The Left Banke


Strongest album: There's Gonna Be A Storm, the Complete Recordings 1966-1969
Weakest album:
The band only recorded between 1966 and 1969. Look at above.

Ever had to take piano or cello lessons as a kid? Well, I didn't, but did those of you who did ever think to yourselves, "You know, I could incorporate these classical motifs I've been forced to learn into catchy pop songs?" Of course you have; if it weren't for jerks like you we would have never had to put up with crap like Rick Wakeman's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII Journey to the Center of the Earth" or whatever it's called. Back in the mid-'60s a wee lad by the name of Micheal Brown (and I do mean lad - a ripe old veteran of 16) first put the idea into practice (or at least the first to gain success from it; if anybody else had arrived there earlier I've never heard of them). Oh, you had little things like Leiber and Stoller put strings on a Drifters record in 1959, and '60s giants the Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones (really - "Lady Jane") poking around tentatively with elements of classical music, but the Left Banke were really the first band to take rock/classical fusion to its logical conclusion. It probably would have evolved naturally anyway, but arriving there first ought to count for something, and practically nobody who came after the Left Banke pulled the conceit off better. The thing is, when most rockers try "fusion" they think "long solos and lots of complicated chord changes and song structures automatically make the music better and more sophisticated." No, no, no, NO! The Left Banke realized what classical music's strengths really were - not wanking-off showmanship, but rather elegance, quietly understated dynamics, and most of all, impossibly lovely, flat-out gorgeous melodies. Ah, those melodies.... Nobody talks about this band today, and even '60s devotees might overlook this wonderful band. Remember "Walk Away Renee?" Now that I've got your attention, let's look at the band's woefully slim output.

Look at this - there is a webpage dedicated to the Left Banke. It's nice and big, too, with lots of info.

Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina (1967) ****

If you've ever heard it (regular tuners in to oldies stations undoubtedly have) then you're aware of "Walk Away Renee," as one of the most heartbreakingly stunning singles of the 20th century. Supposedly this masterpiece of teen angst first love was inspired by Brown's crush on bandmate Tom Finn's girlfriend Renee Fladen, as were the almost equally delectable "Pretty Ballerina," (followup single, hit #2) and "She May Call You Up Tonight," (a bit harder hitting [I said a bit] slice of proto-pretty power-pop that should've been a hit). Gee, I wonder if that caused any band tensions? As with a lot of mid-'60s albums, this is a bit of a patchwork effort, compiling their two '66 singles' A and B-sides alongside the tracks they recorded with a proper album in mind. Mostly it's very Beatlesque (but so was everybody those days, and like it's a crime - I wish more bands were blatantly Beatlesque these days!), especially the George-style "I've Got Something On My Mind," and the bouncy Paul-style, "Let Go Of You Girl," two of the stronger tracks. No John, though, since he's too tough - these guys are absolute wimps (maybe not in real life, but certainly musically). And there's nothing wrong with that, after all you can't listen to the Clash all day, and while most soft rock is too bland and VH1 to not induce sopor, this stuff is far too lovely, intricate, and just plain hummably catchy to do that. When they try to stretch out and rock'n'roll, they're forgettable ("What Do You Know," "Evening Gown,"; "Lazy Day," isn't that bad, though). Despite the somewhat inconsistent material, this is one of the most unjustly overlooked LPs of the '60s.

The Left Banke Too (1968) ***

By this time Brown has left, leaving only one fabulously over the top, overproduced, and overmelodramatic single, "Desiree," and its much lesser B-side, "In The Morning Light." So the rest of the band tries its hand at writing Left Banke material, and the results are haphazard. Even the best songs don't come close to Brown's top-notch material. However, most of this is pleasant in a generic late-'60s disposable AM pop way (think "Green Tambourine," by the Lemon Pipers, whose Paul Leka produces). Particularly I fancy Tom Feher's contributions: "Goodbye Holly," a charming upbeat little number, and "Bryant Hotel," which mimics konkurrent Kinks right down to the Ray Davies accent. It's not something to go out and purchase in its own right, but on the 1992 There's Going To Be A Storm CD, it's nice to hear, and it's not like it's bad or anything. Trivia buffs should note that a young Steven Tyler of Aerosmith sings inaudible backup on a couple of songs.

There's Gonna Be A Storm: The Complete Recordings, 1966-1969 (1992) ****

This reissue combines both of the above records on one CD, along with a few other items. The outtake "Men Are Building Sand," shouldn't have remained one. The wispy and insubstantial "Ivy Ivy," finds Brown in an uninspired mood (he released it as a single anyway, and it predictably flopped). Also here are both sides of the final Left Banke single: the dire "Pedestal," and the return of Brown, "Myrah," which finally allows the band to recapture some of its former surgingly melancholy glory. The only minor gripe is that the Left Banke reformed several years later to release one single, "Love Songs In the Night,"/b-side "Two By Two," which renders this comp slightly incomplete. If you're into slightly psychedelic '60s soft rock, or think you might be, then this band is certainly worth checking out.

Reader Comments

Benjamin Tamlyn,

Good comments on the Left Banke and Brown's gift as a songwriter. I'm going to look for the Stories and the Beckies on CD but I doubt I'll find anything. The liner notes for "There's going to be a storm" say that Brown also worked with a band called Montage. Have you ever bumped into their music anywhere?

