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Remember Frank Sinatra's Weird Science Fiction Record?

Music | August 10, 2019

Album cover art for Frank Sinatra's 'Trilogy,' flanked by images of the Earth and Jupiter. Source: discogs.com and Wikimedia Commons

In 1980, Frank Sinatra released Trilogy: Past Present Future, a triple album that got weird.  On the third LP, "The Future," Sinatra took us on a nutty trip around the solar system, took us back in time to the Hoboken of his youth, and opined on the wonders of tomorrow's technology.

Through the '40s, '50s and '60s, Sinatra's career had seen wild successes and dry spells, but as the '80s approached he was in a fairly desperate state. The man they called "Ol' Blue Eyes" was just ... old. The leader of the Rat Pack was looking like a dinosaur. An ambitious project seemed just the thing to reassert his mastery and challenge the youngsters who were selling all the records.

The first two LPs are fairly in line with the rest of Sinatra’s oeuvre, but on the third disc, “The Future,” Sinatra lets his freak flag fly, as much as he can. He sings about the solar system, inventions, even his ideas about what happens in the afterlife.

The Album Is Separated Into Three Different Sections

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Trilogy is exactly what it sounds like, three LPs presented back to back to back. The album’s concept presents Sinatra’s past present and future in song form. LP one, “The Past,” contains standards from the ‘30s and ‘40s, songs that Sinatra already sang with new arrangements.

“The Present” features recordings of contemporary songs ranging from his genuinely beautiful cover of “Something” by The Beatles to “New York, New York” a song that everyone now connects to the Sinatra. In 1979, the song was just a Liza Minelli song from the box office disaster by Martin Scorsese.

Finally, "The Future," -- which has the full title of “The Future: Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses, further enumerated as A Musical Fantasy in Three Tenses for Frank Sinatra, Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and Mixed Chorus.” 

Into Space With Frank

So what exactly was this vision for the future? The disc begins with the nearly 11-minute "What Time Does The Next Miracle Leave?" in which Sinatra sings about traveling to the different planets of the solar system. There's an announcement that a vessel called the Satellite Special is leaving. There's a countdown. Then we're on Venus:

When I arrive at Venus, it will surely be spring
And the girl I have waited for, will be waiting for me

So Venus is pretty standard territory for a Sinatra song. The verse about Jupiter and Saturn is different:

Jupiter makes with the rain, Saturn makes with the crops
A nicer trade was never made, and hopefully never stops

If you don't recognize this trade arrangement from science class, that's because it's completely made up. Don't think too hard, Charlie, we're off to Pluto:

Pluto is a rotten place, an evil misbegotten place
...
It's pure hell when your journey ends there
But you can bet your ass I'll meet a lot of friends there

So Pluto is sort of like Detroit. On to Uranus -- "Uranus is heaven," Sinatra sings, oblivious to the double-entendre. But how is it heaven? Because pizza: 

If they meet me at the station with a cheese and tomato pizza
Well done (well done), and a little red wine

And that's the solar system for you.

Time Travel, Baby

Source: Pinterest

The next song is "World War None!" which is an anti-war treatise that commands us to build a 700-foot fire out of our unkind deeds, for the sake of our children.  In "The Future," Sinatra marvels at the wonders that await us:

The future will almost certainly be whatever you want it to be,
What with rockets, spaceships, computers, inventions
Little buttons you can push, and push,
Let your imagination burst into flame

If this all sounds like you're stuck on the People Mover at Tomorrowland with someone else's grandfather, you're starting to get the idea. In "Finale: Before The Music Ends," Sinatra takes a trip back home -- and back in time -- to the Hoboken of his youth. He pauses to thank Beethoven and Verdi (who are not Hoboken residents), then zooms off to Vegas to gamble. He's shooting craps, and very keen on rolling a 9. Like, he's really super obsessed with rolling a 9 on the craps table, he does a whole verse about it. And yet, we don't find out whether he gets it. Because soon enough, the song is really at its end, and Ol' Blue Eyes is thinking about death: 

And when that cat with the scythe
Comes tugging at my sleeve
I'll be singing as I leave

And with that, "The Future" is over. We've been a lot of places -- nine planets, or 11 if you count the planets of Vegas and Hoboken. We built a 700-foot fire and we talked to classical composers and we ate the famous pizza of Uranus. 

Sinatra thought he'd done something substantial, moving and deep. Listeners weren't sure what he'd done.

