The Musiquarium, Featuring The Left Banke (part two)Chris returns today with part two. This is a great story and a terrific piece of writing, so thanks to Chris.
With a full album released, The Left Banke set out again on a bigger tour, meant to take in all areas of the country. George Cameron was settled in on drums and the group was finally starting to find some cohesion as players with live shows starting to come together a bit. Their burgeoning musical skills were aided when the Beach Boys invited them on tour to fill an opening slot. Allowed to use that band’s professional PA gear and monitors, the Banke could finally hear themselves sing and play onstage and began to tighten up their sound considerably.
While opening for the Beach Boys, perhaps Michael Brown discovered that Brian Wilson--a musical hero of his--no longer toured with that group. Brown loathed playing live and thought that sounded like a grand idea. He told the rest of the band that their best move would be to find a keyboard player to tour with, and he--Brown--would head back to New York and work up new material. Faced with little choice, The Left Banke granted Brown’s wish and the band’s teenaged composing genius headed back home, replaced for touring by a new pianist.
Smash Records was still keen for the group to try to get another hit in the vein of “Walk Away Renee”, and the band’s manager, Harry Lookofsky, was eager to comply. Finding out that Michael would be staying around New York and working up new material while the band toured, someone--either father or son or both--came up with an absolutely dreadful idea.
Michael Brown had finished a couple of new songs, and his father Harry was eager to get them recorded. Problem: The Left Banke were committed to tour dates around the country and were on the road. Solution: bring in an entirely new group of fellows, christen them “The Left Banke” and record those songs and have Smash release them. Lookofsky hired a group of young musicians and brought in a young, frizzy-haired folk singer named Bert Sommer to sing the lead vocals on the two new songs, “Ivy Ivy” and “And Suddenly”. Another player on these songs was a bright-eyed guitarist named Michael McKean...years before he’d be known as Lenny on “Laverne & Shirley” or David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap.
“Ivy Ivy” isn’t a bad song, and started to sell reasonably upon release. Sommer’s voice sounded pleasant enough, but also lacked something. Steve Martin’s greatest asset as a singer was how convincing his dramatic, keening tenor sounds, the way it conveys a true-believer innocence that simply isn’t there when others sing the same material. In the case of “Ivy Ivy”, if fans didn’t notice that the band on the single wasn’t really The Left Banke, out on tour Finn, Cameron, and Martin certainly did and were understandably livid. Returning to New York, they hired a high-powered entertainment lawyer who sued everyone involved in the ad hoc, “Ivy Ivy” version of the group. Smash records--chagrined and rather angry in their own right--pulled the single.
A judge ruled that Finn, Cameron, and Martin were the “real” Left Banke and had the rights to the name and they quickly parted ways with Harry Lookofsky. Oddly, Michael Brown also fell out with his father about this time. Rather than form a unified front, he was eager to get out from under that parental influence and wanted to put things right with the rest of the band. It is a measure of how much the group--particularly Finn and Cameron, if not Martin--had grown in their admiration of Brown’s composition gifts that they not only welcomed him back, but also set about recording what they hoped would finally be the big follow-up hit to “Renee”. They even put Brown in the producer’s chair.
For his part, Brown had cooked up an idea that would invoke some similar ideas to the group’s first hit single. He liked the idea of using a rather exotic girl’s name in the title, and thus came up with a song called “Desiree”, co-written with Tom Feher providing lyrics. An almost absurdly complex song with key and time signature changes, shifting string and horn parts, and a vocal that required Steve Martin’s voice to run wildly through multiple octaves, it’s crazy to think that anyone could have conceived of the song as a hit. Predictably it did very little on the charts, but with that being said, there are few songs from that era that can match “Desiree” for being sonically fascinating. If the way Michael Brown packed an entire symphony into a three-minute song guaranteed dismal chart performance, the song at least stands as one of the finest moments of The Left Banke on record. Sadly, with “Desiree” generating no new momentum, the mercurial Brown had had enough. He left the band (almost) for good.
For the rest of The Left Banke...well. There’s a scene in the movie That Thing You Do, when the band just sort of spontaneously falls apart, and that’s sort of what happened here. The remaining members of the band found themselves without a manager, without their ace songwriter, and a future very much in doubt. Everything had turned to ashes.
