Prog Redemption: The Osmonds, “The Plan”

Prog Redemption is a series where we at Proglodytes make a case for an album that we feel like didn’t get the respect it deserved. So far, the choices have generated less controversy than I expected, so I thought I would do one that might ruffle some feathers. SO, without further ado, I want to shine some light on an album that will probably catch me some flak. Ladies and Gentleman- The Osmond’s 1973 concept album, The Plan

Historical Context

The Osmonds are sometimes called ‘the first boy band’. I don’t know if that’s a completely fair comparison, as they all played their own instrument and wrote at least some of the music that made them famous. But, it’s probably the case that the major contributor to their rise in fame early on was their targeted bubblegum appeal, their outsourced writing and meticulous image crafting, and their squeaky clean Mormon image that made them feel “safe” amidst the debauchery and excess that was so often associated with rock music.

However, at the height of their career, The Osmond Brothers felt boxed in by that image and started to recalibrate their sound. After a stream of saccharine hits, they released the curveball “Crazy Horses”, a chunky, riffy blues song about air pollution. Lead single “Crazy Horses” was well received (and is even revered by a diverse slate of musicians, ranging from metal legend Ozzy Osbourne to prolific prog drummer Mike Portnoy, who has covered it live), and its success as a more serious statement (both sonically and thematically) set the stage for the next chapter of their career as a band, as they began to work on what they believed was their magnum opus.

To frame the album a little bit: The Osmonds have never shied away from their religion. Even now, the Osmonds are well known ambassadors of their Mormon faith. Latter Day Saints are well known for their missionary program, in which men (and in some cases, women) are encouraged to serve as missionaries for their church when they turn 18 or 19. The Osmond Brothers had attained a level of fame that would make mission service difficult, if not impossible. So, instead of donning the shirt, tie, and nametags, they decided that they would instead capitalize on their fame by writing a concept album that addressed Latter Day Saint beliefs about the purpose of life.

The Plan was the product of months of intense writing and temporal struggles. While the easy path would have been capitalizing on their existing fame, they chose a much riskier and harder path. Most of the songs were written by the oldest Osmond brothers, Alan, Wayne, and Merrill. The three eldest brothers had set their sights on shedding the teenybopper image by writing a highly ambitious, diverse, and thoughtful progressive album. Shooting for a uniquely Mormon take on Sgt. Pepper’s or Tommy, they went all out with a set of elaborate, musically diverse songs about their beliefs, complete with spoken word and orchestral backing. Even the physical album itself was designed meticulously to fit the theme, with carefully rendered art to accompany the printed lyrics, and a cover that consisted of a stylized rendering of the five Osmond brothers in their Sunday best.

While The Osmonds were very proud of their product, it didn’t fare as well as their previous works, yielding only two minor singles (“Let Me In” and “Goin’ Home” had modest chart success). Reviewers panned it for being unfocused (which is reviewer-speak for “too diverse”) and too serious for their teenage fanbase. Donny said of The Plan, “Our decision to release [it] entailed the biggest commercial risk of our pop career”, and as it seemingly failed to capture the hit-making magic of their previous works, it was labeled as a massive misfire. The lack of success was likely the impetus for their next album, Love Me For a Reason– a decidedly less ambitious outing that retained some of the maturity of sound, but shed all the prog rock aspirations.

Track Analysis

The psychedelic opener, “War in Heaven”, acts as the overture and sets the stage dramatically, with an intro befitting of a stage musical. “Traffic in My Mind” picks up where “Crazy Horses” left off, with a bluesy, riff-driven sound that felt like it could have been a lost Savoy Brown track. “Before the Beginning”, a forlorn, ponderous ballad with sweeping orchestral lines, introduces some of the uniquely Mormon concept of “eternal progression” (as a major part of the Latter Day Saint theology is the idea that God’s children will one day progress to a God-like state).

The silly jaunt of “Movie Man” is reminiscent of Moody Blues or a tamer Gentle Giant, as a silly, Lucifer-like character appears. “Let Me In” was interesting, as the musical sounds like type of ballad that one might expect from a group like The Osmonds, but the lyrics carry a more religious subtext upon analysis. The spirited “One Way Ticket to Anywhere” is one of the stronger songs on the album, featuring a big chorus with lush harmonies and some intense cowbell action.

“Are You Out There” is the “Gethsemane” of this album, as the protagonist of the play, born into confusing circumstances, struggles to make sense of his life and pleads sincerely with his creator. “It’s Alright” is a cheerful, silly shuffle, and “Darlin”, a song that the already-married Merrill wrote for his wife Mary, sounds a bit out of place, but is contextualized when one is made aware of the importance that Mormons place on (heterosexual) marriage.

