Anyone who’s seen the Scorsese tour de force Goodfellas will remember the scene that showcased one of the greatest tracking shots in cinema history, as Ray Liotta takes new girlfriend Lorraine Bracco through the back entrance into the Copacabana, with Ray jumping the line, getting a special table placed right down in front just for him, and being everybody’s best buddy as he tips the staff with twenty dollar bills and enjoys all the perqs of being seriously monied and thoroughly mobbed up.
“What do you do?“, she asks him, mystified that anybody not famous like Sinatra could be given such VIP treatment.
The soundtrack is a glorious 1963 pop music confection of the girl group era, the Crystals singing Then He Kissed Me:
There can be no better example of the power of a good tune as amplified by Phil Spector’s legendary “wall of sound” production technique. The Crystals soar over a soundscape of harps, strings, brass, booming kettle drums, maracas, castanets and God knows what else, in another lavish take on the songwriting template that Spector called “little symphonies for the kids”. The arrangements relied not so much on recording tricks as sheer mass of instrumentation; if the song needed a guitar part, why not five guitars, or six, some acoustic and some electric, all playing in perfect harmony? How about forty violins as counterpoint to the melody? Somehow, despite the density of the mix, it was all engineered to sound wonderfully crisp and distinct when played out of the tiny monaural speakers buried in Ford and Chevy dashboards, and mounted in the new portable transistor radios that miraculously made it possible, for the first time, to carry recorded music around with you.
This was before Messrs. Lennon and McCartney changed all the rules, when singers were handed songs written by professionals over in the Brill Building, and producers and professional arrangers decided what the record would sound like. It was mechanical, but it could be magical, too. Those weren’t soulless mercenary hacks working away in the office tower. No sir, it was Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller, Burt Bacharach, Johnny Mercer, Neil Diamond, Ellen Greenwich and Jeff Barry (co-writers of Then He Kissed Me), among other luminaries. This model of professional songwriters and producers creating a particular genre of music, an official “sound”, wasn’t quite on its last legs yet in 1963; something similar to the Brill Building Sound was generated later over at Motown records in Detroit, where the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland cranked out an unbelievable quantity of hits that rank among the best pop music ever recorded. Still, the tectonic plates were soon to be shifting in the aftermath of that epochal Sunday night in February 1964, when over 70 million people tuned close to half of all the TVs which then existed in the U.S. to CBS and the Ed Sullivan Show, eager to see what all the fuss was about with these long-haired kids from England.
By the 1970s we were into the era of singer-songwriters, and performers that wrote their own material had become standard. From where I sit, the results have been decidedly mixed. The new normal established by the Beatles, it turned out, produced the best outcomes when the band happened to include two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. Given that sort of alchemy, songs for the ages might be sold to the masses. Otherwise, well, maybe not so much. Not that there haven’t been those equal to the task, but when you leave the average group of guitar-playing yobbos to their own devices, you might get something good, or you might just as likely get this:
On a visit to New York in the early 2000s, when the atonal moaning of Nickleback was all over the airwaves, I was taken aback when I realized I’d just walked past this:
It seemed to me then like a monument from a lost golden age.