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Don't Look Back

Epic 35050
Released: August 1978
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 35
Certified 4x Platinum: 10/30/86

Fran SheehanSib HashianBarry GoudreauBrad DelpTom ScholzDespite the exhortation of this LP's title and another in "Feelin' Satisfied" to "take a chance on rock 'n' roll," Don't Look Back isn't a departure from, but a consolidation of, the sound introduced on Boston's dazzling debut album. Once again, mastermind Tom Scholz has marshaled a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of guitars, reworking almost imperceptibly his rich weave of ringing acoustic tones, piercing electric notes and low-register but high-voltage riffs. All in all, the group might just as well have taken its cue from Chicago, another band named after a city (I'm still waiting for Terre Haute), and dubbed this record Boston II.

Of course, only a fool would kill the goose that laid the golden eggs: at last count, Boston's first LP had sold over six million units. Fools like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and David Bowie have made great music by refusing to repeat themselves, by deliberately frustrating the expectations of their fans and their record companies. But Boston doesn't lay claim to greatness -- indeed, the group's modesty is among its greatest charms. And Don't Look Back is a lot less redundant than, say, Bruce Springsteen's latest bid for immortality.

Boston - Don't Look Back
Original album advertising art.
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And a lot less pretentious. In "It's Easy," vocalist Brad Delp actually admits, "I believe what we achieve will soon be left behind." Ostensibly, he's addressing a woman, trying to con her into a one-night stand, but many of Boston's songs, beginning with "More than a Feeling," their first gargantuan hit, are about music as much as, if not more than, they are about women. And Don't Look Back is most compelling when it confronts, directly or obliquely, the problems posed by its own making.

Don't Look Back is shot through with Scholz' anxieties. The lyrics are preoccupied with failing to measure up, with failing to be a man. "A Man I'll Never Be" wishes, "If only I could find a way/I'd feel like I'm the man you believe I am." Amid its pleasant jingle of acoustic guitars, "Used to Bad News," a charming, rather Beatles-like song written by Delp, protests, "I've been used, but I'm takin' it like a man." And how's this, from Scholz' "It's Easy," for a timid come-on: "I won't hide if you decide to let me be your man"?

Don't Look Back's better songs are openly apprehensive. The title track, though officially optimistic about the road that lies ahead, segues into a brief instrumental entitled "The Journey," whose churchy orgn and ghostly guitars sound almost as eerie and alienated as some of Bowie's recent work. In fact, "Don't Look Back" is a palpable lie, because Scholz is always looking back: to the "dream of a girl I used to know" in "More than a Feeling," to "that same old feeling I had in my younger days" in "It's Easy." (One of the things that makes Boston's music poignant is its premature nostalgia. At thirty, Scholz has at least a few good years left.) The new LP is rife with such contradictions. "Don't Look Back" asserts, "I'm much too strong not to compromise," yet "A Man I'll Never Be" confesses defeat: "I can't get any stronger." The title of "Feelin' Satisfied" is self-explanatory, but it's belied by another line from "A Man I'll Never Be": "Emotions can't be satisfied."

"A Man I'll Never Be" both distills and expands upon this not of despair, which contrasts with the architectural magnificence of the song's musical accomplishments. If Phil Spector erected walls of sound, Tom Scholz constructs cathedrals. He builds his songs brick by brick, overdubbing layer upon layer of guitar and using Brad Delp's multitracked vocals as more masonry still. He piles fifths upon thirds, octave upon octave, Ossa on Pelion, until every conceivable harmonic hole is plugged -- and then he tops even that. The most uplifting moment (among many) in "More than a Feeling" occurs at the tail end of the last verse, when Delp's voice, already ethereally high, slides into the echoing empyrean. It's the star on the Christmas tree, the cross atop the already dizzyingly lofty steeple. On Don't Look Back, Boston has raised their own "Stairway to Heaven."

- Ken Emerson, Rolling Stone, 10-5-78.

Bonus Reviews!

