Friday, 2 May 2014

1973 - Year Of The Plan

Album Review
Osmonds - The Plan
Genre - Prog Rock

Back in 1973, when I was drifting between 12 and 13 years old, we didn’t have a lot of money for single records, let alone albums. Single 45s were about .39¢ - .49¢ and albums would have been about $1.99 - $3.99, depending on the title. A price like that for my vinyl copy of Elton John’s Madman Across the Water made it one of the most precious things I owned! There was, however, an alternative to purchasing: you could also rent records from the local library for a mere pittance. Oh, I forget how much the rental was - maybe a nickel or dime per week. My sisters and I rented pretty much anything we could get our hands on. Music was just that important!

I remember renting Herman’s Hermits “There’s a Kind of Hush” (1967) and learning such ditties as Dandy, and Jezebel. Even in those days, it was important to play the entire record, and learn all the songs so you could sing them by heart. To us, there was no such thing as buying an album for one song. You had to learn them all. There was no internet then, either, so you either heard the lyrics as they really were, or you worked out a wonderful new set of words to your own liking (later, of course, to be published on You remember, 'scuse me while I kiss this guy.

Another fave to rent was Paul Anka’s 21 Golden Hits (1963). Got to know the songs inside and out. Dance, dance on, little girl... hmm, hmm, hmm.

There was usually a delay before the library got new material. If an album was released in, say, Fall of 1973, the library might get hold of it in early 1974. The way it was back then, you might not even know a band had released a new album unless there was a lot of airplay on the radio, and a lot of promotion. The Plan did get some AM radio airplay with a couple of songs, but I don’t recall that there was much attention being paid to the entire project as a whole.

I don’t think I was quite into full blown FM radio at the time, either, but for this particular outing, it didn’t really matter; FM wouldn’t have touched this one with a ten foot stylus.

The Plan by The Osmonds was released in Fall of 1973, and the library did get a copy of it in early 1974 (and yes, that IS forty years ago). We had all been Osmond fans for a couple of years already. Mostly, we enjoyed music by Donny Osmond, but he was still part of the family package. We owned “Osmonds” from 1970, “The Donny Osmond Album” and “To You With Love, Donny” from 1971, “Portrait of Donny” from 1972, and - I believe - “Alone Together” from early 1973. We knew more of the band’s music from the radio as well, and had the 45s of “Crazy Horses”, “Hold Her Tight”, and “Down By The Lazy River”.

One day, while making our weekly trip to the library, we were sifting through the stacks in the Osmond section, and found The Plan. Hello? This is new. Never seen this before. Oh, this is where “Let Me In” comes from! The rental was made.

Now, just to get this said, as most of you know, I’ve been into the bass, as well as bassists, since I was old enough to understand what Larry Graham did for my soul. In terms of The Osmonds, my man was always Merrill Osmond. Do I have to say it? Merrill was the bassist for the band, and he held my attention from the first go. Like all of the Osmonds, he was proficient in other instruments as well, but for Merrill, no matter what else he played, he always returned to being the Thundermaker.

He was also the band’s lead singer. Singing and playing bass at the same time has always inspired my respect! When they’d be on this-or-that TV special, and he’d be up there chugging on that big ‘ol Fender P (or sometimes J) bass, I was there for his playing more than his singing.

As the three of us absorbed and learned the album, we felt it was really different: it was more than just songs, even more intricate than the album “Crazy Horses”, which was more or less their first foray into the world of concept music. Crazy Horses was external. The Plan was internal. It was a rich, full story from start to finish, deep and meaningful, and was something each of the three of us buried ourselves into, neck deep, almost every minute of the day, until we had it under our belts in its entirety. Heh, heh... we pretty much kept the album from the library, re-renting it week after week for the longest time. I swear that we sank more money into the rental than we ever would have if we’d bought it outright. But we were young and foolish. Meh.

I learned pretty quickly that the album was about faith, questions, doubt, God, and the struggle of man to find his meaning. I knew nothing of Mormonism or its belief structure. Not at 13. And, looking back, I think that’s a good thing, because I was never jaded, nor did I hold any preconceived notions about the Mormon faith.

The songs were all tied together, joined by little vignettes. If you played the vinyl album, it actually seemed like one big song per side. When the CD came out, it did the same thing, transitioning smoothly from piece to piece, like The Wall would later do.

The first line of the album is “Let me take care of you and keep an eye on you.” It’s the opening of “War In Heaven”, a brief, but seriously intriguing montage of a dream-like excursion through the past. Fade-ins and fade-outs of voices and music. Parts of it are later featured throughout the album in the vignettes. This is why I love concept albums! The little paths between the songs.

