Saturday, September 22, 2007

Excerpts from a Teenage Opera

One of the great "what ifs" of the psychedelic era is the ever-unfinished psychedelic magnum opus, The Teenage Opera. Its potential was embodied on a hit single released in the U.K., "Excerpt from a Teenage Opera" by Keith West and Mark Wirtz. Wirtz was a record producer; West, the leader of Tomorrow, one of the great psych bands to emerge from London at the height of the movement. The "Teenage Opera" was the brainchild of Wirtz, who was given carte blanche at EMI to create a concept album that would be sort of a rock opera storybook, with the various inhabitants of a fictional village having their stories recounted through lushly-orchestrated songs. Imagine if the Beatles had made a proper Yellow Submarine soundtrack (in fact, Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick contributed to the project). Wirtz enlisted West, who sang vocals on "Grocer Jack," aka "Excerpt from a Teenage Opera." The expensive single featured soaring orchestration in the style of George Martin and a children's choir singing the chorus. There was even a promotional film. The B-side was a Mark Wirtz instrumental, "Theme from a Teenage Opera."

I imagine the idea was to continue the project as a series of singles until the full-blown album essentially paid for itself, but the follow-up single, "Sam," underperformed, and EMI decided the project was not worth the investment. (Or perhaps they saw that the psychedelic fad was coming to an end.) The Teenage Opera was cancelled. Tomorrow split apart, partly out of resentment: the "Grocer Jack" single was more popular than Tomorrow's LP, and the crowds who caught them on tour wanted them to play West's solo hit, which the band refused to do (and couldn't, logistically, anyway). West briefly pursued a solo career until public interest waned.

The Tomorrow album is excellent, and holds up well today (it was reissued on CD in 1999 with many bonus tracks, but, glaringly, not the "Teenage Opera" singles). Their frenetic, LSD-tinged single "White Bicycle" has become a standard on 60's psych-rock compilations. But "Excerpt from a Teenage Opera" and "Sam," though dated, are fun to revisit. The children's chorus is schmaltzy as hell, but the vivid production--particularly the wintry, Christmasy feel of "Sam"--effectively conjurs the feeling of listening to a strange, sad radio play once heard in your childhood. "Sam" might be the better track, for its sonic ambition, though at the same time it strictly follows the formula of "Teenage Opera," which is why it's easy to understand why the public might have grown tired of the concept. The entire album, which Wirtz now describes as an epic science fiction story, remains unfinished, although a compilation of Wirtz recordings was released as A Teenage Opera a few years ago. Wirtz has claimed it does not match his vision of what the project was supposed to have been. That will have to remain a pipe dream.

Keith West - Excerpt from a Teenage Opera (Grocer Jack)
Keith West - Sam

Here's Tomorrow's second--and mind-blowing--single, if you need a chaser.

Tomorrow - Revolution

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