I’m not a fan of the Four Seasons, generally. This may come as a surprise to some of you, because of my love of the Beach Boys’ music, but while the two bands share some superficial similarities (mostly in that both were vocal harmony groups with falsetto leads), they were in fact very different bands. The Beach Boys used a much wider musical palette, combining elements from Gershwin, the Four Freshmen, Phil Spector, Bach, Bacharach and Chuck Berry, while for the most part the Four Seasons seemed limited to Dion-esque white-boy doo-wop, but with a four-on-the-floor Motown beat rather than the swing time of songs like The Wanderer.
To make matters worse, Frankie Valli’s falsetto is, frankly, horrible. Where Brian Wilson had a sweet, pure, full tone, Valli’s was thin and nasal, and he often had pitching problems – if you listen to him carefully, you can often hear that he flats the note then swoops up to hit the correct one.
But Bob Gaudio, one of the backing vocalists in the band, and co-writer with producer Bob Crewe of most of the band’s biggest hits, was quite an accomplished composer when he was allowed out of the formula the band got into. And with lyricist Jake Holmes he wrote two of the very best albums ever recorded. I wrote a little about Watertown by Frank Sinatra last week, but Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, the album the two wrote for the Four Seasons, is, if anything even better. It’s also even less widely known – it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Right from the start, this album, from 1969, sounds nothing like the doo-wop/Motown hybrid of their hits. Starting with a fanfare, opening track American Crucifixion Resurrection sets the tone for much of the rest of the album:
Unbound slaves stand outside the gate
With lengths of broken chain they wait
Empty stomachs filled with hate
No-one told the heads of state, the Prince of peace is sleeping late
Who will wait on the lords and ladies, who will cry when they lose their crowns?
Sleeping through the years of error, waking in a reign of terror
Conceptually, the album is something like the Monkees’ Head – a band who had been pure pop stretching out into something very different – but musically it’s far more interesting. The closest comparisons I can think of are Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle and Scott Walker’s early solo work – all Hollywood orchestrations, oblique, vaguely unsettling lyrics, and unconventional song structures. American Crucifixion Resurrection, for example, is nearly seven minutes long, and ranges from atonal orchestrations to extremely fast honky-tonk piano and back again.
Mrs Stately’s Garden is the closest thing to the normal Four Seasons sound, sounding like it could easily fit on the Turtles’ Turtle Soup (another album I need to deal with here). Lyrically, it’s quite biting, reporting the conversation of a few old ladies over tea, discussing the suicide of a young girl:
saltines and jasmine tea in Mrs Stately’s Garden
There has even been talk of a child (Well, the Millers have always been wild, poor thing).
The boy that she’d been seeing moved to Watertown…
Do you think he knew what she had done? My boy Roger would never have run…
I don’t think we should see Marge Miller any more… you can’t mingle with people like that (get up Alice, you’re crushing my hat), poor thing
Look Up, Look Over, from its melody could almost be a Barry Manilow song or something equally treacly, but the production, sparse and empty and funereal, sounds almost like some of the Velvet Underground’s more downbeat music, like Ride Into The Sun. A minor track, but quite interesting.
Something’s On Her Mind sounds like something off the Zombies’ Odessey And Oracle, a happy, cheerful uptempo pop song, but with strange honky-tonk piano with tons of tape wobble put on it.
Saturday’s Father on the other hand is just about the saddest song ever written – a song about a father visiting his children after a divorce, it’s the clearest pointer on this album to the themes of Watertown:
He’ll take them to a puppet show, the little one can’t wait to go
Today is father’s day.
See them always smiling for what games to play
Fun to have a daddy every Saturday
Like with much of the album, it’s not so much the lyrics as the orchestrations – the album has a curiously flat production so I can’t make out individual instruments, but it sounds like a mixture of harmonium and accordions and honky tonk piano. Almost everything on this album is ever-so-slightly out of tune – everything’s a discord, nothing feels right or comfortable at all. It’s slick and full orchestration, but with beats dropped and tempos changing almost at random. Lots of the orchestration sounds like early Mothers Of Invention albums – all thin, reedy discords.
Wall Street Village Day is one of the more normal sounding songs on the album, sounding vaguely Jimmy Webb.
Genuine Imitation Life is trying a bit too hard to be ‘psychedelic’, with lyrics like “Chameleons changing colours while a crocodile crys/People rubbing elbows but never touching eyes/Taking off their mask, revealing still another guise”, a piano introduction that seems to owe a little to Hurdy Gurdy Man and an ending ripped off from Hey Jude. It feels very much like the Monkees’ Porpoise Song, another piece of forced psychedelia from this time period, but is nowhere near as good as the Monkees’ song (which manages to overcome its silliness), Probably the weakest song on the album by a long way.
Idaho is irritating me right now, because it has the exact same melody as an old standard by someone like Stephen Foster, but I can’t for the life of me think what it is. Sung in near-unison over the same bassline as Heroes & Villains, this could quite easily have fit on the Beach Boys’ Smile.
Wonder What You’ll Be reminds me of After Hours musically, with a little bit of Frank Zappa’s America Drinks thrown in. A jazz flavoured crooner, with chord changes that go all over the place and drums that sound like they’re sampled.
Soul Of A Woman, the final track, goes from a Neil Diamond-esque ballad into uptempo sections that sound like the Four Tops into big swooping Hollywood orchestration almost at random. It’s far too long at seven minutes thirteen seconds, but it’s still a fascinating closer.
I’ve not really done justice to this album – it’s a profoundly strange record, and bears almost no relation to anything else in the Four Seasons’ catalogue. If you can imagine a combination of the Mothers’ Absolutely Free, the Kinks’ Arthur, the second Velvet Underground album, Scott 3, Pet Sounds, Song Cycle, and the best of Andy Williams, listened to through a couple of tin cans on string, then you might just about be able to imagine it.
The album can be heard at last.fm, and you should really listen to it – especially if you’re one of the apparently growing number who love Watertown, this album’s younger sibling.