There is a deeper religious purpose to the opening, but I’d rather share this story through the eyes of the 13 year old at the other end of the speakers that winter. The actual doctrine in The Plan is for each listener to interpret on his or her own.

The opener fades out and then explodes into the beastly, acid-rock “Traffic In My Mind”, which is the man being pulled in all directions, and the effort he must put forth to stay focused on his life goals. Merrill Osmond plays a scorching, psychedelic bassline; it drives the song with a desperate, frustrating rhythm, perfect for the type of piece it is. Check this one out for the bass alone!

The song fades out to a vignette called “Don’t Take It Too Easy.”

Then the band puts the brakes on hard for the next tune, “Before the Beginning”. To be perfectly honest, before I knew about Mormons, I thought this was simply a beautiful tune that - when we sang it to our mother - made her cry. As an adult, when I go back in my mind and realise that the Osmond boys were ranging in age from 16 to 24 when they put this album together, it gives me a real sense of respect for what they were trying to express about their own beliefs. But back then, it was simply a beautiful ballad. Sweet and plaintive. Merrill sings, and delivers a gentle bass.

The song ends with “It’s All Up To You”, a slick vignette, accompanied by a twanging mouth harp.

“Movie Man” is a galloping romp, almost circus-like in sound. 16-year old Donny Osmond on the synthesizer, 20-year old Merrill on the bouncing bass. “Yet you laugh, and you smile, try to run away. Don’t you know what you do, you might regret some day? ‘Cause there’s one who has eyes on your evil ways. The Movie Man.” The theme of the song is that life is not a game. Be careful what you do, because you never know who’s keeping records. Even at 13, I knew that.

Another vignette follows; it’s called “I’m Sorry.” “Please don’t let me see you cry. Let me say I’m sorry. So sorry. Oh yes, I’m sorry.” All in harmony. Tasty. We used to sing it in harmony. We pretended to be Osmonds. I was Merrill.

Some of you will probably know “Let Me In”. It was one of the tunes that made it to the radio. As a kid, I enjoyed it, but it always felt a little disconnected from the rest of the album. Almost like we were taking a break from the story. I later learned that it was very much a part of the concept.

“One Way Ticket To Anywhere” was a playful piece, with a lot of bluster and showmanship. The feel of the song reminds me of “Birthday” by The Beatles... um, if it had been about faith instead of candles and cake. Or something like that. There’s even a McCartney-like “wooooh” to be found. Jay Osmond on lead vocals.

** On a side-note, Paul McCartney did a review of the album when it came out, and he loved it. He was very impressed. The man knows.**

Next comes, “Are You Up There”, clearly the most religiously important piece on the album. This song is about doubt and questioning. It’s a little bombastic, musically speaking, but also very moving and thought-provoking. Sung by Alan Osmond in a voice that is just forlorn enough to make you close your eyes and feel his questioning. He was around 24 at the time, wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, and also produced the album. Impressive. He sang: "Why should I cherish living if there's no so called plan? Why, I would have no future if it were left to man. I can't believe that we just happened and don't know what for. There must be more.”

The serious, introspective mood does a complete 180 again as “It's Alright” begins. A real hip-shakin’ dance number that kind of belies the faith-based questions being asked. The bass is the real underbelly of the rhythmic interlude, full of sassy sax! “Mirror, Mirror” is in a similar vein. The questions being faced are offset by a toe-tapping beat, complete with actual tap-dancing shuffles. The Osmonds took a great approach when it came to couching religious messages inside crazily addictive tuneage.

“Darlin'” is sung by Donny Osmond, and he does a great job. This song didn’t get as much airplay as it should have. It’s very pretty and emotional. Remember earlier on, when I said “Let Me In" seemed a little out of place with the other concept based songs? This was a similar thing. Beautiful though it was, I couldn't appreciate its place in the mix. Not to worry, though, it was a perfect lead-in to the next eruption.

“The Last Days” is the Osmonds kicking their can all the way down the street with steel-toed boots. Merrill’s furious, angry bass, and Wayne’s deep, powerful voice combine to throw the real fear of God into the listeners. Wayne and Alan also tear it up with a dual guitar solo that helps to drive the message home. (and speaking of...)

“Goin' Home” wraps up the project when the man with all the questions is pretty sure he’s got it right, and has earned himself the ticket! Merrill brings it on home with an enthusiastic vocal and more chugging bass. This was the other song that got some AM radio airplay.

As the song fades out, we finish with the final vignette and the last words on the album: “Don't take it too easy...”

