Happy 50th birthday to Tommy, Part I (General overview)

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Tommy, released 17 May 1969, was The Who’s fourth studio album, and the album that saved them. While they’d had a bunch of hit songs in their native England and played at Monterey Pop in 1967, they still weren’t giant superstars. They desperately needed a hit, both for the sake of their finances and their personal reputations.

Enter their glorious Hail Mary pass.

Tommy not only pulled them back from threatened bankruptcy and irrelevance, it also did wonders beyond wonders for Roger’s voice and self-confidence. Classic rock fans are well familiar with Roger’s powerful pipes on songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Slip Kid,” “Who Are You,” and “The Real Me,” but before the experience of touring Tommy all over the world and singing the powerful role of this character who goes through such an intense journey, Roger’s voice was rather unrefined.

Just look at 1967’s The Who Sell Out for proof. Roger only sings lead on five of the thirteen original tracks. Pete sings five more, and John sings the rest. One of those songs features Pete and Roger sharing lead vocals. Roger just wasn’t a vocal powerhouse yet, and lacked ample range.

The storyline on the album (versus the slightly different one in the movie):

Captain Walker goes missing and is believed dead. His widow presently gives birth to a boy named Thomas, whom she raises with a new lover. In 1921, Captain Walker returns home and discovers his replacement. In a violent rage, he murders the lover, and Mrs. Walker tells Tommy, who witnessed the murder, that he didn’t see or hear anything. He can never tell anyone what he knows is the truth.

Tommy becomes a psychosomatic blind-deaf-mute due to this traumatic experience, similar to how the unnamed narrator of The Painted Bird becomes a psychosomatic mute after cruel, suspicious villagers horrifically attack him on the holiday of Corpus Christi.

Tommy can now only experience the world through vibrations, all of which he interprets as beautiful music, even horrible things like getting molested by his Uncle Ernie and tortured by his sadistic cousin Kevin. However, Tommy can see his own reflection in the mirror.

LP One closes with Tommy’s sexual awakening with the Acid Queen, who also gives him LSD. The ten-minute instrumental “Underture” has always sounded exactly like I’d imagine an acid trip to be.

As he gets older, Tommy becomes a pinball champion, thanks to Pete wanting to butter up music critic Nik Cohn for a good review. Mr. Cohn was a big pinball fan.

Captain and Mrs. Walker take Tommy to a doctor who cures him, but he’s still mentally blocked from engaging with his senses until his mother realises he can see his reflection in the mirror. After she smashes it, Tommy wakes up as if from a dream, and begins to see, hear, and speak again.

Tommy becomes a Messiah figure, everyone’s hero, but ultimately grows very uncomfortable with his idol status. His disciples also reject him, displeased with his teachings, and leave the holiday camp where he’s preaching. Tommy reverts back to being a psychosomatic blind-deaf-mute and plaintively cries out for healing.

Track listing:

“Overture” (mostly instrumental)
“It’s a Boy” (hearkening back to the bittersweet, haunting ending of “Glow Girl,” but for the change of the baby’s sex) (sung by Pete)
“1921” (sung by Pete)
“Amazing Journey”
“Sparks” (instrumental)
“The Hawker” (a.k.a. “Eyesight to the Blind”) (written by Sonny Boy Williamson)
“Christmas”
“Cousin Kevin” (written and sung by John)
“The Acid Queen” (sung by Pete)
“Underture” (instrumental)
“Do You Think It’s Alright?”
“Fiddle About” (written and sung by John)
“Pinball Wizard” (#4 in the U.K.; #6 in South Africa and Canada; #8 in New Zealand; #12 in The Netherlands; #14 in Ireland; #15 in Switzerland and the U.S. Cash Box chart; #19 on U.S. Billboard; #25 in Germany; #45 in Australia; #89 in France) (one of the most overplayed songs ever!)
“There’s a Doctor”
“Go to the Mirror!”
“Tommy Can You Hear Me?”
“Smash the Mirror”
“Sensation” (sung by Pete)
“Miracle Cure”
“Sally Simpson”
“I’m Free”
“Welcome” (total throwaway garbage)
“Tommy’s Holiday Camp” (sung by Keith)
“We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You”

A botched swan song

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Released September 1992 by Curb Records, Hope + Glory was The Four Seasons’ final studio album, and unfortunately failed on every level. Just to start with, the cover makes it look like a New Age record!

