Synths, Cowbells and ’70s Rock

head_eastFlat as a Pancake
Head East
SP 4537
1974
A&M Records

“No synthesizers used. No computers used.” – Tom Scholz, Boston

I’m not dogging Boston – I love their second LP Don’t Look Back almost as much as their first. But Scholz’s no synth rule was an anomaly considering all the electronic tricks he pulled when producing and engineering his band’s albums.

Don’t get me wrong, Boston’s records sound crazy good on vinyl – but something’s missing. The human factor maybe?

Now take Head East’s Flat as a Pancake. This, too, is a sonic stunner on vinyl. Rich, loud, bass heavy…synths, cowbells and all. Its a party. A beer keg swillin’, bong hittin’ mid-’70s backyard summer blow-out that was on heavy platter rotation back then despite less than zero radio play.

Never Been Any Reason off Flat as a Pancake was a big ass song during the summer of ’79 – five years after the LP was released – but not on radio. It was big with the kids I drank beer and smoked weed with. It was on turntables at every party. Played on portable tape decks in the factories where we worked. Played in cars on mindless road trips. All the time. For us, the tune was bigger – and better – than The Logical Song, a huge radio hit from Supertramp’s Breakfast in America LP.

And, yet…the instrument everyone remembers on Never Been Any Reason is that swirly synth.

Screw the no synths rule. Never Been Any Reason was (and still is) a great backdrop to any party. But back in ’79 it sounded different, slightly rebellious and had lyrics that teens could lock onto even though they’re kind of meaningless. Except its a sort of relatable fuck you to some anonymous person who may have broken the singer’s (your) heart. It’s in both the first and third person but the lyrics are really easy to remember so its all but impossible not to sing along with it. And almost every instrument (even the synth) was ripe for boozy ‘air’ playing. Ultimately, Never Been Any Reason sounds improvised and alive. Spontaneous. In fact, all the songs on Flat as a Pancake sound this way through the whole record. Its the perfect analog trip and was made for vinyl listening.

Now compare Never Been Any Reason to Boston’s Party off of Don’t Look Back. The Boston song is exacting, very precise – almost anti-party with all the spontaneity stripped right out of it. Its a simulacrum of what Scholz and company think a party should be without ever having been to one. Complete with requisite “oh yeahs” and “come ons” the song is meta – a song about a party to be played at parties. But fake.

While Don’t Look Back is recorded really well, compared to Flat as a Pancake it sounds, well, flat.

But Scholz does keep his promise: “No synthesizers used. No computers used.”

© 2017 Chris Barry

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