Listen to the audio - Judged by the cover - Boston Ep.2
When we think of bands, we usually think of a group of guys or gals that start jamming together, writing some songs, they start playing some shows, and then record some music all in hopes to get a record deal. Now that’s probably true for a lot of bands, but not for the band we are talking about today. On this episode of the Judged By the Cover Podcast, we are going to talk about this great album cover, from the self titled debut album for the band Boston. Before we get to the design, we need to first talk about the crazy story behind this album even coming into existence.
The album Boston was released august 25, 1976, and quickly broke sales records, becoming one of the best-selling debut LP in the US at the time. This album has won a lot of awards, and nearly the entire album receives constant rotation on classic rock radio. Think about that for a minute…most bands would love for 1 song to get that kind of play, but there are at least five songs on this one album that I know you have heard more than once on the radio. The album has been referred to as a landmark album of '70s rock and has been included on many lists of essential albums. From the info I got It has sold at least 17 million copies in the United States alone and at least 20 million worldwide making it one of the best selling debut albums of all time.
How this album came to be is wild, like something out of a movie. I promise I will get to the design in a minute but as I dove into the story of this album I really felt it was important to share, to understand how remarkable it is.
The Back Story
Let me give you the story in a nutshell. The bands leader Tom Scholz got started playing guitar and recording his own demos, in a studio that he built and funded with his paychecks from his job at Polaroid. Yes that Polaroid. The camera company that doesn’t exist anymore. He built a very impressive studio, with state of the art equipment and started making demos for fun. He would eventually throw together a live band, play some shows, record some more music, but then it never really went anywhere.
They sent out a lot of demos but got a resounding NO from everyone that they could get to listen to it. But Scholz persisted, he kept getting a couple of his friends to come in and sing and drum on the demos. He continued to make the demos better, and then things changed when they got the attention and help from promoters Paul Ahern and Charlie McKenzie. These guys finally got in front of the right people at Epic records, and got them to say yes!! (Fun side story, it was only a year or so earlier that Scholz got a signed letter from the president of Epic records saying that they were not interested…and Scholz never let them forget that) Now at this time there wasn’t real band, and technically they didn’t even have a name for either. Scholz and company had to throw together a band, pick a name, and get ready to showcase for the label, so that the label could confirm that this was a viable “act”….and some how it worked. They did have to cut some people at the labels request, but it was at this point that Boston was born. The label liked the demos so much that they wanted the album to sound “JUST” like the demos, but they were insistent that the band get in the studio with a “REAL” producer, and re-track the songs. Now it would seem for most budding rock stars that getting to fly out to LA and work with big time producer to cut an album in a real studio would sound like a dream come true… This made Scholz mad because he agonized over these recordings for years, perfecting to the point of almost wearing out the tape, because this was the time of actual tape recording. There were no computer recording programs, so he literally almost wore out the tape from all his recordings and rerecording.
Scholz went along with the labels request and met with the producer, John Boylan. This is where the story gets even crazier. Some how Scholz talks the producer into a scheme to “trick” the record label. The band would fly out to LA and “record” with John, while Scholz went back home to his studio to polish up his demos and make them the best they could be. They did record one song for the album in LA, but the rest of the songs were recorded, produced, mixed and master in Scholz home recording studio. The best part of the story is that the record company didn’t find out until YEARS later. The producer was really cool and shared the production credits with Scholz.
So to recap this crazy story, there’s not even a band when they get signed, also with no band name. The producer and band leader conspire against the record company to keep the integrity of Scholz recordings…and somehow this becomes one of the best selling debut albums of all time. What a story!!
I know you have been waiting to learn about the album cover design, that’s probably why you are here, So let’s get to it. First let’s talk about the designer. Paula Scher is credited with the design of the Boston album, in collaboration with illustrator Roger Huyssen. Paula Scher was the album art director at CBS records from 1972-82, and designed approximately 150 album covers a year. Yes you read that right, 150 a year!!! That’s a lot of album covers.
