Four Seasons In One Day Or Down In The Valli

Back again my friends to the blog that never ends!

I am sure that each one of you in blog land has your musical “guilty pleasures.” You know, the band or artist that you love that probably would make your friends laugh because they are out of style or or are involved in a particular genre of music which is not considered “cool.” I will bravely step out on a limb and give you two of mine: The Bee Gees and The Four Seasons. While talents all, they don’t really come up too often on top ten lists or when people are asked to give their favorite bands of all time. Still, at one time or another, both of these bands were very, very popular and no one can deny their careers or their talent.

Today, I am going to talk about some recent reissues of some of the best of the Four Seasons’ albums and we’ll just forget I mentioned the Bee Gees at all, okay? Thanks…..

Four Seasons – Folk Nanny/Born To Wander
Four Seasons – Working My Way Back To You/The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette
Four Seasons – Reunited Live
Four Seasons – Streetfighter/Hope and Glory
Four Seasons – Half and Half/Helicon
Collector’s Choice

When contemplating the best bands in rock and roll history with an acquaintance or two, you’ll get a lot of interesting choices – from the popular to the obscure. You’ll get the obligatory Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC etc. and then you’ll get the slightly weirder choices like Badfinger, Raspberries, Atomic Rooster – that kind of thing. I can guarantee you’ll never hear the name Four Seasons when taking that kind of poll, despite all of their hits. Unfortunately looked upon as lightweight and a throwback to the Vegas-like showmanship of vocal groups like The Four Lads and their ilk due to their polished style and effortless harmonies, they are often looked upon as the Englebert Humperdincks and Robert Goulet’s of rock and roll.

And that’s just wrong for so mnay reasons!

After listening to a great deal of their output due to the new reissues listed above from Collector’s Choice, I’ve figured out there is way more to this group than most realize. A hit-making act from the early ’60’s all the way to the early ’80’s (the band has had some “re-mix” hits since but we won’t count those) lead singer Frankie Valli and the rest of the Seasons (who wrote most of their own hits thanks to member Bob Gaudio) epitomize streetcorner cool. A real Italian tough guy who is brazen enough to hit the highest, most feminine notes and dare you to say something about it, Valli (like Dion and Brian Wilson – two other extraordinary vocalists not afraid to sing in a high register) can floor you just as fast with his voice as with his fists. His “gang” of buddies are also no slouches in the vocal department, either. Their harmonies are gorgeous and the instrumental work on the album is always geared for the song but never maudlin or sappy.

That being said, both the early albums Folk Nanny and Born To Wander sound really dated to my ears. Not only does the stodgy folk material not lend itself to great treatment by these glorified doo-woppers, but the songs they have picked are pretty cliched. As the era of the Four Lads and Hi-Los were coming to an end, making a way for doo-wop and rock and roll, these albums seem meant to bridge the gap and carry the group from one audience to another. Sadly, those interested in the exciting pop sounds of the band will find little to like here as these sides are very restrained and tame. Folk fans may be disappointed as well as the songs are not really direct and powerful, the way the best folk music should be. These two albums can be described as Vegas folk and are for the die-hard fan only.

Working My Way Back To You is vintage Four Seasons. Containing the monster hit of the same name and several other hits, this album features the sound of the band as most remember it. Street corner tough guys working their modified doo-wop and blue-eyed R&B sound to perfection and scoring radio hits by the busload. This is one of their all-time classic albums and every fan of the band should definitely pick this one up. It is sure to provide a lot of trips down memory lane for people who were around in the ’60’s and listen to this.

In other words, sublime pop-soul music.

Paired with the album Working My Way Back To You is the weirdest album in the Four Seasons’ catalog and possibly one of the weirdest albums in all of pop music. At the time the concept album Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was recorded, psychedelic albums like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds among many others were popping out every day as many musicians started to stretch the boundaries of rock and roll. Not wanting to be left behind and seen as old fogeys, the band decided to get with a young, hip songwriter and do a concept album. Grabbing Jake Holmes (the original writer of Led Zep’s Dazed and Confused before Page and Plant “borrowed” the song and “forgot” to put Holmes’ name on the credits) from the Greenwich Village folk scene, the band immediately hired Holmes to craft a concept album. To hear Valli and the rest of the Four Seasons try to stick with their vocal group style while singing over a weird melange of piano playing, psyche-guitar doodlings and mellotron madness is interesting to say the least.

Though certainly not their best work, the band gives it a college try and doesn’t come off too badly. In some circles (weird ones) this album is looked upon as a classic. I say: proceed with caution. There’s no hits on here and it strays far from the Four Seasons you’re used to hearing on the radio.

