The sixties were one of the most revolutionary and creative decades for music, and while The Beatles seemed to lead the way for so many artists, old and new, there were some cases in which artists and bands that were already established between the end of the fiftes and the early sixties, as the decade went on, went into a bit of an identity crisis.
Around 1966 psychedelic music and fashion started to become popular, and, as a consequence, whoever decided to stick with older kinds of music, faced the risk of becoming irrelevant, especially to younger generations (unless you were Elvis Presley); so a few of them tried to update their sound and image, and, even if in most cases it wasn't a successful attempt in terms of fame and sales, it created some very interesting, and often overlooked, albums.
Let's see a few examples, you might be surprised!
The Four Seasons
Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (1969)
The Four Seasons, formed by Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, were a famous vocal group characterized by Valli's high falsetto, and are mainly remembered for their early 60s hits, such as "Sherry", "Walk Like A Man", "Big Girls Don't Cry", "Let's Hang On" and "I've Got You Under My Skin", along with many others, mostly written by Gaudio and their producer, Bob Crewe.
Around the mid-sixties their sound started to become a bit more complex, as evident in an album like NEW GOLD HITS, released in 1967, where songs like "Beggin'" and "C'mon Marianne", along with the aforementioned "I've Got You Under My Skin", show much more complicated vocal harmonies and big orchestral arrangements (another example is also Valli's solo hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", also from that same year).
Still, the big change in their sound actually happened in 1969, when THE GENUINE IMITATION LIFE GAZETTE was released. Gaudio wanted the band to update their sound even more, and was impressed when he heard a folk singer called Jake Holmes (mostly remembered for writing "Dazed and Confused", made famous by Led Zeppelin) playing live, so much that he hasked him to contribute as a songwriter for the next Four Seasons album. The result was an astounding achievement, an album that bears little resemblance with their previous work, thanks to heavy subjects in the lyrics (such as black slavery in "American Crucifixion Resurrection", a very long and complex track, some mysterious murder in "Mrs. Stately's Garden, and the life of children with divorced parents in "Saturday's Father"), and very inventive and complicated musical arrangements (just listen to the somewhat creepy "Idaho"). The centerpiece is "Genuine Imitation Life", written solely by Holmes, a wonderfully psychedelic track that slowly covers themes such as the hypocrisy of organised religion and materialism.
An album perhaps too shocking for their old fans, it certainly didn't sell as well as expected, despite having a wonderful and innovative artwork consisting of a magazine with news articles and comic strips, and so it was the end of their most experimental phase. Only around the mid-seventies they climbed the charts again with "Who Loves You", right at the beginning of the Disco era.
Curiously, Frank Sinatra loved GAZETTE so much that he decided to hire Gaudio and Holmes to work on one of his albums, which would become WATERTOWN in 1970, one of his most experimental, and sadly unsuccessful, albums. I haven't included it in this article, but I strongly suggest you to give it a try.
Home & Away (1967) and The Further Adventures of Charles Westover (1968)
Del Shannon is a name usually linked to the music of the early 60s, a period in which he achieved success with the legendary "Runaway", along with other songs such as "Little Town Flirt" and "Hats Off To Larry", where in addition to his powerful rocker voice he had the chance to put his legendary falsetto on display. Established in the wake of figures like Roy Orbison, after the first period of success he went through a phase of identity crisis in the mid-60s, a period in which cover albums alternated, including songs by Orbison, tributes to Hank's country Williams, and so on, until the fateful turning point of the second half of the 60s, the period in which psychedelia took hold. In 1967 Shannon went to record a new album in London, with producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who had already produced several Rolling Stones albums, with the intention of making a sort of "answer" to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. The result is a work that mixes Shannon's new compositions and various covers of the period, and combines them with a sound evidently inspired by the aforementioned Brian Wilson band's album, with varied and often orchestral arrangements. Shannon often leaves aside her usual rocker interpretations, giving instead space to a lighter and more whispered singing, as was the custom since the success of Chad & Jeremy. The entire album is very solid and coherent, with excellent tracks such as the opening "It’s My Feeling", while a track like "Mind Over Matter" is evident the inspiration it will have on Jeff Lynne and his ELOs in a few years; elsewhere stands out the splendid cover of "Cut and Come Home" by Billy Nicholls, the baroque "Easy To Say" and the new version of the hit "Runaway", slowed down and renamed "Runaway '67". Unfortunately, the limited success of the released singles meant that the album was discarded at the time, and only in 1978 did it come out, remixed, with the title AND THE MUSIC PLAYS ON. To hear HOME AND AWAY in the way it was made at the time we will have to wait until 2006, and one cannot help but wonder how an album of this kind, perfectly in line with the times, could have remained unreleased for so long.
