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Boston's More Than A Feeling: a happy-sad fantasy song of lost love and nostalgia

Boston posing on the beach with three Porsches
(Image credit: Ron Pownall Photography)

On US TV comedy The Mindy Project, when Mindy Lahiri finally hooks up with dream-guy Danny, she discovers he gets turned on enough to do the devout-Catholic-divorcee-with-some-pretty-serious-dad-issues version of twerking to none other than More Than A Feeling by Boston. The iconic lost-love song has also set the mood on everything from Scrubs to The Walking Dead to What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? to Republican candidate Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign trail. 

While band founder Tom Scholz responded (opens in new tab) to the last of these with a pissed (“I’ve been ripped off, dude!”) yet gentlemanly (“although I’m impressed you learned my bass guitar part”) letter – in which he caps-shouted BOSTON at Huckabee an impressive fourteen times – it’s easy to understand why More Than A Feeling has continued feeling omnipresent for the four-plus decades since its release. Many, many people feel about the song the way Scholz says he always has – it “takes me some place else,” he told Entertainment Weekly (opens in new tab).

The story of More Than A Feeling is, essentially, the story of Tom Scholz. Raised swallowing classical albums whole, he didn’t pick up a guitar until deep into studies at MIT. When he later went to work for Polaroid as a product design engineer, he acquired enough electrical know-how to build out a basement studio that included his first four-track recorder. Early music featured Jim Masdea on drums and Brad Delp on vocals, with Scholz taking care of all other instrumentation, songwriting, production, management, publicity, and (one would assume) snacks.

Tom Scholz in his home studio

Tom Scholz in his home studio circa 1977 (Image credit: Ron Pownall Photography)

For six years, he peddled recordings to nothing but rejections. Then 29 years old, married, and not exactly “rolling in cash,” he was on the verge of resigning himself to the non-rock-god life of engineering and responsibility when the song that was to be his terminal demo saw the light of radio. Soon after, he and Delp were signed to Epic. Soon after that, Boston – a band in roughly the same sense Foo Fighters were a band circa 1995 – came to dominate mainstream rock. 

All thanks to More Than A Feeling, a happy-sad fantasy song Scholz based on his first love. 

The song’s main event – heart-wrenching loss that inevitably sweetens into nostalgia with time – was invented, but the girl was not. Like millions of kids worldwide whose first declaration of “I’m going to marry you! We’re going to have a house! And all the puppies!” gets aimed at their favourite family member, Scholz once had a crush on his cousin, Marianne. He reports that her main reaction, after learning she’d joined Leonard Cohen’s Marianne Ihlen in the Music-Muse Marianne hall of fame, was annoyance with him for telling the world she was his older cousin.

Off the firepower of More Than A Feeling, Boston’s self-titled debut album sold over 17 million copies. Almost overnight, they were swept out of the basement and onto stages as famed and goliath as Madison Square Garden. The song’s chord progression echoed in the intro of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. And eventually it nabbed the ultimate 20-teens distinction of being covered by the cast of Glee

Popular rock has evolved endlessly since 1976, when the song was released, but still today, if you’re feeling tired and thinking cold, it invites you to hide in the music and forget the day.

Joannie Penderwick writes the newsletter Okay Annie (opens in new tab). Her essays have appeared in PopMatters, Slate, and Forge, among other publications.