The Left Banke, Part Two

The Left Banke’s balance becomes hard to maintain

As pop music history can now attest, the year or so it took for The Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina album to be completed and released was not a year for dilly-dallying around. In early February of 1967, while The Left Banke’s follow-up single “Pretty Ballerina” was battling its way up the charts, The Beatles had yet again upped the ante with perhaps their most progressive double-A-sided single of all, the extraordinary “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

With a stronger promotional push from their record company, The Left Banke could have perhaps gained more ground; their debut album, though selling only modestly, stacked up favorably against the many other acts who would also find themselves struggling to stay relevant in the midst of Technicolor-tinted sea changes across all of popular culture. For reasons that can only be speculated on today, the Banke’s elegant “Pretty Ballerina” stalled at No. 15, ten slots lower than the No. 5- charting “Renee.” They would never again come anywhere close to the Top 20, their finely feathered pop songcraft left to languish until word of mouth within avid music-fan circles gradually revived interest in the band’s output.

While their original lineup lasted, The Left Banke accomplished an uncommon feat, establishing an original, engaging and often highly artistic sound with only minimal experience and one musically trained member. Keyboardist Michael Brown’s advanced skills were admired by the band, yet they also created some tension. Spanish-born lead singer Steve Martin and bandmates George Cameron and Tom Finn had all met and begun rehearsing together before Brown entered the picture—and then only because Harry Lookofsky’s studio and industry position afforded son Michael some leverage. The core trio accepted him into their ranks but were adamant about wanting to do material in a straight-ahead pop-rock format. Martin in particular clashed with Brown, desiring to perform more aggressive music, which he felt would best suit his approach as a vocalist. (Time has proven,  however, that Martin had perhaps the perfect voice for Brown’s more conservative compositions).

Founding member Tom Finn has explained that he and the others had to assertively prompt the reportedly shy and awkward Brown to play in a style more appropriate for the band’s edgier material. Their go-to solution for the rockification of young Sir Michael? The Beatles, of course, as well as songs by British counterparts including The Zombies and The Rolling Stones. The remarkable vocal blend of Martin, Finn and Cameron had in fact been honed by learning and rehearsing Beatles songs such as “If I Fell” and, a bit later on, “Good Day Sunshine,” a favorite of Brown’s that was in the band’s early repertoire. The jaunty track’s piano-driven arrangement may have given the keyboardist new clues on how to apply the ivories in a looser, more freewheeling manner than his classically trained fingers had been inclined to operate.

In Ken Sharp’s 2014 book Play On! Power Pop Heroes, members of the original Left Banke relate a story about getting caught one evening in World United Studios by Harry Lookofsky, who was then unaware the teens were spending their nights at his facility. As the anecdote goes, this was the evening that Michael Brown seized the opportunity to announce his interest in joining the band officially. He boasted of the others’ talent as singers, which they promptly demonstrated with a rendition of The Beatles’ “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” both impressing and mollifying Brown’s irate father. Indeed, the most consistently Beatles-derived aspect of The Left Banke’s style was the group’s powerful three-part harmony and the use of vocals as an important facet of its arrangements. This was featured to particularly strong effect in the vocally ambitious “She May Call You Up Tonight,” which radiates a mid-period-Beatles exuberance with its brisk tempo, buoyant melody and playful piano figure. Bassist Tom Finn recalled that he created his part for the song by borrowing heavily from McCartney’s own bass playing on “You Won’t See Me,” later teaching it to session bassist Joe Mack, who played on the standout track.

(The related video clip below, modeled after ABC-TV’s The Dating Game, is one of several videos artfully created by Left Banke associate and fan Charlemagne Fezza. Thanks to her efforts, it’s a treat for the eyes as well as the ears.)

The Banke’s most overt Beatle imitation would surface in the heavily country-flavored toe-tapper “What Do You Know.” Apparently a reinvention of Rubber Soul‘s Ringo Starr spotlight cut, “What Goes On,” the track is sung in a slightly hangdog, Ringo-like manner by Brown, in a rare turn at a lead vocal. “What Do You Know” actually threatens to outdo the song that probably inspired it, as though the diligent attention paid to the elements of “What Goes On” allowed the younger band to build upon the primarily Lennon-penned song, a pre-Beatles ditty dating back to the late 1950s. (Had it been considered a top-shelf tune, Starr likely wouldn’t have been given the lead vocal spot to begin with.) In a more contemporary nod to Lennon and company, a line in “What Do You Know” (“I feel as though, I’d like to know . . .”) is lifted almost verbatim from Rubber Soul‘s then-recent “Wait” (“I feel as though, you ought to know . . .”). The effect here is almost one of parody, a la the Beatle spoofs that the faux-’60s quartet The Rutles would create in the following decade.

