Happy 50th birthday, Abbey Road!

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Released 26 September 1969, Abbey Road was The Beatles’ last studio album in terms of when it was recorded. Though the painfully spotty Let It Be was released in May 1970, the bulk of it was recorded before AR.

This would’ve been the perfect swan song to go out on. The album is absolutely brilliant, lightyears away from LIB. Though some people complain about all the song snippets on Side Two, they work perfectly in the musical context. Without all these miniature songs blending in and out of one another, it wouldn’t be the same album.

Recording began 22 February 1969, with producer George Martin agreeing to work with the band again on strict condition they let him produce it “the way we used to do it.” They also had to promise to adhere to a reasonable measure of discipline and behave themselves properly.

It seemed an impossible proposition after the acrimonious mood during the recording of their previous two albums, but in spite of continuing interpersonal tensions, it was a much more enjoyable experience all around.

The resulting album was a compromise between two schools of style. John wanted a traditional album with distinct, unrelated songs, while Paul and George Martin wanted a running theme like they’d done on the most overrated album of all time. Side One follows John’s style, while Side Two famously adheres to the latter vision.

John, never one to mince words, wasn’t exactly fond of the resulting product. He would’ve preferred his songs on one side and Paul’s on the other, and lit into Paul’s lightweight “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” as granny music. As for Side Two, John thought the medleys were “junk…just bits of songs thrown together.”

The band did little to promote AR, though it shot to #1 regardless, in the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Spain, and West Germany. Over the last fifty years, critics have by and large highly praised it. It’s in my own Top 5 of fave Beatles’ albums.

Track listing:

“Come Together” (#1 in the U.S., #4 in the U.K.)
“Something” (#1 in the U.S., Australia, West Germany, Canada, and New Zealand; #2 in Norway; #3 in Ireland; #4 in the U.K.; #5 in Sweden; #11 in Austria)
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
“Oh! Darling”
“Octopus’s Garden”
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (recorded the last time all four Beatles were in the studio together, and a forerunner to doom metal)
“Here Comes the Sun”
“Because” (Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played backwards)
“You Never Give Me Your Money” (first of the mini-songs)
“Sun King”
“Mean Mr. Mustard”
“Polythene Pam”
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”
“Golden Slumbers” (a poem from Thomas Dekker’s play Patient Grissel, written 1599 and published 1603)
“Carry That Weight”
“The End”
“Your Majesty” (an ultra-short snippet after fourteen seconds of silence)

My fave tracks are “I Want You” (which wasn’t so popular originally), “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “The End.” I love the emotionally expectant mood of the final few songs (not counting hidden track “Your Majesty”), this tension building and building till the most perfect, bittersweet swan song ever.

Happy 50th birthday to Tommy, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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Tommy was recorded from 19 September 1968–7 March 1969, and inspired by Pete’s guru Meher Baba (25 February 1894–31 January 1969). This is particularly meaningful in the context of Tommy because Meher Baba voluntarily went silent on 10 July 1925 and remained so till his death. He communicated with an alphabet board and hand signals. To this day, many of his followers observe Silence Day on 10 July.

From the early days of The Who, Pete wanted to break out of the box of three-minute pop singles, and to explore deeper themes even within said short songs. Traces of his magnum opus Lifehouse can be heard as early as 1966’s “I’m a Boy.”

Pete’s musical evolution continued full-force with the very uncharacteristic (for the era) nine-minute title closing track on A Quick One. This song has six different movements, telling one continuous story.

The Who’s 1967 album closes with another mini-opera, “Rael,” which continues with the brief “Rael 2” on the CD remaster. The roots of “Sparks” and “Underture” are heard here. “Glow Girl,” the closing bonus track (which also appears on 1974’s Odds and Sods), is about a plane crash ending in reincarnation and the refrain “It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl.”

This became “It’s a Boy,” only “Of course, Tommy was a dear little boy,” as Pete wrote in the liner notes to O&S.

A number of Tommy‘s songs were originally written for other projects or about other subjects, but Pete repurposed them. In August 1968, he gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he went into great detail about this album in progress. He described the storyline better than the final product!

Pete later regretted spilling so many details, since he felt compelled to follow them precisely instead of editing and revising his story as he felt necessary. The other three bandmembers loved his ideas, however, and gave him complete creative control.

Working titles included Journey into Space, The Brain Opera, Amazing Journey, Omnibus, and Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy. In that era, “dumb” was the standard word for “mute,” though of course we know today that mutism doesn’t mean one is stupid. It wasn’t used to be deliberately offensive and hurtful. Context and intent are so important in looking at things from bygone eras.

Pete settled on Tommy because it was a nickname for soldiers in WWI, and a common British name of the time. Being the self-admitted pretentious guy he is, Pete prefers to call this album Thomas.

John wrote and sang “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About” because Pete couldn’t bring himself to handle such dark subjects as bullying and child molestation. Contrary to what certain people are still convinced of, Pete has long campaigned against child abuse, and was molested himself.

All evidence has cleared Pete and the thousands of others wrongly accused during the mishandled Operation Ore. Real fans know this, and Pete himself admits he did something really stupid and dangerous to try to take down the real abusers. Unlike a certain other person (coughmichaeljacksoncough), he doesn’t have a decades-long history of huge red flags and creepy behaviour with kids.

Unusual for the band at the time, many songs were more vocally-driven than instrumental. Tommy has a less hard rock sound in its studio version, though it absolutely cooks live.

Though Keith probably didn’t write “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” he got songwriting credit for suggesting the idea.

After rock journalist Nik Cohn (born 1946) poorly reviewed a working version, Pete suggested Tommy might become a pinball champion. Mr. Cohn, a huge pinball fan, immediately changed his tune. And thus was born one of the most overplayed songs in the history of classic rock radio.

Co-manager Kit Lambert wanted an orchestra, but Pete was firmly against it. That was too pretentious even for him, and their budget and schedule wouldn’t allow it anyway.

Like 1973’s QuadropheniaTommy had Sides 1 and 4 on one LP and 2 and 3 on the other, to accommodate record changers. These devices played multiple LPs in sequence without a human flipping them.

Tommy was #2 in the U.K. and #4 in the U.S., and reached gold status in the U.S. on 18 August. It had mixed critical reviews, but saved The Who from breakup and bankruptcy. Final track “Listening to You” was a genuine song of thanks to their loyal fans who stood by them for so many years, in lean times as well as prosperous.

Over the years, Tommy has been adapted by several opera and dance companies, and became a movie in 1975 and a Broadway musical in 1992. The Who played the album live until 20 December 1970, and used shorter portions throughout the decade. They revived it in its entirety during their 1989 reunion tour, often called The Who on Ice because of all the extra musicians and backup singers.

Tommy is truly the miracle that turned The Who’s entire career around forever.

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)