Most people would probably be surprised to find that Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons recorded a musically ambitious concept album in 1969 that was inspired by Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s. The Jersey boys were all about a doo-wop meets big band Motown sound and songs about girls, so no one expected an album of bold social commentary, complex vocal arrangements, long songs and quirky Van Dyke Parks-esque musical arrangements, but this is exactly what they got when the group released The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette.
The opening fanfare is the provocatively titled “American Crucifixion Resurrection”:
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
Yes, folks, that’s from the same fellas who sang “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”!
The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was released in a fold-out cover with an extra inner page, containing an eight page ‘‘newspaper’’ insert. Bob Gaudio co-wrote the album’s songs with Jake Holmes (who actually composed “Dazed and Confused” not Jimmy Page, and the “Be A Pepper” jingle for the Dr. Pepper soft drink with Randy Newman). In the mid-70s, Gaudio was told by none other than John Lennon that The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was one of this favorite albums, a claim bolstered by the fact that John and Yoko (not to mention Jethro Tull) had stolen the newspaper cover idea for their 1972 Sometime in New York City record.
Bob Gaudio later said of the album:
“One of the disappointments of our career for me on a creative level was The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette album. It was just something that I had to do at that time. It got wonderful reviews, but obviously it was not an acceptable piece from us. Everybody was expecting Top 40.”
The album did well with critics, it was really the group’s fans who rejected it. The lavish, over the top approach used on the album was abandoned for the group’s next records, the straight ahead Half & Half and Chameleon, their Motown album. Still, it wasn’t a total flop, selling over 150,000 albums, but by Four Seasons standards it was a disaster, making it to #85 in the charts.
Even if The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette isn’t quite as legendary as Pet Sounds, it is in the same “big league,” literally, as both groups, the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys are among the top selling vocal harmony pop acts that America has ever produced, each selling in excess of 100 million records. It certainly deserves to stand alongside of something like The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle as a (somewhat) lesser-known example of this brand of lush, elaborately orchestrated vocal psych pop. Brian Wilson wasn’t the only one capable of making music in this style.
Below, some more examples of what the insert newspaper looked like. Light in the Attic needs to do a full-on re-issue of this puppy, pronto. It’s even out of print on CD, with Amazon dealers charging exorbitant prices for what can still be found for a dollar in used vinyl shops. Crate diggers, hear me: If you see an original copy of The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette album with the insert, grab it.
After this record, the creative partnership of Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes went on to another brilliant—and similarly ill-fated—project, Frank Sinatra’s haunting 1970 Watertown (which I wrote about here). Note “Watertown” reference in the above detail from the insert newspaper.
“American Crucifixion Resurrection”
“Mr. Stately’s Garden” (in which The Four Seasons do their best American Kinks approximation)
The gorgeous “Saturday’s Father”—for my money one of their very best numbers.
“Wall Street Village Day”
Frankie Valli’s voice positively drips with ennui in “Genuine Imitation Life.” Sounds like a Hunky Dory outtake, does it not?
The album’s stunning coda, the pocket symphony “Soul of a Woman.”