Tag Archives: the four seasons

113) The Four Seasons – “Rag Doll”

Before The Beatles, The Four Seasons were The Beach Boys’ greatest rivals.   Both groups, while most famous for their intricate multi-part harmonies, also played their own instruments and wrote their own material – both rarities in the era of Brill Building songwriters and studio musicians.  While The Beach Boys were the California kids who sang about cars and girls and being true to your school, The Four Seasons were Jersey Italians who, if not for talent and luck, would have been shift workers or street hustlers.  “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” weren’t celebrating adolescent America; they were sneering at lovesick kids who had lost their cool.  And unlike the Wilson brothers’ angelic voices, Frankie Valli’s falsetto was shrill, almost threatening.

The Four Seasons had always held the edge in popularity, scoring three number-one singles before The Beach Boys had their first.  But with the British Invasion came an ultimatum: either step up to the new rock and roll – one with a harder beat, more complex arrangements, and fresher melodies – or start booking tours on the nostalgia circuit.  As “I Get Around” hinted, The Beach Boys chose the first option. Most other mainstream acts, however, settled into the latter category.

Perhaps The Beach Boys’ second-best status gave Brian Wilson the competitive zeal that drove him toward innovation.  After all, success can have a paralyzing effect. Some groups, having tasted the top, would do anything to delay the inevitable slide down the charts.  If that meant trading swagger and hiss for pabulum about a young girl in dirty clothes, then so be it. The Four Seasons were still old-fashioned entertainers at heart, just with a little more street cred than the average bubblegummer.  They couldn’t compete with The Rolling Stones’ brand of nasty anyhow.  So they turned to the old trope of the moneyed rock star crooning about the poor kid from the wrong end of town.  “Rag Doll” has the decency to be a little less maudlin than most, but it lacks the social consciousness that would feature in similar songs later in the decade.  In a late ‘60s soul or country song, for example, there was the sense of artists speaking about issues within their own marginalized communities, whether it be the ghetto or Appalachia.  “Rag Doll,” on the other hand, plays poverty as an emotional hook.  Actually, “poverty” may be too strong a word – for all we know, the “rag doll” is just a girl cursed with the unspeakable horror of hand-me-downs.  The real tragedy of the song isn’t even the girl’s struggle against the socioeconomic forces binding her within the underclass – no, it’s that the singer’s parents won’t let them date because of her sartorial inadequacies.

One of The Beach Boys’ great successes was their ability to write songs about a specific type of middle class, suburban California adolescence that stood in for a universal teenage dream.  But “Rag Doll” finds The Four Seasons losing touch with their rock kid fanbase.  Not only had they adopted the pop star POV, but they’d gone musically stale.  Of course, there would still be an adult market for smooth, harmonious pop, especially once 1962’s teenagers got married and grew out of rock and roll.  But never again could the most formidable of the early ‘60s pop groups speak for the new teenage experience.  4

Hit #1 on July 18, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
113 of 984 #1’s reviewed; 11.48% through the Hot 100

3 Comments

Filed under 04, 1964

86) The Four Seasons – “Walk Like a Man”

In the post for “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” I grappled with the problem of admiring The Four Seasons’ style while simultaneously being frustrated by how that style limited the variety of their early ’60s output.  True, I still think “Big Girls Don’t Cry” is essentially “Sherry” redux.  However, recent close listening of “Walk Like a Man” revealed an aspect of that record I hadn’t noticed before: an unexpected nastiness.  Frankie Valli snarls through the verses in a manner anticipating garage rock, while lyrics like “Soon you’ll be cryin’ on account of all your lyin’/Oh yeah, just look who’s laughing now” could be excerpts  from the Mick Jagger songbook.  The chorus restores the group’s trademark four-part harmony punctuated by Valli’s preternatural falsetto, yet the cheery sing-a-long masks an arch sentiment.  Why should you “walk like a man”? Because “no woman’s worth crawling on the earth.”  There’s just a light enough touch here that it never descends into misogyny.  But the fact that Valli et al. can sing about a woman’s treachery without coming across as self-pitying wimps makes it a welcome anomaly – and perhaps their best song. 7

Hit #1 on March 2, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
86 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.81% through the Hot 100