What we have is an illustrated cover, the background is a dark space scene with stars and planets. At the bottom you have a planet that’s blowing up, and the main element is this groovy 70’s orange and dark blue color spaceship with light blue color booster flames. There are also 4 or 5 other smaller spaceships that look to be fleeing the scene of this planet that blowing up.
This scene can be viewed a couple different ways, that the spaceships are the reason for the exploding planet, or that the spaceships are rescuing the inhabitants of the planet. Scholz the leader of the band prefers the second suggestion. Two other key design features are the city sky line in the “window” of the space ship. I think it’s safe to assume that is the Boston sky line. The other item is the band/album name Boston in this really kool typography on the body of the spaceship. That’s a touch that Scher is known for, her really kool typography.
There was one element that Tom Scholz really wanted on the cover, and that is a guitar. To the designer this was cliche, and she couldn’t bring herself to do it. They did however come to a compromise and made the guitar into a space ship. Yes the space ships on the Boston cover are guitars turned upside down. The sound hole on the guitar is where the flames or boosters of the space ship are, and the headstock is the tail of the spaceship. Somehow I missed this fact for YEARS!!! Actually I didn’t realize that until this year, and thats mainly one of the reasons why I am talking about this cover. So to recap… its a starry space background, exploding planet, with guitar shaped space ships fleeing the scene.
To me there is this great balance of complimentary colors with the blues and oranges, interesting element use of the guitars as spaceships, and the overall story it brings you to make up in your mind. To me, these are the reasons that make this cover great. Now there is one person who doesn’t see this cover as being great…and that’s the designer herself. Scher has been quoted as being mystified by the continued interest in the piece and saying “It was, and still is, in my opinion, a mediocre piece of work.”
One thing I pull from this cover and this story, is the fact that the Band and the designer had some differences in opinion on what should go on the cover. They both stuck up for what they believed in, and still came to a very good compromise. If it was left up to the band, you may just have a guitar on the cover, and maybe nothing else. Instead the designer found a really kool way to use the guitar in the piece…and in my opinion came up with a really interesting element that people are still talking about today. Remember this album came out in 1976, thats 46years ago, and people “aka me” are just discovering the guitar shape space ships. So if you are a band or artist, with a song or project that needs a cover, I urge you to find a designer that can take your ideas and make it into something timeless. Someone that can take your guitar idea, and turn it into a space ship...like me!
There you have it…what are your thoughts on this album cover by Boston…? Did you know that those spaceships were guitars….? Be honest you didn’t see it until I brought it up did you…?
Now let’s move on to my new favorite part of the show, This is Near Miss time. I’m going with the name near miss, because obviously these designs ended up being the cover for the song or album, but I feel like they really miss the mark from a design aspect. My first Near Miss victim is Garth brooks…..my hero, my man….and trust me I love me some Garth Brooks. What I don’t love is his cover for the album The Chase.
I don’t even know if I can accurately describe this to those who are just listening to the audio. Garth is in the center of the album wearing a black and white blocky shirt. Same thing with the background it’s this blocky alternating black and white. Overall it also looks like a bad high school senior photo, which will be a topic for a different day.
Then there’s the fonts. You have Garth Rooks in this arial OR AVENIR bold style font. The B in brooks is a scripty font, and the name of the album is at the bottom in the same script font. For being pretty simple, its got A LOT going on…and not in a good way. This album did come out in the 90’s, and unfortunately there isn’t a lot of design that came out of the 90’s that aged well.
If I was going to make a change, that would make a HUGE difference, it would be to simplify the fonts. That weird script B at the top, in the middle of the name is just strange. Also that script font is terrible and doesn’t really fit the clean aspect of the cover design. This is a case of less, is more. So simplify the fonts, and that would make a huge difference on this cover.
Thanks again for checking this out, and we will do this again…very soon.