Introducing an occasional series wherein we take a look at some of the most massive-sounding songs in pop history. A funny thing happened around 1971, or maybe 1972 — it depends on who you talk to. Progressive rock had been a part of the 1960s music scene, but was most commonly lumped in with psychedelic music and drug rock and was seldom considered an entity unto itself. Then, at the dawn of the Watergate decade, prog escaped into the wide open fields of seven-minute solos, half-hour compositions and mountains coming out of the sky and standing there. The aim was clear — to make a popular form of rock that was as ambitious, orchestral and big as classical music.
Of course, pop music had already been doing that to an extent, and achieving it in under five minutes a clip. Say what you want about Phil Spector and his utterly reprehensible behavior, the guy produced monoliths that also doubled as three-minute pop songs. He wasn’t the only one at it, either, and Big Songs is devoted to taking a look at the microcosmic grandeur of some of these hits (suggestions are, as always, welcomed.)
Let us begin with the Brothers, Righteous and Walker. The similarities are immediate, starting with the fact that none of the five among the bands were actually brothers. The Righteous Brothers were, famously, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, and their sound was built on a foundation of boomy, wall-of-reverb ambiance, slowly building orchestration from just simple strings to full, rich sections and backup singers that oooh-ed and aaaah-ed like a choir. It would not be strange to call the Righteous Brothers a blue-eyed gospel group under these conditions, especially in Medley and Hatfield’s emphatically roaring delivery. Key examples come in the ripping bridge of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” where their singing is closer to testifyin’ than harmonizing, and on “Unchained Melody,” where Hatfield moves from understated arrangement to nothing less than heaven appearing from the parting clouds.
The formula of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” is pretty much duplicated in “Soul and Inspiration,” so that might be a reason why the latter hasn’t been as popular as the former, but “Soul and Inspiration” perfectly demonstrates what a Big Song is all about. Foremost, this is really nothing more than your standard, undying devotion, can’t live without you kind of pop ditty. The charts were choked with them for as long as there had been charts, but by recasting such a commonplace sentiment in such massive scenery, the song feels like a monumental statement of existence rather than the naive gurglings of young love.
The Walker Brothers, on the other hand, consisted of Noel Scott Engel, Gary Leeds and John Maus, and all redubbed themselves with the Walker surname, one assumes, because it’s rather a show-business kind of thing to do. Scott Walker’s voice is very much perfect for the time and what he’s doing with it — he is more a crooner than a belter, and so The Walker Brothers often sounded like how you would imagine the Righteous Brothers would if they were fronted by Andy Williams.
There are several oddities involved with the Walker Brothers, not the least of which being the impression that they’re a UK group and the similarities to Medley and Hatfield was some sort of transatlantic rivalry. In truth, all three Walkers were American, but the trio moved to England to start their career. All three members recorded solo work after the demise of the group, the highest profiled entries being Scott Walker’s work for the UK label 4AD. On his albums Tilt and The Drift he is backed by sometimes dissonant, ambient and industrial sounds. The Drift in particular comes off as disturbing, not only for the occasionally twisted subject matter in they lyrics, where everything from plague, disease and torture are fodder, and not only for the chamber music touches but the fact that he’s still using this crooning, slow voice to put it all across. The effect is a lot like a David Lynch film of unrelenting tension waiting for release. Two songs, “Clara” and “Cue,” both clock in above the ten minute mark.
At a fraction of the time, the Walker Brothers had two entries familiar to music fans: “Make It Easy On Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” The latter foreshadows some of what Scott Walker would do in his solo career, albeit in a much more arch manner. “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” features strings, mariachi horns, thunderous drums and cymbals, chiming bells and the backup singers that seemed straight out of the Righteous Brothers oeuvre.
The hook for both groups is that, again, the guts of their songs are really straightforward and standard. Take it all away, change the rhythm, and the lyrics could be sung by any doo-wop band of the era. No one would even flinch. Yet it is this redressing in pop cathedrals of sound that keep both organizations so well remembered through the years.