Frank Sinatra – Trilogy: Past Present Future (1980)

To celebrate his 40th Anniversary in showbusiness, Frank Sinatra was going to shake things up by going into a space aged oddyssey through the university in “The Future”, the third disk of his ambitious three disk “Trilogy: Past Present Future.”

When Frank Sinatra did something, he went all the way.  When he was good, he was really good, and when he was bad, he went really bad.  But when he decided to get weird, Sinatra could be the weirdest. Those three elements – the good, the bad, and the weird, is the perfect way to sum up Sinatra’s epic three disk 1980 release “Trilogy: Past, Present, Future.”  A concept album which was designed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ol’ blue eyes’ career in show business, “Trilogy” was ambitious and innovative in its best moments, and overindulgent and narcissistic in its worst moments.  But on the third disk of the album, known as “The Future,” Frank Sinatra bursts through the walls of sanity and goes full timelord on us in possibly the most outlandish moment in his entire career.  I mean, its even stranger and more misdirected than that time he did the dental hygiene album with Muhammad Ali.  But while critics and fans alike find Sinatra’s adventures through Time and Space to be a cringy experience to listen to Sinatra just loved it…..and you better be damn sure he didn’t hear you say otherwise or there could be consequences.

I have been a Sinatra fan for decades, and his music has played an important part in so many meaningful moments of my life, but “The Future,” which full title is actually “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” (don’t worry, I don’t think anyone expected you to memorize that), is the subject of a special memory which I often go back to in moments where he need something good to think about or just to put a smile on my face. 

Sam Tweedle with Avery Cantello in the autumn of 2020.

It was the end of the summer of 2020, and the COVUD-19 pandemic was still crippling our society, and although things had lightened just a little bit for a small while, the world was still filled with a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.  But, after a spring of being locked in our homes and separated from each other, people began to slowly meet up again, within reason.  It was a short reprieve, which didn’t last long before more lock ups and government mandates were issued by the time Christmas rolled around.  But for the final weeks of summer, and all that autumn, we seemed to have a small reprise from the loneliness and isolation.

Around this time, my good friend Avery, who has always felt like a younger cousin to me, found herself back in Peterborough as a result of the pandemic, and once it seemed safe enough, would come to my place, usually on a Friday night, to listen to records.  A talented musician and performer herself who has both an emotional and technical understanding of music far superior to most people I know, our mutual love for music, and especially jazz, has always been the thing that has bonded our unlikely friendship together.  Well, one night we maybe got into the “jazz lettuce” a little too deep and I said to Avery “Hey, do you want to hear the most insane Frank Sinatra song you every heard in your life?” 

“What is it?”  Avery asked.

“Okay.  Get this.  It’s this concept thing Sinatra did in 1980  where he basically wants to send a message of peace to the universe, blasts off in a rocket ship, travels to all the planets in the solar system, then crash lands in the desert, goes to Vegas before giving a message to the next generation and then meets the grim reaper and dies.  It’s nuts.”  I pulled out my copy of “Trilogy,” slipped out “The Future,” put the needle on the record and for the next forty minutes Avery and I did a deep listen to what can only be described as easy listening madness.  It was the perfect moment, and we were in the perfect mood for this trip.  I remember watching Avery’s face morph from amusement, to confusion, to amusement again, and we laughed a lot.  The laughter felt so good.  The way that 2020 was, we needed to laugh a lot and “The Future” gave us that kick we needed.

So, to understand “Trilogy,” and “The Future” in general, we should take a look at where Sinatra was at the end of the 1970’s.  Although considered today as one of the most important, respected and influential recording artists of the 20th Century, during his career Sinatra seemed to be in a constant ebb and flow, where he watched his popularity with modern audiences grow, and then decline, and then grow again.  Although he always managed to stay in the public eye, Sinatra never got comfortable with the times his career wasn’t white hot, which often led to some poor decisions as he attempted to stay relevant.

During the 1970’s Frank Sinatra was still struggling to stay relevant including retirement, a comeback and even a disco remix of “Night and Day.”

While the 1960’s was a hard decade for Sinatra as he battled a losing war with the takeover of rock ’n’ roll in the music industry, the 1970’s was even harder.  At one point he tried to retire from recording and performing, but quickly grew bored and came back after a few short years of inactivity.  He continued to record forgettable albums, usually containing covers of him crooning modern pop songs.  He even did a disco remix of of “Night and Day,” which wasn’t as terrible as it sounds, but it was definitely sort of a sell out moment and another low point in his career. 

