Del Shannon made this remarkable album in 1967 and it was released the following year. An update obviously on his early sound and an attempt to move with the times but at no time a forced sounding one, the record flowing classically from one song to the next all framed by Shannon's beautiful, plaintive voice.
It's a very strong record and what seems surprising is that it didn't garner stronger acclaim and sales at the time of its release. Perhaps not surprising really though as time was very unforgiving in this period and Shannon, even five or six years after his initial success, must have seemed like yesterday's man.
Thoughtfully arranged and vaguely but not overbearingly psychedelicised it takes the inspiration of the changing times, where the shift was being made from the singles to album format. Shannon's basic persona, lovelorn and faintly heartbroken, translates well to the medium and the album stands comparison with younger baroque contemporaries like The Zombies and Love.
I'm not claiming that this is as good as Forever Changes or Odessey & Oracle but it's not shamed by their company and it's certainly a far better record than its still obscure reputation indicates. Perhaps what it lacked at the time was the hit single to push it towards greater public recognition. Gemini, first track on the second side, sounds like that imaginary chart hit in a parallel universe to me. It was actually released as a 45 but didn't sell.
But really it's the album as a whole that deserves to be re-evaluated. Its greatest achievement perhaps is not to lose anything of the haunted, romantic quality of Shannon's earlier, better known material but to make it seem relevant again to the year it was made. These are beautifully constructed melodies hinting always at something sadder and darker. The hallmark of the very best pop music.
It's worth quoting Nik Cohn's contemporary account of the history of rock music up to this point, Awopbopaloobbopalopbamboom, to try to describe shannon's ghostly appeal.
'Del Shannon had a lumberjack's voice and never budged...He just wound himself up until he roared, from where he gradually got louder and louder and louder, climaxing with a frantic falsetto shriek. All it took was a lot of lung-power and one sharpened stick. Simple but effective.'
'He has always been one of my heavy heroes. He charges head-on at his songs like some angered bull, mauls them, bangs them against the board until they're shattered.
On stage there was the same appeal. Shannon was pretty sawn-off and wore his big guitar slung high across his chest, so that he had to haunch to get at it. That made him look aggressive and he stood square and howled. Beautiful songs, beautiful noise. Pure pop. The backing pounded along like a cavalry charge, all organ and percussion, and Del himself bull-dozing through everything. He could have knocked down brick walls, that man, he could have demolished skyscrapers.'
'There wasn't much more to him - he was originally an out-of-town boy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, but he turned into very much the spruced, smooth-voiced young businessman, shaved and manicured, toting a smile like a slot machine. That didn't matter: he sang like someone else entirely and it was his records I cared about. Raunchy might be the word I need.'
Cohn's description applies pretty well to this record too, though not unnaturally it's a little bit more lived-in and ever so slightly weary. Shannon is now blessed with a fine set of mutton-chop sideburns which he shows off on the very much of their time, interlocking pictures of him on the back of the record. They're ever so slightly sinister but again that's all part and parcel of Rock and Roll lore.
Cohn is quite right about the simple essence of his appeal. Even though this comes across ever so slightly as a concept album there's no pretension in its delivery, befitting for somebody who was originally an out-and-out Rock and Roller, his subject matter remains the same, the mysteries and anguish of love.
With its final two tracks Magical Music Box and New Orleans (Mardi Gras), the album ramps up another gear, particular with the former, the one track that threatens to topple over into pretentious territory but managing not to do so somehow anchored as it is by Shannon's utterly assured voice. They're more ambitious and all together it's a nice way to round off a hugely spirited record. There's even a touch of voodoo to New Orleans, territory. It's a magnificent track. Quite brilliantly done! The run out to the track is like a full on carnival, snaking off into the night.
It's a great album. Like Dion and precious few others from the early days of Rock and Roll Shannon had sufficient nous and talent to recast himself and reformulate his initial sound to make it genuinely relevant to times of change. Like Dion he sold precious few actual records. But the album stands certainly as one of the best unacknowledged records of the sixties.