The Left Banke

TrackAlbum / Single
Walk Away ReneeSmash 2041
Pretty BallerinaSmash 2074
She May Call You Up TonightWalk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina
Barterers And Their WivesWalk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina
Shadows Breaking Over My HeadWalk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina
DesireeSmash 2119
Dark Is The BarkThe Left Banke Too
My Friend TodayThe Left Banke Too
Goodbye HollyThe Left Banke Too
PedestalSmash 2243

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Contributor: Rob Morgan

 

The Left Banke photo

The Left Banke (l to r): Michael Brown (keyboards), George Cameron (drums), Tom Finn (bass), Steve Martin (vocals), Jeff Winfield (guitar)

In 1966, a new direction for pop music was on everybody’s lips. Baroque Pop was everywhere. The Rolling Stones were showing their gentle side with Lady Jane and I Am Waiting on their Aftermath LP; the Beatles had already led the way with the string quartet on Yesterday; George Martin’s harpsichord solo on In My Life and Eleanor Rigby’s stacatto strings. Of course there had been antecedents of the baroque pop sound – the keyboard heavy minor key melancholy of She’s Not There by The Zombies and the directions that Brian Wilson was pushing towards on The Beach Boys Today. But the first true baroque pop single was Walk Away Renee by The Left Banke.

The Left Banke were formed around the songwriting skills of keyboard player Michael Brown and the singer Steve Martin (not the comic actor), alongside the standard beat group combination of bass, drums and guitars, but the unique aspect of the band’s sound was the keyboards combined with string arrangements – usually a string quartet. The electric guitar was hardly audible – the keyboards and strings were the focus, alongside the Beatle-esque harmony vocals.

All of which is fine and dandy, but besides the musicianship and the sound there were songs of exceptional quality. Michael Brown had a knack for melodic and catchy songs with a streak of melancholy running through them, either lyrically or musically. He also took inspiration from what was around him. Legend has it that one day during the early development of the Left Banke, another member of the band brought along their new girlfriend and Brown was so smitten by her that he wrote three songs about her within 24 hours – She May Call You Up Tonight, Pretty Ballerina and Walk Away Renee. Unrequited love had rarely sounded so sad yet so eloquent.

It was Walk Away Renee which brought the Left Banke to national attention – in the US at least. Signed to the Smash subsidiary of Mercury, Walk Away Renee was released in late 1966 and became a sizeable hit in early 1967; it was graceful yet resigned – a set of tiny vignettes of abandoned love, each verse adding to the misery. A month or so later came the follow up, Pretty Ballerina, a song which was just as good – if not better – than its predecessor. Pretty Ballerina is about the ideal of love, and how it can be found in your head, in your memories, in your dreams. And the music is beautiful; a lilting piano figure with stationary high lying strings, with an instrumental middle eight of darkly descending chords. A stunning song and another hit in the US.

Smash allowed the Left Banke to make an album entitled Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina in case anyone missed the point. Those expecting more baroque pop would be disappointed – there were only two more songs with strings, but the rest of the album was still great. She May Call You Up Tonight, I’ve Got Something On My Mind and Let Go Of You Girl were spritely songs based on harpsichord playing, Lazy Day and Evening Gown hint at influences from contemporaries like the Seeds and Buffalo Springfield with lashings of fuzz guitar. There’s even a Ringo moment – What Do You Know is a cross between What Goes On and Living In Hope. There are some real highlights. Shadows Breaking Over My Head is as mournful as its title implies, with dark clouds of strings hanging over the song and some gorgeously sad block harmonies – when Steve Martin holds a high note on the word “me” on the close of the middle eight’s “It’s through for her and me”, it sounds like a quiet apocalypse is destroying his world. Barterers And Their Wives on the other hand is joyful; a description of rustic working life full of beautiful detail and a strange rhyming structure – a peculiar little gem.

There was dissent within the ranks of the Left Banke though. Michael Brown’s dominance was being questioned and various members were unhappy, in particular the guitarist who wasn’t really utilised fully, and live performances were hampered by Brown who wanted to remain in the studio. At this point it becomes slightly complicated. Brown was ousted from the band and formed a new version of the Left Banke around singer Bert Sommer. The original line up issued another single from the album; the new line up issued Ivy Ivy – a new Brown song – and the public got confused as two singles by different line ups of the same band were issued almost simultaneously. Luckily, neither was a hit and everyone made up and the original line up recorded a new Brown song as a single.

This single was Desiree, a hugely ambitious record. Starting with stacatto strings over Martin’s soaring vocal, once the full band come in the song explodes in joyous chorus and verses, surging forward with a rich orchestral backdrop. It was a pocket symphony, and should have been a huge hit. It reached number 98 in the US charts for one week before disappearing. Brown was stung and left the band he had created, heading towards other studio projects. The rest of the band continued anyway, creating a second album, The Left Banke Too, in late 1968.

The Left Banke Too is a bit of a curate’s egg of an album. Desiree gets a remix, an old Brown reject In The Morning Light gets dusted off, there’s a surfeit of strings and horns on songs like Nice To See You and the Kinks-ish vaudeville of Bryant Hotel, but in places it matches their previous album. There’s Gonna Be A Storm ramps up the tension in quiet verses to an explosive orchestral chorus. Goodbye Holly is proto-power pop, jangling guitars and jaunty harmonies. Best of all are two melancholy gems, My Friend Today and Dark Is The Bark, which are richly textured beauties, full of minor chords, sad oboes, and lonesome harmonies. However, by this point, nobody was really interested in the Left Banke and the album, and the singles issued from it, sank without trace.