As always, songwriter Bob Gaudio’s strategy was to keenly listen to popular sounds of the day and translate that into a winning album full of hits for his band. This was a winning strategy for most of the Sixties, and while it was hit-or-miss during the Seventies, it nevertheless resulted in possibly the band’s best work.

It missed the mark in 1985, but there were still enough touches of the band’s established voice and style to pull it off somewhat decently. (I also admit my nostalgic bias for that trademark Eighties sound!)

In spite of a string of commercial failures, Bob was determined to try yet again to mount a successful comeback and prove his band could still sit comfortably on the Top 100 with a bunch of young whippersnappers who hadn’t even been born when The Four Seasons had their first hit.

What was all the rage in ’92? Hip-hop, new jack swing, soft rock, and adult contemporary. Many of those songs were also full of synths and electronic beats. A far cry from their familiar hits of the Sixties, but they’d constantly proven they weren’t afraid to try new things.

Yet Hope + Glory was also a commercial bomb, with no singles. Why might that have been, beyond the band being long past their heyday and a time when a new generation would’ve eagerly given them a third wind of popularity?

Remember my analogy about the historical fantasy writer who moves into subgenres related to fantasy and historical with a fair bit of success, then tries sci-fi because it’s trendy? Many of her fans eagerly bought her steampunk, alternative history, and contemporary urban fantasy novels, and while her sci-fi attempt was far less successful, it still had enough touches of her established voice and style, albeit buried under copycatting of the latest trends.

Now imagine she hitches her star to YA contemporary. Not only that, her POV and tense are completely different, and she’s trying to sound like someone she’s never been. Every page is full of quickly-dated language like “So I may or may not be doing all the things and having all the feels.”

Longtime fans, by and large, are going to cringe in horror. It’s not that no one can write a popular book like that, but it won’t age well. In fact, it already sounds dated upon its release! Age doesn’t improve it either. It still sounds like a sad attempt to be someone she’s not decades later, with no emotional connection to the story.

Not only did she fail to read the strongest examples of this subgenre and understand what made them stand above the pack, she mindlessly copied instead of translating anything into her long-established unique voice and style. Neither her most devoted fans nor a new generation were having it.

There are some great lyrics on Hope + Glory, but they’re so buried under awful production! This also sounds more like Frankie with any old backing band, not a true Four Seasons record. He even sings two songs with a female vocalist.

Compare this to The Wedding Album, released February ’93. They came out only months apart, yet whereas Hope + Glory sounds super-dated and like a mindless copycat of popular songs anyone in that era could’ve done, The Wedding Album has aged so well and shines with timelessness. One band was true to themselves and earned a huge comeback, while the other cared more about chasing the next big trend and in so doing forgot what made them special.

I also feel really uncomfortable listening to Frankie singing about sex! It’s nowhere near Prince-level explicit, but that’s never been his style! His prior songs with sexual subtexts weren’t that up-front or disturbing.

Track listing:

“Love Has a Mind of Its Own”
“Learn How to Say Goodbye”
“Hope and Glory” (a duet with Frankie and Bob, possibly the standout)
“This Time”
“You and Your Heart So Blue”
“Run for Your Life”
“Help Me to Believe in You” (everything about this song makes me cringe, even the title!)
“State of My Heart”
“The Girl of My Dreams”
“Even Now”
“Just the Way You Make Love”
“The Naked I”

A contemporary makeover that failed

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Released August 1985, Streetfighter was The Four Seasons’ first studio album since commercial bomb Helicon (1977). By this point in the band’s career, songwriter Bob Gaudio knew it was probably a lost cause to recapture the fan base who’d long since moved on. Instead, he turned his attention to crafting a record in tune with popular sounds.

This was always his aim, listening to contemporary songs and trying to translate that style into his band’s unique voice. This approach was golden during the Sixties, though it notably failed in 1969’s Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. During the Seventies, this approach was hit or miss, though it most notably succeeded with a huge comeback in 1975.

Towards this end, Bob turned to former co-writer Sandy Linzer for help. Together, they’d produced a number of big hits in the Sixties. On Streetfighter, Linzer co-wrote five of the eight songs. Surely such accomplished songwriters, with such a keen ear for currently popular sounds, could craft another great comeback for The Four Seasons.

