The success of the Broadway musical "Jersey Boys" has introduced the music of The Four Seasons to a whole new generation of listeners. And while the band hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserved for being a hit machine in the 1960s (they charted 50 songs between 1962 and 1968), they also haven't received the credit they deserved for releasing one of the weirdest and most ambitious "concept albums" of the 60s.
Bob Gaudio had written or co-written many of the band's biggest hits, but by 1968 the hits had slowed and the band wanted to move in a new direction. He brought in lyricist Jake Holmes to help create a "hipper" sound and the result was 1969's concept album "Genuine Imitation Life Gazette."
The packaging of the album was groundbreaking. It was designed to look like a newspaper and folded out into a large collection of fake stories based on issues of the day. It was an expensive, complex design that was copied by other bands in later years. But it's the ten songs included inside that really matter.
I can't say that the songs of "Genuine Imitation Life Gazette" are great. They don't have the hooks of a typical Four Seasons single and some of the arrangements are self-consciously odd. But there are flashes of greatness on it and listening to it now, I'm struck by the ambition of it. Three of the tracks are more than six minutes long and even the lone single released from the album - "Something On Her Mind"/"Idaho" - is unlike anything released by the band before or since. It's a profoundly strange album and in some weird way, that's real genius.
Take for instance the opening track, the nearly seven-minute long "American Crucifixion." It opens with the band singing "The king is dead! Long live the king" over a booming orchestral fanfare. And then the lyrics kick in:
"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"
Clearly, this is a band that's traveled a long way from "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry." Granted, this wasn't the first time the band had released a truly deranged (or depending on your perspective, inspired) record. In late 1965, the Four Seasons released a peculiar falsetto-heavy version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" which manages to be both creepy and catchy all at the same time.
"Genuine Imitation Life Gazette" was a commercial disaster for a band that was accustomed to selling a boatload of records. Phillips (the band's longtime label) had such little faith in the album that it released a greatest hits collections just weeks before "Life" hit stores. And despite the band's best efforts (and some new goatees), the public didn't really buy into the new sound.
Gaudio and Holmes's next project was the Frank Sinatra album underrated album "Watertown" and The Four Seasons released one more album on Phillips before it found itself without a record deal. They recorded a number of tracks for Motown in 1972 and out of those sessions came "The Night," which ended up being a club hit in the U.K.
But it wasn't until Frankie Valli signed with Private Stock in 1974 and released "My Eyes Adored You" that their commercial fortunes began to improve. The Four Seasons signed with Warner Brothers the next year, released "Who Loves You" and "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night") and the band briefly returned to hit singles charts.
Despite the lack of commercial success of the album, it had its fans in the music industry. Motown founder Berry Gordy was a fan of the track "Saturday's Father, saying in an interview in the early 70s that "I used to play that song to my creative staff once a week to start the meeting off, to stimulate them to do something different." According to Gaudio, he once had dinner with John Lennon and May Pang and Lennon went on at length about how much he loved the album.
I'm not sure I entirely believe Lennon was being honest, but "Genuine Imitation Life Gazette" is one of the albums every music fan has to hear at least once. It's odd, it's inspired and it's unlike anything else you'll ever hear.
And how many albums can you say that about?