Boston is very, very good at what it does, which is making slick, cleverly constructed mélanges of melodic elements and production ideas looted from the likes of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, and Jimmy Page. To criticize them for not really being "about" anything beyond having a party, or because their work lacks the urgency of, say, a Bruce Springsteen, is pretty much beside the point, as is carping about leader Tom Scholz's obsession with technology. Scholz may be a mad scientist, but the music he makes with this band has a lot more bounce than that of some other similarly inclined outfits. Between Boston and Queen, for example, there's no contest as to who sounds more like a group of actual human beings.

For me, anyway, the problem with Boston is not that they're derivative (which they are) or shallow ("A Man I'll Never Be" suggests they do have more on their minds than a good time on Friday night), but rather that they don't have much personality in the vocal department. Brad Delp, when you get right down to it, is utterly indistinguishable from about a zillion other heavy-metal front men, and this lack of focus pretty much undercuts the rest of what they do, agreeable as it is. I mean, I'll put up with eclecticism as long as some identifiable kinks are in the mix. Still, Boston does make very pretty noises, and if their records are as insubstantial as the big-budget Hollywood film spectaculars of yore (which, for some strange reason, they remind me of), there's nothing particularly wrong with that. As Samuel Goldwyn once said, you want a message, call Western Union.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 12/78.

For those nearly seven million Boston fans, the wait is finally over. The group that burst onto the scene two years ago to set sales records is back with an equally superior effort that further refines this group's ability to play hard rock underlined by a sweet, melodic base. Eight songs are featured, one an instrumental, and all but two penned by Boston's leading member, guitarist Tom Scholz. Of the other two, one is a collaboration between Scholz and vocalist Brad DeIp, while the other is a DeIp composition. The searing guitar riffs both standout and mesh with the remainder of the rhythm section, producing a consistently charged power rock instrumentation. And DeIp's gutsy wide-ranging vocal dynamics interpret Scholz's material with gusto. Barry Goudreau, lead and slide guitar; Sib Hashian, drums, percussion; and bassist Fran Sheehan round out the Boston unit. Best cuts: "A Man I'll Never Be," "Don't Look Back," "Feeling Satisfied," "Don't Be Afraid," "Party."

- Billboard, 1978.

Debut pomposities have been excised, a pure exploration of corporate rock remains. Pretty streamlined. Not only are the guitars perfectly received, but the lyrical clichés seem specially selected to make the band as credible in the arena as they are in the studio, and Brad Delp's tenor, too thin for nasty cock-rock distractions, leaves us free to contemplate unsullied form. The only thing that makes me wonder is that sometimes I catch myself enjoying it, which means some corruption is still at work here. True formalists, from Mallarme to bluegrass, leave me absolutely cold. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Continued success with their rock formula is highlighted by the hit title track. * * *

- Donna DiChario, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Don't Look Back is a rote continuation of the predictable path laid out on Boston's debut, with songs that don't quite hold up to the standard of its predecessor. * * 1/2

- Eric Deggans, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Following their sensationally successful, 17 million-selling debut album would have been tough for Boston no matter what, but band founder and studio boffin Tom Scholz's endless tinkerings as he beavered away at his aptly named Hideaway Studio soon began to grate on his label bosses. Tension was building between the producer/leader and then-CBS president Walter Yetnikoff and when tapes were finally delivered, Epic opted to rush-release Don't Look Back. The result is a virtual re-tread of its predecessor, right down to the futuristic sleeve.

Ever the studio perfectionist, Scholz made sure every beat was spot on, every hook just right and every chord nailed with precision. Despite this, he would later claim the album was only half-finished. it still sold well, hitting the Number One spot in the US with over seven million sales and even managing a higher chart position in the UK -- Number Nine -- than the band's debut. Meanwhile, a Number Four berth in the singles charts with the title track kept things ticking over in the US. The album spent 35 weeks in the charts.

Despite the album's success, Scholz vowed not to release an album before he was ready again. He was true to his word -- it would be another eight years before the band produced their third album.

As of 2004, Don't Look Back was the #21 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

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