“The Last Days” returns to that “Crazy Horses” sound, with heavy riffs accompanying a gruff, gravely voice that, like The Book of Revelations, both alludes to an impending apocalypse and also signals the listener to some of the modern parallels. “Going Home” is a joyful, gospel-esque closer that enthusiastically ends the album as the once-confused protagonist is now determined to do what he needs to make it back to heaven.

Verdict

One of my favorite things about the genre label of progressive rock is that, at its best, it challenges the listener to abandon their preconceived notions about what an artist can or can’t do. As I missed Osmondmania by at least a decade, I felt like I could approach it slightly more objectively than someone who might have had to endure their cheesier, more pop-oriented songs. I know that, in my teens, Hanson was very popular, and I remember having to hear “Mm-Bop” 4,000 times, so it did take a bit of convincing and research to learn that their later stuff, while still not my thing, is not too bad. With The Osmonds, I didn’t have to deal with their superstar status or their teenybopper music in real time ( and as a sidenote, I haven’t really been able to stomach anything they wrote outside of Crazy Horses and The Plan– not that I’m spending a lot of time looking, though). Also, as a 30-something year old man who was listening to Symphony X and Dream Theater and Faith No More as a teen, I recognize that I am not, nor would I have ever been, their target demographic! So, I’m glad I can approach the music with at least some objectivity that might otherwise be clouded by the prejudices that folks in the late 60s/early 70s may have had.

Artists aren’t often monetarily rewarded for taking risks, and in the case of The Osmonds, their offering to the world at the time definitely didn’t pay off monetarily. But, I think The Osmonds deserve respect for putting their entire livelihood on the line, in what might have been among the biggest musical gambles in rock history. Mormonism has always struggled with public perception, and rock music at the time carried negative connotations in religious households. And as Mormons have maintained a reputation as being very Conservative, the music may have been too heavy for those who were more religious, yet too cheesy for your average rock and roller. It’s hard to even think of a more modern parallel…maybe if The Jonas Brothers were to have followed up their initial success with a proggy album based on Pentacostal beliefs? So, to market an album that combined what some households saw as an evil influence, with a doctrinal message that was viewed as sacred by other listeners (and also carried its own set of controversies and prejudices), must have been an insurmountable task. The odds were against them from the start.

The album itself is a solid, diverse, polished set of catchy songs. And, it doesn’t take long to acknowledge that they were, and are. a group of very talented singers and instrumentalists. It’s rare to find a band where every instrumentalist could take over lead vocals. Some of the songs on the album are great on their own: “Traffic On My Mind” is a decent rock song, and “One Way Ticket to Anywhere” could have been a B-side from a band like Sweet. And while it might not have the virtuosity or bombast of other prog rock acts like Yes and Genesis, the music is surprisingly complex and adventurous, especially for a group of young men who were just practically teenagers.

In the end, I commend The Osmonds for taking the risks they did to release The Plan, and wonder how their legacy would have been different if this album would have been more successful. I also feel like the album itself is worth checking out, especially if you are a fan of ambitious rock-infused pop music. The Osmonds were objectively a talented group, and The Plan, both inside and outside of its historical context, is impressive in many ways, and definitely deserves attention, especially from those who only know The Osmonds from their pop songs. Check it out on Youtube below.

2 comments

  1. I have been waiting for this review for some time, as I bought this album when it first came out and have listened to it periodically for more than four decades. This review is astute, well-written and insightful and it provides insights to the Osmonds’ greatest strength–which was also thier greatest weaknesses. Since they were entertainers who could do just about anything (stage performance, dance, play instruments, write songs and sing in almost any style imaginable), they were impossible to pin down. With all five capable of singing lead (interestingly, the only one who does not sing lead on The Plan is Donny), once the initial call-and-response combination of Merrill and Donny had run its course, their was not a single signature lead vocal sound like their 70’s contemporaries Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Roling Stones, Wings, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, and, yes, YES. Their concerts became more like Broadway shows, playing more songs by others than their own and showcasing their eclectic tastes in music styles in a very different way than the prog rock bands were. Thank you for doing this review. By the way, I think that their best song was “My Drum” from the Phase Three album. Take a list sometime. https://youtu.be/oft9JqftXKE.

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  2. The brothers still refer to this album a lot and play a good majority of it live. Which to me is heartening because not only is it a great album, but they easily could had walked away from it like it never happened. I like bands that stick by their material like that when obviously it was far from what their teeny bopper base was looking for. Kudos to Alan, Wayne, Merrill, and Jay. Donny was mostly along for the ride but he is a mega talent regardless.

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