Year of Release: 1968
We've already partly covered Mark Wirtz's career on the blog entry about Peanut, but there's no harm in reprising it here. Wirtz issued numerous lovingly produced pieces of exotica throughout the sixties (here's a Youtube clip of "Watermelon Man") but will probably always be best remembered for the "Teenage Opera" project. This piece of unfinished long playing and musical theatre work, whose main attraction was its number two hit "Theme From Teenage Opera" (aka "Grocer Jack") by Keith West, was abandoned before its completion as sales for the singles diminished. The follow-up single "Sam" about a redundant steam train driver only just scraped into the UK Top 40, and "Weatherman" was the third single, performed by Wirtz himself, which utterly flopped.
Even by the standards of most conceptual sixties pieces, the fragments we have of "Teenage Opera" make it seem like a bizarre and maudlin proposition. Most of the tracks seem to be focussed on smalltown or Village life, and the waning respect shown to key individuals within the community. Grocer Jack was put-upon and died of a stress-related heart attack, and Sam's steam train service was cut off due to its uneconomical route. For once, the children singing on both records did not seem in any way twee or ineffective, but seemed to be used to make a point about the death of community and perhaps even innocence as modernity took its hold. Is there even a case to be made for the death of Jack and disappearance of Sam as being representative of those shocking childhood moments when you suddenly realise that not everything is as set in stone or as dependable as it seems, that the world will ruthlessly plough on irrespective of your wishes? It probably sounds ridiculous to put such a heavy critical reading on these records and suggest that they were about the death of innocence as mass consumption and capitalist logic took a ruthless hold, but then again, why not? For me personally, if a central theme (intentionally or otherwise) winds it way through these two pop records, that would be it. The ghostly, whistling wind noises straight after Sam's departure on single two immediately bring to mind a mirthless, tumbleweed ridden desert standing where a community used to be.
So far as "Weatherman" is concerned, I freely admit that I'm not a huge fan. "Sam" and "Theme" are both superb 45s which sum up the changes in the late sixties period in both an entertaining and slightly disconcerting way, but "Weatherman" lacks much of a narrative and overdoes the chirpiness more than a tad. Still, several of my friends appreciate this record and it's certainly lovingly produced, with so many details in the mix that it's no wonder Wirtz was occasionally compared to Brian Wilson. I've only included a brief clip of the track below as it's commercially available on iTunes and other places as well, but hopefully it's enough to give you an idea.
The B-side "Possum's Dance" is, on the other hand, a really intricate and blissful instrumental typical of the kind Wirtz did so well. For all my doubts about "Weatherman", I've always found it a shame that "Teenage Opera" was never successfully completed. Had EMI allowed it to progress, I've no doubt at all that we'd be looking back on it as being very representative of the era, a key album even.
Mark Wirtz remains active in America as a multi-media artist, and I certainly hope his projects are gaining a favourable audience over there.