Albums from the Lost and Found: Wasp

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

Teen idols, by nature, tend to have shorter chart spans than most performers, and Shaun Cassidy – the son of The Partridge Family star Shirley Jones and half-brother of David Cassidy – is no exception to that rule, having released his debut single, a chart-topping cover of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” in 1977 and reaching the Top 40 for his fourth and, sadly, final time a mere ten months later, with a #31-peaking cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” from his sophomore album Teen Dream. But, while so many other countless teen idols after him attempted to stay relevant and demonstrate their maturity by simply venturing into more explicit and less family-friendly territory (just take a look at the career trajectories of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato as just three examples of this approach), Shaun Cassidy – who had also then recently wrapped up a three-season tenure as co-star of TV’s The Hardy Boys – took a decidedly more creative but no less shocking approach to revamping his image, albeit to little avail commercially.

In many ways, 1980’s Wasp – the last album Cassidy would ever make before leaving the music business, sadly – can be seen as a precursor of sorts to one of the more creative modern-day teen-idol makeover albums, Mandy Moore’s 2003 album Coverage. Like Wasp, Coverage wasn’t a hit, either, but it was both more artful and tasteful than anything else Moore’s peers were making at the time; Mandy had certainly grown up since the days of So Unreal and “Candy,” but unlike, say, Christina Aguilera’s anything-but-subtle “Dirrty,” Moore simply makes her point by letting us know her music tastes themselves have matured and that she’s become quite fond of ‘70s and ‘80s adult-contemporary pop, enough so to devote the entirety of the disc to covers by the likes of such singer-songwriters as Todd Rundgren (whose huge influence on Moore can also be easily felt on her album Amanda Leigh and its infectious single “I Can Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week”), Joe Jackson and Carly Simon and even such criminally underrated cult acts as XTC, Joan Armatrading, John Hiatt, and The Waterboys. Like Moore, Cassidy’s not out here to test censors, merely to prove that his taste in music is way hipper than we might have suspected.

Unlike Coverage, Wasp does actually toss in a handful of originals, but the majority of the tracks – six of ten, to be exact – are covers. While Cassidy could actually write (in fact, the best and most infectious non-single on his self-titled debut was arguably his wholly-self-penned “Holiday”), he was always more of a performer than writer, and while most listeners were aware that “Da Doo Ron Ron” was a cover, fewer people realized that both of his next two Top Ten hits – the playful “That’s Rock’n’Roll” and the surprisingly muscular (well, for teen-pop, at least) “Hey Deanie” – were actually covers of obscure album tracks by Eric Carmen. [The former song heralded from Carmen’s self-titled solo debut, which had spawned massive hits for the former Raspberries frontman in the form of “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” while “Hey Deanie” originated on Change of Heart.] 

But, by the end of 1978, Cassidy’s stock had fallen, and after two more discs with original producer Michael Lloyd (the flops Under Wraps and Room Service), Shaun decided to completely change course and brought in – shockingly enough – Todd Rundgren (who had just come off of producing Patti Smith Group’s Wave, Tom Robinson Band’s TR2, and The Tubes’ Remote Control) to helm his fifth (and, ultimately, his final) album. Shaun also elects here to largely stay out of the writing process, letting Rundgren write three of the four originals, while the fourth (the reggae-tinged throwaway “Cool Fire”) is a co-write between Shaun, Todd, and Todd’s Utopia bandmates John “Willie” Wilcox and Roger Powell. [It’s worth noting at this point that Todd – renowned, of course, for such one-man-band albums as Hermit of Mink Hollow and the first three sides of Something/Anything? – plays nearly all of the guitar and bass duties on this record and even some of the drum parts, while the members of Utopia handle all the remaining parts, making this something of a Utopia album in everything but name, if one with Shaun Cassidy singing all the lead vocals.] 

Naturally, Rundgren’s influence is all over this disc, which just barely sounds anything at all like any of Shaun’s four prior albums, and it even shows in Cassidy’s singing, which is noticeably a lot sassier and more soulful than on discs like Shaun Cassidy or Teen Dream, where his singing was considerably softer and generally much less varied. It’s unclear whether Shaun or Todd picked the cover songs for the record, but, either way, they’re all given very Rundgren-like arrangements; the first-rate cover of the Four Tops’ “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over),” for instance, sounds of a piece with Something/Anything?’s “Wolfman Jack,” while the radically slowed-down version of the Animals’ “It’s My Life” could have only been thought up by someone as idiosyncratic as Todd, whose own song “The Verb ‘To Love’” (from Faithful) similarly speaks to his keen sense for being able to take a song extra slow to achieve maximum emotional impact. The power-pop-tinged cover of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” (one of that band’s most overlooked songs and originally heralding from the disc A Quick One) sounds as if it would have been equally at home on any Utopia album from around this time. Talking Heads’ “The Book I Read” sounds noticeably less neurotic being sung by Shaun Cassidy than it does by David Byrne, but Cassidy’s able to effectively demonstrate the loveliness of the song’s melody without resorting to the more purring vocal style of his earlier albums, and he pulls off the cut much better than you might expect. The album-closing cover of Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” is no replacement for the former Mott the Hoople frontman’s original, but the wiry, new-wave-styled arrangement (which holds back the guitars until over ninety seconds into the song) makes it a bit more interesting than the more predictable hair-metal sound of Great White’s far more famous version.  

But the most stunning cover in the bunch is the album-opening punch of David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” which recasts the song as a slice of synth-laden, arty new-wave perfect for the dance floor. Not only does Cassidy forego his usual singing voice to dig deep into his lower register and imitate Bowie’s late’-70s vocal mannerisms, rendering the former teen-idol’s voice almost impossible to recognize for the better part of the song, but he and Rundgren also tweak the song’s arrangement, adding an extended breakdown with a spoken-word section that very cleverly borrows several lines from The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.” Some hardcore Bowie fans may wince upon hearing the track, but what Rundgren and Cassidy do with the song is pretty brilliant in its own right, and though it’s not quite as majestic as Bowie’s original, it might actually be the more fun version of the two.

Compared to the brilliance of the album’s covers, the originals pale ever-so-slightly in comparison, but “Righteous Love” is, like most of Rundgren’s ballads, simply breathtakingly pretty, while the dark and avant-garde title track might be the most surprising moment of all on the album, finding a twitchy Cassidy yelling Rundgren’s paranoid lyric over a haunting funk lick with a maniacal intensity you never would have imagined the teen idol being capable of. It’s certainly the scariest vocal performance of his career, but it’s also one of his most animated and impressive, and it’s great fun to listen to.

Though Shaun disappeared from the music scene shortly after, he didn’t leave the entertainment industry entirely, and, starting in the mid-‘90s, he’d attract print from his behind-the-scenes role as the creator, producer and occasional writer of such television series as American Gothic, Invasion, and Emerald City.