It started as a conversational gambit at a party where I know all but one or two guests in only the vaguest ways, and most not at all. What’s the quintessential 70s song? I asked. Not the best song, not the biggest song, but the song that is most fully of the decade, but at the same time does not transcend it.
It turned into a 45-minute enthusiasm, drawing several more people in, expanded into three more decades, meandered into why there was no such things as a quintessential 60s song, and all in all passed the time quite pleasantly between cake (it was somebody’s fiancée’s birthday) and general dissolution. But then, for some reason, it started creeping in to my thoughts as I was writing other things, thinking about other things, for the entirety of the next week, taking me to YouTube to bone up on the performances, to Wikipedia for background, and eventually leaking into a Facebook status update, pulling more people into the conversation.
As it ended up, I didn’t change my mind from what we had decided at the party, but my reasons deepened, and I came to believe that we had nailed it, a conclusion for the ages, four songs for the time capsule or space-shot or whatever it is we decide to preserve our best bits in.
Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” was the song that got that conversation started, and the one that convinced me you could say a song and a decade are consanguineous.
The 70s gave world music many things — Bowie being at least three of them — but two things stand out: stadium rock and rock ballads. There were concerts in stadiums before, but the music was still being written, and even played, to enjoy on your HiFi in the rumpus room, or possibly at a school dance. The 70s icons were teenagers in the 60s and couldn’t have helped but notice how oddly small even The Beatles looked when they played “Twist and Shout” at Shea.
So by the time they took the stage, everything got bigger: the riffs, the attacks, the speakers, the solos and the hair. The hair has gone up and down, in and out since the 70s — I imagine it in time lapse as a pleasant throb — but the rest has stayed put. Everyone from U2 to the Three Tenors to Taylor Swift uses what they learned from the 70s.
The great power bands of the era knew, or at least sensed, that all the drang and sturm could end up alienating the crowds, the bands in danger drifting away on some empyrean mist of heroic metaphor, cranked amps and blowjobs. The Who kept it real with Beatles-esque humour (“Pictures of Lilly,” “Boris the Spider”), Queen, in addition to humour (pretty much everything) and camp (ditto), used the 50s (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”) to keep themselves from getting too big for their leather britches.
Everyone else used ballads, a practice that did yeoman’s duty for The Stones (“Angie,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Wild Horses”) through Nazareth (“Love Hurts”), Guns ‘n’ Roses (“November Rain”), Notorious B.I.G. (“Playa Hater”) and Sean Combs (Sauce Money’s “I’ll Be Missing You”). For some, like Bon Jovi and poor Aerosmith, it became the default once their pituitaries finally wound down – but don’t hold that against the form itself.
Boston was not a great power band. They weren’t a great band at all, in fact. They were a delivery system for a single eruption of genius from the idiosyncratic mind of Polaroid engineer Tom Scholz, who spent five years tinkering with the song, ultimately creating new hardware to achieve the effects he wanted.
The result was a single track with everything that made 70s rock 70s rock, and nothing else. Its power comes from the near constant micro and macro tension and release, from the structure of the opening strums to the drift from “drift away” to the major riff. The verses are D-major (I’m told) mini-ballads that morph into arena-rocking G-major (see previous parentheses) bass drives. Despite all that time in Scholz’s basement, there’s nothing in the song that you can’t reproduce in your own mouth.
But more than all that, “More Than a Feeling” is earnest. While other bands, aware of their own pretensions and a little embarrassed by them (or by the possibility of being called out on them), stuck pins in their balloons almost as soon as they got them inflated (The Stones are a notable exception), Scholz was unabashedly straightforward in what is essentially his statement of rock’s seriousness, emotional heft and general grandeur. It’s the stuff everyone from Queen to Spinal Tap and in their own cute, unconscious, goateed way, Nickleback have been making fun of ever since.
Like all great things, it contains at least one contradiction: It is one of the epitomes of stadium rock, yet, having achieved its best effects through careful studio engineering, it loses something when played live, as you can see in this second video of a 1979 performance.
And the final test of its staying power? Watch it covered by the cast of “Scrubs.” It rocks us still.
Scrubs, “My Half-Acre” (2006)
– Bert Archer