Dream Academy – Life in a Northern Town (march 9, 2023)
Hey, remember this one? Really takes you back, right?
Sigh. How disconcerting to arrive at the point where the songs still filed under “Modern” in your great big mental Rolodex o’ Tunes are now being classified as “golden oldies”…
…and anybody younger than dirt goes “what’s a Rolodex?”
Dream Academy burst briefly on to the scene in the mid-1980s, and scored a global hit with the attached, written by band members Nick Laird-Clowes and Gilbert Gabriel. Like so many other groups that have happened to produce a song with a complicated arrangement featuring a few “classical” instruments, they were labelled “Beatle-esque”, and I guess you can hear a hint of Penny Lane in there somewhere, if you try. Plus, they mention the Beatles in the lyrics. Perhaps we could call it “Beatles-inspired”, or “Beatles-adjacent”. In any case the song was expressly dedicated not to the Fab Four, but to Nick Drake, which might seem a little odd, since Drake was brought up in a little town near Birmingham, nestled squarely within England’s midlands, but it wasn’t meant to be about Nick; it was just that when they were writing it, something in the emerging melody of the verse reminded them of him, perhaps because at the time, Laird-Clowes was actually strumming on a guitar Drake had once owned (so he claims, anyway). The inspiration arose from the impressions garnered by Laird-Clowes while he was working on a music TV show called The Tube, then being produced in (the indeed very northern) Newcastle:
The lyric emerged because I was an early presenter on The Tube and Geoff Wonfor, who went on to shoot The Beatles Anthology series, showed me the long lines of people unemployed and the shipyards that were closed down. That’s what ‘Life in Northern Town’ is really all about.
The mood certainly seems suited to a rather rain-drenched, nostalgic melancholy, as experienced by listless, jobless folk who remember better days, an impression enhanced by the video, with its damp and dreary exterior shots. The Beatles reference seems intended to hark back to a bygone era when the air seemed full of energy and promise, and the country emerged for a little while from its post-war torpor, only to settle right back into the gloom as the years sped by, at least up Newcastle way.
Curiously, given the arrangement’s emphasis on booming timpani, their label was reluctant to release Life in a Northern Town until more drums were layered into the mix. The group stood its ground, and listening today, it’s hard to imagine what it was the record executives wanted, exactly, or what the song would have sounded like if they’d gotten it. Maybe they wanted it to seem more danceable, like the club-friendly tracks then being produced by so many of their Eighties contemporaries, which often featured the distinctive sound of electronic drums (remember those flat hexagonal plates that the big-haired drummers used to club)? It won’t sell if you can’t dance to it, right?
Record company guys in their suits, and their artistic opinions. I ask you.
Explosions in the Sky – You’re Hand in Mine (March 6, 2023)
Eight minutes of instrumental music that tend to evoke strong emotions.
Your Hand in Mine is moody and atmospheric, by turns almost angry, then gentle, then melancholy (in what can only be described as a philosophical sort of way), and finally something close to uplifting, if bittersweet acceptance counts as more or less the same thing. The band, part of the Austin music scene, refers to their extended, intricate guitar pieces as “cathartic mini-symphonies”, though they still consider themselves a rock group – which, O.K. I guess, under a very expanded definition of rock ‘n roll – but if the attached sounds more to you like soundtrack music, you’re not alone. While not written for the cinema, it was adapted for the movie Friday Night Lights (based on the excellent book by Buzz Bissinger), which takes a penetrating look at the phenomenon of Texas high school football in all its hugely disproportionate cultural significance. It was used again in the wonderful television series of the same name, which managed to run for a few years on NBC, back when the networks offered something besides celebrity dance routines, mystery singers in ridiculous costumes, and the vicious humiliation of quivering apprentice chefs.