But as the decade came to a close, Sinatra’s friend and collaborator Sonny Burke brought a big idea to him that, for better or for worse, would change everything.  1980 would be the 40th Anniversary of Sinatra getting hired by Tommy Dorsey and finding international fame with “I’ll Never Smile Again.”  Burke felt that a celebration of this milestone in Sinatra’s career should be marked and came up with the idea of “Trilogy.”  A three-disk record set, the albums would be separated into three different themes.  The first disk, “The Past “would contain some of Sinatra’s signature songs from his heyday in the 40’s and 50’s and highlighting where he came from.  “The Present” would have Sinatra crooning some of the biggest pop songs of the current day.  “The Future,” however, would be something completely different.  Real different.

Frank Sinatra with Frank Sinatra Jr. and producer Sonny Burke during a recording session in the 1950’s. Sonny Burke brought the concept of “Trilogy: Past Present Future” to Sinatra in 1979.

Sinatra really dug the idea.  His ego was big enough to get around it and, to be quite honest, he hadn’t really been doing any sort of monumental work for nearly a decade.  Preparation for “Trilogy” began in 1979, which began with having three of Sinatra’s most famous collaborators brought onto the project to arrange each of the various disks.  For “The Past” they had Billy May, “The Present” they brought on Don Costa and for “The Future” they recruited Gordon Jenkins.

For those Sinatra die-hards who are wondering why they didn’t bring in Sinatra’s most famous collaborator, Nelson Riddle, in on the project, he was actually the first person Burke  contacted.  However, Burke offered him “The Past,” which really pushed Nelson’s buttons, feeling he was being pigeonholed into recreating something that had already been done and being told that he was no longer relevant.  He turned it down but told people later if he had been offered “The Present” or “The Future” he might have done it.  Too bad, because it’d have given audiences one more time for Sinatra and Riddle to make musical magic again.

Anyways, theres so much to say about this album, but lets focus on “The Future” because that is where the madness lies.  When Jenkin’s was offered “The Future,” the premise was fairly open.  One of Sinatra’s favorite composers to work with, Gordon Jenkin’s always had the ability to draw out many of Sinatra’s most vulnerable and personal performances in which he revealed himself more candidly to the audience.  Some of his most emotional albums, including “No One Cares,” “September of My Years,” and “The World We Knew” were created by Sinatra and Jenkins, so when pairing these two up the expectations were high for something very special.  Well, something special is what the audience got, but maybe not the sort of special they were expecting.

Frank Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins. Producing and arranging some of Sinatra’s most emotionally potent and revealing performances, he also composed the madness which would become “The Future.”

Jenkins had actually approached Sinatra decades earlier of doing a concept album that was biographical in nature, which would bring audiences through a song cycle that revealed the story of Sinatra’s life.  This wasn’t a huge stretch on the concept of “The Future,” although this time it’d be about Sinatra trying to complete the things he wants to do before he dies, and the the song cycle would abandon reality and enter into the realm of fantasy….and I mean science fiction fantasy.  This was the future after all and what is a future without spaceships and visiting planets.  You need to remember that science fiction was having a huge resurgence in 1980.  The world was still “Star Wars” hungry and “Return of the Jedi” was just about to come out, “Buck Rogers,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Mork and Mindy” were all hits on television and Boney M’s “Night Flight to Venus” was still on record shelves.  Space adventure was hot in pop culture, and Sinatra was about to blast off.

Although it was a series of disconnected songs, “The Future” is very much a narrative put to song.  But with many of the songs only being a minute or two each, and the narrative being so disjointed at times, it can’t really be called “a rock opera” as some might claim it is.  That was more what Sinatra was doing in his highly underrated 1960 concept album “Watertown.”  Basically, the narrative goes exactly the way I explained it to Avery.  I didn’t leave anything out.  That’s exactly it.

Recorded live over two days at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angles, “The Future” session had 140 musicians and 60 chorus members, becoming the biggest recording session of Sinatra’s career.

Now I love Sinatra.  His music is so dear to me, and during times of my life I’ve tried to emulate him.  Many aspects of my personality has come from his examples.  But lyrically and compositionally, “The Future” is a mess.  It was so unsingable that it was reported that Sinatra worked on it for a year to make it work.  But, despite its outlandishness, people close to Sinatra at the time said that he just loved it.  He thought it was something very special and he threw everything he had into this thing.

But despite its dubious quality and the fact that its about as easy to listen to as John and Yoko’s “Two Virgin’s” LP, “The Future” would prove to be a landmark moment in Sinatra’s career.  Recorded completely live at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, “The Future” would be the biggest recording session of Sinatra’s long and colorful career.  Taking two days to record, the production team assembled a 140-piece orchestra and a 60 member vocal chorus to accompany Sinatra on “The Future.”  Sinatra loved a live orchestra, and with 200 people behind him he was truly the Chairman of the Board.

