation with music" as part of the New Yorker Festival.

Sam Beckwith said...

I'm glad it's not just me that thinks about these things :-)

Listening to "On the Road" by The Kinks, another "song about the band singing that song" led me here: