The last gasp of a classic sound

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Released May 1972, Chameleon was The Four Seasons’ only Motown album, after many successful years at Phillips culminating in rapidly waning popularity. Though founding member and lead guitarist Tommy DeVito left after the release of their previous album, Half and Half, the band’s classic sound nevertheless was able to continue for one more album.

While bassist Joe Long and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (both of whom also performed backing vocals) contributed to major comeback Who Loves You in 1975, Chameleon marked their final foray as part of The Four Seasons’ public face and overall style.

By 1972, The Four Seasons’ established voice and style were very out of step with the face of popular music. They’d developed beautifully into a very smooth, mature, adult style, while still staying true to themselves, but it wasn’t what most people wanted to hear anymore.

Songwriters Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe went back to the drawing board to try one final time to get back into the mainstream with an album full of songs people would welcomingly embrace. Their songs were usually such a winning blend of contemporary sounds with the band’s own style, but most of their fans had long since moved on.

Though Chameleon failed to chart in the U.S, it’s very warmly received by both modern fans and critics. It has a wonderful sound, continuing to show how The Four Seasons really hit their creative stride after peak popularity. These albums from the second half of their career show how much deeper they were than their image suggested.

Some of the unused songs ended up on Frankie’s 1975 solo album Inside You, which is composed of Chameleon outtakes and unreleased songs.

Track listing:

“A New Beginning (Prelude)” (instrumental)
“Sun Country”
“You’re a Song (That I Can’t Sing)”
“The Night” (#7 in the U.K. after a 1975 rerelease)
“A New Beginning”
“When the Morning Comes”
“Poor Fool”
“Touch the Rainchild”
“Love Isn’t Here (Like It Used to Be)”

Because the album tanked, Motown’s subsidiary label MoWest (who officially released Chameleon) cancelled a planned follow-up record. In a 2014 interview, Frankie attributed the lack of success to Motown’s nonexistent promotion. The greatest album in the world can fail if it’s not promoted properly, or at all.

A smooth farewell to a classic lineup

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Released May 1970, Half and Half saw The Four Seasons returning to a more familiar pop and soft rock sound, after the critical success but commercial failure of January 1969’s Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. Longtime fans were confused and angered by this radical departure from their signature sound, and this change in direction did nothing to garner many new fans.

Songwriter Bob Gaudio went back to the drawing board for what turned out to be the band’s final album on the Phillips label, and produced songs that felt like a more mature, updated version of their previous hits. They’re the obvious work of The Four Seasons being themselves, not trying to remake themselves at a very awkward crossroads in popular music history.

Some fans feel the album suffers from its deliberate half-and-half direction (corresponding to the title). Half the songs are proper Four Seasons’ songs, while the other half are Frankie Valli solo. However, I don’t find that confusing or jarring. It’s just how this album came together!

I love how it showcases Bob Gaudio’s continued maturation and evolution as a songwriter. Of course the hits he wrote in the Sixties are awesome, but he couldn’t be expected to keep doing songs like “Dawn (Go Away),” “Sherry,” “Ronnie,” “Candy Girl,” and “Girl Come Running” as he approached thirty. It’s the same reason I no longer write like I did as a teenager, even though the core elements are much the same.

Songwriters, musicians, writers, artists, etc., who stay in the exact same style their entire creative careers are boring. All creators need to grow, evolve, change, mature, and develop over time. It doesn’t mean each project necessarily has a radically different style. One can easily mature and evolve within that same general voice and style. As new elements are added, they naturally mesh with the pre-existing style and voice.

It’s a shame The Four Seasons grew into such a smooth, mature style after their popularity peak. Their albums from 1969–77 are such a wonderful treat, possibly their best work, night and day next to their earliest hits most people associate with them, but most people are completely unfamiliar with them.

