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.

“rare vinyl-collecting bible” (East Bay Express)

Serious music dweebs may very well adopt Lost in the Grooves: Scram’s Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed (Routledge) as their rare vinyl-collecting bible. The lisping indie obsessive who gets teary-eyed at Belle & Sebastian concerts … the thrift-store-foraging Napoleon Dynamite who smells of dust and rotting cardboard … Steve Buscemi’s character in Ghost World … the Kermit the Frog-voiced fellow who knows the whole discography of bands he doesn’t even like … they’re all guaranteed to bust a blood vessel over this one. It’s a guidebook written by geeks, for geeks, that makes rock ‘n’ roll seem almost not cool, grouping fans alongside other nerd cliques who fixate on comic books or Star Trek.

That said, the average music enthusiast will also find Grooves an informative and pleasurable read. The book, edited by Scram editor Kim Cooper and contributor David Smay (also the authors of Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears) contains a wealth of far-out performers who never got their due, forgotten albums by big-time artists, and impassioned defenses of maligned records even the Salvation Army can’t get rid of. The emphasis here is on vinyl, including many records that never even made it to CD. Writers here include Radio Birdman guitarist Deniz Tek, Angry Samoan Metal Mike Saunders, old-school rock critic Richard Meltzer, producer Jim O’Rourke, filmmaker Sean Carrillo, and a swap-meet-sized gang of freelance critics and music-zine whack-a-doos.

So what do they preach about? Kim Cooper tells the engaging story of the very obscure (and very short) musical career of Beverly Hills dental assistant and tripped-out songwriter Linda Perhacs, whose creative efforts didn’t bloom until she fell in with the laid-back Los Angeles hippie crowd. One of her patients was film composer Leonard Rosenman, who in 1970 helped Perhacs record her only album, Parallelograms, which Cooper describes as “delicately layered love poems to the natural world and the charged erotics of youth.”

Also forgotten in music history is the New Orleans piano-pummeling eccentric Esquerita, whom rockabilly singer Deke Dickerson hails as “the source for the bizarre/flamboyantly gay/mega-talented/hollerin’/screamin’/rhythm and blues archetype that Little Richard would take to the bank alone.” Though signed to Capitol, Esquerita was too much for the general music-buying public of the time, and original copies of his 1958 self-titled debut are extremely difficult to find.

Epidemiologist and former radio DJ Max Hechter writes about blue-collar punks Cock Sparrer, a ’70s act that almost hooked up with Malcolm McLaren, a deal that didn’t work out reportedly because he failed to buy the band a round of drinks. McLaren, of course, went on to manage the Sex Pistols, while Cock Sparrer’s catchy debut was released only in Spain after the band’s label, Decca, went bankrupt.

Too obscure? David J. Schwartz focuses on a somewhat forgotten aspect of Johnny Cash’s storied career. As a young ruffian, Cash wasn’t afraid to piss people off. When country radio ignored the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” from his 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, Cash took out a full-page ad in Billboard indicting the music industry for its desire to “wallow in meaninglessness.”

Still, the unknowns rule the roost here — for hardcore record collecting freaks looking for new, obscure obsessions, Lost in the Grooves hails little-known acts such as voodoo shrieker Exuma, Wichita rock quartet the Embarrassment, the Italian wannabe Hawaiian act Nino Rejna and His Hawaiian Guitars, French ex-beatnik popster Michel Polnareff, ’60s singing duo Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, and the Yiddish-sung American standards of the Barry Sisters. The book also champions traditional rock-critic favorites such as the Brit-pop Housemartins, the always-adored Mekons, the hardworking Poster Children, New York post-punkers the Feelies, the deathless avant-garde crew Pere Ubu, the beloved duo Sparks, Elephant 6 deities Neutral Milk Hotel, and snappy Seattlite pop-punkers the Fastbacks.

Lost in the Grooves doesn’t have much to say about jazz or metal, and the few hip-hop write-ups appear to be penned by folks who hardly qualify as fanatics. Otherwise, most musical genres are well covered, though the writing is occasionally subpar and skippable. But most writers succeed at promoting their favorite obscurities, leaving you to wonder, “Should I really seek out a copy of Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever or the Bee Gees’ Mr. Natural?” The answer, of course, is yes. (Adam Bregman, East Bay Express, 1/5/05)