Future’s Coming Much Too Slow

This is a guest post from independent music scholar J. Temperance.
The 1976 album Boston, conceived by reclusive and uncompromising musical mastermind Tom Scholz, who wrote nearly all the songs, played most of the instruments, and recorded most of the tracks in the studio he built in his basement, is perhaps the ultimate post-punk statement. That may strike some readers as a paradoxical claim, given that the birth of punk itself is customarily dated to 1977, a year after Boston was released. But from its futuristic, post-apocalyptic cover art to its giddy sense of sonic exploration and outré effects to its combative, conflicted stance toward the rockist tradition it warred with (“You’ve got nothing to lose, just rhythm and blues,” the band declared in their manifesto “Smokin'”) to its ardent advocacy for the power of pleasure in a turbulent and cynical political era, Scholz’s DIY masterpiece anticipated so many of the hallmarks of the postpunk era that it must be understood as the linchpin of the entire movement, the album without which bands like Killing Joke, Sex Gang Children, Spandau Ballet, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark would be unthinkable.

Of course it would be easy to argue that Boston created postpunk merely by spawning punk. The tough, confrontational street-rock attitude of the incendiary “Rock and Roll Band” and the thick guitar sound and three-chord anthemic song structures favored by Scholz in songs like “More Than a Feeling” and “Long Time” are all over the so-called seminal 1977 punk records by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. And certainly “Rock and Roll Band” is as scabrous and uproarious a takedown of the generic state of rock in the mid-1970s as anything punk bands would release, though with an irony that only the later post-punk acts would prove capable of assimilating.

Though the punk bands would in many ways co-opt the apparent rejectionist ethos of “Peace of Mind” and the clever prog-parodizing of “Foreplay” (intensifying the satire by pairing it with a feigned musical incompetency), it was post-punk that really grasped the angular core of Boston and explored the rich tapestry of possibilities that Scholz wove within the album’s intricate and sumptuous textures — the overdriven minimalist noise soloing of “Long Time”; the proto-Goth keyboards in “Smokin’ “; the arch, highly stylized yawp of vocalist Brad Delp; the sardonic appropriations of rawk-and-roll cliches; but most of all, the go-for-broke willingness to experiment and extend the standard palette of pop. No other band balanced the sense of the studio itself as instrument with the spirit of spontaneity and openness and celebratory joy like Boston did (with the possible exception of that other great post-punk progenitor, Steely Dan).

It’s easy to see that the spirit of endless inventiveness that marks Boston came from an intense sense of isolation. As Scholz noted in a 2007 interview, he and Delp spent five years doing “a lot of basement recording,” getting “absolutely zero recognition locally and complete rejection submitting our demos to national record labels.” Such indifference not only led to Boston’s developing a fierce anti-image, a rejection of the cult of personality that would have echoes throughout the flowering of post punk. Indeed Boston is sometimes seen as the first faceless “corporate” band, presaging the satiric stance of such acts as PiL and the British Electric Foundation. The isolation also was the mother of a rich and challenging anti-rock species of rock, as neglect warped their nostalgic wonderment into something at once wry and plaintive, evocative and shimmering but with an undergirding rib cage of iron.

Consider the band’s breakthrough, both in terms of mainstream popularity and Scholz’s musical vision quest: “More Than a Feeling.” The lasting influence of its innovative, near oracular soft-loud dynamics is uncontestable. The careful layering of guitar noise, the precise use of silence within space, and the sonic separation of the instruments into impossible “rooms” constructed with reverberation effects all work to create a kind of Rubik’s Cube of interlocking sound shards that would not be lost on the post-punkers of the ensuing years.

The lyrics of “More Than a Feeling” also speak to the power of stale music (represented by radio songs and the lost love “Marianne”) to drive the dream of something new and better, something reconfigured to make “my Marianne walk away.” The sensuousness of music is an incomplete experience, the song insists. What is needed is something “more than a feeling,” something cerebral that can defrost a listener when they’re “tired and thinking cold.” The muscularly intelligent bands of late 1970s, groups brimming with musical and political ideas, like Mission of Burma, Au Pairs, Gang of Four, Bush Tetras, Bow Wow Wow, would all attempt to rise in their own various ways to the challenge Boston set out.

“More Than a Feeling” shows us that the past can be a seductive trap, a theme developed further on the song that follows it on the album, the restless, searching  “Peace of Mind.” “Future’s coming much too slow,” Delp sings, setting the tone for the song’s antsy impatience and discontentment, all “indecision” and “people living in competition.” Instead of getting caught up in ambition that has been conditioned by institutionalized culture, be it corporate bureaucracy or record-company conventionality or the tired neoliberal poses of personal identity and individualism, we should, the song insists in its urgent break, “Take a look ahead! Take a look ahead!” A more suitable motto for post-punk could hardly be declaimed.

The impatience continues into “Long Time” (reinforced at the level of form by the interminable “Foreplay,” a pun that works on multiple levels). Positively obsessed with the relentless passing of time, the song declares the singer’s intention to “keep on chasing a dream, though I may never find it.” He laments that “you’ll forget about me after I’ve been gone,” admitting the unshakable truth of the cyclical nature of time, and how the myth of progress, personal or cultural, can devolve into a snake consuming its tail. It seems an eerie and prescient warning, given the eventual fate of one of the few vocalists to match Delp in supple vocal intensity, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, who tragically took his life on the precipice of achieving an oppressive level of fame.

Nonetheless, the song espouses a certainty that what we all want from music, and from life, need not be painfully mysterious and obscure, but is instead “just outside your front door.”  What’s wanted is merely the courage to walk through that door, rather than to procrastinate or to try to sneak out the back way. The turbulent history of postpunk would show how deeply that message was taken to heart by the bands that spawned in Boston’s wake.