You can dig into the Mormon aspects of The Plan, and discover the deeper meanings to all the songs, but I was 13 when I first took in this gem of an album. I needed no interpreter to feel the emotion and love, sparks and fire where needed, and to look to the sky with my own questions. The album was both the cushion of comfort and the squirming of discomfort.

I still listen to The Plan on a regular basis. I’ve learned exactly what the message is; I’ve studied the Mormon meanings behind all the songs, so it’s all a little different to me than when I was 13. But I will never let my adult worldliness take away what The Plan gave to me as a youngster: music with a purpose, with a heart, and with a soul. Whenever I play it, it’s the early ’70s all over again; everything is new, and for the taking!

I'm sure there's at least a handful of you out there who know the album, or even have it in your collection. If so, pull it out for a new listen, and see if it doesn't take you back.

Enjoy this little sampler video, too. The site doesn't allow embedding, so just give a click.

© 2014 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

Todd Tomlin - The Heart Behind The Bass

Y’all remember the Todd Tomlin bass we featured in Skin DEEP back in February of this year. When she was introduced and went up against the Guild Bass, which had won the previous week’s round, the Tomlin defeated the beautiful Guild with a final vote of 6-4.

In her second week of competition, the Tomlin then faced the Ibanez SR Portamento Bass, but lost the round with a final vote of 8-7.

As most of our Skin DEEP regular voters know, I pick basses for the competition because I LOVE the way they look. If a bass makes my jaw drop or makes my heart pitter-patter a little bit more than its brother, I will slot the beautiful ax for a place in our game. And so it was with the Todd Tomlin Bass.

After the Tomlin was out of the competition, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know the designer of this real looker of a bass.

Todd Tomlin has been gracious enough to answer some of our questions - about being featured in our game, and about his dedication to the creation of his instruments.

TR: First of all, about the looks. The Tomlin 5-string bass is gorgeous! You can see she was designed with love and a lot of personal attention! I found her on the website and knew right away it had to be featured in our weekly game. How did you feel when you found out it was in our competition?

TT: Thanks so much for the compliment and for wanting to do this interview with me. I was very honored and surprised to be in the competition. To be considered worthy to compete against such established and popular brands as Guild and Ibanez was a great compliment. Not to mention all of the great and beautiful models that were featured in the competition before and after my bass was a part of it.

TR: There were comments in the contest, some for and some against the back-painted pick guard. I love it the way it is, but would you consider a pick guard of a different material?

TT: I am more than willing to make a pickguard out of any material a customer would like as long as it is relatively easy and safe to work with. I try to avoid toxic material for personal as well as environmental reasons. The pickguard can also be omitted and the electronics rear routed if that is what the customer desires.

TR: Were you disappointed when it lost to the Ibanez Portamento? The game can be so hard on beautiful designs.

TT: It is always good to win, but just the fact I was picked to be a part of the competition was absolutely wonderful. I am just a small one-man shop that focuses on modern retro inspired designs. To be included in the company of such greats that have been featured in the Skin DEEP competition is absolutely mind blowing.

TR: Skin DEEP is a game of looks, but now that we are out of that realm, tell us a bit about the bass in terms of playability and design.

TT: The featured bass was built to my own specifications of what I envisioned the perfect bass would be for my needs. Although I have played bass for almost as long as I have played guitar, I usually find myself playing guitar in bands. Most 5 string basses I would play seemed to have unmanageable necks on them since I am primarily used to playing guitar. Normal size 5 string necks are probably not much of a problem for the full time bassist.

TR: So what did you do?

TT: I set out to design a 5 string bass with a neck no wider than a modern P-Bass with the 5 strings equally spaced across the fretboard. At first I was a little concerned about the spacing between the strings being wide enough to play with my fingers. Although I am a guitar player, I rarely use a pick when I play bass. As it turns out the spacing worked out quite well and is very comfortable for me to play cleanly.

TR: A bass is also weighted differently than a guitar.

TT: Probably the most important factor I addressed when designing this bass was balance. It had to balance well with no neck dive. Neck dive absolutely drives me crazy.

TR: Tell us about the design in general. The modern retro.

TT: Since I am a fan of 1960s music and Motown; I almost always use flatwound strings on my basses and some of my guitars, especially the 12-string models. For the overall appearance I tried to come up with something different, but something that wouldn’t look out of place if it happened to be built during the mid-20th century. I am a huge fan of mid-century modern design and I try to bring this out in my instrument designs.

TR: And the specs?