The albums Half and Half and Helicon were recorded almost a decade later, in the mid-70’s, during a period when Valli was trying to exit the group for a solo career, though, as albums, they sound quite cohesive despite Helicon not having much Valli on it. Half and Half is actually what the title implies: an album featuring half Frankie Valli solo material and half featuring Valli with the Four Seasons. Since Valli was the main vocalist for the group, the album doesn’t sound all that much different from a totally Four Seasons album.

That was really the problem with Valli’s solo career attempts as a whole. When he did do solo stuff it wasn’t really all that indistinguishable from the Four Seasons anyway. All of Valli’s solo hits would sound pretty much the same if he would have included the group on them. As it is, Half and Half is a fine album despite not having anything in the way of a hit on it. The band’s next album Helicon is a little weirder as Valli only has one solo lead on the whole album. By this time, Valli knew he was leaving the band for an extended period of time.

As the Four Seasons were gearing up for a tour to follow the album, the band needed to focus on a new lead singer as Valli wouldn’t be performing with them on the tour. Hence, Valli is featured mostly in the background and, except for the one song stated previously, has to share his leads with the two new singers in the band. While the new singers are fine, they’re not Frankie Valli and their voices are somewhat indistinguished and without the singular personality Valli’s voice conveys.

The album Reunited Live is exactly what it the title says it is: a rousing live document of the tour that saw Valli forego his solo career once and for all and join back up with the group instead of hedging his bets as he had done for years. The fact that Valli was way too old for a solo career by that point was notwithstanding – he had a good run for a couple of years thanks to the movie Grease and felt vindicated by his solo success, saw new wave coming and decided to get back with the group he never should have left. That the band really never had another hit is secondary – after a twenty year span full of hits their time as hitmakers had simply come to an end – nothing to be ashamed of, just ask Bob Dylan.

As a live document, this album stands with Frampton Comes Alive, at least, from the sound of the worshipful crowd. The group does not disappoint, giving the audience full versions of at least half their hits and short, medley versions of another fifteen or so chart toppers.

The band’s next two albums Streetfighter and Hope and Glory, recorded during the ’80’s, are mostly vanity enterprises albeit above average ones. You can’t blame the band for trying to score some hits, but the reuniting of the band in 1980 along with the successful tour and album was a fairy-tale ending that should have maybe been left as the ending. That said, for synth pop done for the most part by artists over 40, there’s a generous helping of quality stuff here and Valli’s voice soaring over a bank of synths (Valli’s voice soaring over anything is a beautiful thing) is definitely not the worst thing in the world.

It helps that the synths are programmed and played sympathetically and are not machine-like. Any Four Seasons/Valli fans will love these albums and most listeners would be surprised at how well the band adapts to the changing musical landscape and soundscape.

Those who have forgotten how much they loved the Four Seasons or for those who simply knew their name but not their sound would do well to pick up a couple (if not all) of these CDs and be transported to a time when great vocals didn’t depend on Auto-tune and electronic gizmos and great songs were common place. More than some of you will be surprised at the greatness of their work but the best thing is just listening to Valli’s voice coming through the speakers as if he was singing about you and your girl. Great stuff.

Along with Dion, Valli’s voice is one of the few that make me swoon the instant I hear it. The man could sing the phone book and I would be happy. Great stuff all in all, and well worth picking up if you are into 60’s and 70’s pop music.

Care to Meet Big Boy Pete?

Yeah, I know, I ain’t been here in a while. No excuses – been too busy listening to great music to crawl out and scrawl out about it.

Hopefully that will change. Here’s something I recently discovered. I think anyone into late ’60’s/early ’70’s rock will get a kick out of it just as much as I did. In fact, I still got a footprint shaped indentation in my ass that this album left.

Big Boy Pete – The Perennial Enigma
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Just when you thought every scrap of great music had already been reissued along comes grade-A material by an artist who should have been famous but instead wound up helping many other artists and producers achieve the long-term success he could never attain. Though it’s doubtful you have ever heard of Big Boy Pete, it is almost a guarantee you have heard the work of some of the recording studio operators he has trained at his engineering school in California, the Audio Institute of America. While his own career has doubtlessly ended up being very rewarding and influential in a roundabout way, it is a far cry from what this one-time peer of the Beatles (he toured with them in the mid-60’s) and psychedelic rock pioneer (he released what is commonly referred to as the first psychedelic rock song Cold Turkey) should have been able to accomplish.

