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:

“And That Reminds Me” (#45 in the U.S.)
“Circles in the Sand” (probably my fave track!)
“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”
“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.

Happy 50th birthday, GILG!

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Released January 1969 (sorry, was unable to find the exact date), The Four Seasons’ Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is one of those albums which originally bombed but is now regarded as an absolute masterpiece.

Critics really liked it, but it only sold about 150,000 copies, and the singles did extremely poorly. Four Seasons’ fans were confused, shocked, and angry, since GILG was such a radical departure from their familiar sound.

This was also a time when a great many musical acts who’d been very popular for a long time began falling off the charts. Public tastes were radically changing, and bands like The Four Seasons, The Beach Boys, Herman’s Hermits, and The Dave Clark Five were suddenly considered uncool and irrelevant, even when they tried to evolve with the changing musical landscape.

The psychedelic pop sound, and pop in general, was also on its way out, being replaced by the heavier sounds of bands like Cream, Vanilla Fudge, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Iron Butterfly, and Steppenwolf. Add that to how The Four Seasons weren’t exactly in their early twenties.

GILG just came out at the worst time possible for commercial success. Even if The Four Seasons had looked towards copying the abovementioned bands instead of psychedelic pop, most deejays wouldn’t have played it anyway.

It’s comparable to one of the real reasons many popular silent actors lost popularity in the early sound era. Almost all of them survived the transition just fine, but after the dust began settling, the public came to regard them as embarrassing relics of a bygone age best forgotten.

After this bomb, the band retreated back into a more familiar sound for two last minor hits in 1969, but it was too late. The musical landscape was far too different, their second classic lineup broke up, and their hardcore fans had already moved on. Had GILG done well, The Four Seasons’ Seventies sound might have been so much different.

They had an amazing comeback in 1975, thanks to successfully copying popular sounds at the right time, but their incredible 1978 follow-up unfortunately didn’t do very well, and their 1985 and 1992 albums didn’t chart at all.

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks:

“American Crucifixion Resurrection”
“Mrs. Stately’s Garden”
“Look Up Look Over”
“Something’s on Her Mind” (#98 in the U.S.)
“Wall Street Village Day”
“Saturday’s Father” (#103 in the U.S.)
“Genuine Imitation Life”
“Idaho” (#95 in the U.S.)
“Wonder What You’ll Be”
“Soul of a Woman” (one of their most moving songs, celebrating a woman’s entire life from birth till death)
“Watch the Flowers Grow”* (#30 in the U.S.)
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”* (#24 in the U.S.)
“Electric Stories”* (#61 in the U.S.)

I obviously highly recommend this album. If you only associate The Four Seasons with songs like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Let’s Hang On!,” I encourage you to give this album a listen and see the kind of depth and maturity they were capable of, both musically and lyrically.

Look beyond the hits

This is a sort of follow-up to my post about the decline of oldies and classic rock radio over the last decade.

Back when there was an album reviews section of thewho.net (which I proudly wrote many reviews for), someone made a comment about how greatest hits collections are for little girls and housewives. I kind of have to agree with that, while recognising the importance a greatest hits tape can have for a potential new fan.

There are some musical acts who were always stronger with singles than albums, while other bands are better-known for their albums than their singles. And other bands were great at both. But you can’t just rest on only knowing a musical act (band, vocal group, duo, solo singer, etc.) if you only know the greatest hits.

Serious fans tend to prefer songs that aren’t so well-known. It’s not that a serious fan never counts any of the popular songs among his or her favourites, or chooses obscure or lesser-known tracks on purpose, but just that a serious fan is more likely to be aware of the under the radar songs.

When I say The Monkees are awesome and criminally underrated, I’m not talking about the overplayed hits like “Daydream Believer” or “I’m a Believer.” I’m talking about the really deep, mature, socially conscious, experimental songs like “Daily Nightly,” “Zor and Zam,” “Shades of Grey,” “Sometime in the Morning,” “The Porpoise Song.” You know, the types of songs you’d never hear on the radio, the types of songs the average non-fan has never heard of. The Monkees were about so much more than simplistic pop heavily marketed to teenyboppers.

The Four Seasons were my second musical love. When I got into them in the Spring of ’93, there were so many more of their songs in rotation on the two oldies stations, basically all their big hits up through 1967. But they also had a number of lesser hits, great B-sides, and some hits from their days of dwindling popularity in the late Sixties—a gorgeous cover of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Tell It to the Rain,” “C’mon Marianne,” a thoughtful cover of The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Beggin,'” the original “Silence Is Golden,” “Big Man in Town,” the criminally underrated album track “Soul of a Woman.”

These days, I hear only a small sample of the songs that got me into them. I can’t remember the last time I heard “Dawn (Go Away),” “Ronnie,” “Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye),” “Candy Girl,” or “Save It for Me.” To be honest, The Four Seasons were never really an albums band (and came too late with their Sixties masterpiece Genuine Imitation Life Gazette to regain their severely shrunken popularity), but they had a lot of damn good singles. A lot more than just the 5-6 songs left in regular rotation.

I got interested in The Who at thirteen, began to really like them at fourteen, and started to love them and hold them as my favourite band and fourth musical love at twenty. Oldies radio has never really played any of their songs, though they actually played more of their songs back in my early teens. Classic rock radio tends to play the same 5-6 songs over and over again. I freaking hate “Pinball Wizard” because of this, and for a long time was sick of “Behind Blue Eyes” as well. This was really a band I had to go out and discover on my own, since they’re so criminally underplayed, at least where I’ve lived. Although the classic rock station out of Springfield, MA seemed to be a bit better with variety.

My original favourite Hollies’ song was “Stop Stop Stop,” because of that hypnotic banjo. When was the last time the local oldies station even touched that song? It was a Top 10 hit! And what happened to other hits like “On a Carousel,” “Look Through Any Window,” “Jennifer Eccles,” “The Air That I Breathe”? They were always much more popular in the U.K., but why perpetuate that now that their entire catalogue is available on both sides of the pond and it’s stood the test of time? And why not play some album tracks instead of gearing up “Long Cool Woman” or “Bus Stop” for the millionth time?

The only relative exception are The Beatles. Most radio stations do play a lot more of their songs than other bands, including B-sides, album tracks, and lesser hits, from all periods of their career. Still, there are a lot of songs that aren’t played as much as they used to be, or are never played.

Big hits can be the hook that draws one in and gets one interested in a band. The album tracks, B-sides, and lesser hits are the glue that makes one stay.