Sadly, most people automatically wrote them off as unhip, an embarrassing reminder of a different musical milieu. No matter how much they evolved with the times and tried different things, that could never cut it for people who’d already moved on to newer bands. A lot of artists who’d enjoyed great popularity in the early and mid-Sixties sank in popularity almost overnight in 1968-69, replaced by new bands. I’ve heard it called the British Invasion in reverse.

Half and Half only reached #190 in the U.S., though it did spawn three minor hits. This was also the final album to feature founding member and lead guitarist Tommy DeVito (who’ll turn 91 on 19 June). Truly, a perfect farewell to the second of their two classic lineups.

Track listing:

“Emily”
“And That Reminds Me” (#45 in the U.S.)
“Circles in the Sand” (probably my fave track!)
“Sorry”
“The Girl I’ll Never Know (Angels Never Fly This Low)” (#52 on U.S. Billboard; #32 on the Adult Contemporary chart)
“She Gives Me Light”
“To Make My Father Proud”
“Patch of Blue” (#94 in the U.S.)
“The Morning After Loving You”
“Any Day Now/Oh Happy Day (Medley)”

A sophomore comeback album that deserved better

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Released April 1977, Helicon was the followup to The Four Seasons’ incredible 1975 comeback Who Loves You. While WLY charted at a modest #38, it nevertheless spawned three hit singles and launched the band (with a fresh new lineup) on a strong second wind of their career. It seemed as though their next album would make just as good of a showing.

Sadly, that wasn’t to be. As strong as this album is, it only made it to #168, and the album’s sole single, “Down the Hall,” only made it to #65 (though it was #40 on the Adult Contemporary chart). As had happened several times during the band’s career, there was more success in the U.K., where “Down the Hall” was #34 and “Rhapsody” was #37.

Once again, songwriter Bob Gaudio kept a keen ear to popular sounds and translated that into songs that would work with The Four Seasons’ unique style and voice. While this yielded a smooth, mature album both timeless and in tune with the musical landscape of 1977, it wasn’t what most U.S. fans wanted at the time. Why?

Helicon has more of a rock sound, not enough touches of the blue-eyed soul and harmonies which defined much of the band’s previous work. While WLY does have a disco sound on some of the songs, that actually wasn’t a major trend in 1975. The Four Seasons were ahead of the game, but fans didn’t want them to be so ahead of the game they left those aspects of their signature sound behind or neglected them too much.

Bob had always written towards the next or current big sound, but this time he didn’t pay enough attention to harnessing the things which had already given his band their biggest hits, esp. the most recent. There’s obviously no denying his talent and keen ear towards the musical climate, but his songwriting strategy did start suffering a bit at this time.

Think of it like a writer who’s achieved great success with, e.g., historical fantasies, and then decides to try her hand at contemporary urban fantasy, steampunk, and alternative history. It’s somewhat of a departure from the established style, but still within the general genre. Some fans will eagerly follow, while others will be upset the new books aren’t the exact subgenre they came to know and love.

I’ll continue building on this analogy in my posts for Streetfighter (1985) and Hope + Glory (1992).

If you listen to the entire Helicon album, you’ll hear obvious evidence of harmonies and danceable songs, but those weren’t the songs pulled for singles in the U.S. Albums often sell on the strength of their singles, giving people a taste for the entire product. If the wrong singles are chosen, sales often aren’t so hot. In Helicon‘s case, the singles didn’t build on the sound which had earned the band success with their comeback.

Additionally, Frankie’s otosclerosis was gradually worsening, and he only appeared on lead in “Rhapsody,” “Put a Little Away,” and “I Believe in You.” As with WLY, the vast majority of vocals were handled by bassist Don Ciccone and drummer Gerry Polci. Since Frankie was in the thick of a solo career, he needed relief from too much singing.

Track listing:

“If We Should Lose Our Love”
“Let’s Get It Right”
“Long Ago”
“Rhapsody”
“Helicon”
“Down the Hall”
“Put a Little Away”
“New York Street Song (No Easy Way)”
“I Believe in You”

Helicon is a wonderful album which deserved so much better, and has begun to be reappraised. If only certain things had been done a bit differently, it might’ve had a lot more success.

