I just read that Burt Bacharach has died.
I’ve featured a couple of his songs before in this series – Billy J. Kramer’s version of Trains & Boats & Planes, and Dionne Warwick’s performance of Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, a couple of my favourites – but thinking today about what I’d pick as the quintessential Bacharach melody and orchestration, combined with a fine example of the typically excellent lyrics of Hal David, as performed by (who else?) Dionne Warwick – with whom Bacharach formed a truly extraordinary artistic and commercial partnership in the Sixties – the first thing to come to mind was today’s selection. It synthesizes everything that made his songs great, the immediate, utterly pleasing listenability, the nifty time signatures, the excellent vocal, and the use of understated instruments like Flugelhorn in the sophisticated arrangement. The way David’s words match so precisely the metre of the melody, as always, is one of its greatest pleasures:
What do you get when you kiss a guy?
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia
After you do, he’ll never phone ya
I’ll never fall in love again
This was a little inside joke, alluding to a bout of sickness from which Burt was just recovering when he wrote the music.
There never was a better representative of the elegant genre of Top 40 tune-smithing that was already going out of style before the Sixties ended, professional old school pop that wasn’t rock ‘n roll, wasn’t noisy, wasn’t angry, and wasn’t aimed mainly at adolescent ears (though kids would like it too, as would almost anybody of any age). Its hallmark was a polished and glossy studio sheen; there was always something pristine and immaculate about the presentation of Bacharach’s routinely delightful pop melodies, coming one after another as the Sixties progressed, a certain formal perfection, though at the time his music, while by no means dismissed as fluff, was thought of as lighter fare, “easy listening”, and therefore a little less inspired, a little less relevant, than the stuff coming from Dylan and Lennon & McCartney, the acknowledged songwriting giants of the day. Besides, it was the latter half of the 1960s, with all of its social dislocation, protests, and student radicalism. In that context, Bacharach’s sort of compositions came to be seen as thoroughly conventional, a little too middle-of-the-road to be cool, and completely lacking in anything like what was becoming the requisite dose of youthful rebelliousness. Where was the social commentary? The grievance against The Establishment? You didn’t hear anything about drugs and free love, did you? It wasn’t the sort of stuff you’d hear at Woodstock, either, right? No, a quick spin of the latest hit from the Bacharach-David team wouldn’t scare your parents, offend your pastor, or put the old folks to flight, unlike, say, the contemporary output of the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix, let alone the truly revolutionary, mind-roastingly avant garde performance art that was coming out of bands like the Velvet Underground. It was just nice, that’s all, like the music that came out of the Brill Building, and Tin Pan Alley before that, pleasant, catchy, safe for all audiences, and always succinct and to the point. Bacharach’s stock in trade was an apparently bottomless supply of snappy two and three minute pop confections, designed not to offend anybody, but simply to be heart-of-the-envelope fare for the DeeJays on AM radio.
Time was, AM was the only game in town. Then, as the decade drew to a close, the “heavy” artists started moving to new-fangled, high-fidelity FM, spurred along by college radio, where the scene was dominated by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The new normal consisted of brash, bluesy, loud, electric-guitar driven tracks sometimes stretching to eight or more minutes, which by comparison made perfect little gems like I Say a Little Prayer and Walk On By seem quaint, of another era, perhaps fit for performers like B.J. Thomas and The Carpenters. What was something innocuous like Close to You when set against Gimme Shelter and Stairway to Heaven? As the popular music world moved on, and the hits dried up, Bacharach may have taken solace in a continuing stream of Grammys, Oscars, and even an Emmy, among many other gongs, not to mention an unholy crapload of earnings, but his work no longer took centre stage, and people seemed to forget about him.
Thus, for quite a while there, the Bacharach-David team wasn’t getting anything like its due. That must have been hurtful.
This all changed, thankfully, beginning some time in the 1990s. Younger listeners revisited the music and became fans, while movie makers started incorporating the songs into popular films (the Julia Roberts rom-com My Best Friend’s Wedding is practically a musical tribute to Bacharach). Lavish boxed sets were released, and there were collaborations with performers who boasted impeccable street cred, like Elvis Costello, who made a point of praising the old songs. Costello and Bacharach even showed up to do a little number in the first Austin Powers movie:
By the turn of the century, the Bacharach-David catalogue was rightly revered as one of the most crucial chapters of the Great American Songbook, and Bacharach was spoken of in the same breath as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, his name usually prefaced with phrases like “master composer” and “genius tunesmith”. This is from today’s obituary in Pitchfork Magazine:
His pop heyday began in 1957, when he met the lyricist Hal David, who became his chief collaborator; that year, their songs “The Story of My Life” and “Magic Moments” became instant hits for Marty Robbins and Perry Como, respectively. Together, they established a new paradigm for svelte pop. As the 1960s progressed, they cemented their partnership among the decade’s greats—Lennon-McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gamble and Huff—despite conjuring bygone decades with their symphonic arrangements, bossa nova lilt, and indelible melodies.
And this is from the New York Times:
A die-hard romantic whose mature style might be described as Wagnerian lounge music, Mr. Bacharach fused the chromatic harmonies and long, angular melodies of late-19th-century symphonic music with modern, bubbly pop orchestration, and embellished the resulting mixture with a staccato rhythmic drive. His effervescent compositions epitomized sophisticated hedonism to a generation of young adults only a few years older than the Beatles...Because of the high gloss and apolitical stance of the songs Mr. Bacharach wrote with his most frequent collaborator, the lyricist Hal David, during an era of confrontation and social upheaval, they were often dismissed as little more than background music by listeners who preferred the hard edge of rock or the intimacy of the singer-songwriter genre. But in hindsight, the Bacharach-David team ranks high in the pantheon of pop songwriting.
Yes. Yes it does.
Bacharach was 94. A ripe old age, to be sure, and a life very well lived. Moreover, unlike a lot of celebrated artists, he stuck around long enough to see his reputation elevated to its proper level, and in this brutally unfair world that’s not nothing. One doesn’t get the sense, either, of unfinished business, or further things to contribute to the form – he’d said it all, done it all, and left it all on the field, as it were – and that takes some of the sting out of his passing, as does the certainty that what must have been a massive stream of royalties surely kept him wealthy and comfortable throughout. There’s nothing sad about his life.
Still, I’m sad. Seems to me that folks like him should get to live forever, like the art they create.
Here are my prior Song of the Day entries for Bacharach:
One comment on “Song of the Day: Dionne Warwick – I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”
Thank you..definitely sums up BBs place in 20th century music..As many say..his tunes will be played 100 years from now..the world will change, but a great pop tune that is about everyday life never goes out of style.