Thursday, November 27, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ten Thousand Watts of Holy Light

Boston is one of those classic rock groups I've always dug. And, after being out of my collection for far too long, I recently reacquired the first three albums: Boston, Don't Look Back, and Third Stage. Solid albums with some great songs. And something struck me while listening to their self-titled debut from August 1976: Both Boston and the Michael Stanley Band both have industry-insider, autobiographical songs, "Rock and Roll Band" and "Midwest Midnight", respectively. Hardly a life-altering revelation, but interesting when you consider the points of view each songwriter takes.

Tom Scholz's song, "Rock and Roll Band", is a decidedly positive take on the music biz. Scholz writes about being "just another band out of Boston", getting better while gigging around the Northeast, "Livin' on rock-n-roll music / Never worry 'bout the things we were missing." Then finally getting their big break when a Cadillac-driving, cigar-smoking music industry man offers them a contract. I assume the man Scholz is describing there at the end is Steve Popovich, who was the Vice President of A&R with Epic Records at from 1974 to 1976.

Stanley, who was also on the Epic label at the time, takes a decidedly anti-music biz approach to his ode to the road and success. The leadoff track from MSB's Stagepass live album, "Midwest Midnight" is about playing "six sets of glory a night in some bar," and lamenting songs that meet a "slow death of silence" at the hands of the music biz machine. The bridge puts the listener on the receiving end of the music industry's arrogance and Stanley's frustration when he says:
I hear 'em callin':
"Boy, you should be grateful

To get your foot inside the door.

You know there's thousands out there

Who would take your place...

This attitude of yours, my son,

Well, it lacks the due respect...

You bite the hand that feeds you --

Even if you're never fed."

Stanley cynically tells us that "Chasing the fame keeps 'em all in the game / But money's still the way they keep score." His irritation finally boils over when "New York's calling just to see if you've heard / 'Bout the great English band / They just signed." But despite all this, he can't resist the lure of his muse and the promise of hearing his own songs transcend into "ten thousand watts of holy light" on the radio.

This compare-and-contrast between Scholz's Boston hit and Stanley's MSB staple is interesting enough, I suppose, on its own. But I think what adds a new dimension to the discussion is the back-story on that line about "the great English band."

I had numerous conversations with many people associated with Michael Stanley's career while researching my Pop Conference paper a few years ago -- everyone from Hank LoConti (the owner of the Cleveland Agora where Stagepass was recorded) to David Spero (Stanley's first manager) to Michael himself, and everyone in-between I could track down. In my first conversation with Spero, a riveting marathon discussion that lasted for many entertaining hours, he relayed the following story:

While Michael and I were up there [in NYC] at a previous meeting with Popovich, he was playing us this, we were in this meeting talking about our careers, you know. And he'd go, "Aw, I gotta play you something!" And he puts on this record. Turned out it was really a Boston record, although Michael referred to it as "that great English band we just signed" -- it worked better for the song. This was all [Popovich] wanted us to hear was this Boston record, and we don't really care. I mean, it's nice. Cool record. I bet it sells... That's what it was like at those times.
And out of that came "Midwest Midnight", a song Spero describes as "a real positive song in a negative way" expressing the conviction that "all these things that are keeping us down, that dream of 'doing Elvis in front of the mirror,' that's stronger than anything this label can throw at us."

So Michael Stanley might not have made it as big as a lot of Northeast Ohioans would have predicted, but he did pen one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded: "Midwest Midnight". And I'll take that over "Rock and Roll Band" any day of the week.