How to craft a knockout comeback album

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In honor of the one and only Frankie Valli turning 85 on 3 May, I’ll be using much of this month to spotlight a crop of albums from the second half of The Four Seasons’ career. Most people who don’t live under a rock have at least passing familiarity with the band’s Sixties songs, but not so many are well-versed in their post-heyday albums.

Their Seventies music has a wonderful maturity, proving they were more than capable of developing into a new direction. It definitely deserves to be heard by a wider audience, and proves they were so much more than bubblegum Top 40.

Released November 1975 (can’t find the exact date), WLY came after three albums with very underwhelming chart positions, and signalled that The Four Seasons were back in very strong form, worthy of being taken seriously. It also came in the middle of Frankie’s hugely underrated solo career.

WLY introduced a new lineup behind Frankie’s familiar anchor—Don Ciccone (bass), formerly of The Critters; John Paiva (guitar); Gerry Polci (drums); and Lee Shapiro (keyboards). Pre-existing bandmembers Joe Long (bass, backing vocals) and Bob Gaudio (keyboards, backing vocals, piano) also appeared, though they were no longer part of The Four Seasons’ public face.

Because Frankie was suffering from gradually worsening otosclerosis during this time, Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone sang most of the lead vocals. Frankie only sings lead on “Storybook Lovers” and “Harmony, Perfect Harmony.” On all the rest, he only appears in choruses, bridges, and the background.

The mature, relevant sounds of this album are the result of songwriter Bob Gaudio keeping a close ear to current music and translating that into The Four Seasons’ unique style and voice. Unlike the critically neglected Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (1969), WLY successfully harnessed the two forces and translated it into a big comeback.

After Frankie had a #1 solo hit in early 1975 with “My Eyes Adored You,” he and Bob got Warner Brothers to sign The Four Seasons to a contract. Simultaneously, a two-LP greatest hits collection was released and quickly gained gold status. Several other solo singles in the first half of 1975 were also big hits.

Though WLY yielded three hits, the album itself only rose to #38. The follow-up Helicon (1977), while awesome, didn’t capture nearly the same amount of public interest. This seems to suggest the band’s new generation of fans were only interested in singles to dance to, not longterm loyalty.

Track listing:

“Silver Star” (#3 in the U.K.; #38 in the U.S.)
“Storybook Lovers”
“Harmony, Perfect Harmony”
“Who Loves You” (#3 in the U.S.; #6 in the U.K.; #20 in Canada; #13 in South Africa; #16 in Australia)
“Mystic Mr. Sam”
“December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” (#1 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and South Africa; #2 in New Zealand; #3 in Ireland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Australia; #6 in Norway; #11 in Sweden; #12 in Scotland; #16 in Germany) (one of the most overplayed songs ever!)
“Slip Away”
“Emily’s (Salle de Danse)”

Yes, there’s an obvious disco sound to some of the songs, but they don’t sound dated or only good for dancing. This album is the complete package of a mid-Seventies sound with The Four Seasons’ unique voice.

Unexpected Neighbors

Here’s another post originally intended for the long-gone Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop, which I wanted to move out of my drafts folder already. Originally scheduled for 8 September 2012, it differs somewhat from the published version.

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This week’s excerpt is the point where I’ll be ending my excerpts from Little Ragdoll, since if I went much further, it would give too much away. In the future, I may feature some excerpts from earlier in the book, or some future excerpts that don’t give anything vital away.

In Chapter 52, “Unexpected Neighbors,” Justine says she notices the next door neighbors finally pulled into their driveway last night. As she and Adicia are wondering who their neighbors on the end of the cul-de-sac might be, the doorbell rings, and everyone gets a shock in more ways than one.

Thank you all so much for your kind, encouraging comments on Little Ragdoll and its characters! I’m so glad I finally went back to this long-hiatused story from scratch and memory 16.5 years later. The way it ultimately turned out was a story I couldn’t have written at 13-14, when I was working on the (beyond-awful) discontinued original first draft.