Despite the unfortunate experience of HOME AND AWAY, Shannon did not lose heart, and the following year he tried again with another album, entitled THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF CHARLES WESTOVER (Shannon's real name is, in fact, Charles Weedon Westover) . This album is one of the forgotten pearls of psychedelic pop, and, unlike in HOME AND AWAY, Shannon writes most of the songs here, showing great versatility. There is no shortage of typical marching pieces such as the introductory "Thinkin 'It Over", with a beautiful brass arrangement, or the magnificent "Gemini", with intense strings that create an enveloping instrumental bed on which the piece rests. Elsewhere unexpected inspirations make their way, as in the case of "Silver Birch", one of the best songs on the album, which seems to take a lot from Love's album FOREVER CHANGES, and connects without pause to the strangely disturbing "I Think I Love You", in which they stand out, as usual for the time, a sitar, and a beautiful and pressing intervention of biting rhythmic cellos. "Color Flashing Hair" is another beautiful pop song of a symphonic nature, while "Magical Musical Box" immerses us totally and, perhaps, unexpectedly, in baroque sounds. The album, despite being one of the best of the genre, and in fact even the critics of the time appreciated it, was a commercial flop, and Shannon's career embarked on an unstoppable downward trend, only interrupted by collaborations first with Tom Petty in 1981, from which the album DROP DOWN AND GET ME was released, and then with Jeff Lynne in the late 80s, shortly before his death in 1990, for the album ROCK ON!.
It's Now Winter's Day (1967) - Phantasy (1967)
Tommy Roe is a singer-songwriter active since the early sixties, he had one of his biggest hits, "Sheila", in 1962, soon followed by "Everybody" and "The Folk Singer". He continued to release albums and singles in the next few years, and he also had a couple other hits in 1966 with "Sweet Pea" and "Hooray For Hazel", while in 1967 there was a definite change in his sound.
He released two albums that year, and the first one, IT'S NOW WINTER'S DAY, released in January, is produced by Curt Boettcher (one of the most creative and overlooked producers of that decade, already behind the Association's first album and soon behind bands like Sagitarius and The Millennium), and it certainly sounds different from his previous albums. Already the opening number, "Leave Her" shows an almost distorted and fuzzed out sound, with Boettcher's signature backing vocals, while "Cry On Crying Eyes" sounds much more mysterious and baroque. There's a very creative use of backing vocals in evey track, with notable examples in "Moon Talk" and "Long Live Love" and while there are also more "simple" tracks, the almost tribal "Misty Eyes" certainly stands out, as well as the pure fun track that is "Sing Along With Me", with an almost "marching band" feel to it, well before Sgt. Pepper came out. There is so much to enjoy in this relatively short album, both for Roe's fans and for those who are interested in Boettcher's production work.
Soon after that, in September, PHANTASY followed, and while without Boettcher's contribution, it still tried followed a similar stylistic path. The first two tracks, "Paisley Dreams" and "Plastic World", are probably the best on the album, with the first one being a beautiful psychedelic waltz, and the second one changing all the time from very upbeat orchestral verses and dreamy choruses. Elsewhere the tracks are much more simple, almost looking at what would become the classic "bubblegum" sound in a year or so, like "The You I Need", while other very good tracks are "Visions", "Mystic Magic" and "These Are The Children". It migh not be as interesting as the previous one overall, but the two opening tracks are well worth a listen, and the rest is certainly enjoyable.
In 1969 Roe had another huge hit with "Dizzy", and and eponymous album followed, with the last few shy traces of psychedelia, but mostly staying within the confines of very commercial radio friendly pop music.
