The Musiquarium, Featuring The Left Banke (part one)Chris Hornbostel livens up the Thanksgiving week with another terrific edition of The Musiquarium. Here's part one (part two tomorrow). It's all Chris from here on out.
I think it’s only natural that many music lovers harbor something of a soft spot for one-hit wonders. There’s something alluring about the idea that anyone with one good idea for a song might be one turn of public whim from chart immortality. What I’ve all too frequently discovered whenever I try to dig deeper on a one-hit wonder is that the one hit is usually an extraordinary accident of happenstance, and the rest of that artist’s recording output tends towards dreck. You don’t want to go exploring the back catalogue of the Starland Vocal Band, for instance.
The Left Banke are the exception to that rule. They almost certainly qualify as one hit wonders thanks to the song “Walk Away Renee”, but unlike most artists who fit that description, the Left Banke actually left behind a rather interesting and worthwhile catalogue of songs, as well as a fairly interesting story behind their creation and multiple dissolutions.
Listening to the lush, fully orchestrated strings of “Walk Away Renee”, you’d likely never guess that the group’s origins lie in New York City with a couple of guys who sang in street busking doo wop groups. Tom Finn and George Cameron were both thinking about growing out their greased-back hair and giving up on their street corner doo wop hobby when they met at a teen talent show, where both fellows discovered a shared fascination with the then-brand new British Invasion. After that first meeting, they remained friends, but Cameron decided to spend his time cultivating a stylish image as a teen scenester in Greenwich Village. Finn, on the other hand, managed to get himself into a band of sorts.
It seems that Tom Finn had a buddy who’d secured something of an open-ended recording contract from a medium-sized downtown studio called World United. The studio was run by a respected professional session violinist and producer named Harry Lookofsky. Although Lookofsky had made a name for himself playing on some very high profile classical records, he was also a pragmatic guy and was on the lookout for talented kids who could play the new style of ‘60s rock and roll making waves on the radio. Finn found himself playing on two songs for an ad hoc group that was dubbed The Magic Plants. Their name was the best thing about them--the songs themselves are pretty forgettable.
Finn had caught the bug though, and wanted to put his own band together. He remembered Cameron, and decided having a guy who not only could sing and harmonize well (not to mention had something of a loyal coterie of hipster friends) in his new group was probably a good idea. Just as Cameron and Finn were firming up ideas for their band, they chanced to meet another kid their age named Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro.
Caro’s parents were from Spain, but he had been born in New York. Cameron and Finn quickly discovered that their new friend possessed a gorgeous and evocative tenor voice. Considering his handsome good looks would make him a natural at helping to attract girls, they quickly enlisted him in the band. Caro--perhaps feeling a bit self-conscious about the prejudices of the time--allowed that he’d be known as Steve Martin from that point onwards. He became the lead singer of the group that was coming together.
Cameron, Finn, and Martin hit it off well and immediately formed a songwriting partnership and started working up a few original numbers. Finn remembered the Magic Plants sessions at World United Studios. The three of them (with a drummer in tow) played a couple of songs for Harry Lookofsky, but the studio manager was unimpressed. He tried to give them some encouragement, at least. It’s easy to see how they failed to register on that first audition. Cameron was just learning guitar, Finn had just switched to playing bass, and their songs were very much works in progress.
While the boys were auditioning, they noticed that Harry Lookofsky’s geeky teenaged son was spending an inordinate amount of time hanging out. Although Michael Lookofsky was painfully shy and awkward, he let it be known to the three that he played piano and keyboards. The guys weren’t impressed. They were the coolest cats in Greenwich Village...and this gawky nerd was not the kind of person to easily add to their social circle. Lookofsky tried again, this time letting it be known that he had the keys to his father’s studio.
Well now. That was something after all. Cameron, Finn, and Martin discovered that Mike Lookofsky had been classically trained and possessed perfect pitch. If they hummed a melody line, he knew what notes were being hummed and could play it back on piano. He began tinkering a bit with a few of the songs that Cameron and Martin had written, most notably adding a bridge to a tune called “Something On My Mind”.
At some point early on, Harry Lookofsky discovered his son and the rest of the band--now calling themselves The Left Banke after a fellow Village denizen suggested the name--banging away at practicing songs in the studio after hours. He became furious with them until the group played “Something On My Mind” for him, assuaging Lookofsky somewhat. He called Finn a few days later with a proposal: he’d offer the Left Banke a contract, provided the band made his son Michael a fulltime member.
Given that choice, the original three members of the group decided to put worries about their hipster credibility aside and took Lookofsky up on his offer. For his part, young Michael Lookofsky decided that if one member of the band could change his name, so could he, and from that point onward he was Michael Brown. The nascent Left Banke spent the next few months rehearsing during studio off-hours while also managing to record their first two songs, “Something On My Mind” and “I Haven’t Got The Nerve”.