***

Adicia opens the door and takes several steps back in astonishment.  Allen, a very pregnant Lenore, and their two daughters are standing right in front of her, all of them looking just as stunned.

“What in the world!” Allen says. “What in the world are you doing in the house next door to us?”

“We didn’t even know you’d come up here!” Lenore agrees. “Did you come by while we were on vacation at Lake George?”

Justine hears their familiar voices and rushes over. “You live in our new neighborhood?”

Lenore hugs both of them. “However you came to be here, I’m so glad to see you’re safe and sound.  And you came in time for my baby to be born.  It’s due in September.”

Allen turns around and looks at the dark red Super Beetle in the driveway. “Adicia, when did you learn to drive, and where did you get the money to buy or lease a car?”

“I haven’t learnt to drive yet.  I’ve been waiting to find a teacher who’ll come to the house, or for you or Lucine to come back from vacation so I can start learning.”

“So then how and why did you get a car?  Am I about to hear something that’ll make me very upset?  And how did you know Lucine’s on vacation?  Did you run into her and she never told us in the few days our vacations overlapped?”

“How did you get such a nice house?” Lenore asks. “Are you renting a room here?  Don’t tell me you took up squatting.”

“The house is paid for in full, as is the car,” Adicia says.

“Where in the world did that kinda money come from?” Allen asks. “Boy, I never expected to come back from my summer vacation at the lake to find my youngest sisters moved into the house next door.  Is this legit money you used to pay for all this?  This furniture I’m seeing just in the living room doesn’t look cheap either.”

“I have enough money in my bank account to afford to live comfortably for awhile to come.  There’s plenty of money in there for Justine too.”

“Since when did you get a bank account?  And how in the world did you already manage to stash so much dough in there that you’d be able to support yourselves long-term?  Who gave you that kinda money?  Is this clean money?  Who’s your sugar daddy?”

“I don’t have a sugar daddy.  I’m not that kinda girl.”

“Why don’t we sit down so we can catch up?” Lenore asks. “We came over here to meet the new neighbors, and even if we already know them, we can still have a proper visit.”

“Would you like something to eat or drink?”

“No, we’re fine.” Lenore sits down on the overstuffed brown leather davenport. “Nice furniture.  I wish we had leather upholstery.”

Irene crawls onto Adicia’s lap and smiles up at her aunt. “We missed you.  You missed my fifth birthday last month, but you won’t miss my first day of school.”

Amelia is captivated by the sparkly sapphire on her aunt’s left hand and pulls her hand closer to her face. “Your ring is pretty.”

“Do you like my other ring too, the one with the flowers?” Adicia asks.

Allen stares at Adicia’s rings and grabs her hand away from Amelia so he can examine the rings himself. “Who’s been giving you this kinda expensive jewelry, Adicia?  I have a sick feeling in my stomach that this has something to do with that rich boy Warrick, and if you tell me he’s the one who’s been plying you with money, houses, cars, jewelry, and other expensive presents, you’ll have a hell of a time convincing me not to go give him a piece of my mind for using you like that.  You’re a respectable girl from a poor and working-class community, not some kept woman to be kept in a gilded cage for the entertainment of some limousine liberal who was born with a diamond-encrusted silver spoon in his mouth.”

“You can’t do or say anything to Ricky right now, since he left on Thursday morning for boot camp.  They drafted him, and he’s being forced to go to Vietnam.  His number was eighty-eight, and since he withdrew from Columbia, he lost his student deferment.” Adicia looks down, overcome by sorrow at having lost her husband so soon.

“Wait, that guy was living with you?  And Justine was here in the house too?  Please do not tell me you did anything with him.”

“He was drafted?” Lenore asks. “Come over here and sit by me, sweetie.”

Adicia gently pulls Irene off her lap and goes over to Lenore, leaning against her as Lenore puts her arm around her and gives Allen a dirty look.