No, I haven't -- B. Burks

The Stories: The Stories (1972)
The Stories: About Us (1973) ***1/2

Micheal Brown made records under two other bands, Montage and the Beckies, whose records are all long out of print. The Stories, however, did find some success, albeit very briefly: their cover of Hot Chocolate's "Brother Louie," one of the more blatant (and entertaining) of the many rewrites of the Richard Berry penned "Louie Louie," (there exists an entire book devoted to that song). That bit of catchily repetitive soul doesn't sound a bit like the rest of the record though, which finds Brown and collaborator Ian Lloyd aping the British Invasion, once again very, very Beatlesque. No longer aiming for genteel chamber pop, Brown still pens melodies lovely in the extreme, but opts instead for a more mainstream guitar crunch. The result comes out sounding a bit like Badfinger, which is certainly no black mark in my book. Most of side one is very solid, particularly "Darling," "Love Is In Motion," and "Please, Please," (no relation to Beatles and James Brown songs with almost the same titles), but side two flubs its momentum with a dull instrumental and some generic crap called "Down Time Blooze." It does end on a high note, "Brother Louie," even though it sounds completely unrelated to all that came before.

The Stories: Travelling Underground (1973) **

The followup to their breakthrough hit album wasn't nearly as successful commercially or artistically, due to the fact that Brown had left the band by this point. That left Ian Lloyd to his own devices, and while he's competently tuneful, he's no substitute for Brown. Parts of this album could be mistaken for Styx in a blindfold test. Worse still, Lloyd rewrites "Brother Louie," not once but twice in an attempt to gain another quick hit: "Mammy Blue," and "If It Feels Good Do It." Thankfully the rest of the album doesn't sound a bit like those two songs, but the Stories have fallen into the same trap the Left Banke did: without Brown to compose the songs, the other members of the band can only offer hollow imitations of Brown's idiosyncratic style, the trappings of Brown songs without the melodic magic.

The Beckies: The Beckies (1976) ****

Imagine Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson releasing sumptous pop records and the public completely ignoring them. That's the fate Micheal Brown has suffered; of course he's not on the same level as McCartney or Wilson, but he is one of rock's most overlooked songwriters. The Beckies hew to the same blend of soft rock melodies wedded to rough guitar rock crunch that worked so well with the Stories, only with more consistent results - but inexplicably, no hits. Perhaps the audience of 1976 really didn't care about well-crafted, Beatlesque guitar pop - too busy grooving to disco on roller skates and numbing their pothead gourds on bloozy arena rock. I stumbled across this long out of print record on vinyl for fifty cents, and it's easily worth 10 times that amount. All of the songs are good and sturdy, lightweight mainstream pop songs taken to heaven by Brown's by now patented classically sweetened, superb melodies. He may be the best melodicist since Brian Wilson, and if he put across a more distinct point of view and lyrical personality, he could have been a truly major talent (also if he'd been allowed to make a few more records, but if your records don't sell you don't get a record deal in this biz). It's quite difficult to pick favorites, as like I said all are extremely solid, and none really leap out as obvious singles considerably better than the pack. Hmmm....I just adore the bridge in "Song Called Love" - how many rock musicians write bridges in different keys? How many really switch keys that often? Brown's like that incredibly talented music major you knew back in school who should have made it but probably wound up teaching band at some hick highschool, the one who couldn't choose between Bach and the Beatles. Brown is the prodigy we all knew, but he actually did make it - for a little while. Not sure what he's up to these days, but I hope he's still involved with music in some fashion.

Reader Comments

David Goodwin,

Firstly, There's Gonna Be a Storm is nice, but the versions on the Walk Away Renee/PB tracks are for the most part either remixed, or mono. Not a BAD thing, necessarily, but completists'll have to find either the Bam Caruso "AND FINALLY" CD or the LINAM release of their first album. Both are, of course, amazingly out of print.

Secondly, Montage...dear god. Montage is one of the best "discoveries" I've made insofar as obscure, 60s pop is concerned, right up there with Odessey and Oracle. It's got an interesting vibe to it; kind of like "Mike Brown and Friends." Besides Mike, nobody's terribly good instrumentally (like the Left Banke itself), and so it's up to the songs to shine through. And dear god, they do. The opening track, "I Shall Call Her Mary," could be called "pretty", but it's just so much MORE than apparently appeared on one of the many Nuggets comps, as well. The second track, She's Alone, switches gears but is also amazing; it's stark, just the singer and a string section...ahh.

Grand Pianist is the third track, and although it's a bit silly lyrically, it's still amazing... you'll see that word a lot. I'll stop trying to do a track-by-track analysis, because it's all so GREAT (barring, perhaps, the one obligatory obnoxious song, Audience with Miss Priscilla Grey... Mike apparently feels obligated to do one of those on each album).

Thirdly! Stories' first album is pretty good, but even though I SHOULD like it more than the second, I just can't. The songs are great, but the band obviously has no idea what their identity is, and it hampers the album; Ian can't decide between "sensitive" and "cocky". The decision to just go ROCK on About Us helped 'em a lot.

And there's my contribution..;)

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