Johnny Rivers is a singer songwriter who started playing music around 1956, but had his first hits only around 1964, with his covers of "Memphis" by Chuck Berry, "Mountain Of Love" by Harold Dorman, and with his own songs "Secret Agent Man" and "Poor Side Of Town". His change in sound around 1967/'68 wasn't sudden and traumatic, as in an album like REWIND from 1967 there were already some complex arrangements by Jimmy Webb and the important presence of the Wrecking Crew, but his 1968 album, REALIZATION, certainly embraced the new tendencies, right from Rivers' look on the cover, with beads and peace symbols. "Summer Rain" is a big hit, and certainly one of the best tracks on the album, with its acoustic and orchestral arrangement, along with the darker "Look To Your Soul". There are quite a few covers in here, all heavily re-arranged, from "Hey Joe" with different lyrics concerning mind expansion instead of murder, to orchestral versions of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" and Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street", all very enjoyable. Other songs are more in a blue-eyed-soul vein, which might not be everyone's cup of tea, and mostly veer off the psychedelic sound. However, the overall style sounds very much like an attempt at a more spiritual psychedelia, and while it doesn't sound like a radical departure from his previous albums, it's still an isolated example in Rivers' career, which soon took a more commercial path from the next album A TOUCH OF GOLD.
Come Back When You Grow Up (1967)
Bobby Vee was a singer, actor and teen idol who started his career in the late 50s, at only 15 years old, curiously as a consequence of a tragedy. In fact, he got his first important gig as part of the Winter Dance Party, as a substitute after the tragic incident in which Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (all part of the event's lineup) lost their lives, and had a string of successful singles in the next decade, such as "Devil Or Angel", "Rubber Ball", "Take Good Care Of My Baby", "Run To Him" and "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes", all between 1960 and 1962.
After a few years of less succesful releases, in 1967 Vee released COME BACK WHEN YOU GROW UP, an album intended as a "comeback", a more laid-back, folk inspired one, of which the title track became his last true hit single. Elsewhere the songs show arrangements not far from some sunshine pop releases of the time, with vocal harmonies up front and lush orchestral arrangements, like in "A Rose Grew In The Ashes", and the beautiful and upbeat "Get The Message", which, with its brass arrangement that seem to come out of SGT. PEPPER, could have been a good single, similarly to "Objects Of Gold". The album is a nice collection of songs that are typical of that era, and while it worked as a comeback, it didn't have a proper sequel, as the next DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO is a different kind of album, with more of a soul and r'n'b sound, and didn't have the same kind of success.
It's a Happening World (1967) - Intercourse (1968)
The Tokens are a doo-wop vocal group active from the late fifties, consisting of Jay Siegel, Hank Medress, Mitch Margo, Philip "Phil" Margo and Joe Venneri, mostly remembered for their hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" from 1961. In the next years they had a few other hits, such as "I Hear Trumpets Blow" in 1966, while in 1967 the first signs of a changing sound started to appear.
Their 1967 album, IT'S A HAPPENING WORLD, is a wonderful collection of songs heavely inspired by The Beach Boys' PET SOUNDS, with lush orchestral arrangements and complex vocal harmonies. Apart from the opening "Wimoweh 5 1/2 Years Later" (a remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), the album has some wonderful songs like "Sunset See My Sadness", the weirdly structured and ever-changing "Grey City Day", the obscure "How Nice?", the fun "The Purpose Of A Circus", with very intricate harmonies, and the very upbeat "Portrait Of My Love", which was a quite successful single release. Overall it's a very enjoyable album, perhaps the overall best of their discography, with songs that are good enough to stand beside some of the best ones of that era.
After IT'S A HAPPENING WORLD, The Tokens recorded their most experimental album, controversially titled INTERCOURSE, with a much more stripped down approach in the arrangements and the production, not far from something like SMILEY SMILE by The Beach Boys. All the songs are very short, some of them very wierd, like "Animal", some of them just beautiful, like "Droplet Of Water" or "Wonder Things", a very "old style" track, along with loads of little intermissions, mostly just vocal, like "Gray Is Gray" and "In & Out". Most of the big arrangements of the prevoius album are gone, and when the sound is not stripped down to just the vocals and a few instruments, some unexpected distorted guitar riff appear ("You Loser You Fool"), and overall, here The Tokens sound like a totally different band. INTERCOURSE was refused by the label at the time, only released as a "limited edition self-produced by the band" version in 1971, and became more easily aveilable only in 1995.