Whether recorded here, inspired here, or created by one of our native-born artists, The Great NJ Albums takes a fan’s perspective and reflects on some of the best and most unique records to come from our very own Garden State.
When I was a kid, the kind of music in the house was disparate. Mom liked Barbara Streisand and Carole King while Dad opted for the breezy folk of Gordon Lightfoot or Jim Croce’s bluesy acoustic rock. We had lots of Greatest Hits albums, one or two Huey Lewis records, and a cassette copy of Abbey Road which I would come to cherish. But most of all, we had WCBS-FM, New York’s premier spinner of oldies. So while my best friend Chris was hooping in his driveway to Midnight Marauders, I was in the backyard playing catch to “Along Comes Mary.”
As my music taste continues to expand and evolve, I’ve taken time to assess the sounds that got in there more passively; before I started buying records on my own. And when I take a wide step back, I end up with WCBS-FM; with The Mamas & the Papas, Sonny & Cher, Neil Diamond, and The Four Seasons. I remember Frankie Valli’s supernaturally high voice on tracks like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man.” These were among the first songs I would come to recognize perhaps not by name, but definitely by sound and style. The writing was different, the turns of phrase subtle and the production impeccable. And as such, the Four Seasons made a lifelong impression on me. With the success of the Broadway production, Jersey Boys and the Clint Eastwood film of the same name, I decided to jump a little further down the rabbit hole. The band’s popular narrative seems to drop off by the mid-60s, once the album era really started to take hold. There had to be more – heck – Valli still tours to this day! There was more…and it turned out to be pretty great.
The Four Seasons’ History:
Newark’s Four Seasons had been the most popular pre-Beatles band in the world, charting no fewer than four Top 10 LPs (and a fifth that just missed at #13) at a frantically-prolific clip between 1962 and 1964. But as the music-listening climate began to change, The Four Seasons felt their own winter coming. 1965’s Sing Big Hits by Burt Bacharach…Hal David…Bob Dylan was a disaster, peaking at a career-low #105. And while lead vocalist Frankie Valli managed to reverse the commercial misfortune in 1967 by landing the #2 hit, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” the band knew it needed more than the temporary fix that a hit single could provide.
The Four Seasons weren’t a factory-produced group like many of their early 60s contemporaries, they were pop’s first in-house operation, ahead of The Beatles and Bob Dylan by a year, matched only by The Beach Boys who – guitarist Carl Wilson aside – were serviceable musicians at best. The group was comprised of Bob Gaudio, a powerful and economic songwriter, along with deft guitarist Tommy DeVito, instinctual arranger Nick Massi (who also played the bass), and the aforementioned Frankie Valli, a singer without peer. His on-stage persona captivated people in a way that predicted the rise of the rock and roll frontman the following decade. In short: dude was a freaking star! Valli knew what he had was special; he wasn’t afraid to go all-in if it meant putting on a great show. And the the rest of the group with their synchronized moves and expert backing vocals were no slouches in the entertainment department, either.
But by the time the hit parade stopped marching to the tune of “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” or “Rag Doll,” The Four Seasons had been outclassed and overtaken by the acts they seemed so far ahead of only a short time ago. The very game they helped invent had turned against them. As they gazed toward an uncertain future, Massi decided he had enough and quit.
While things weren’t looking good for the Seasons, they didn’t operate in a vacuum. Gaudio was still a viable songwriter, charting hits for The Walker Brothers (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” which introduced the world to Scott Walker’s immortal baritone), and The Tremeloes (“Silence is Golden”) while the band as a whole maintained respectability as a concert draw. But Gaudio wanted to show the world that The Four Seasons could go toe-to-toe with the masters of rock’s newest form: the full-length LP.
Teaming up with songwriter Jake Holmes (who penned Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”), Gaudio wrote Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. It would be the closest attempt at deliberate art The Four Seasons would ever come, fashioning a long form statement on aging, perceived relevancy, and the rapid social changes being woven through late 60s culture. Gaudio was confident The Four Seasons would enjoy a renewed sense of vitality, adding much-needed artistic credibility and placing them alongside 1970s album-making giants like The Who or Pink Floyd. Never mind that many of their fellow 60s trailblazers were either broken up (The Beatles), in hiding (Bob Dylan), dead (Brian Jones), or flaming out in a dumpster fire of irrelevancy (The Beach Boys). The Seasons thought they had this one in the bag.
