The Number Ones

November 8, 1986

The Number Ones: Boston’s “Amanda”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

***

How bad do things have to get before a record label sues one of its kajillion-selling artists? For the first half of the ’80s, Boston were the ghosts in the corporate-rock machine. The band’s two ’70s albums had sold in extravagant, dumbfounding numbers, but multi-instrumentalist and mastermind Tom Scholz still insisted on running Boston as a part-time hobby. Scholz was (and is) a gearhead and a sonic perfectionist, and he kept his band silent for seven years. In that interim, Boston’s onetime peers — Journey, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon — stormed the charts with the biggest hits of their careers.

Finally, CBS Records had enough. In 1982, the label started withholding royalties from Boston’s first two albums, holding the band’s money hostage. When Scholz complained, CBS sued him for $20 million, claiming breach of contract. Scholz filed a countersuit, and the legal battle raged for years. (Scholz finally won the lawsuit in 1990.) When Boston’s third album did come out, Scholz had moved them off of CBS, signing with MCA instead. The lead single from that third album gave Boston their first and only #1 hit.

Really, though, the only thing that changed was the label on the record. By 1986, Boston were men out of time. Scholz was still conjuring symphonies of antiseptic harmony out of his guitars, and Brad Delp was still wailing out Scholz’s melodies with a high-pitched fervor. “Amanda,” Boston’s only chart-topping single, came out late in 1986, but it was so perfectly ’70s that the song didn’t even have a music video.

But then, Scholz had always sounded a little bit like a man out of time — a figure detached from the dominant narratives of rock history. Scholz never needed music. Even at the beginning, he had other stuff going on. Scholz was a native of Toledo, Ohio, but he didn’t call his band “Toledo” because he wasn’t living there when he founded it. Instead, Scholz started making music while studying engineering at MIT. He joined a local band called Freehold, and that band slowly evolved into Boston in the early ’70s.

For Scholz, Boston only became a career after he’d sold a few hundred thousand records. After getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees at MIT, Scholz found himself a good job as an engineer at Polaroid. In his spare time, Scholz built a recording studio in his basement and pieced together self-recorded demo tapes of the songs he wrote. Scholz played almost all the instruments on those demos, and the music that he recorded in that basement sounded brighter and cleaner than what most major-label bands were able to conjure in expensive studios. You could imagine Scholz as some kind of outsider-artist savant if his music didn’t sound so damn normal.

Scholz really broke ground as the first of the truly anonymous ’70s studio-rock stars. He was the man who laid the groundwork for the Journeys and Foreigners of the world. Scholz made guitars sound like keyboards and violins. Boston took crunching riffage from the Grand Funks of the world, the huge-selling and arena-ready boogie bands. They took crystalline harmonies from British prog and art-rock bands. They took at least a bit of melodic charge from the Beatles and the Beach Boys. These were disparate influences, but Scholz made them sound as sealed-off and airtight as the spaceships that he always put on his album covers — a delightfully nerdy affectation that persists to this day.

There were plenty of sonic-wizard studio-rat types before Scholz, but most of them were weirdos. Scholz is probably a weirdo, too, but it rarely comes through in the music. Instead, Boston made rich, breezy background music — songs that sounded great on car stereos and never demanded much of you beyond that. They were great at it. CBS signed Boston, and Scholz recorded much of their 1976 self-titled debut in his basement. The album layered hooks on hooks on hooks, and it went on to sell some 17 million copies.

Boston may have been the archetypal ’70s arena band, but they didn’t carry themselves like rockers. Scholz certainly learned some tricks about riffage from Led Zeppelin, but he and his bandmates weren’t divine, mystical fuck-masters. Scholz was someone who tinkered with equipment in his basement, and he carried himself like one. His bandmates were the local guys who came along for the ride. On that first album, Boston’s biggest hit was “More Than A Feeling,” a loose reverie about hearing something on the radio and missing a girl from years ago. Modesty and nostalgia were baked into the Boston experience. (“More Than A Feeling” peaked at #5. It’s a 10.)

Two years after Boston, the band released their sophomore album Don’t Look Back. That one sold another seven million copies and launched another single into the top 10. (“Don’t Look Back” peaked at 4. It’s a 7.) But Scholz felt like the album was a rush-job. He didn’t want to make another record like that. Instead, he wanted to fuss over his tracks until they were perfect. Eventually, some of the other guys in the band got tired of waiting and left Boston. One guitarist, Gary Pihl, left to join Sammy Hagar’s band. Another, Barry Goodreau, went solo and eventually formed a group called Orion The Hunter. (Orion The Hunter’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “So You Ran,” peaked at #58.)