Big Boy Pete, nee Peter Miller, has seen all forms of success in music from the front lines and from behind the scenes, and one can only wonder what this talented artist thinks of his own career being shrouded in mystery. After doing plenty of recording in the ’60’s with his early band Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers and then solo, Miller spent his time in his studio crafting these pop masterpieces for himself, not only to keep his musical chops sharp but also to help himself learn the ins and outs of the recording studio process as he was soon to open his soon-to-be prestigious engineering school. It is the lessons he learned watching legendary British producer Joe Meek when Meek produced the Jaywalkers that Miller mixed with his own pop sensibilites and crafted these songs (and others soon to be released) that have helped a couple of generations of recording engineers begin influential careers of their own and delighted music fans just now enjoying these long-hidden works.

For his part, Miller’s music is definitely influenced by the Brit-psych he was in the midst of during his tenure as a rock heartthrob in Britain. Not only a peer of the Beatles and Stones, he was also in their circles of friends, and cut his teeth playing to the same hipsters and tastemakers the so-called big boys were playing to. Truth be told, Miller was as respected as anyone at that time and was groomed to become a leading hitmaker. Possessor of a killer guitar-playing style and capable of writing swirling, expansive yet immediate rock songs, Miller was considered to be the future of British rock. That he never did quite break through remains a mystery to anyone lucky enough to hear some of Miller’s work though at the tail end of his career there he started to be reluctant to tour, falling in love with the recording studio and even sending other singers out to impersonate him and sing his songs. The resulting confusion over who actually was “Big Boy Pete” no doubt detracted from his career and befuddled his possible fanbase, just one of the reasons this CD has such an apt title.

Nevertheless, this collection of “forgotten” tracks from back in the day show Miller’s instrumental and compositional talent in spades. Most of Miller’s legendary tracks come from a fertile period between ’66 and ’69, but these tracks are totally unknown, originating from his first few years in the US while he set up his Institute. Beginning from the first track “Demo”, which is quite possibly the best track on the album, Pete brings the rock but also manages to infuse it with a wonderful songcraft usually missing from other artists’ psychedelic efforts. His music is not just fuzz-tone sturm und drang but melodic, expressive art combined with piercing guitar work with an eye for the greater good – a song with the possibility of achieving immortality. In this album’s case, most of these are stripped-down rockers, with little of the layering Miller used in the past. Even so, Miller’s genius is evident and these songs sparkle in the light of the new day this album gives them.

As more of his work gets discovered (thanks to all the collectors who have suddenly started digging under every thing not nailed down for unreleased and rare psyche) and released Pete Miller may yet claim his crown as the king of British psychedelic rock.

Marty Rudnick – “more songs about cars and girls” CD (Sandbox)

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There’s no cause to doubt the title and beach party cover art: Rudnick’s disc is packed with sleepy, summery retro sounds that neatly split the difference between classy ’80s pop (M. Crenshaw, dB’s, Smithereens) and later, lusher Beach Boys. The tunes, arrangements and boyishly nasal harmonies (partly courtesy the Rubinoos) are tasteful, catchy and only sometimes silly. Bonus tracks include a couple vocals-only takes, and lovingly realized demos of the Beatles’ “Yes It Is” and Beach Boys’ “Til I Die.” Sweet stuff that power popsters will want to hear.

David and Jonathan – “David and Jonathan” CD (RPM)

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The early success of the Beatles spawned a slew of nice boy popsters on the foggy side of the pond, and “David and Jonathan” (actually Rogers Cook and Greenaway, writing their own songs but performing pseudonymously from 1965-68) were so especially nice that George Martin himself produced their sides and let them have a crack at “Michelle,” a top 20 hit in the US. In time, the duo would reclaim their names and become important producer-songwriters (“You’ve Got Your Troubles,” “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”), but first they dropped themselves into the gumball machine, with this turn offering idealistic folkster crooning over harpsichord (“Lovers of the World Unite”), the next nonsense big band bubblepop silliness (“Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzennellenbogen By The Sea”), and then anxious Beatle-penned melodrama (“She’s Leaving Home”). Dig lush production, Chad, Jeremy, Peter, Gordon and the Freddie? Then this, luv, is for you.

Time For Some Elf Examination

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There is this casual friend of mine who has realised over the past year or so that I am intensely into music and that I am a certifiable Music Nerd. Though he is a fan of metal and knows that I am not so into that subgenre of Rock and Roll, he asked me if I had any curios in my CD collection that he might like.

Knowing he likes other music besides metal (though metal is the main type of music he listens to) I went to my CD vault in hopes I might find a title which would stick out to me as something he would enjoy listening to.

Fortunately, I had to go no further than the ‘B’ section to find something suitable for him.

He had mentioned in the past he had enjoyed listening to the Beatles, and was a fan of their stuff. So, when I saw a CD by a band that I can only describe as the Evil Beatles, I knew it would be something he would like.