In January of 1969, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette came out. Featuring a newspaper-style cover motif, it was to be a record of the time. It entered the Billboard charts at #89 and sold 150,000 copies, promising enough if the momentum hadn’t stopped right there. Adding insult to injury, it contained zero of the precious hit singles that had made the band such a strong force earlier in its career. It was a failure on all fronts. Never again would they enjoy success on the level of their initial 1962-1964 run and Gazette’s complete whiff served to prove it.
We start with the fade-in choir of “American Crucifixion.” Immediately, we know that this isn’t “Ronnie,” or “Marlena,” but something decidedly more sophisticated. The opening sounds like a fanfare, complete with a wall of harmonies singing, “The king is dead, long live the king,” before turning abruptly into a minor-key disco-lite(!) dance groove. Lyrically, the Gaudio/Holmes writing team gets immediately political “Sleeping through years of error / Waking in a reign of terror.” While it reads jarringly on the page, the Seasons deliver it convincingly before the song turns again. At this point, we’re still not quite two minutes into the album! Valli’s voice rises above his bandmates to deliver a simple and sincere rumination on fatherhood, “I gave him hope / I gave him pride / But then I gave him to the world outside.” It’s an evergreen sentiment that continues to echo through the art of songwriting: The world will always be cruel, and there will always be parents who want to protect their kids from it. Consider 2010’s “The Suburbs” by the Arcade Fire who sing, “I want a daughter while I’m still young / I want to hold her hand / And show her some beauty / Before all this damage is done.” The Four Seasons nail the opener. And even if the musical transitions get overambitious, they wrap it all up by the end, repeating the necessary themes in order to bring “American Crucifixion” to a satisfying close.
After a brief flute and horns introduction, we get the baroque powerpop of “Mrs. Stately’s Garden.” It documents – all too plainly – a lazy bull session amongst the town’s older women and the social paranoia one of them feels knowing that if she leaves, she may be next. Lines like “You can’t mingle with people like that / get up Alice, you’re crushing my hat” are a little on-the-nose for my taste. And while I’ve seen and heard conversations like that – where everybody talks and few actually listen – the overuse of proper names clouds the proceedings. The music survives unscathed, however, with an up-tempo groove, a superior Frankie Valli vocal in the bridge and the best drumming on the whole record.
The Four Seasons demonstrate superior phrasing on “Look Up Look Over,” as a plaintive jazz melody dominates the majority of the song. An odd spoken-word section makes its way in about three quarters of the way through, but it’s more Lee Hazlewood than Moody Blues, that is to say it doesn’t ever threaten to dominate. “Look Up Look Over” ends with the entire band singing “It’s over” to the heartbeat pulse of the bass guitar.
“Something’s On Her Mind” is my favorite on the record. I love the watery keyboard, the jaunty 3/4 shuffle, and the incredible walking bass line that almost runs counter to the drums – a rule-breaking trick that only works if it’s executed perfectly. Valli’s soaring lead on the chorus highlights how sharp Gaudio and Holmes’ writing was at this time. The main melody alternates between an F and a G, largely staying still while the backing vocals and piano work in tandem, walking down and resolving the phrase on a G 7th chord. The production itself may well have served as the blueprint for Jon Brion’s brief reign as the king of the late 90s/early 2000s LA pop, producing ornate-sounding records for Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith. All told, while “Something’s On Her Mind” isn’t Gazette’s most “important” song, it’s an exhilarating listen,” and a deep-cut highlight of The Four Seasons’ entire career!
“Saturday’s Father” is not so much a story so much as a moment in time which starts and ends in the middle. The father picks up the kids, shows them a good time, then drops them back off to Mom at day’s end. They don’t speak. “It’s good to have a father every Saturday.” It became a favorite of Motown founder Berry Gordy who allegedly played it for his writing staff every week. ”To me,” Gordy would say, “it was some of the most creative work [The Four Seasons] have ever done.” It was high praise from one of the most prominent figures in the history of recorded sound.
“Wall Street Village Day” was a personal favorite of Valli’s, calling it “an incredible song.” It’s a buoyant slice-of-life, highlighting the cultural differences between New York’s Greenwich Village and Wall Street neighborhoods and how the close-cropped hair and gray suited latter may be a little jealous of the guitar-wielding, paisley-wearing former: “What a wonderful day to make-believe away / But they can’t stay.”
There’s a lot to unpack on the album’s pseudo title track, “Genuine Imitation Life.” First, that slow-building harpsichord introduction – it’s perfect. It lends weight and heft; it feels important. I could do without the hippy-dippy opening alliteration of “Chameleons changing colors / While a crocodile cries.” Redeemed by the palm-greasing second line of “People rubbing elbows / But never touching eyes” the song becomes a commentary on the rules of getting ahead as an adult. Valli bellows “People count on people / Who can only count to one,” delivering a stinging last word on the “who-you-know-not-what-you-know,” networking scheme even more prominently troublesome today than it was 50 years ago. The track peaks with a Beatles-courting round of na-na-na-nah’s and when it hits, I momentarily forget “Hey Jude” exists and let The Four Seasons’ vocals – as good as any – lift the record off the ground.