What was popular in 1985? Lots of synths and electronic beats. As a proud Eighties kid, I can’t complain about that unmistakable sound, but it’s not exactly one most people associate with The Four Seasons. As much as I dislike people who rant about a band or artist daring to try a much different style instead of spending their entire career remaking the same album in different iterations, something’s a bit off here.

In my review of Helicon, I used an analogy of a writer who earned fame for historical fantasies, then tried her hand at steampunk, alternative history, and contemporary urban fantasy. Some fans might only be interested in the subgenre she established a name for herself in, while others will eagerly follow her into those other, somewhat related subgenres of fantasy and historical.

The Four Seasons’ career followed a similar trajectory. As different as records like GILG, Who Loves You, and Helicon were from their familiar sound, they nonetheless were underpinned by the same general style and voice. They’re obvious Four Seasons’ records.

Now imagine that writer decides to try sci-fi because it’s really trendy, and she wants to capture a new fan base. While her new genre bears some similarities to fantasy, in that it imagines other worlds, it’s a lot further from typical fantasy than steampunk or any other subgenre.

Still, there are enough hallmarks of her usual style to pull it off fairly well. Her natural voice is a bit buried under currently popular styles, but she doesn’t come off as entirely trying to be a completely different writer.

That’s exactly how Streetfighter feels. There are enough touches of the band’s established voice and style, but they’re starting to fall by the wayside. All those synths and electronic beats bury some great songs and make them sound too much like those of any other Eighties act who didn’t achieve longterm popularity.

None of the singles charted, and the album was a commercial bomb. It seemed obvious The Four Seasons were over as anything but an oldies circuit band, but Bob Gaudio was determined to try one more time to craft a popular record that would earn them a new fanbase.

Track listing:

“Streetfighter” (one of their quintessential songs, perfectly capturing Frankie’s musical image as a tough guy with a heart of gold)
“Veronica”
“Moonlight Memories”
“Book of Love”
“Did Someone Break into Your Heart Last Night”
“Commitment”
“Once Inside a Woman’s Heart”
“What About Tomorrow” (my fave track)

A somewhat mislabeled reunion

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Released January 1981, Reunited Live, in spite of what the title might suggest, is a reunion of some of the latter-day Four Seasons, not either of the two classic era lineups. Nick Massi, Tommy DeVito, and Joe Long appear nowhere in this 1980 Garden State Art Center concert, though Bob Gaudio did play keyboards.

Present instead are Don Ciccone (guitar and vocals), Jerry Corbetta (keyboard and vocals), Gerry Polci (drums and vocals), and Larry Lingle (guitar and vocals). Absent from the latter-day lineup are Lee Shapiro (keyboards) and John Paiva (guitar). Probably because this is a reunion of a later incarnation of the band, their Seventies material is featured much more heavily. The Sixties songs all appear as medleys, not full songs.

Thanks to venerable L.A. ear surgeon Victor Goodhill, Frankie’s otosclerosis was healed by this point. Dr. Goodhill used bones from UCLA’s bone bank to make a new stapes bone for each ear. The hearing in one ear went from 35% to 98%, and a year later, the second operation brought the other ear up to 87%. With most of his hearing restored, Frankie was able to sing most of the lead vocals on this record.

While there may have been some studio sweetening, this is a great live show, showing this incarnation of The Four Seasons in top-notch form. They were never a live band like The Who, but I don’t think anyone would expect their stage presence to markedly differ from their studio style. What you hear is what you get.

It’s also great to hear Frankie singing again, live no less, so soon after the miraculous restoration of his hearing. These songs show him in peak vocal form, in comparison to how he lip-syncs all his shows these days (though that’s the topic for another post!).

Track listing:

“Who Loves You”
“Our Day Will Come”
Medley of “Save It for Me,” “Rag Doll,” “Dawn (Go Away),” and “Let’s Hang On!”
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”
“Fallen Angel”
“Silver Star”
“Slip Away”
“December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”
“Swearin’ to God”
“My Eyes Adored You”
Medley of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Workin’ My Way Back to You,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “Opus 17”
“Spend the Night in Love” (#91 in the U.S.)
“Heaven Must Have Sent You (Here in the Night)”
“Grease”
Medley of “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye)”

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)”