The band’s actual moniker is Big Elf and they ROCK!

Sounding like a cross between The Beatles, Queen and Black Sabbath, they are the only metal band I have found that I like. Over the course of their handful of albums and EPs I have come to respect a band like this who is able to channel their influences into a very unique sound. I mean, this band makes a noise unlike any metal band I’ve heard but is so tuneful and melodic, with songs so well constructed, I believe this band could unite everyone who likes rock and roll and conquer the world.

Maybe I am overdoing it but this is the reaction I got when listening to their better-than-great album Money Machine four years ago. Since then I have become a collector of their stuff which is very hard to find. If you want to check out their stuff (even Allmusic had very little to say about them) then go to their website and have a listen. The address is www.bigelf.com and I hope you give them a try.

My friend, the guy who likes the kind of metal where the vocals sound like grunts and growls, just loves the band now and is attempting to search out their other CDs as we speak. Gratification and validation for me and a great new band to check out for him.

Ain’t life grand?

Have you reconciled with your inner elf?

The Music Nerd knows……

Shangri-La Mary Weiss is back and still sassy

Over on the Norton Records site (but without a direct link) is a great interview with their latest signing, Mary Weiss, the exquisitely cool lead vocalist of the Shangri-Las. She’ll be backed by the Reigning Sound on her first solo disk, coming soon.

For now, enjoy her unfiltered ruminations on matters pop, hair, fashion and cool.

MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, "Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?" We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.

 

The Orgone Box & more

The Orgone Box’ self-titled debut is a Lost in the Grooves exclusive. We are also pleased to feature the follow up, “Things That Happened Then.” Click to sample the music or purchase.

The Orgone Box
The Orgone Box
(Minus Zero UK, 2001)

Too many bedroom bands drink at the trough of Evolution and Revolver, fire up the old four-track and seek to replicate same, with results typically stiff, unconvincing and a trifle embarrassing. But not this time. Rick Corcoran is the real thing: a massively skilled sixties-influenced songwriter who doesn

Strum & Drum!

Sex Clark 5's Strum & Drum! is a Lost in the Grooves exclusive, with bonus tracks. Click below to sample music or purchase. 

Available CDs: Strum & Drum!, SC5 Rarities, Strum & Drum! + Rarities compilation

Be Sex Clark 5's friend on MySpace – click here! 

Sex Clark 5 Strum & Drum! (Records to Russia, 1987/ Beehive Rebellion, 1996)

Hailing from Huntsville, Alabama—the place where Wernher von Braun traded rocketry know-how for immunity, but perhaps more significantly birthplace of “Eight Miles High”—these lo-fi pop wunderkinder had one of the eighties’ great lost discs in Strum & Drum! Their name is one of the broad strokes forming a sly humored sensibility, this from a group also given to titling a noisy piss-take “Get Back Yoko,” and producing an electronic loop of the phrase “Girls of Somalia,” apparently a 5th dimensional play on the Beach Boys’ celebrations of regional pulchritude. But these are the oddities on a disc that’s 95% ebullient, near-perfect Beatlesque pop, delivered with careless glee all but unheard of in the power pop ghetto. None of singer/guitarist James Butler’s twenty songs clocks in above 2:43, giving them the opportunity to charm without boring. SC5 leaves you wanting more, but with the next unforgettable melody never far away. Take “Detention Girls,” a reductive micro opera with a cheerleader’s chant giving the if-you-blinked-you-missed-it bridge that extra jolt sending the whole marvelous package into sugary hyperdrive. “Modern Fix” is at once daffy and poignant. The powerfully delivered line “Why don’t we take all our gimmicks, put ‘em all in one box/ And trade ‘em for a bag of tube socks?” seems (and is) absurd on its face, but in context it’s the possibly final plea of a lover trying to make a rough love work. “Valerie”’s singsong melody seems somehow backwards, an exquisite medieval meander fused with a sweetness straight out of the McCartney songbook. Lightning-paced “Alai” is blessed with one of those hooks that won’t quit, though what the “alai-lai-lai-lai” the band is on about may never be revealed. Sometimes bassist Joy Johnson sings in the sweet, slightly flat voice of a serious little kid, but mostly Butler leads the show, mouth racing to keep up with the shambling, ecstatic rush of his band. These dizzy, precise little tunes are like musical meringues, each one a brilliant gem of an idea whipped to soft, gooey peaks. Look for the out-of-print 1996 CD reissue that includes the magical early “Neita Grew Up Last Night” EP. (Kim Cooper, from the book Lost in the Grooves)