Steven Prazak contributes another golden nugget of musical appreciation and history to the OF magazine. This time covering NYC's baroque-pop band, The Left Banke, and the impact of their hit song, "Walk Away Renée." Enjoy.
The Left Banke, 1967, as pictured on the cover of their first album. L-R: Michael Brown, Steve Martin, Tom Finn, George Cameron, Rick Brand.
1966. What a fertile year for rock 'n' roll! Revolver. Pet Sounds. 5D. Freak Out. Velvet Underground & Nico. Blonde On Blonde—and a few more watershed long players. Then, out of left field, on the 7-inch 45 RPM front, came a gorgeous string section-led paean to an unobtainable lass featuring—of all things—a harpsichord! The song: "Walk Away Renée." Other than, perhaps, "Eleanor Rigby," no offering from a contemporary rock outfit put such an unabashed baroque-fueled melody and production into the Top 5 as this gaggle of gawky New York City teenagers who called themselves The Left Banke.
Leading the charge was 16-year old pianist/harpsichordian and songwriter, Michael Brown, whose orchestra-leading and studio-owning father provided the environment and engine in getting the beguiling 'Renée' on tape and onto plastic. Aiding the cause were some choice NYC session players, a small string section, a complementary backing vocal from bass player Tom Finn and drummer George Cameron, and an extraordinary aching lead vocal from Steve Martin (no, not that one).
The Left Banke miming Walk Away Renée on Dick Clark’s Where The Action Is in 1966.
But it’s Brown, whose mature beyond-his-years compositions and percussive keyboard trills and arpeggios (not unlike Nicky Hopkins’ ’66-‘67 work with the Kinks and Stones) that cast the Left Banke as completely unlike anything else going on in the U.S. scene. And, certainly unlike anything going on in New York City, where dance bands and R&B-leaning units, like the Rascals, ruled the day. (The city’s popular Lovin’ Spoonful and not-so-popular Velvet Underground were clearly mining different sonic territories).
A young pre-Left Banke Michael Brown.
"Walk Away Renée’s" allure was widespread, not only for The Left Banke, but in cover versions by artists all over the genre map: Linda Ronstadt, Herman’s Hermits, Southside Johnny, Rickie Lee Jones, David Cassidy, Boston orch-pop band Orpheus, and the Four Tops, who managed a top 20 hit of their own take in 1968.
The Left Banke followed up 'Renée’s' success with the no-less alluring, "Pretty Ballerina," also hitting the Top 20. Michael Brown’s delicate piano-melody intro echoes Steve Martin’s lonely vocal over yet another exquisite string quartet arrangement, but this time with a lyric-less middle eight that goes off into a completely different place than the rest of the tune, but still manages to tie it all together. A remarkable and progressive step forward in just a few months.
The Left Banke’s, "Pretty Ballerina."
An album followed (imaginatively titled Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina) that’s littered with more delightful chamber-pop concoctions; in particular, one track called, "Shadows Breaking Over My Head," that might be their very best. A second album released a year later, Left Banke Too, that even with the absence of the now departed Brown, still managed to click on many of the now familiar melody-rich baroque ‘n’ roll stops with the aid of like-minded New York writers and studio players (including a teenage Steve Tallarico who hadn’t yet found his raspy yelp as “Steven Tyler”).
The second and final album, Left Banke Too.
As is the case with most bands who found their biggest success right out of the gate, the Left Banke were short-term for this world. Personnel turmoil was an ever-present albatross. It seemed no one lineup stayed together long enough to record more than a few songs. There were even competing Left Banke bands for a time, which did no one any favors. By 1969, the Left Banke were no more.
The Left Banke’s entire, if brief, ‘60s output was released on a wonderful annotated 1992 CD compilation, There’s Gonna Be A Storm. Michael Brown’s post-Left Banke activities (Montage, The Beckies, and Stories)—all still in keeping with his distinctive chamber-pop style and musings—are also in some state of availability and worthy of many listens by melody-thirsty ears.
If you like what you see and want to voyage down the worm-hole of all things Left Banke, check out this piece we published by Left Banke member, Tom Feher, of his time spent on the road with Eight Balls.
Steven Prazak is a former A&R consultant with Geffen Records and program and music director with WUSC-FM. His first concert (the Nice and the Byrds) was at the Fillmore East in 1969 when he was all of 11 years old, and was reviewing the first two Alice Cooper albums in Hit Parader magazine the year after. He’s also appeared on numerous national TV wrestling shows over the years as commentator, interviewer, or annoying bad-guy manager, though he’ll deny it. Prazak is presently a marketing content and corporate communications writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out more articles from this month's magazine, here.