There was one last hurrah by the band though. Brown came back into the fold to write two more songs, Myrah and Pedestal, which were issued in 1969 as a final single. Myrah was one more song with a strange female name and a quiet beauty, but the B-side Pedestal was one of their career highlights. A song again to an ‘Ideal Other’, Martin sings like an wounded angel over a gorgeous orchestral backing, with full rock band too. There’s hints of Hey Jude in the long fading coda and even room for a lead guitar break towards the end. A fabulous way to close a band. Of course nobody bought it and the Left Banke quietly split up.

Various members moved on to other projects. Michael Brown was the brainchild behind the one-off album by Montage (some of which is equal to the Left Banke, in particular I Shall Call Her Mary and Tinsel And Ivy) then had success in the seventies with Stories and the Beckies. Steve Martin disappeared while a young session singer named Steven who had sung on the second Left Banke LP became the lead singer of Aerosmith. Brown and Martin reunited for two lovely songs recorded in 1971 for the soundtrack of Ultra Violet’s Hot Parts – I can never work out quite how such beautiful music ended up in a film compiled from the sauciest parts of porn films by a Warhol Superstar. (Please note; I have not seen this film, it hasn’t been shown since 1971, just doing deep research…). There were a few reformations of the Left Banke in the late seventies but nothing recorded was issued at the time. The Left Banke’s legacy faded away in time.

Only it didn’t really. Walk Away Renee was covered by the Four Tops in 1968 and was a huge worldwide hit. In the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in the band, sparked by reissues by specialist labels like Bam Caruso and Rhino (which is where I found out about them). Bam Caruso even issued the unreleased late seventies material. Gradually their reputation rose, Mercury reissued their complete Sixties back catalogue on one CD in the early 90s. Slowly, people spoke about them in hushed tones, songs were shared like secrets. Pretty Ballerina became a favourite song to cover amongst the indie cogniscenti – The Bluetones’ version is rather nice. Even Noel Gallagher sang their praises after a fan pressed the Mercury CD into his hand after a gig, not that it changed Oasis’ lumpen indie rock one jot. There were even reunions and a few live shows in recent years.

Then sadly Michael Brown passed away earlier this year and the praise for him was remarkable, effusive and totally justified. Some of the people who had discovered the Left Banke in the 80s were now writing about music for broadsheet newspapers and his obituaries, by the likes of Bob Stanley, showed how much his music was adored by those who knew it. I believe there are plans for a tribute concert in the near future which will hopefully highlight the marvellous music made by the Left Banke. It is a huge shame that their music is not widely available – at the moment the Mercury compilation is not available on Spotify in the UK and commands high prices on Ebay. Hopefully the general public will one day appreciate the beautiful music made by the Left Banke. It deserves to be heard.

 

 

Michael Brown (1949-2015)

Bob Stanley’s obituary of Michael Brown

Jeff Winfield (1948-2009)

The Left Banke fan site

The Left Banke band website (up to 2012)

The Left Banke – Barterers And Their Wives (on Youtube)

The Left Banke – Desiree (on Youtube)

The Left Banke – Pedestal (on Youtube)

The Left Banke biography (iTunes)

Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves at his website, A Goldfish Called Regret. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost.

TopperPost #461

2 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Aug 1, 2015

    Thanks, Rob. I have the Mercury “There’s Gonna Be A Storm.” I was persuaded to get it after a long internet argument over “Walk Away Renee.” I knew and loved the song from the Four Tops and Levi Stubbs’ voice defined it for me. Years later I heard about the Left Banke version, which had virtually zero exposure in the UK at the time of release. I thought it feeble. A deluge of North American posters praised it to the skies, and so I got the compilation and at last lost my immunity to its charms. It is superb. You just really should hear it first, not years after the soul version. The one you hear first imprints so powerfully. I haven’t played it for years, but now encouraged the album is on my desk and ready for re-examination.

  2. Eric M. Van
    Jan 9, 2016

    I’ve never paid much heed to the non-Michael Brown compositions on Too, so I’ll be digging up my copy of There’s Gonna Be a Storm and giving a thorough listen to your three choices, plus re-assessing “Pedestal,” which I thought paled beside its A-side, an easy choice for my list. I find it harder to imagine that they’re any stronger, however, than “Lazy Day,” which I think has Martin’s best singing (in fact, some of the best rock singing in history) and is their second strongest track after “Renee.” “Evening Gown” is, for me, also a clear keeper, featuring what might be the band’s best lyric. I suspect that if you’re drawn to the Banke entirely for their classical influences, you may not realize just how monstrously strong these are as rock tracks, and I think that omitting them seriously shortchanges any view of the band.

    I’m also fond of the “Storm” bonus track “Men are Building Sand,” with its atonal chorus–probably Browne’s most “outside” moment as a composer. But of course that leads us to Browne tracks with the other projects you mention, like Montage’s “Wake Up Jimmy” and the Steve Martin single “Two By Two,” maybe the best thing he ever wrote. RIP a fabulous talent. A 2-CD career compilation would be timely (and the reunited Banke cut at least one unreleased track as good as anything from their prime).

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