Frank Sinatra has undoubtedly recorded many songs and albums that are widely considered to be classics. Few casual listeners know however, of the 1970 album called Watertown. Watertown was a concept album/ song cycle created by Bob Gaudio (one of the former members of the new jersey vocal group the four seasons) and Jake Holmes (probably best known by classic rock fans as the writer of ‘Dazed and Confused’ as made famous by Led Zeppelin). Written with Frank Sinatra as the lead singer in mind, the lyrics don’t stray too far from the themes present in many of his “saloon songs”,or songs about loneliness, emptiness, and regret.
Unlike many of his previous concept albums, Watertown actually tells a story instead of describing a feeling or mood. It is about a wife who abandons her husband and two sons in Watertown, NY and escapes to the big city. Frank Sinatra sings from the point of view of the husband as he writes letters to his wife (though the listener doesn’t know weather or not he actually sent them) lamenting over her absence and realizing where he may have contributed to her dissatisfaction with small town family life. At the end of the album, the narrator is somehow under the impression that his wife is returning home and waits for her at the train station only to find out that she isn’t there. There are numerous theories about this I have read on the internet including one in which a Watertown enthusiast theorizes that the wife died and the narrator coped by pretending that she left. Another widely accepted theory is that the entire album was an allegory for Sinatra’s dwindling fan base.
Sonically, Watertown is far different than any other Sinatra album. Some even say it’s the closest the big band singer ever got to pop/rock. The orchestra on the record creates thick textures and the developments in pop music performance and production made throughout the 60s are omnipresent, making it an interesting backdrop for Sinatra’s vocals to say the least. That being said, the melodies and arrangements on the album are irresistibly catchy especially on the second or third listen.
Watertown did not sell well for multiple reasons. I think the main reason is because the more modern, less traditional sound on the record alienated many of Frank Sinatra’s old fan base, while the album still didn’t fit with the psychedelic rock and blues rock that was popular among the youth at the time.
The main point of this post isn’t to praise the relatively obscure Frank Sinatra album, but actually to highlight what I think is a creative and under appreciated interpretation. Little can be found of the St. Louis area band “Bomb Dawg” except for a series of youtube videos in which they perform Watertown in its entirety. In their performance, Bomb Dawg successfully arranged songs originally recorded with lush orchestration for bass drums and guitar. The result is a raw but sincere interpretation that showcases the brilliant songwriting in Watertown and avoids the late 60s studio techniques that seem dated to the modern ear. In a way, I feel like Bomb Dawg immortalized Watertown with these videos, and that more and more music fans browsing youtube will find them and as a result, appreciate the 1970 “classic”.
Check out some of the videos here!