For a lot of us, the song’s beautiful extended denouement, beginning at the five minute mark, will always be associated with a particular scene in the season one finale of the NBC series, when the Dillon Panthers arrive at Texas Stadium on the eve of the state championship. It’s only about two minutes long, but it’s the heart of the episode, maybe even the whole season, an emotional moment that finds the overawed teenagers standing at the apex of a very tall pyramid they’d barely dreamed they could ever climb. Wide-eyed, looking at each other with can you even believe this? written all over their faces, the kids take in the scenery of the great big stadium in the same way that others might look up at the vaulted ceilings of Chartres. This is it. They’re here. They made it to State. “Does it get any better than this?” asks Coach Taylor. “Ah Hell, I don’t think it does. Soak it in”. Have a look:
One poignant, serene, perfect little interlude, the Dillon Panthers standing at the zenith of their adolescent ambition, doing as Coach tells them, soaking it all in, each of them wanting so desperately to win, each praying most earnestly to God that if they lose, it won’t be him who screwed the pooch for everybody else on game day, and each wondering whether he’ll ever be back to this place, or ever again feel anything like what he’s feeling now. It’s impossible to imagine this deeply affecting tableau of fragile hopes and deep anxieties rendered so beautifully on screen, with such sensitivity, absent the delicate backing of Your Hand in Mine.
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee (March 3, 2023)
Just an awfully pretty little thing from a group that thought it was arty to put an extra “e” on the end of their name. Written mainly by band member Michael Brown, Walk Away Renée, a top five hit in 1966, was part of a “baroque rock” craze that briefly washed over the industry in the mid-Sixties, and was one of a number of big hits that featured woodwinds; the flute was as much a part of the Sixties sound as saxophone was for the songs of the Eighties, and like most contemporary trends that were flogged to death by lesser artists, it had its origin in a Beatles song, 1965’s You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. According to Spotify, there are at least 60 songs that charted within three years after the Beatles’ use of the instrument that feature flute (or its close relative, the recorder, used most memorably by Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday ). Think California Dreamin’, Sloop John B, Pied Piper, Reach Out I’ll Be There, Going Up to the Country – it was everywhere, just one of those boulders the lads rolled down the hill before moving on to other things, never to repeat themselves, while dozens scrambled to latch on to the trend.
Still, it’s a lovely tune, regarded by some as the highest expression of the baroque rock genre**, and a rather touching expression of unrequited love for a real girl, so the story goes, written by Brown about bassist Tom Finn’s then-girlfriend Renée Fladen, also a performer, who hung with the group for a while. He wrote Pretty Ballerina for her too, and one wonders how much Finn understood about his band mate’s infatuation. None of the bios mention any particular rancour.
One might have expected Walk Away Renée to have faded into the distant past by now, a long-forgotten, idiosyncratic artifact of a bygone era, but no. Not at all. There’s just something about that melody, and that hook in the chorus, that keeps it from going away. The original is still getting airplay, and over the years other artists have kept coming back to it, including Billy Bragg, Rickie lee Jones, Cyndi Lauper (with Peter Kingsbery), Linda Ronstadt, Marshall Crenshaw, and even Motown’s Four Tops, back in the day. A more recent rendition by Vonda Shepard is also attached above. I found this in the YouTube comments section under the video of Lauper’s performance:
**Not hardly, if Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, and In My Life are lumped into the baroque category, as they are by those who argue that the Fab Four started the whole ball rolling.
**Not hardly, if Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, and In My Life are lumped into the baroque category, as they are by those who argue that the Fab Four started the whole ball rolling.
