Popdose writers pay tribute to Michael Brown who passed away last week.
Ken Shane: I try to avoid calling anything “the best” or “the greatest.” It’s all subjective, isn’t it? In the end it’s just one opinion. So while I may try to extoll the virtues of a certain record, I will never claim that it’s the greatest. Instead I talk about my favorites because when you call something your favorite, no one can really argue with you, can they? You may be castigated for having a certain opinion, especially in the age of the comment section, but in the end it’s all yours.
“Desiree” by the Left Banke is my favorite record ever. It has been since the first time I heard it back in the ’60s. Like a lot of people, I knew the Left Banke from the hits — the iconic smash “Walk Away Renee” and the groundbreaking “Pretty Ballerina.” I loved those records but knew very little about the band that made them. Then along came “Desiree” and if a world can in fact be rocked, that record rocked mine.
I’ve been a Brian Wilson fan from the beginning. I know it’s cool to like the primal three-chord rock and roll, and I do, but I love melody, I love harmony. Even what seemed to be the simplest Beach Boys songs had some little musical twist to them, and then there were those voices. Until I heard the Left Banke those wistful melodies seemed to be a west coast dream, far removed from the gritty realities of the New Jersey of my boyhood.
Maybe Michael Brown’s talent was a gift from God, but surely it didn’t hurt that his father was Harry Lookofsky, a well known session violinist in New York City. When Brown put the Left Banke together in 1965 Lookofsky became their producer and manager. Smash Records, a Mercury imprint, heard Brown’s song “Walk Away Renee” and signed the band. The record was a huge hit in 1966, and the Left Banke followed it with another chart success, “Pretty Ballerina,” in early ’67.
Quick success often brings about problems in a band, and the Left Banke was no exception. Apparently Brown began to think that he didn’t need the rest of his band and recorded a single using session players. Sure, Brian Wilson was doing the same thing at the time, but his band knew he was doing it and sang on the records. That was not the case on “Ivy, Ivy,” b/w “And Suddenly. It was lawyer time for the Left Banke.
Cease and desist orders tried to stop Brown from using the Left Banke name on what was essentially a solo recording. The other members of the Left Banke spread the word through their fan club that Brown’s effort shouldn’t be supported. DJs became confused about which Left Banke they should play, and finally Smash Records withdrew their support for Brown’s record.
All of that would have been enough to kill most bands, but the Left Banke was not dead yet. At the end of 1967 Brown rejoined the group and it was during the recording sessions that followed that “Desiree” was born.
Everything returns again
Both the laughter and the rain
She is living somewhere far away
Still I ask her in my lonely way to stay
Now she’s leaving
It begins with the violins, which are soon joined by the high lonesome vocal sound of Steve Martin, the band’s lead singer. Drums, bass, and harmony vocals follow. By the time the chorus has been reached, it’s all on, and all out.
Desiree you know, how it hurts me
Living alone through all the years
Nothing can hold the tears in me
You almost want it to end there, right after that instrumental interlude that’s worthy of Jimmy Webb, because nothing so perfect can last. It doesn’t end though. Instead it goes back to the start, and rebuilds.
Everything remains the same
Yet she answers not her name
Still if I could look beyond these skies
Standing here again before my eyes I’d see
Now she’s leaving
Somehow, nothing has been lost. In fact, the record has gained power through the repetition of the verse/chorus structure. But where can they go from here? This is a pop record after all, so the thing to do is to repeat the hook, the chorus, and then ride out on that musical interlude. At two minutes and forty-four seconds, it’s all over, and it’s flawless. Melody, lyrics, harmonies, music, all perfect.
“Desiree” wasn’t a hit. It barely scraped into the Top 100. Brown and the Left Banke parted ways again. He went on to found a group called Montage, and re-recorded “Desiree” with the new group. He must have known that it was his best work and it had to have bothered him that it wasn’t recognized. The Montage version was not quite the equal of the Left Banke version, but a great song is a great song and that quality came through in the Montage cover.
After one album with Montage, Brown moved on to found the band Stories. By the time Stories found success with the hit “Brother Louie,” Brown was in the wind again. The story doesn’t quite end there though because in 2011 the Left Banke got back together. The reunion didn’t officially include Brown, but he got up on stage with them at some shows in 2012.
I’d like to think that the ghosts of what could have been that haunted the Left Banke for decades were banished in those moments when they were all back together again as they had been in 1965. I’d like to think that the brilliant, troubled soul of Michael Brown was finally at peace when he went to his final rest last week.
Robert Ross: The passing of Michael Brown – Michael Lookofsky – who was the driving force behind ’60’s pop band The Left Banke – has left a mark on those who were touched by his songs. To have written a song for all time, the near-to-heavenly perfection of 1967’s “Walk Away Renee” and the shimmering beauty of “Pretty Ballerina”, is no small accomplishment. Nearly fifty years later and people of all ages are, in fact, discovering and re-discovering the sounds of The Left Banke. I actually re-stumbled upon them through a movie from about a decade ago, “Things Behind The Sun”, in which the main characters discuss the music and writing of Michael Brown at length and the songs are used in a powerful and dramatic fashion.