During this time, tensions were already building that would afflict the Left Banke throughout their brief career. Simply put, lead singer Steve Martin and keyboardist Michael Brown absolutely hated one another. Brown’s gift for melody was terrific, but he lacked any knowledge or experience in translating that to a rock idiom. Thus, while the band was trying to write, Cameron and Finn would (more or less) patiently work with Brown to transform his melodies into rock and roll songs. Martin, on the other hand would simply become abusive to the 16-year old on the keys. Martin and Brown would then yell at one another and things would fall apart. At various times, both guys had to be literally coaxed into not walking away from the band. It was clear that if history didn’t intervene, the Left Banke was going to be gone before they’d put out a song. As it turns out, history did indeed intervene.
One day while the band was rehearsing, Tom Finn showed up with his new girlfriend in tow. She was a stunning blonde named Renee Fladen. You can imagine the rest of the band trying to play things cool here, but 16-year-old Michael Brown was poleaxed. According to everyone present, he simply couldn’t stop staring at Miss Fladen, and at one point his hands were shaking so badly in her presence that he couldn’t play piano at all. A firm believer of writing what he knew, Brown began work on a song about her.
The original melody for “Walk Away Renee” would sound fairly familiar to us today, but it had an almost metronomic quality to it--there was almost no flow whatsoever to the song. Martin, Cameron, and Finn worked the song over with Brown to make dramatic improvements to the way the melody flowed. Additionally--and in a move that would become familiar to them--the guys in the band turned to their connections in The Village for lyric help. A fellow named Tony Sansone came in and notably punched up the lyrics enough to receive a songwriting credit.
Harry Lookofsky heard the band working out the song and realized he was hearing a hit. Enlisting the help of string-playing friends and session musicians willing to work for cheap, Michael Brown (on harpsichord) is the only band member to play an instrument on the track. Just as Martin, Cameron and Finn were preparing to lay down the famously gorgeous vocals for the song, it was discovered that for not the last time the band was on the verge of splintering. Having decided he’d had his fill of Steve Martin after a notable dust up, Michael Brown had persuaded the Left Banke’s drummer, Warren David-Schierhorst to fly out to California with him to start a new band. One problem: Brown was 16 years old still. Harry Lookofsky had the authorities put his son on a plane back to New York immediately upon landing in Los Angeles...and then calmly directed the vocal session for “Walk Away Renee”.
Sadly, Brown’s instability would become a familiar pattern with the Left Banke and haunt the gifted musician the rest of his life. Brown’s mental state veered wildly between an almost patronizing superiority complex over the other members of the band...frequently chased by an almost debilitating sense of inadequacy and inferiority. No doubt his constant fights with Steve Martin did little to improve his mental state.
At any rate, with “Walk Away Renee”, Lookofsky knew he had a hit on his hands and quickly pressed the single (with one of Cameron/Martin’s first songs, “I Haven’t Got The Nerve” as the B-side) and shopped the record to every label in New York. Shockingly, the big labels turned him down. Finally, a smaller company called Smash Records agreed to put the song out. It didn’t take long until “Walk Away Renee” was zooming up the pop charts.
The band’s record label was eager for the Left Banke to strike while the iron was hot and pressed them to record another single and work up an entire album. For his part, Harry Lookofsky--now managing the group--wanted to get them on the road. Somehow the Left Banke managed to accomplish both of these things in an incredibly compressed period of time. Despite playing gigs (which even the band admits today were terrible owing to bad equipment and not being able to even hear themselves sing) across the northeast, somehow they were able to complete an album’s worth of material. This was due in no small measure to Michael Brown’s formidable composition gifts, although he was certainly assisted by the rest of the band, too.
One key element to getting an album finished was enlisting a lyricist with no small amount of skill in the form of a fellow named Tom Feher. As good as Brown (and Martin and Cameron and Finn) were with melody, none were particularly adept with lyrics. Feher, a poet from the Village, could turn a rhymed phrase quite well. With Feher’s assistance, Michael Brown recalled his muse, Renee Fladen, and issued two more singles with her in mind, “Pretty Ballerina” and the stunningly confessional “She May Call You Up Tonight”. (By this point, Miss Fladen was so utterly freaked out by the weird fixating, longing looks from Michael Brown she'd moved out of state.) The former song peaked at #15 on the charts. The latter somehow didn’t make a dent. On both of those songs, as with the rest of the album being worked up, the musical tracks were almost entirely played by session musicians. Studio time was rare and expensive and Lookofsky still held a (probably deserved) low opinion of the musical abilities of anyone in the band save for his own son.
The Left Banke’s debut album--featuring the top 10 smash “Walk Away Renee” as well as “Ballerina” and 11 other winning tracks is actually pretty fantastic. In addition to all the songs mentioned so far, “Shadows Breaking Over My Head” and “Evening Gown” are fantastic. Depending on your feelings about 1970s prog rock, you can likely lay some of the credit or blame at the feet of the song “Barterers And Their Wives” as an early prime example of cape-rock. Most notably--and here’s some foreshadowing--on the winning “Let Go Of You Girl”, the members of the band play their own instruments...and it sounds just fine. Nothing falls apart.