TT: Concerning the specifications of the featured bass, please keep in mind these were my specifications. If a customer wants something different, I will do my very best to give them what they are looking for. Wider neck? No problem. No pickguard? No problem. Four strings? You bet. You get the idea.

TR: A custom shop?

TT: Although I do not consider Tomlin Guitars a custom shop, many things are customizable at the customer’s request.

TR: She’s designed to impress the most discerning musician. She’s more than a pretty face. The details are evident. What made you choose the gun-stock finish for the neck?

TT: I had always heard very good things about it and it is relatively easy to apply. It is glossy but not sticky. It feels very natural to play, yet gives the wood good protection. I prefer to use polymerized oils over nice looking wood. Maple and Walnut are my favorites. Both species grow abundantly where I am located.

TR: Is this your only bass in production? By now, I’ll bet you've had requests for other designs. A four string?

TT: A four string is a popular request and it is very doable. The templates are made. I am also offering short scale models in both 30” and 32” scale lengths.

TR: Now THAT is very interesting.

TT: The short scales use the 6-string guitar body that is very similar to the full scale bass design. I actually designed the bass first and the guitar body was based off of it. I am also working on something a little more out there in terms of radical design. I attended a 20th Century Vintage Modern Art Show and was inspired to design something a little different. I call it the Atomic Amoeba, and I am just finishing up the guitar design. If it looks like it will make a good bass without becoming too large I may offer that too. I also have a scrapbook full of ideas and rough sketches that may or may not see the light of day in the future.

TR: The entire lineup is gorgeous.

TT: Thank you very much.

TR: Is Tomlin Guitars a family business where everyone is involved, or do you lock everybody out of the shop? Ha, ha.

TT: My immediate family has been very supportive and absolutely wonderful with this venture. However, when it comes to designing, it is much like an artist painting a picture. I am not trying to make it sound like more than what it is, but that is how I kind of look at it. It is a very personal thing for me.

TR: Sure. I understand.

TT: I study mid-century modern art and architecture for inspiration and then put pencil to paper. I design the old fashioned way like they did back in the 1950s and 1960s. Nothing is done on the computer. I have taken some courses in CAD and I do believe it has its place in the guitar building world but I think it is best to design the old fashioned way early in the process. It seems more personal and hands on that way to me. Once the building starts I try to keep the family away just for safety reasons. I am still a bit frightened of power tools and I think that is a good thing. As soon as you are totally comfortable around them, you get lazy and this is when mistakes and accidents can happen. I would really like to keep all of my fingers for the rest of my life.

TR: I heard that! In general, how has the response been to your designs - both bass and guitar?

TT: The bass playing world has been much more receptive to my designs than the guitar playing world. This doesn’t really surprise me though. Bassists have always seemed to be more receptive to new designs and technology. Just look at Alembic and Sadowsky. Both companies make excellent basses as well as guitars, but they are better known for their basses. With a lot of guitarists, if it is not one of the iconic classic designs their guitar heroes played, most want nothing to do with it. While it is true the original manufacturers did get a lot of it right the first time, refusing to give something new a fair chance is pretty close-minded.

TR: How much of that is related to modern construction techniques?

TT: Technology has come a long way since the middle of last century. Many will say they just don’t build them like they used to but I think this is due to large corporations penny pinching and building instruments down to meet a price point and to fatten their bottom line. There are many small builders out there who are more than capable of building instruments that will stand up to the best of them.

Another way to increase response is through artist endorsements and giving away free instruments. If you have to give something away it doesn’t really seem like an endorsement to me. A real endorsement is when an artist pays full price to play one of your instruments because he or she truly loves the way it plays, sounds and looks. I am more likely to work with somebody who really wants one of my instruments but may have trouble affording it, than with somebody who would have no trouble at all paying full price.

TR: I like that very much. Wow.

TT: I aim to give the customer the highest quality instrument at an affordable price. My instruments are priced reasonably. Just because I don’t charge a fortune, does not mean in any way that my instruments are of lesser quality. I just try to be fair and not take advantage of anybody.

TR: Excellent philosophy.

TT: On another note, the 12-string guitar I offer always gets a lot of attention at guitar shows and gigs. It sounds like the popular electric 12 from the 1960s, but it balances better, tuning and string changes are not complicated, and it is much easier to play.

TR: I think your attitude and principles contribute greatly to the beauty of your instruments. It’s a vibe that transfers from the heart of the luthier to the world of the musician.

TT: Thanks again for asking me to do this interview with you. It was a real honor and pleasure.

TR: For me, too, Todd. Thank you very much.

© 2014 CL Seamus for Thunder Row