The thing is, the words often used to describe Michael Brown’s writing is “teenage heartbreak”, which is true – the music is melancholic; the words are tinged with sadness and some despair but teenage heartbreak is never articulate. It’s spewed with a confusion and inability to convey the feeling. Brown’s writing was eloquent, passionate, poetic and image laden with a sense, as my wife put it “it was power pop as written by James Joyce.” The music itself was sophisticated, skillfully arranged and warm – soothing the pain that lurked within the lyrics.
And indeed, it was written by a teenager, albeit a very gifted and forward thinking teenager.Following a two year hiatus after leaving Stories, Brown reappeared with The Beckies, a power-pop outfit in the Raspberries/Badfinger/Big Star style of rock; for this project, he enlisted singer Scott Trusty, former Chessmann Square drummer Gary Hodgden and guitarist Mayo James McAllister. They were signed to Seymour Stein’s Sire Records (via ABC at the time) and released their one and only album in 1976. Tracks like “Ride By My Side (Etude), “Midnight and You” and especially “Can’t Be Alone” exemplify the power-pop style of the time and yet shows Brown’s mastery at arranging and crafting a song.
While this is not in the same style of The Left Banke, critics were buzzing about this latest in the growing (at the time) list of Michael Brown’s musical accomplishments. But unfortunately, while Sire issued a lone single (“Song Called Love”/”River Bayou”), The Beckies came and went without a trace.As of yet, no one has had the opportunity to reissue The Beckies’ album; there is also, apparently, a number of tracks that were recorded but not released. Nonetheless, a vinyl copy is worth the effort to seek out, especially if you hold Big Star in esteem.
Dw Dunphy: Michael Brown is not the name that comes to mind most immediately when one utters “pop genius from the 1960s and 1970s.” Brian Wilson, surely; Lennon & McCartney; and Phil Spector, at least for his creative genius, will all be top-of-list. No less important, though more likely to fall through the cracks is Alex Chilton. Although Big Star undoubtedly was the catalyst for so much of the much that percolated through the ’70s and ’80s, the band remains a mystery outside of the wildly devoted cult of fans it instigated. Chilton himself may have become a footnote without the Replacements song that immortalized him.
But Michael Brown was double-blessed, or double-cursed depending on how you view it, that he had the ability to think on multiple levels. He could seize the potential of the folk ballad, the madrigal, and the chamber orchestra and marry it to the pop song structure without it being weird or over the top. And he was the scientist behind one of the greatest songs his generation offered: “Walk Away Renee.” It was, to the casual listener, all chocolate. Great chorus, great harmonies, airtight structure, immediate sing-along potential, and impeccable arrangement without a hint of guilt to follow.
If you drilled down into the track, or almost any of the Left Banke tracks he was responsible for, you could get lost in the complexity. This is unquestionable with a song like “Pretty Ballerina.” The rhythm is close to “Walk Away Renee” but the similarities end there. Beyond the unconventional instrumentation in the mid-section there are chord structures that are different from nearly anything else that was current to its times. They’re often called “expensive chords” because they require more dexterity than the major triads of most pop music. The shifting from such finger shapes to others can be frustrating for people who haven’t many, many years of training.
The “baroque pop” sound, which formed around key sounds like the harpsichord and chamberlin keyboards, strings, and so forth, was not the sole property of The Left Banke. Spanky and Our Gang’s “Sunday Will Never Be The Same,” The Mamas and The Papas’ “Monday Monday” and “I Saw Her Again” are examples…Hell, even the opening of the Partridge Family theme alludes to it, but I don’t believe most of them really understood it on the same level of proficiency as The Left Banke.
What kept these songs from going off the rails is the recognition of traditional pop subject matter — love and lost love, longing, happiness, sadness, and so on. Blending such relate-able sentiments with the difficult mechanics of the sonic and chordal structures pulled the listener through. It didn’t sound like old music. It wasn’t unattainable.
Brown did this throughout his career: with the band Stories with future Foreigner member Ian Lloyd; or still later with power pop’s The Beckies, fronted by Scott Trusty. It wasn’t always accessible though. Below, find Trusty’s “I Bred Quarter Horses”, circa 1969. It was never going to be a hit and the shifts in time and tone was nearly confrontational. The verse first lands on the beat, then drifts behind it, then catches up (a musical allusion to horses in a race, perhaps). That rhythm stays at pace…it is the singer that is having trouble keeping up, by design. The digressions feel disjointed and out-of-nowhere. Nonetheless, it all works because, after having heard it, you’re not likely to forget it.
The more you learn about Michael Brown’s later life, the more you begin to believe he was pop’s unluckiest genius. Little seemed to fall in his favor, and some of the blame must fall on him squarely. He is regarded as not having been the most loyal of team players. His work with Stories, although as impressive as anything he’d ever set his hand to, was overshadowed by their big hit, a cover of “Brother Louie,” originally done by the group Hot Chocolate (known best for the song “You Sexy Thing”). He couldn’t get later ventures to catch fire in America. Almost as a cruel afterthought from fate, if you’re Googling “Michael Brown” you’re going to get information that has nothing to do with music. His name, or rather the name he chose for himself in the 1960s, was now on every TV news show in America, but not for him.