The Concept Of The Third LP Was Dreamt Up 20 Years Earlier

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The first two LPS on “Trilogy” sound like standard Sinatra albums. The arrangements are new but the songs aren’t out of the ordinary, it’s the third LP where things get kooky. Arranged by Gordon Jenkins, a producer who put together some of Sinatra’s most depressing songs, “The Future” was pitched to Sinatra in 1959, but the two didn’t work together on the Jenkins’ idea until 1979.

After seeing Sinatra in Vegas in the late ‘70s Jenkins once again pitched Sinatra on the concept of album about his life and this time around Sinatra said yes. Even though it’s assumed that Jenkins was working on these songs for two decades his son, Bruce Jenkins, says that’s not entirely true. He told Billboard that while his dad was excited about the songs, Sinatra liked to work on the fly: 

Knowing the way my dad worked, I’m sure he didn’t start writing it until it was definitely going to be recorded. He worked extremely fast and preferred writing that way.

It Took Nearly A Year For Sinatra To Learn All The Material

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Let's say you’re Frank Sinatra, a performer who’s been singing in front of people for decades, do you just walk into a three LP recording session and knock things out? That’s definitely not how he did it. According to his pianist Vincent Falcone the two of them spent a year learning how to play the tracks, specifically for the third LP. Falcone remembers:

I would play the melodies for him and record them. I would sit with him, and we would do them over and over. It took about a year for him to learn completely all that material. It’s a huge project, and the music is difficult. He had to learn not only the melodies and the lyrics, but then he had to figure out how he wanted to sing those things. And he’s talking about himself, which is not an easy thing to do. Mr. Sinatra was not an egotist.

It Took A Lot Of People To Make 'Trilogy'

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Even though Sinatra spent a year learning the songs behind “Trilogy,” it only took two sessions to record. Two sessions and more than one hundred people. All three discs feature 50 back up singers, a full string section, four bassoons, and a single guitar player. Of course, the entire album was recorded live, and to do this with such a huge crew took a huge building.

Sinatra and his group couldn’t fit in a recording studio so they had to record in The Shrine Auditorium. Pianist Vinnie Falcone told Billboard:

We had a great time. When we did things like ‘They All Laughed,’ and Sinatra told the band to laugh at the end of the recording - that was something he came up with when we were in the studio - we loved it.

'Trilogy' Was The First New Sinatra Album In Six Years

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The last record that Sinatra had released was Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, an album mostly made up of covers of contemporary music. It was only 29 minutes long so even if people weren’t into it they didn’t have to listen to a long record. That’s not the case with "Trilogy." The whole thing is nearly two hours long and it asks the audience to go on a weird science fiction trip.

Audiences didn’t even have a barometer for this kind of album, so it was definitely a shock to listeners. But Sinatra is Sinatra and he still had a lot of fans. The album went to number 17 on the Billboard charts and it earned a Grammy nomination. As weird as it was people were excited about this album. 

One Review Got A DJ Fired For Criticizing The Record

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Jonathan Schwartz, a DJ in New York City, is one of Sinatra’s greatest stans. A Sinatra obsessive, he hosts a radio show that plays an hour of Sinatra every Saturday. However, he’s not a fan of Trilogy's “The Future,” and never was. When the album was released he discussed his distaste for the third LP and, according to him, Sinatra had him fired for his dissenting opinion. He told NPR

[Sinatra] was also a friend of the man who owned the station named John Klugie. Sinatra called Klugie and said ‘Rak-A-Taka-Rak-Taka-Rak-A-Tak.’ Klugie called the general manager of WNEW and went ‘Rak-A-Taka-Rak-Taka-Rak-A-Taka.” Then I got a call from that man who said ‘‘Rak-A-Taka-Rak-Taka. You’re off the air Rak-A-Taka.’ ‘Why am I off the air?’ ‘Sinatra.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I knew full well. I pretended I didn’t know. I said that the third record of trilogy was a narcissistic mess. When I first heard it I just lowered my head in shame, which I essentially said on the radio. Didn’t catch his fancy,

Sinatra Loved The Album

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As weird as “The Future” is, and even though it drew criticism from fans and the media for being legitimately weird, Sinatra didn’t care. He was happy to create an album that summed up his career, his life, and his artistic output. 

Sinatra’s pianist Vinnie Falcone said that the singer was happy with the album, especially the final disc, telling Billboard:

Mr. Sinatra wasn’t the kind of person who was going to let everybody know one way or the other how he felt about things – he was a conservative man – but I think he was proud of The Future… I walked up to him and he put out his hand to me and said, ‘Thanks, kid.’ Then he got into his car and drove away.

Tags: Frank Sinatra | Remember This?... | Science Fiction | Trilogy: Past Present Future

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.