It was at this point that Tom Finn stepped up and took charge of things. He found them new representation, convinced Smash Records to agree to recording a new album, and started booking studio time. He brought Tom Feher back to assist on lyrics, and then even set his own hand to writing songs for the first time in the group.
The resulting album was called The Left Banke Too. Improbably, it might actually have better all-around songs to recommend it than the band’s debut with the hit singles. While the record does have two Michael Brown compositions in “Desiree” and “In The Morning Light” (that latter song recorded in the same session with the former), most of the songs were composed by Finn, Cameron, and Martin with an able bit of assistance from Feher (who was now more or less in the band, on keys and guitar) on lyrics. The group enlisted a number of young session musicians in the recording as well. Deciding they needed to fill out the harmonies a bit more, Finn brought in an ambitious young drummer with a good set of pipes to add backing vocals and some tambourine to a few songs. That fellow’s name was Steve Tallarico...who’d later sell a few records in his own right as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
The Left Banke Too can be a bit of a challenge to listen to as an album. One thing that Smash Records insisted on was that the band use producer Paul Leka, who’d had a hit with “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers. Leka dismayed the band by insisting on inserting interstitial bits of nonsense psychedelic noise between each of the tracks on the record. It was a dreadful idea then, and still sounds awful today. However--split out from that goofy nonsense, the individual songs on the record are magical. In a first for the group, the lead singing duties were shared amongst the three singers, and that actually turned out quite well.
For instance, on the opening track “Goodbye Holly”, it’s George Cameron taking the lead vocals on a song that--had anyone in 1968 heard it--should’ve been a massive hit single. Finn handles lead vocal duties on his own gorgeous song “Nice To See You”. Listening to those tracks today, it becomes easy to hear why The Left Banke’s vocal harmonies were so special--the three singers in the band had nearly identical voices and in the days before multi-tracking and overdubs became commonplace, it gave the group an advantage few could touch. The record also lays to rest the notion that The Left Banke’s signature sound was all Michael Brown. Tracks like “Nice To See You”, “My Friend Today”, “There’s Gonna Be A Storm”, and “Sing, Little Bird Sing” unmistakably possess the group’s signature sound, but were written without any contribution from Brown. (“Sing” in particular may be the most gorgeous song a group specializing in beautiful songs ever did. Steve Martin's vocal is just astonishing and lovely.)
The Left Banke Too didn’t sell, and Smash Records had had enough. One of the final original recordings by the group was a Coca Cola radio spot recorded by a friend and fan of the band named Ralph Affoumado. The jingle is so hilariously Left Banke-ish, it may have all been an elaborate parody. Suffice to say that it is the only Coke commercial ever with the line “Lonely hours alone go much faster/Things go better with Coke.” You can almost picture Emily Dickinson daintily chugging down a soda on her fainting couch while listening to it.
After that, The Left Banke went their separate ways, and that’s the end of the story. Or not. When Michael Brown had left the group, he put together a new band called Montage that failed to find an audience. Finn stayed in the music business as a studio producer and engineer. Cameron and Martin--to hear Cameron tell it--just got drunk a lot together. In 1971, a producer coaxed all four original Left Banke members back together to record a couple of songs for an X-rated movie called Ultra Violet’s Hot Parts. Improbably, the two songs The Left Banke came up with for this dubious undertaking are terrific--”Love Songs In The Night” and “Two By Two” are wonderful updated iterations of The Left Banke sound. Unfortunately the sessions were a disaster with Martin and Brown bickering constantly and the band recorded no more. The two songs were released on the soundtrack album, with the record company inexplicably deciding to credit them to Steve Martin instead of The Left Banke.
