The history of popular music is rife with tales of artists and groups that become notable for a particular type of sound and then become trapped by it; the public has a hard time accepting it when they suddenly desire to take their music in a different direction. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are perhaps the best example of this. History has painted Wilson and his band as a surfin’ summertime good time group which in and of itself is fine but there is so much more to their story. Pet Sounds (1966) has long been venerated by the rock press but Capitol was dumbfounded by it and the group’s “lo-fi” trilogy in the late ’60’s have a cult following now but when they were released the public was baffled. The band’s story is basically one of trying to be accepted for more than just trips to the beach.
Tom Jones is now and always has been a blue-eyed soul shouter. He was no fool, though, and when he was asked to record the vocal for a demo of “It’s Not Unusual” he recognized a hit and ended up paying the bills by recording similar sounding pop fare. Even in the classic ’80’s movie Eddie and the Cruisers, Eddie Wilson came unglued when the record company rejected his band’s sophomore effort because it didn’t sound like their hit first album. Which brings me to our topic for today. The Osmond Brothers’ attempts to broaden their sound in the early 1970’s were so little accepted by the rock press that today many don’t even know that they made this attempt. You’re in luck, though, because shining a light on stuff like this is my jam.
George Virl Osmond was born in Wyoming and served in World War 2, after which he moved to Utah and married Olive May. The two were devout Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Osmonds would eventually bring nine children into the world, the first two – George, Jr. and Tom – being born with severe hearing disabilities. The last seven were Alan, Wayne, Merrill, Jay, Donny, Marie and Jimmy.
Father Osmond taught the lads to sing barbershop harmony and eventually took them to audition for Lawrence Welk in California. Welk was not in to see them that day so Mr. Osmond decided to make the most of the trip and took the boys to Disneyland. While there, the boys got caught up in the atmosphere and joined in singing with the Dapper Dans on Main Street. They were heard by an employee and immediately booked to appear on the Disneyland After Dark TV series. The world has much to thank Andy Williams for, not the least of which is his discovery of the Osmond family. Truth be told, it was Andy’s father, Jay, who first heard the boys sing on TV and told Andy to book them on his television show.
The boys began as a cute, tight-harmony act that regularly appeared on The Andy Williams Show and other variety shows but they soon decided they wanted to pivot and become a rock ‘n’ roll band; not only were they possessed of perfect voices but they all could play a variety of instruments. Father Osmond was not too fussy on the rock music scene but he let the boys make their move. They soon came under the savvy eye of Mike Curb who immediately recognized their unique vocal blend and their polished musical stylings. Curb hooked them up with MGM Records and the boys enjoyed some chart success as the ‘white Jackson Five’.
Unlike the Jacksons though, the Osmonds had ambitions to create their own music; to write, perform and produce their own records. The boys finally got their chance in the early 1970’s and they released a trio of records that were ambitious and exciting but that left some of the record-buying public scratching their heads.
Phase III (January, 1972) The shift was announced in the title of this record. The boys had gone from a child act specializing in variety shows to a chart-topping bubblegum pop/blue-eyed soul act and now they were trying their hands at a harder sound. Alan Osmond’s fingerprints are all over this record as he co-wrote the bulk of it, often with one or more of his brothers, usually Merrill.
The album features varied and disparate styles and this is apparent from the get-go. “Down By the Lazy River”, a straight rave-up rocker, was released as a single and was one of the bigger hits of 1972 (#4 US, #1 Canada). It was co-produced by Alan and Michael Lloyd, who years later would supervise the music for the film Dirty Dancing. Next up is “Business”, a strutting, funk number that features vocals that would be at home on any track coming out of Motown at the same time. The third track is “Love Is”, a gentle, orchestral love song that has the boys’ voices sounding like a Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles outtake.
“A Taste of Rhythm and Blues” is more strutting with slide guitar. The title of this tune makes plain the Osmonds intent here. “He’s the Light of the World” is the boys first declaration on record of their Mormon faith, presented here in a bold, percussion-heavy setting. The lyrics quote heavily from Scripture and words are not minced; “He’s the light of the world and we must believe in Him”. “My Drum” – despite its silly title – is something of a revelation. Jay Osmond has got some chops on the kit. This track is a page out of Mountain’s book. One of the delights of my life is “In the Rest of My Life”, an absolutely gorgeous song that was written by one Doug Thaler. I find this odd because Thaler was the keyboardist in the American rock band Elf, an outfit fronted by Ronnie James Dio from 1967 until 1975 when it morphed into Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow – how on earth did the Osmonds acquire this lovely song from this unlikely source? (*Update: an internet dig has revealed that Thaler later went into band management. He looked after Bon Jovi through their Slippery When Wet heyday and then really made his name managing Mötley Crüe*) Co-produced by Don Costa, it is my favourite of all songs by the Osmonds. Phase III went to #10 in the US, #6 in Canada. In addition to “Lazy River”, “Yo-Yo” – written by Joe South – was released as a single and reached #3.
