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15 July 2014

The long shadow of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Bob Stanley takes a look at long-overdue rereleases for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

By Bob Stanley

Given that they could only stay in the same studio long enough to record one album as a quartet, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s shadow is remarkably long. They split in 1970 after releasing Déjà vu, but managed to keep their egos locked down for a 1974 reunion tour that saw them playing 31 concerts in 24 cities over two months, with sets lasting from three to four hours each night. It was the first ever outdoor stadium tour and, at the time, the highest grossing tour ever. Drugs were taken in industrial quantities; Joni Mitchell recalls various band members backstage suffering from nosebleeds due to excessive cocaine abuse. Like the tour, Rhino’s beautifully packaged CSNY 1974 – three CDs and a DVD, with a 188-page booklet – turns out to be an exhaustive (and, finally, exhausting) set.

The crowd sounds pumped as they kick off with Stills’ “Love the One You’re With”, light and breezy. On the first two discs, there’s not much wrong with the harmonies, especially on the Neil Young-fronted songs. “Old Man” is spacious and warm, while “Mellow My Mind” (unreleased at the time) borders on barbershop. Of the Young rarities, “Goodbye Dick” is a throwaway song about Nixon that they played on 14 August in Nassau, just five days after the president had resigned, while “Love Art Blues” is gently self-mocking (“I went and played too hard”). The pick is the daffily touching “Hawaiian Sunrise” (part holiday postcard, part mope about his ex, Carrie Snodgrass), scheduled for release on Young’s 1975 album Homegrown before he pulled it in favour of the heavy downer “Tonight’s The Night”.

Without Young upfront, things can sag badly. On Nash’s “Teach Your Children” you get the impression this was the first time they’d ever sung the thing together, rather than the five hundredth – Stills, in particular, puts as much effort into it as he would if he was singing in the shower. His mumbled soul stylings are generally the weak link throughout the set. Another Young obscurity, “Pushed It Over The End”, features clean near-funk guitar work, but really suffers from dragging, half-asleep harmonies; given that their harmonies are CSNY’s major selling point, this really is problematic. But it’s hardly surprising – by the time they finish the song, their set is nearly four hours in. Even the milk-fed Osmonds would have been audibly tiring by this point. Listen to CSNY 1974 in one sitting and the trip is pretty enjoyable, but everyone will be feeling slightly weary by the end.

CSNY 1974 has clearly been put together with great care by Rhino. The same label are responsible for a box set by another multi-million selling act, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The Classic Albums Box contains all of the group’s studio albums with the exception of a 1962 Christmas album and 1972’s Chameleon. You don’t get a 188-page booklet. In fact, you don’t get a booklet at all. Why the lack of special treatment for such a major group?

In spite of Jersey Boys being a huge stage success, the Four Seasons still lack the critical gravitas of CSNY. They are largely thought of as a singles group, though this box goes some considerable way to altering that perspective. However, taken in its entirety – sixteen albums from 1962 to 1992 – this box can make the group’s catalogue look pretty patchy. Alongside a strange live album (Live On Stage, a bunch of Copacabana numbers with dubbed-on squealing adolescents) we get not one but two odd forays into folk, and an album of covers, which is half Burt Bacharach and half Bob Dylan – what lunatic dreamt that up?

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Nevertheless, in the studio the songwriting Season Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe determined to make them a thoroughly modern and thrilling proposition. Cut the cash-ins, and there’s a more than presentable bunch of albums in this set. Rag Doll from 1964 was their first essential long player, its dozen songs all penned by Crewe, Gaudio and Brill Building buddy Sandy Linzer: the sound here is as big as Spector but harder edged, percussion hissing like steam, or pounding like drills on a New York pavement. There’s never any doubt as to which coast the Four Seasons hail from. Crewe wrote the sleevenotes for Rag Doll and bullishly described the title song as “probably the best record of this, or any other year.” “Working My Way Back To You” (1966) and New Gold Hits (1967) both added blue-eyed soul to the mix, before the group came up with a super-ambitious, though hit-free concept album, called Genuine Imitation Life Gazette in 1969, a suite of songs that sat somewhere between Jimmy Webb’s work with Richard Harris and Frank Sinatra’s Watertown album. Ornate, and suitably cynical about the prevailing hippie ethos (they weren’t kids, after all), it remains a remarkable album that deserves stand-alone deluxe treatment.

The albums come in miniature replica sleeves, which are very attractive, but the credits are impossible to read without an accompanying booklet. This really is a strange oversight. It isn’t as if there isn’t a story to be told (we still await the CSNY Broadway smash Laurel Canyon Boys, after all) so possibly it’s to keep the price down – it retails at under £40, which is remarkable value for a 16-disc set. Unfortunately, the New Gold Hits disc features several incorrect tracks – and one of the missing songs is the delicious “I’m Gonna Change”, a monster hit that got away, so I’m miffed. Almost all of these albums have been deleted for the best part of two decades, though, so even with its faults I can’t quibble too much. The group’s repositioning as the East Coast’s answer to the Beach Boys happily continues.

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Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s CSNY 1974 and Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons’ Classic Albums Box are both out now on Rhino