Four songs reached number two in the 1960s that don’t mention the title of the song within the lyrics, the first was The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride in 1967, then Alternate Title by the Monkees the following year and the last was Ain’t Got No-I Got Life by Nina Simone in 1969. The other is the subject of today’s Single of the Week which, despite often being referred to as Grocer Jack, is actually called Excerpt From A Teenage Opera.
Although sung by Keith West, it was the brainchild of the German-born EMI staff producer Mark Wirtz. The song is rarely heard on radio these days except for the odd bland Gold station but when it is heard it stands up today, just like it did 45 years ago. In the year of flower-power the song arrived just in time to be part of the soundtrack of the summer of love and it brought a certain innocence enhanced by the sound of a children’s choir.
When it arrived, it heralded the arrived of what many thought would be the grand Teenage Opera which many eagerly awaited. Two further singles followed but the full opera did not. It was much like the British equivalent of the Beach Boys’ Smile. It became a holy grail as fans tried for years to find out what happened to it and where to track it down.
Wirtz arrived in the UK in 1962. He had grown up with comedy and wanted to be a comedian. He explained, “Germany was hardly the humour capital of the world, so I picked up a guitar and learnt piano standing up and then I moved to England and planned on becoming a rock idol who came to the attention of movie producers who’d sign up me. I would let them know I was funny and they would put me in a comedy and the rest was history.” Hmmm, not quite! He had based himself in Surrey and formed a rock’n’roll covers band called the Beatcrackers. He wrote one tune which he included in his set, it was a instrumental called Bubble Pop. A rep from EMI was at a gig one night and was so impressed that he was signed to the label as Mark Rogers and The Marksmen as a replacement for Russ Conway. He became fascinated with the business and soon formed his own production company and began leasing tracks to other record labels.
“In January 1967, I had a dream. Not a daydream, or a fantasy, but a real dream in my sleep,” explained Wirtz. “Actually, it was more like a dreamlette- about an ageing door-to-door grocer named Jack in a small, turn of the century village, who was as mocked by the children as he was taken for granted by the town folk. When Jack unexpectedly died, the town folk reacted with anger about the inconvenience of now having to be self reliant about their staple provision, while the children were heartbroken, in truth having loved and appreciated Jack all the while. That was it, simple as that. Little did I know, that this innocent dream would turn into The Teenage Opera, which soon twisted my fate into a real life opera far more dramatic and plot filled than the musical one could ever have been. Its life altering impact and consequences not only resonate and haunt me to this day, but the saga is a still ongoing one – 30 years later. ”
To trace the true moment of birth of the Teenage Opera, we go back to January 1966, when Mark, in a small studio on London’s Bond Street, tried something new. “I experimented with a musical vision by independently producing my composition A Touch Of velvet – A Sting Of Brass under the moniker Mood Mosaic. My vision was as simple as it was ambitious, and evolved as a theme which formed the core of my music work throughout my career.”
In 1965 a group called Four + One had signed to EMI’s subsidiary label Parlophone and released one single, a cover of Irma Thomas’ Time Is on My Side. Their lead singer, maracas and harmonica player was Keith West. After one single they changed their name to The In Crowd and released a cover of Otis Redding’s That’s How Strong My Love Is which just scraped into the UK chart. The follow up, a cover of the Byrds’ Eight Miles High failed to chart. In 1967 they changed their name again to Tomorrow after a suggestion by Junior, their bass player, who made the comment New music, tomorrow’s music.
“Mark approached me to write some lyrics for this backing track he had,” remembered West. “It was a bit odd with lots of mandolins, and orchestra but no choir, it wasn’t my type of music but it flowed nicely and it reminded me of Pet Sounds. He went out for a while and left me writing, when he returned a couple of hours later he thought I’d done a good job but told me he wanted the name Grocer Jack to feature in it. When we’d finished we decided to bring Steve Howe in to play guitar but we speeded it up to sound like a mandolin, session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan was brought in too but this time on banjo, session drummer Clem Cattini on drums and the Ivy League on backing vocals.”
“The clavioline intro was laid down then strings were added and finally the brass was layered on top. As the track grew and grew it became obvious that a vocalist had to be found,” West continued,” They took me into the studio late one night and I noticed there were some session singers. Being naive I thought I was there to arrange it, but I ended up singing the demo. There was talk of Cliff Richard being brought in but they all said that my vocal suited the song so I was asked if it was ok and thought no more about it.” The finishing touches were added with the children’s choir from Hammersmith Corona stage school led by a girl called Charmaine. “I was unable to hide the expense of the children’s fee within the official paperwork,” remembered Wirtz, “So I paid for the kids’ performance out of my own pocket. Best money I ever spent!
When it was finished, Wirtz remembered Kim Fowley’s buzzword, ‘teenager’ and Grocer Jack quickly became Excerpt From A Teenage Opera. Why? Wirtz explained, “The reason was, that if the single was a hit then people would want an LP of the whole opera. Before all that, though we had to admit to the bosses at EMI that we’d abused the company’s time, which I did and then played them the track. They were horrified and silence followed. All of a sudden the dam of silence was broken with condemning phrases like ‘Absurd record’, ‘Four minutes long?’, ‘Have you gone mad’ and ‘you think anyone is going to buy a rock record with children on it?’ The committee’s final verdict was to shelve the project. That would have been the end of it if it hadn’t been for John Peel on Radio Caroline. I took it to John in the studio and he played it on his headphones. Before it had reached the end, John opened the microphone and with a big grin on his face told the listeners, ‘I’ve got a marvellous surprise for you’ and put the needle back to the start.” The phones lit up and, to cut a long story short, EMI were forced to rush release the track. It entered the chart and climbed to number two behind Engelbert Humperdinck’s The Last Waltz.
The follow up single, Sam, only just managed a top 40 placing but as West says, after that the rest of the Teenage Opera material wasn’t really up to standard so I passed.” Wirtz went to on to be a producer at Page One and Chapter 1 records before moving to Los Angeles in 1971.
In 1997, thirty years after its conception, Wirtz decided to finish the project. “I finally decided to exorcise the haunting which had cursed me for three decades. I spent nine months day and night working, composing and recording the complete Teenage Opera. I created a fully dramatic story and script – a romantic fantasy revolving around H.G Wells’ abduction into the future by a villainous time master. It now exists as a double CD called Tempo but is unlikely to see the light of day.” At least for Mark, but not for his fans, the Teenage opera will be laid to rest forever, but the spirit of it will live on forever.