After Phase III, the band released The Osmonds Live. Produced by Alan and Michael Lloyd, the album hit #13 and featured gentler fare than the three albums we’re talking about here, indicating that the band was aware that live audiences weren’t ready for an Osmond show that showcased their “new” sound exclusively. The live album features a Motown medley, Elton John’s recent hit “Your Song” and a tune called “Sweet and Innocent”. “Lazy River” and “Yo-Yo” feature near the end of the program and “One Bad Apple” – the boys’ smash bubblegum pop hit – closes the show.
Crazy Horses (October, 1972) With this the second album of the “third phase”, the boys were really on their own. The record was written and performed completely by the lads and produced by Alan and Michael Lloyd. “Hold Her Tight” sets the tone from the outset, storming out of the gates sounding like “Immigrant Song” (from two years earlier) but with horns and harmonies; a description that is apt for this whole period of Osmond music. More great drumming from Jay on this track.
The second track, “Girl”, is a jaunty number featuring brass that is put over in an old school Broadway/variety show fashion that puts me in mind of some of Davy Jones’ numbers with the Monkees. “Utah” then sings the praises of the boys’ home state and celebrates the value of a tight-knit family. And the fourth song is “What Could It Be”, a piano ballad; so after a bombastic opener, we’ve gradually slowed down. You can hear the Beatles in the chorus of this track.
Side Two begins the same way Side One did, with the balls out title track. This is as mean as the Osmonds have ever sounded. “Hey, Mr. Taxi” is a great example of the gems you can often find deep on the B side of some albums. It’s popping horns are definitely of the Motown/R&B school. And what can we make of the eighteen-second tag that closes the album? A “That’s All, Folks!” fanfare gives way to a snippet of “One Bad Apple”. Are the boys emphasizing and celebrating the change in their sound or apologizing for it? Or is it a way to get Donny on the record? Interesting to note that this drastic change in sound necessitated the reduction of Donny’s sweet, innocent presence. Also, at this time his voice was changing due to puberty but more than that I think this sets up boundaries of a sort and makes plain the difference between a Donny-dominated Osmond sound and one lead by the other brothers, somewhat forging their own hard rocking path. Crazy Horses peaked at #14 on the charts and was an international Top Ten record. Interestingly, the album and the two singles – “Hold Her Tight” and “Crazy Horses” – all went to #14!
The Plan (June, 1973) Here we find one of the most unique records in all of rock history. The Plan is probably the only “Mormon rock” album ever and it can also be considered an early Christian rock record. Let’s set up some context. Jesus Music/Christian Rock/Contemporary Christian Music can trace it’s roots to the mid-to-late 1960’s and groups like Mind Garage out of Morgantown, West Virginia, notable for their “Electric Liturgy” and having declined an invitation to perform at Woodstock. The legend Larry Norman, considered “the father of Christian rock music”, put out the “first commercially released Jesus rock album”, Upon This Rock, in 1969. Norman challenged fundamentalist view towards rock music with songs like “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” and his “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is an early Christian rock standard that was covered by Cliff Richard, who should also be considered a pioneer of this genre.
Other pioneers include Randy Stonehill and Mylon Lefevre. As a teenager, Mylon wrote the gospel song “Without Him” that appears on Elvis Presley’s Grammy-winning How Great Thou Art album and he would also collaborate with Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Elton John, Little Richard and The Who. Lefevre would eventually front the Christian rock band Broken Heart. I was pleased to meet Mylon Lefevre at a festival in the late ’80’s.
Many feel its incongruous, rock music and Christian values, and often scoff at the genre as a whole. But the music is not much different than mainstream music; there is good Christian rock and bad, lame eras and great ones. If you think Stryper is cornball, I may agree but listen to a band like Skillet or Audio Adrenaline for a more grounded and quality listening experience, indicative of the very best Christian rock. And if listening to this next record doesn’t convince you, nothing will. For the very finest of Christian rock/Jesus music, you have to go back in time and listen to Resurrection Band‘s first major release, 1978’s Awaiting Your Reply. Controversial in Christian circles at the time for its heavy rock sound and its cover art, the record is stunning in its incredible might and poignant in its lyrical content.