Scholz got busy with his own side project, too. When the CBS lawsuit was happening, Scholz founded a company called Scholz Research & Development. He’d been building his own amps and effects pedals for years, and he sold gear that he’d invented, like the Rockman amplifier. Scholz’s company made enough money that he didn’t need to rely on Boston’s temporarily frozen royalties. (In 1995, Scholz sold his company to Dunlop.)

Scholz used his own amps on Third Stage, Boston’s long-delayed third album. While working on the LP, Scholz had to force himself to keep making music. But when he got done writing the album’s opening track “Amanda,” he knew that he had something, so he kept at it. An early demo of “Amanda” actually leaked in 1984, more than two years before the official version came out. One rock station somehow obtained a reel-to-reel tape of the early version of “Amanda,” and that station played the song until CBS sent a cease-and-desist.

In a way, though, maybe “Amanda” was right on time. Before any of his peers, Scholz had figured out how to remove all the grit and grime from rock records, and that ultra-clean sound persisted, largely unchanged, into the mid-’80s. Scholz was playing with synths, and with guitars that sounded like synths, long before most other rockers, so he sounded relatively comfortable in the ’80s synth-rock zeitgeist. And “Amanda” came out at just the right time to capitalize on the growing backlash against the arty British synthpop of the early MTV era. Boston’s sound was a distant ancestor the the big pop sound of the mid-’80s, and that sound, combined with whatever nostalgic affection people had for those first two Boston albums, presumably helped drive “Amanda” up the charts.

“Amanda” is also a pretty decent song, so that probably helped, too. It’s not exactly an ambitious piece of music, but “Amanda” works just fine as gooey-eyed prom-ballad material. Harmonizing with his own multi-tracked voice, Brad Delp, singing lyrics that Scholz wrote, professes his love to the girl of the title. His narrator wants to take her by the hand and realize, Amanda! He’s going to tell her right away, he can’t wait another day, Amanda! This is elementary love-song stuff, but Delp delivers it with sensitive conviction, and Scholz builds his power chords with patient professionalism. It’s a by-the-numbers power ballad — Boston working right in their comfort zone.

“Amanda” isn’t the sort of platinum-plated hook-monster that Scholz was writing in the ’70s, but it does the trick just fine. I like the bridge, where Scholz’s guitars ring and clang and sparkle. Eventually, the effects fade away and the strummy acoustic comes back in — an old Scholz trick that never quite lost its effectiveness. “Amanda” is slightly wimpier than prime Boston, but Boston were never exactly macho, and they wear the wimpiness well. “Amanda” was probably virtually intolerable for any girls named Amanda. Anyone who’s ever been in love with a girl named Amanda probably has some warm feelings toward the song. For the rest of us, “Amanda” just kind of fades pleasantly into the background.

Third Stage went on to sell four million copies, and “We’re Ready,” another of its singles, made its way into the top 10 later in 1986. (“We’re Ready” peaked at #9. It’s a 6.) Then Boston went quiet for another eight years, not coming back until 1994’s Walk On. That album managed to sell another million copies at the height of the grunge era, but it was a big step down from Boston’s mid-’70s peak.

When Boston made Third Stage, Scholz and Brad Delp were the only original members left in the band. Delp left Boston and then returned to the band many times over the years; he was singing for Boston as late as 2002. But in 2007, Delp died by suicide, poisoning himself with carbon monoxide, at the age of 55. Boston continued on with a few different singers, including former Stryper member Michael Sweet. They’ve continued to tour lightly and to put out new albums about once a decade. Their last one arrived in 2013. They should be due for another sometime in the next few years. Don’t rush them.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Toronto rapper Kid Kold sampling “Amanda” on a 2018 Freeway/Ghostface Killah collab that’s also called “Amanda”:

(As lead artist, Freeway’s highest-charting single is the 2003 Peedi Crack collab “Flipside,” which peaked at #95. Freeway also made it to #55 with “Rock The Mic,” the 2002 Beanie Sigel collab that was credited to State Property. Ghostface Killah’s highest-charting single, the 2006 Ne-Yo collab “Back Like That,” peaked at #61.)

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