That, then, really is the end of the line for The Left Banke story. Michael Brown spent much of the 1970’s in and out of bands, his deteriorating mental state keeping him from being able to avoid wearing out his welcome. He was in the group Stories, but left by mutual accord before that group recorded its big hit “Brother Louie”. His most cohesive musical effort was with some Kansas City musicians in a band called The Beckies. The single record they made is a lost classic. Songs like “One Of These Days” and “Fran” are easily recognizable as Michael Brown songs on first listen. Unfortunately for this group, Brown was briefly self-admitted to an institution before their record came out and the label pulled the promotion budget as a result. (The rest of The Beckies sort of morphed into a group called Shooting Star, who did enjoy a great deal of FM radio airplay in the Midwest in the late 1970s.) Meanwhile, in 1978, Finn, Cameron, and Martin were coaxed back together by a producer who’d heard some songs Finn had written. The three recorded what they thought were scratch reference demos of a dozen songs, only to find out that the producer was releasing the unfinished songs as a proper album. Listening to that record—called Strangers On A Train--it’s clear there are some good ideas present, but overall the less said about this “reunion” the better.
Throughout the years, credit for the sound of The Left Banke has swung wildly. Originally, anything written about the group made it sound as if the band was simply Michael Brown and Steve Martin with some other guys along for the ride. That’s horribly unfair to Cameron and Finn, who by all evidence contributed a great deal to the songwriting, musicianship, and vocal sound of the group (That evidence is absolutely on full display with The Left Banke Too lp.) By the same token, the formidable skills of Michael Brown should not be downplayed too much. While Brown could be notoriously difficult to work with at times, there are just as many tales of him being a willing and cheerful collaborator, and his gift for writing amazing melodic hooks is unassailable. What seems obvious in retrospect is that much of what was mistaken for awkwardness and petulance at a young age with Brown were likely early signs of a far more serious and very real mental illness. Tom Finn speaks of Brown today with the kind of curmudgeonly affection of an older brother for a difficult but much-loved younger sibling.
And so...really this time, that’s that. Cameron straightened himself out and in 2010 started playing and singing with some musically inclined friends. They discovered that Tom Finn had set up a Facebook page for The Left Banke to answer numerous fan inquiries. The two, who’d remained friends, decided to play some songs together. Eventually they began morphing back into The Left Banke again.
One problem with putting a rock and roll band back together when the principal members are in their 60s is facing the reality that not everyone is up to the task. While Tom and George were ready to go, Finn describes Steve Martin-Caro (who’d adjusted his name in deference to the comedian) as unable to participate for “physical” reasons. Michael Brown occasionally sits in for a few songs with the band, but for his health (which has stabilized nicely) that’s the limit of his participation. Still, when you’re The Left Banke and respected modern bands like Belle & Sebastian are calling you a primary influence, finding an ace group of musicians to work with isn’t too difficult. The real coup for the group, however, was to uncover a fellow named Mike Fornatale.
Fornatale is by all evidence something of a late-blooming music prodigy. A fan of the band, he observed on the Facebook page that things were happening towards reuniting and wrote Tom Finn to say that if a guitarist and backing vocalist was needed, he was interested. Left Banke lyricist Tom Feher had actually heard Fornatale sing, and vouched for his ability to do a fairly strong imitation of Martin’s original lead vocals, and so that was the gig offered by Finn. What worked out even better was their new lead singer having the talent to write charts for a small string section to accompany the band at live gigs.
The band, fronted by Fornatale but with Finn and Cameron playing key roles, currently plays a decent number of gigs in the New York area and close by. Finn describes Michael Brown as having “hundreds” of unreleased demos for great songs at his home, and says the band would love to record them at some point. For now, however, perhaps the best exclamation point on the long and winding career of The Left Banke happened in December of 2011, and is as good a place as any to wrap this up.
Old friend (and Coke jingle arranger) Ralph Affoumado stayed in the music business. Affoumado’s career took off as a musician who worked in both commercial and academic endeavors, and he founded the Drama Cantorum choir at the prestigious Tisch School For The Arts at NYU. When he heard The Left Banke were forming up again, he had an idea to have his choir perform with the group on the two songs he felt were a perfect match for such a full blown arrangement. The band thought that sounded great. In December of 2011, some absolute magic happened when “Desiree” and “Walk Away Renee” were both presented in a breathtaking fashion that does each majestic song justice.
An excellent career anthology of the group called There's Gonna Be A Storm: The Complete Recordings is available through standard digital channels and streaming services. For whatever reason, Michael Brown has blocked digital versions of the remastered re-releases of the group's two proper albums, but perhaps that's for the best in the case of The Left Banke Too. The Anthology actually has every song from the two albums, minus one track from each...and none of Paul Lekas between-track nonsense.