So, in the summer of ’73, the Osmonds weren’t necessarily coming out of left field with their album The Plan, a record that fully embraced their faith and espoused the values their family lived by. The record is nothing if not a very ambitious concept album. In fact, it may be the most daring concept album ever recorded. Think about it; a concept record (at least the 1970’s variety) is a pretty daring enterprise to begin with. If you’re sticking with one storyline for a whole album, you’re gambling that your audience will be into it. So, what’s your concept? Lost love? Wizards? A deaf, dumb and blind kid who plays pinball? Will your public find it accessible? For the Osmonds to have made a concept album at this juncture of their career was brave enough but to make it about their Mormon faith?! That’s bold.
With “Traffic in My Mind”, the album starts out with questions, like those asked by all who seek; “Why should I cherish living if there’s no so called plan?” The tune is a heavy blues workout. “Before the Beginning” features piano and orchestra and “Movie Man” is a Beatles-Moog trip that swirls like a carnival à la “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”. “Let Me In” is a plaintive ballad about repentance whose lyrics could be aimed at a girl or the Almighty and with “One Way Ticket to Anywhere” the boys bring it back to rock.
“It’s Alright” features some rocking piano and “Are You Up There?” utilizes a BIG orchestra to ask some BIG questions. It is a substantive tune that makes the case for creation and a purpose – this is significant. While these inquisitions may seem to fly in the face of the boys’ faith, I think it’s important to note that faith and doubt, belief in something bigger and seriously investigating this possibility, are not mutually exclusive but indeed go hand in hand. If anything, questioning faith is essential to acquiring it.
The Plan is a valiant effort but an obvious complaint would be – as on the previous two records – perhaps the impressive diversity the boys exhibited resulted in a lack of cohesion. A record with a varied program of styles can run the risk of sounding like a patchwork. The record stalled at #58 on the charts and two singles, “Goin’ Home” and “Let Me In”, both peaked in the lower reaches of the Top 40.
After the relative failure of The Plan, the Osmonds waited almost 18 months to release their next album, Love Me for a Reason. This record shows that the “third phase” during which the boys did everything themselves had given way to a return to a more accessible, crowd-pleasing sound. Only one of the eleven songs was written “in-house” and the sound of the record was decidedly pop and even easy listening in nature. The Osmonds would never again be an ambitious, album-oriented rock outfit.
So, what was “wrong” with “Phase 3”? Nothing. Nothing is inherently wrong with these three albums. It’s just the same old story – when you give the public something other than what they’ve come to expect from you, you run the risk of alienating your fan base. I referenced the Beach Boys earlier; their story is much the same. Similarly, the Osmonds took over their sound and made these three records that did well but seemed to be a challenge for record buyers to fully understand. There’s another significant way the groups are similar. Some of Brian Wilson’s music from the aborted SMiLE album is unsettling. There is a version of “Heroes and Villains” and also the “Fire” music that are both downright eerie. However, knowing this music came from the troubled but innocent mind of Wilson keeps it from being so creepy that you can’t listen to it. Some of the heavier music the Osmonds made during this time is simply not as decadent as other rock music of the 1970’s because all the while you’re aware that it’s coming from a virtuous source.
Indeed, there is a refreshing lack of decadence in the harder rock sounds of these three albums but this is also where the music misses the mark somewhat. The Osmonds during this brief, 18-month period made a heroic effort to make some serious music as a self-contained unit. But their generally polished character and their proper demeanour is so squeaky clean that the records lack a certain edge. The execution is bang on – these are well-crafted records, make no mistake – and the boys’ vocals are earnest but their close harmonies are too pristine for these driving guitars and pounding drums. Singing forcefully will not automatically put you in a league with Dennis Edwards or Roger Daltrey.
Were they trying too hard? Were they really sincere with this approach? I feel like they were – despite the fact that they soon gave up on pure R&B/blues-based rock and went back to pop/blue-eyed soul and eventually to country music. The Osmonds are supremely talented and had no problem filling a record or three with varied sounds but like I said before your band may be able to run the gamut from Led Zeppelin to Bread but when you do it on a single record it can be jarring. Whether they were “all in” with the rock scene or not, these three records are excellent and should be evaluated based on their sound and not who it is making those sounds.