Mark P. Wirtz “A Teenage Opera”
Despite enjoying greater artistic freedom than in any period before or since, a handful of late sixties rock composers strove to push the creative boundaries beyond what even the industry’s patiently elastic limits would accept, resulting in the several great “lost albums” of the period. Brian Wilson’s SMiLE finally emerged complete and as intended in 2006, its compositional brilliance diminished only by the uber-perfect new digital recordings lacking the hazy beauty of those original analogue tracks that had appeared piecemeal on Smiley Smile and Surf’s Up. Pete Townshend saw the bulk of the material from his impossibly ambitious Lifehouse concept become the splendid Who’s Next album and several non-album singles from around 1970-71. And Mark P Wirtz’s A Teenage Opera, a set of nostalgic vignettes of Edwardian village life that predated Ray Davies’s similar Village Green Preservation Society, was belatedly released in 1996 as a pseudo-film soundtrack described by reissue company RPM as “as near to the original concept as can be assembled with the surviving recorded works”.
RPM’s A Teenage Opera is simultaneously fascinating, rewarding and confounding. Wirtz agreed to RPM assembling the album from his original 1967 recordings, allowing the use of the original title and enjoying having his name liberally spread over it, but has since disparaged it as a fake: an opportunistic collector’s item comprising completed tracks intended for the Opera, incomplete demos likewise, and similar but completely unrelated tracks produced during the same period. Given that some of the latter were subsequently issued by Wirtz as singles under his own and other real and spurious artists’ names, and that at least two tracks which are known to have been intended for the Opera haven’t survived, his assertion is probably true. The Opera’s original intended running order remains a mystery.
The music itself is no less enigmatic. The three amazingly ambitious tracks released as single A-sides can be considered as either masterpieces of whimsical psychedelia or as overproduced pop schmaltz, depending on your taste (and whether you recoil from dense orchestration and kiddies’ choirs). The first such release, “Grocer Jack”, credited to Keith West and retitled “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” to whet the public’s appetite for the rest of the project, was an unexpected UK pirate radio hit; the other two, “Sam” and “(He’s Our Dear Old) Weatherman”, stiffed totally, leading to EMI’s final withdrawal of support and the shelving of the intended album and animated musical film. Three other songs surfaced with justification on Tomorrow’s eponymous album, Keith West and Steve Howe having contributed substantially to the Opera project. Of the instrumentals, most might appear at first exposure to be the corniest of muzak, but intent listening reveals an underlying compositional quality and deft arrangements comparable to Morricone’s incidental film music of the same period. If you’re into the “toytown” end of psych and 1960s film scores and the historical misadventure of the project appeals to you, you’ll enjoy this album; if not, you’ll probably be happier with the more esoteric complexity of SMiLE.
The troubled history of the project has been told numerous times, with variations. A reasonable third-party version is provided in the CD’s extensive and lavishly illustrated liner notes. The best reading, from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, can be found in Wirtz’s own comprehensive and candid account.
“(He’s Our Dear Old) Weatherman”