Joe Jackson – It’s Different For Girls (March 1, 2023)
Joe Jackson was part of what I perceived at the time to be a great pop songwriting renaissance brewing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when UK acts as diverse as Squeeze, the English Beat, The Clash, The Jam, The Vapors, The Police, and XTC, among others, were cranking out all manner of small compositional miracles, in such quantity and with such apparent facility that I didn’t see why it would ever have to stop. At the time, all of these British artists tended to get lumped under the umbrella of the so-called “New Wave” (save the Clash, quite wrongly categorized as part of the Punk movement, even though comparing them to, say, the Sex Pistols, was a bit like comparing a killer whale to a hammerhead shark), a rubric that embraced all sorts of styles and attitudes. Jackson’s work could be thought of as being part of sub-genre that included the songs of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, and Dave Edmunds, pop with a certain edge, tending towards a somewhat skewed, but always trenchant, often socially relevant perspective, without abandoning any of the traditional virtues of straightforward songcraft. It’s Different for Girls, off I’m the Man, a very big album in the college circles I was just entering, was a typical example, and very much of a piece with Jackson’s own, earlier, Is She Really Going Out With Him? As with the prior tune, the theme was what might be described as “baffled romantic frustration”, with the male protagonist finding it nigh on impossible to figure out what women want, or why he obviously doesn’t have it, whatever the hell it is. This time around, Jackson set out to be a bit subversive, turning the old stereotype on its head by portraying the guy as the one who craves love and meaningful emotional attachment, while the girl, frankly horrified at the prospect, wants only the sex. Said Joe: It was something that I heard somewhere that struck me as a cliché. The sort of thing that someone might say, and again, I thought, what could that be about? And that maybe the idea was to turn it on its head and have a conversation between a man and a woman and what you’d expect to be the typical roles are reversed.
I find it hard to pin down what I find so appealing about this one. I guess I identify with the character. Plus, it’s got a bit of a jazzy swing to it, with a pleasingly chiming electric guitar part forming its backbone, while it walks a line between sadness and a sort of hard-done-by indignation, a feeling of how can you be so callous as to say that to me? when, in response to his soul-baring honesty, she pretty much throws it back in his face:
I can’t believe it
Possibly mean it
All want the same thing
Well who said anything about love?
“You’re all the same”, she concludes. He doesn’t say it, but we know what’s he’s thinking: No, no, we’re not.
Dionne Warwick – I’ll Never Fall In Love Again (February 9, 2023)
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:
The Rascals – How Can I Be Sure? (January 27, 2023)
For some reason the Rascals, sometimes billed as The Young Rascals, don’t loom anywhere near as large in the public consciousness as other comparably successful Sixties acts, but they were a constant Billboard presence in the latter half of the decade, scoring big with chart-toppers like Groovin, Good Lovin’, You Better Run, and People Got to be Free. Solid, enjoyable pop songs all, but nothing like the delicate, wounded, superbly melodic ode to unrequited love that is 1967’s How Can I Be Sure?, an artifact of the psychedelic era that wasn’t psychedelic at all, and wasn’t rock ‘n roll, either, nor was it joyful and uplifting in the manner of their previous hits. Composers/band leaders Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati thought of it not merely as a departure, but something of a risk, yet like so many of the era they were inspired to go off on a bold creative tangent by asking themselves if those English kids can do it, why can’t we? “The only reason we were brave enough to do it was The Beatles did Michelle and Yesterday” said Cavaliere, and all these years later the extent to which they grabbed the ball and ran with it remains astonishing. Brave? More like audacious: a melancholy D minor melody with pivots into D major, then C major at the end of each chorus, set to 3/4 waltz time and accompanied by brass, strings, and an accordion borrowed, apparently, from some after-hours cabaret in Salerno. It’s utterly and quite literally timeless, hewing particularly to the first rule of the Top of the Pops by grabbing the listener’s undivided attention from the get-go; surely no song ever established a mood more effectively and immediately, with those soft, repeated notes on the piano sounding like gentle rain, embellished by the subtle pizzicato on the strings, while Eddie Brigati’s wistful vocal communicates a whole world of almost weary doubt and longing from the very first lines:
How can I be sure
In a world that’s constantly changing?
How can I be sure
Where I stand with you?
…such that after just 20 seconds, you’re already transported. Two brief minutes later and it’s ending gracefully the way it began, after which, if only they’d had even a scintilla of sensitivity, contemporary AM Dee Jays would have been leaving a few respectful seconds of silence before getting back to the regularly scheduled yammering.
Attached above is both the original and an excellent cover by Dusty Springfield. While doing well on this side of the pond, the Rascals’ version made little impression in the UK, and the song wasn’t a hit there until covered five years later by – get this – teenybopper idol, and perennial centerfold of Non-Threatening Boys Magazine, David Cassidy (remember him?), who was almost faithful to the spirit of the thing. Like I always say, tough to kill a tune like that.