The Four Seasons may not necessarily be discussed often these days, but they were easily one of the most popular groups of the 1960s, and no slouches in the creativity department either. After bridging the gap between the vocal group sound and rock 'n roll with their early singles, they managed to survive the coming of the British Invasion, one of few groups popular pre-Beatles to remain major hitmakers beyond 1964.
Despite the fact that for a couple years their old label, Vee Jay, continued releasing singles in competition with their new material, the Four Seasons regularly hit the Top 40 pop charts with a string of inventive confections at 45 rpm until early 1968 . By then, however, the "pop" groups were out and the "hip" groups were in, and like many others the Four Seasons took a crack at updating their sound for the dawning album rock era.
The result was Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, and when released in early 1969, it befell the same fate as most of the era's attempts by pop chart hitmakers to stretch out: the critics were intrigued, but the hipsters dismissed it and the band's fan base was confused. The Seasons' label was also somewhat hostile; in an ironic repetition of the Vee Jay scenario, the band again had to compete with old recordings as Philips released the popular hits package Edizone d'Oro shortly before Gazette. The hits package made the Top 40 while their new disc stalled out in the lower reaches of the album charts.
Four Seasons songwriter Bob Gaudio put it succinctly in a 2002 interview with Ken Sharp in Goldmine magazine: "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." Singer Frankie Valli doesn't even mention the album on his online bio.
Rather than longtime collaborator/producer Bob Crewe, Gaudio wrote the songs for Gazette with Jake Holmes, whose song "Genuine Imitation Life" gave the disc its title. The pair came up with a group of tunes inspired by events happening in the world at the time, an overtly topical approach but one that was not totally alien for a band with songs such as "Toy Soldier" and "Rag Doll" in their catalog. Gaudio also handled the production himself, though longtime arranger (and one-time band member) Charles Calello was back from a stint at Columbia Records to assist in recording the album.
The more I listen to Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, what strikes me is that though the occasional trippy production tricks and topical songs give the band an update for the hippie era, it's a sound that they had been gradually moving toward on their singles for more than a year before the album's release. Their earlier 45s were always at the head of the class for fresh and inspired sounds, and besides the crazy arrangements and instrumental choices, the group could be considered proto-freaks just due to Valli's unearthly falsetto alone.
Also, consider for a moment their last really big hit of the '60s: "C'mon Marianne." That's a weird record! Even the album's melancholy divorce song, "Saturday's Father," had been released as a single in mid-1968, sinking without a trace. So, despite the album's lack of success, Gazette is really not that different from their string of hit singles. It plays like an entire album made up of hit singles that weren't. Indeed, both sides of the one single drawn from the album ("Idaho" and "Something's On Her Mind") only barely scraped into the Top 100, so radio programmers were apparently as confused as the record buying public.
The main difference I hear has nothing to do with the psychedelic touches. Basically, these songs overall just aren't as hook-laden and catchy as, say "Sherry." Long, complexly arranged tracks like lead-off "American Crucifixion and Resurrection" or the title track just weren't going to be hit singles, no matter how many "Hey Jude" references are thrown in for comparison's sake. Hits aren't everything, though, and it's a shame that this album wasn't recognized at the time as the continuing maturation of a great group's sound.
After the album sank into cut-out bin limbo, Gaudio and Holmes collaborated on a similarly ignored project, Frank Sinatra's Watertown, and the Seasons retrenched in an MOR-oriented direction. There's nothing wrong with that, but I would have loved to hear a second installment of the Genuine Imitation Life Gazette before they were swallowed up by the sort-of-oldies-band/sort-of-current-band stasis maintained ever since. Valli and the current incarnation of the band will be in Milwaukee on July 18, performing at 6:30 p.m. as the closer for the annual Festa Italia celebration.
Before closing, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the way this album was packaged, which has been shamefully ignored in all reissued versions. The originals came with a double gatefold sleeve with a newsprint insert, the entire thing replicating a newspaper. Between creating the fake news stories, pictures, ads and comics, plus song lyrics and credits randomly inserted throughout, putting together the album art had to take almost as long as the music. The cover concept has been "borrowed" a few times since -- including on much higher selling discs by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Sometime in New York City) and Jethro Tull (Thick as a Brick) -- but the Seasons did it first and best. (Philips, 1969)