“Trilogy” was released in March 1980 and, despite how fans and critics think of it today, it proved to be the massive success that Sinatra and his team hoped it’d be.  As Sinatra’s 40th Anniversary album, it gained enough attention from the public to make it to the 17th Spot on the Billboard album sales chart.  A well-produced album which celebrated the entirety of Sinatra’s career, it was nominated for both Album of the Year and Sinatra was nominated for Best Male Vocalist of the Year at the 1981 Grammy Awards.

“Trilogy” saw the release of one of Sinatra’s finest and most important recordings, “(The Theme to) New York, New York,” originally recorded by Liza Minelli. it’d become closely connected to Sinatra. Liza and Sinatra toured together in 1989 where they’d perform “New York, New York” as a duet.

But the most important track from the album was not on “The Future.” It would be on Don Costa’s “The Present” disk – Frank Sinatra’s version of “(The Theme to) New York, New York.”  Originally recorded by Liza Minelli in 1976 for Martin Scorsese’s’ film of the same name, Sinatra’s reinterpreted the song and made it his own, turning it into one of the signature songs of his career.  When listening to it now it is astonishing that the song was recorded in 1980 and not at an earlier point  as its big band flavor sounds like something from another era, and fits Sinatra classic attitude and swagger.  Sinatra is back on top with “New York, New York” and never sounded better.  The track even landed on Billboard’s Hot 100, peaking at #32, and giving him his first top 40 hit since he and Nancy topped the chart with “Something Stupid” in 1966, and would be his final top 40 hit of his career. 

“If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” Sinatra at Madison Square Gardens in 1974. “New York, New York” was a happy accident which reset Sinatra’s career, proving he didn’t have to reinvent himself to stay relevant.

But most of all, “New York, New York” helped put Sinatra’s career back in perspective with both the singer and the audience, and reset him to a new place where he needed to be.  It was a reminder of what sort of performer Sinatra was and, after all those failed attempts of trying to  adjust with the modern music industry, perhaps Sinatra didn’t need to reinvent himself.  That old swing sound was all he needed, and “New York, New York” sounded fresh and honest.  When he was doing what he did best, Sinatra was the very best.  “New York, New York” was the happy accident that came out of “Trilogy” and would become one of the songs most closely associated with Frank Sinatra.

So while it has proved to be a divisive album amongst Sinatra fans and scholars, “Trilogy” did help put Sinatra back on the map by bringing him back to basics.  It allowed him to relive his glory days and ground himself in the present.  But as for “The Future,”  it didn’t do more than confound and confuse audiences and remains to be Sinatra’s strangest recording ever, and one that defied critics and radio listeners.  But you didn’t want to let Frank Sinatra hear you say that.  Just ask radio DJ Johnathan Schwartz, who learnt that the hard way.

“Get that fucking schmuck off the air.” When Sinatra heard a New York DJ criticize “The Future” on his morning radio show he got him suspended by managment.

Schwartz, who featured Sinatra heavily on his show at WNEW-AM in New York, went on the air and called “The Future” both “narcissistic” and “an embarrassment.”  Well, seems Frank Sinatra was in town that morning and heard the comments and called WNEW-AM’s programming manager and was quoted as saying “Get that fucking schmuxk off the air!”  Well, you don’t say no to Mr. Sinatra, especially in New York, and Schwartz found himself suspended.

But was Schwartz, right?  Honestly, I dare you to take a deep listen to “The Future” yourself.  I have assembled the entire forty minute odyssey in the first six videos below, and if you listen to them in order you can take that forty-minute kooky booze soaked space expedition with Frankie and live it for yourself.  I wouldn’t normally endorse drugs, but I do suggest you might want to get a bit high if you are going to do this.  It’ll make it more coherent and then you’ll be better prepared for lift off. Take a deep breath and get ready to go.

But personally, I feel that “The Future” is, without a doubt, one of Frank’s….oh.  Wait a moment.  I gotta get the phone.

Hello?  Yes?  Whose lawyers?   The Sinatra estate?  Uh.  Okay.  Yeah.  Tina said what?  I see.  Huh huh.  And if I say that I keep my kneecaps, Right.  Okay.  I understand.  Well, goodbye.

Sorry about that.  Where were we?  Yes.  Uh – I think “The Future” is without a doubt one of Frank’s….uh….uniquely imaginative and creative pieces ever.  That’s right.  Yeah.  That’s exactly what I think.

(Note:  I tried to keep this story paired down on a slightly superficial level to not copy or plagiarize the work of another writer who did an incredible write up on this album, in which I took a lot of information.  If you want a more in depth look at “Trilogy,” and in particular “The Future” I encourage you to read Bruce Handy’s brilliant 2015 article for Billboard, “The Inside Story of the Making of Frank Sinatra’s Ambitious and Wacky 1980 Three-Disk Album, Trilogy.”  There is so much more information on this, and Handy article is the ultimate source on this album.)

About the author