Not too long ago, there was a reformation of The Left Banke — of sorts — and Brown was there to play that crucial part in the proceedings, though it was not planned that way. The reformed unit invited him up on stage, more out of serendipity than anything, so the story goes. I have to interpret there was still a bit of bad blood there, but at least there seemed to be a hint of resolution derived from it all. This should have been as momentous an occasion as when the briefly reunited Beach Boys released “That’s Why God Made The Radio.” I only heard about it now, in memoriam, and wish I could have been there.
He will, in years to come, attain a level of tragic ascendance. The awful thing about death is that, in cases such as these, people rediscover you and what’s the cliche about the value of art while the painter is still alive? That’s what Michael Brown was, with all due respect to his peers both famous and obscure. He was never the front man. He was, instead, a musical painter.
Rest in peace, Michael Brown. You gave us so much more.
Dave Kapulsky, aka “Dave the Rave,” is a DJ with a syndicated radio show called Relics & Rarities, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the music of the 1960’s. Ken Shane of Popdose recently spoke to Dave about his memories of Michael Brown and the Left Banke.
Ken Shane: As a DJ, and a music fan, what do you think of when someone mentions the Left Banke?
Just great radio friendly, commercial, hit records. As a fan of ’60s music, a guy who bought records, and a guy who plays them on the radio, I’ve always been a fan of songs that have a great commercial sound that I can picture coming through a transistor radio or a car speaker. That’s what I heard in so many of the Left Banke’s records.
When you think of any artist like that we are always so sad to see them go because of the great music that they gave us. Although the Left Banke did not have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame type of career, they at least had some individual singles that some might call Rock and Roll Hall of Fame quality, “Walk Away Renee” in particular because it was just such a great record that so many of us fell in love with in the fall of of ’66. It was covered by so many artists because others fell in love with that same record.
For a guy like me who does a show about songs that should have been hits, songs that deserve a second chance on to be heard on the radio, in addition to hits like “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina,” the Left Banke had probably three great songs that should have been hits. One of them I think the record company screwed up on. “Ivy, Ivy,” was their third release following up “Pretty Ballerina.” For me the other side of that record, “And Suddenly,” is the A-side. Two years later it became a hit for the Cherry People.
The story behind that record is that Michael Brown recorded it with session players instead of the band. The other members of the Left Banke got pissed off, and the band broke up, at least for a little while. The band was unhappy and the record company withdrew support from the single.
Despite all of that, a record could still become a hit by getting airplay. I have always played the “And Suddenly” side.
What were the other two songs that you mentioned?
In between the “Ivy, Ivy” single and “Desiree,” they released “She May Call You Up Tonight” which was a great pop record with great harmony. I would certainly put it in the category of “should have been a hit.” If I actual dig into the discography, and I probably have all of their 45s, of the five records that hit the charts, either in the Top 100 or “bubbling under,” you had two of them that were Top 20, one of them being the Top 5 nationally “Walk Away Renee,” then you had three other records, including “Desiree” which I just fell in love with. It was very infectious, but not a big hit.
Then you had two other records that could easily have been Top 40 records, and should have been Top 40 records if not higher. One was the record that featured “And Suddenly” on one side and “Ivy, Ivy” on the other, and the other one was “She May Call You Up Tonight.”
When a band doesn’t have that continuous success, sometimes they’re not thinking about their legacy down the road. They’re thinking that it’s a lot of work, we’re on the road, the records aren’t selling, we’re not having hits anymore. Sometimes people like Michael Brown decide to do their own thing. He formed other groups after leaving the Left Banke. But imagine if all of those songs had continued to be hits. The Left Banke may have gone on to continue their sound and have many more hits going into the later ’60s and into the ’70s.
What are your memories of hearing the Left Banke records when they were first released?
I definitely remember the records, and they appealed to me right away. I was a guy who was in love with the commercial sound of Top 40 music and I was constantly searching regional market radio stations. The one I enjoyed the most was CKLW out of Windsor, Ontario in the Detroit market area. WCFL, WLS, WKBW, late at night I could pick up those stations.
I was one of those record geeks, some would say I’m still a geek and I’m okay with that label, and I would drive the local record stores crazy because I would come in asking for things and the guy would ask me how I even knew those records. Sometimes I heard a record that just meant something to me.
I think I’ve always had a pretty good ear. In a lot of cases records I play on my Relics & Rarities show were not hits, and listeners agree that they should have been hits. It’s not about playing records just because they’re obscure. It’s about playing records that are obscure but sound like they should have been hits. That would be the attraction with a band like the Left Banke. They sounded great with their hits, and they continued to put out great 45s that never really saw the true light of day.
For more information and to find out where you can hear Dave’s show, please visit www.davetherave.com.