“Idaho” gazes rosily into the past with memories of checkers, pickup sticks, spelling bees, and Grandma’s stoop. A “heroes and Villains”-esque propulsive rhythm moves things forward as The Four Seasons’ harmonies tug back at a laconic pace. While that might sound jarring to consider, it’s actually quite effective in juxtaposing the small-town, take-your-time ideals of old against the “I need this done yesterday” urban ideology the members of The Four Seasons were born into. The lyrics are a bit hokey (“My Ida / Sweet as apple cidah”), but “Idaho” provides a needed emotional respite from the heady title track which preceded it.
“Wonder What You’ll Be” might be a prequel to “Saturday’s Father.” Valli reflects upon his own masculinity and as he feels love slipping away “Will somebody else / Mean more to you than me?” He knows the only thing he can do is try and hold on as long as possible because “There will come a time / When you will go your way / You’ll go away.” As he sings those lines, his melody stays largely in place while the music descends around him, demonstrating yet again just how astute the writing is. Valli wants to stay put but the world around him continues to crumble. It’s deliberate flourishes like this that make albums great; things that you don’t need to hear, lyrically – that you can just feel.
“Soul of a Woman” traces a briskly-paced courtship all the way through love’s lush, widescreen balladry: “You live for him / He lives for you / It’s beautiful today / But it’s not here to stay.” At the end of the day, The Four Seasons know that it isn’t going to last. But this time, it’s not because someone’s leaving. It’s because someone’s dying, “Her eyes are closing to the sun / Hands giving up what they have won / Soon her life will be over / Looking back now she can see / All the things that used to be.” The orchestration – like the title track – adds a weightless quality to the song and the reprise of the bridge melody reaffirms life flashing before the female character’s eyes. She’s gone. And Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is over.
What Makes it Great:
“Big statement” albums by singles-oriented pop artists are very difficult to navigate and define. On one side, you have Pet Sounds, the ultimate can-do statement of artistic evolution. But for every Pet Sounds, there’s a Chequered!, or a Save for a Rainy Day. And while Genuine Imitation Life Gazette has enjoyed some limited reappraisal in the ensuing decades, it has not reached the same holy status as, say, Odyssey & Oracle. But the LP’s topical politics, its commentary, and much of its ornate production are as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1969.
Artistically-speaking, the closest cousin to Gazette would probably be 1967’s Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks, a pastoral, low-key, very British slice-of-life piece. The Kinks of course were well-known garage rockers; writers of anthemic growlers, “You Really Got Me,” and “All Day and Into the Night.” When Village Green came out, an unsuspecting public likewise responded negatively. But time has been kind to it and now Village Green is regarded as not just The Kinks’ best work, but one of the finest LP’s of the period, a fate that has yet to befall Gazette, unfortunately.
While it is not my job to speculate why Gazette failed in its time, Valli offered up the explanation of simple industry politics, suggesting it wasn’t what people expected from The Four Seasons, even going to far as to say, “If [Gazette] had been done by a different group, it would have been a smash.” And while I’m not sure his statement would have proven correct, I do think industry politics may have had something to do with it. By the late 60s, The Four Seasons were signed to Motown records. They had released the bulk of their early/mid 60s material between Vee Jay and Phillips records who would consistently repackage and resell the old hits, often choosing to complete with whatever current LP the Seasons were out promoting. This remains an unscrupulous yet fairly common practice in the music industry and does much to sink any interest in an artist’s current work.
Despite Gazette’s failure, its cover art remained highly influential. Spanning decades between some of them, Jethro Tull, Tom Waits, John Lennon, and Radiohead have all used the newspaper motif as part of their album art. In addition, it remained a favorite among industry insiders. Of course, the aforementioned Berry Gordy loved it. At a dinner party in the mid-70s, John Lennon actually told Gaudio how much he admired Gazette and that it was one of his favorites. But perhaps most prominently, another New Jersey-born artist – one of the most popular of all-time – whose own career was on the wane heard the album and took a shine to it. So much so that he hired the writing team of Gaudio and Holmes to spin their conceptual magic into a new LP. It would be called Watertown and the artist was Hoboken’s own Francis. Albert. Sinatra.
To Be Continued…
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