4 Comments

Filed under 07, 1963

81) The Four Seasons – “Big Girls Don’t Cry”

The most recent entry in The A.V. Club’s feature The New Cult Canon is a piece on Bottle Rocket, the first movie by director Wes Anderson.  In the article, and in the comment section below it, is a discussion of whether Anderson’s distinctive voice as a filmmaker is a mark of auteurism or proof of his limited abilities.  “Wes Anderson is a director forever doomed to make Wes Anderson movies,” Scott Tobias writes.  Whether or not that is a good thing depends on if you appreciate his strong visual style and his gentle yet weird brand of humor, or if you consider his films to be stuffy, stilted and too-precious.  Personally, I am a fan of Wes Anderson, although I thought The Darjeeling Limited veered uncomfortably close to self-parody.  But is my perception of that movie based on what’s actually on the screen, or am I suffering from some sort of Anderson-fatigue? If The Darjeeling Limited were the first Wes Anderson movie I had ever seen, would I still feel the same way?

Likewise, The Four Seasons were a band forever doomed to make Four Seasons songs.  The group’s singular sound, indebted to doo wop yet distinct from it, arrived fully formed on its first charting single, “Sherry.”  Where could they go from a sound that complete and successful? Tinkering with their sound would risk losing what made them special.  So you can’t really blame them for releasing the soundalike “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”   It checks all the same boxes that “Sherry” does, for better or worse, which makes the matter of rating it a bit difficult.  If it’s more or less the same record, it would seem only fair to give it the same rating – in this case, a 7.  However, it isn’t as exciting this go around.  I almost want to penalize “Big Girls Don’t Cry” because The Four Seasons didn’t change anything, even while acknowledging that doing so would probably be to their detriment.  While this is only the group’s second single to be featured here, it’s far from the last.  I’m going to have to consider these same issues each time I’m due to write about them or any other group with a narrowly defined aesthetic.  But for now, I’ll have to rely on this blog’s principle of freedom from context.  I like “Sherry” and I like “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Does it really matter which came first? 7

Hit #1 on November 17, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
81 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.30% through the Hot 100

1 Comment

Filed under 07, 1962

78) The Four Seasons – “Sherry”

First, you must embrace the falsetto.  Don’t worry about how Frankie Valli’s voice could get so high.  Don’t wonder why such a sound would even be desirable.  Like the shrill keening of Chinese opera or the yodeling of the Swiss Alps, it is a vocal artifact of a foreign culture.   If you are to enjoy the music, you must accept that tastes differ across time and space.  If you are naturally inclined to appreciate these sounds, well, all the better.

Now that you’ve surmounted that hurdle, it’s on to the music itself.  The Four Seasons’ sound derived from doo wop but was driven by rock and roll.  Like Dion before them, The Four Seasons recognized that doo wop was becoming passé, and evolving was the way to stay relevant.  But unlike the jazzy flourishes in “Runaround Sue,” “the group’s singles of this era (including “Sherry”) appeal more directly to the teenage fan.  If one were feeling hyperbolic, it could even be said that The Four Seasons paved the way for The Beatles – rock and roll filtered through tight multi-part harmonies and polished production.  Frankie Valli & co. haven’t aged as well as the Fab Four, though.  The Beatles did have a few advantages that The Four Seasons lacked: a persistent need to experiment and evolve, a seemingly bottomless reserve of creativity, and (ca. 1967 aside) a disregard for effects that would instantly date the record.  When Paul McCartney deployed falsetto, it was more Little Richard’s flamboyant hysterics than Frankie Valli’s preternatural shriek.

But don’t let negative comparisons with The Beatles dissuade you.  One source claims that The Four Seasons were the most successful white pop group before The Beatles, and it’s not too hard to believe it. “Sherry” is similar enough to contemporaneous pop that it isn’t out of place, yet it doesn’t quite sound like anything else at the time either.  While the group’s song catalogue would become increasingly dominated by formula, the Four Seasons’ first charting single is a fresh burst of energy in the increasingly lethargic pop charts.  At least if you can accept the falsetto. 7

Hit #1 on September 15, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
78 of 975 #1’s reviewed; 8.00% through the Hot 100

3 Comments

Filed under 07, 1962