*Dedicated to John Ammons and his moderate affection for the Left Banke*
There is nothing new under the sun, but at some point, everything is rearranged to make something different. It happens across the art field from painting to literature, advertising to music. Every new face on the scene builds on what is there and expands in a new direction; some can ride the changing tides for years, leaving the rest to wash up on the shore. The 1960s gave us The Beach Boys and The Beatles, mini-skirts and go-go boots, surf rock and Bach-Rock…WHA?!?! Yes, even European classical music made a marginal comeback, thanks to those crazy Yanks, The Left Banke.
It all began in a small Broadway Studio in New York. Michael Brown’s father, Harry Lookofsky owned a recording studio used for mostly Broadway productions. Michael worked as a production assistant and part-time piano player/composer. He met Tom Finn, George Cameron and Steve Martin Caro through ties with his father’s studio and former production company. Tom was originally part of the vocal group, The Castels, meeting George at a show their bands shared. Through Tom’s work with his next band, The Magic Plants, he got ties to Lookofsky’s studio, which is how the Left Banke originally met. They all got along well enough and shared a passion for the same music. Often hanging out and jamming into the wee hours, they eventually caught Harry’s ear. He booked them some recording sessions, offering his services as session violinist, along with other friends of his. These first sessions produced their first and most well-known single, “Walk Away Renee”, released in 1966. Written by Michael Brown, it took 8 weeks to write and record, and was based on his unrequited love for Tom’s then girlfriend, Renee Fladen. Two more singles regarding Renee followed, “Pretty Ballerina” and “She May Call You Up Tonight”.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. In actuality, The Left Banke waged an uphill battle every step of the way. For starters, Michael was the only one with any technical music knowledge. Tom, Steve and George were vocalists and had great 3-part harmonies, but they didn’t play instruments and had no experience composing. Once the band got on its feet, all members would contribute to every song, but the beginning was rough. After completing “Walk Away Renee”, they were shot down 10 times by record labels, before being bought by
Smash Records. The single went straight up the charts to #5 and a tour ensued. Here lies their second problem: they had never toured together and had poor management. Money was made playing on the road, not from record sales. They couldn’t keep it together, personality wise, clashing from the word “go”. They hit the road that same year, with their first full album coming out in January 1967. By this time, Michael was already tired of touring, wanting instead to be a studio musician. The band brought in Emmett Lake to play Michael on the road. The division between Michael, his father and the rest of the band came to a head later that year, when Michael released a single, “Ivy, Ivy” with all studio musicians, going under the name of Left Banke. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with Tom, George and Steve; once the single was pressed, the rest of the band petitioned the Left Banke fan club, asking them not to support this imposteur band. They raised enough cain to cause the record label to drop all support of it, while also confusing radio stations nationwide, ensuring the demise of “Ivy, Ivy” and most Left Banke releases in the future.
Putting this behind them later in 1967, Michael, Tom, George and Steve went back into the studio to record a new batch of material, including the song “Desiree”, which barely made Billboard’s Top 100. After the big SNAFU earlier that year, no one was willing to put much effort into pushing the new music. Sales dropped, singles never charted and members were replaced. Michael quit by the end of 1967, being replaced for a time by Emmett Lake and finally Tom Feher. Tom took over half of the writing for the band and in 1968 they released a new album of material, The Left Banke, Too. Interestingly enough, this album saw the additional background vocals being provided by a young Steven Tallarico, who would become Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith fame. 1969 saw them all hanging on by a thread, still touring but falling apart at the seams. The Left Banke officially called it quits in 1969, from lack of popularity and money. They would temporarily resurface in the late 70s with a new album that faded, once again, into obscurity, Strangers On A Train.
Despite being a train wreck from day one, The Left Banke left a unique resonance in the pantheon of 60s pop. Often compared to The Beach Boys in relation to their tight harmonies, they also brought in a strain of classical composition and instrumentation that set them apart from other bands of the time. Thanks to Michael Brown and his father, who was a successful session violinist, the band created a new form of rock, often called “Bach-rock” or “baroque rock”. Their use of strings and harpsichord bring a tasteful element to their already beautiful harmonies. While Spector had his “wall of sound” and Motown was churning out girl groups like they were going out of style, The Left Banke was giving pop rock an aristocratic edge.
As is the case with so many musical endeavors, The Left Banke had a short but memorable career. Personnel divisions, inexperience and a string of bad luck brought a premature end to a band that has continued to leave a mark on the American music community. Among their champions are Alice Cooper and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles, each having covered their own versions of Left Banke material. It’s true that there is nothing completely new to be created, but occasionally a few discerning individuals have the guts to look at a puzzle and rearrange the pieces.