As soon as I saw their hairstyles I knew it would be worth a listen, but the debut album by The Illusion was even better than I hoped. The eponymous 1968 debut of these Long Island psychedelic rockers was found in the bargain bin of my favourite used record shop for $5. I’d never seen or heard of it before — and they have a very sparse presence on streaming services. I did, however, find the radio edit of the single from this album on Spotify. That’s how I knew it was going to be great.
Did You See Her Eyes. What a song.
There’s a very good reason that the song is top-notch. It was written by Jeff Barry — who discovered, signed and produced the band. You’ve probably heard some of these tunes Barry also co-wrote — Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Baby I Love You, Hanky Panky, Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me, Be My Baby, Chapel of Love, River Deep – Mountain High, Leader of the Pack and Sugar, Sugar.
By 1969, Barry had already shown songwriting and producing skills, a nose for talent — he discovered and signed Neil Diamond and produced his first few hits. He then brought one of Diamond’s songs — I’m A Believer — to The Monkees, whom he was asked to produce. He also had the hit-of-the-year in 1969 with Sugar, Sugar by The Archies, which he co-wrote with Montreal’s Andy Kim.
Barry offered The Illusion a deal based on their growing reputation and their first single, penned and produced by Mitch Ryder in 1968. The debut album was a big hit in New York and did reasonably well — spending 27 weeks in the Billboard charts, rising to number 69. That’s a much better showing than either of the two followups, which Barry also produced — 1969’s Together (As A Way Of Life) and 1970’s If It’s So. I’d love to hear both of these, but let’s dig into the debut.
It opens with the full seven-minute version of the single Did You See Her Eyes. Unlike the single version, this one has studio patter, a count-in and a drum solo. It’s a little like some of Love’s rockier stuff, but much more bass-heavy and the drummer, Mike Ricciardella, is creative in a Ginger Baker way, especially in the bridge. There’s also clearly some influence of Van Morrison‘s Them.
The next one, Talkin’ Sweet Talkin’ Soul, gets right to its best bit right off the top: The ba-dap-bap chorus. So catchy. I can imagine this with horns in a few short years. I prefer it this way. The mix is a little left-side heavy, that’s where the lead guitar is, with the rhythm on the right. But I’m wearing headphones. That rhythm player — Mike Maniscalco — takes the lead vocal on the third track Just Imagine, which is a folky ballad. Well, as folky as one gets playing power chords on an acoustic guitar with electric bass accompaniment. This isn’t a great song, but the vocal harmonies are kinda nice. It’s not at all pretentious, which is a miracle given the times.
Lead vocalist John Vinci is back for a two/three song medley of Run, Run, Run and Willy Gee (Miss Holy Lady). This is a great San Francisco-like track. Suddenly it becomes apparent this band could have stood a keyboard player in places, also a bit of percussion. From time to time, they sound a bit like a really, really good high school band. Like, they haven’t the experience to know what’s missing. That’s what a producer is for, and certainly Barry should have been on this. It is a rockin’ medley just the same. These are likeable dudes with likeable songs and the ability to impress, performance-wise. They even leave in the cool stuff, like “I dropped my drum stick” at the end of the medley.
Mike gets back on lead vocal again for the first song on the second side, I Love You Yes I Do, co-written by Barry and lead guitarist Richie Cerniglia. Maniscalco sings this one entirely differently, and has an excellent growly voice when he uses it. Kind of like Peter Criss. This song has a cool vocal breakdown in the middle which I’m sure went over well live, probably extended for quite a while.
Next is the poppy Alone. This one sounds like an attempt to have a hit. But Barry has nothing to do with it. It’s written by the two guitarists. It’s not awful, but very dated. Then it’s Charlena, which could have been a Reuben & the Jets song. Fans of the La Bamba soundtrack will recognize Los Lobos’ version. It was first done by The Sevilles in 1960 and then The Rubber Band in ’66 and The Outsiders in ’67. So, they could have chosen a better cover. It’s a throwaway.
The cool, groovy and slightly psychedelic medley up next — Why, Tell Me Why/ The Real Thing. It’s like The Doors (without keyboards) meets Chicago (without horns). This is bass player Chuck Alder’s big showpiece, writing-wise. He wrote the first half and co-wrote the second half with Cerniglia.
The excellent debut album closes with You Made Me What I Am, written by the two guitarists and lead vocalist Vinci. This one is familiar, but I can’t place it. There’s certainly some Mothers Of Invention hints in it, and it has a few elements of Frisco and psychedelic wisps like the ones on The Monkees’ Head.
This is a solid 3.5 out of 5 record. Almost a 4. If you like ’60s albums you can just put on, this is your jam.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.