While the song’s verses are underscored by a simple, loping two-beat rhythm that lacks both Starr’s crisply played hi-hat and the initial drive of McCartney’s bass work on “What Goes On,” the ensuing chorus and bridge of “What Do You Know” are roused to attention by a commanding eighth-note bass pattern that might even have given the left-handed Beatle a run for his money. Of course, it’s again the hired studio gun Joe Mack laying down those propulsive lines. The track’s equally surefooted six-string twang was provided by Hugh McCracken, a New York-based session player whose work later appeared on McCartney’s Ram album as well as Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. According to Tom Finn, the Left Banke session was McCracken’s first pro studio gig.

Most of the songs on Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, though written and sung by the band, were in fact recorded by studio pros, joined by Michael Brown on piano, harpsichord and various electric keyboards. This arrangement was necessary under the conditions—the remaining band members were not yet able to play with the consistency and efficiency required for a major-label recording. It was this very same practice—singing over prerecorded tracks—that would soon result in aggressive criticism against new competitors The Monkees, whose first two albums were recorded using hired musicians and packed with songs created by professional songwriters.

The Monkees, a band assembled by the makers of an NBC-TV show fashioned after The Beatles’ movie debut A Hard Day’s Night, would quickly become contenders for the pop throne whose out-of-nowhere radio success also may have contributed to blocking The Left Banke’s second single from reaching the Top 10.  The fully self-contained Beatles, who wrote and performed their songs and personally chose the non-original material they played, had made it decidedly uncool to be a manicured teen idol such as The Monkees, whose sound was initially controlled by producers and others on the industry side. The Monkees caught media flak but nonetheless managed to escape that stigma where it counted—with their scores of ecstatic young fans. Had anyone cared to question members of The Left Banke about their limited instrumental abilities, the fact that they wrote their material and thus determined their own sound would have aided their case significantly, as it still does today.

A band of somewhat conflicting musical sensibilities despite its members’ temporary triumph over their differences, The Left Banke would soon implode over creative and personal tensions after Brown attempted to wrest creative control, surreptitiously forming a new version of the band. The unexpected postscript to their story confirms the validity of the remaining members’ contributions. They soon improved as musicians and writers, creating the bulk of the impressively produced though commercially unfruitful Left Banke Too album in 1968, after Brown departed to form and produce other bands (including the briefly successful Stories). Both Left Banke albums gradually became coveted items among collectors and pop aficionados, leading to the band’s cult status by the early 1990s, when a two-disc set of vintage Left Banke material called There’s Gonna Be a Storm was released to satisfy the growing demand for their work.

A hard-to-find third album, recorded (and subsequently shelved) a decade after Left Banke Too, momentarily saw the light of day in 1986. Strangers on a Train contained such highlights as “I Can Fly,” which boasted a contemporary post-Beatles sound comparable to that of Badfinger and Big Star, two of the premiere 1970s bands to carry the Beatles banner in forward-thinking style, as indeed the original Left Banke had first begun to do near the close of 1965.

Brown would again collaborate with his former bandmates in 1971, creating a pair of tracks issued under the name of singer Steve Martin (who now goes by Steve Martin Caro). A version of the band featuring founding members Tom Finn and George Cameron began touring in 2011, reuniting onstage with Michael Brown on at least one occasion before his death, attributed to heart failure, on May 18, 2015.

—Steve Morley

BONUS VIDEO: 1967 Coke commercial by The Left Banke (composed by Michael Brown)

4 thoughts on “The Left Banke, Part Two”

    1. Thanks for adding Liverpool Genepool as a favorite and letting me know you’ve enjoyed the blog. I’m on hiatus at the moment but please check back, as I do hope to post new content at least occasionally.

  1. The Left Banke are forgotten in the public conscience, and this is in part due to their own lack of tenacity. Had they retained Michael Brown and went on to create even

  2. I recently bought The Left Banke compilation, . It’s great. I loved “What Do You Know?” and I immediately heard The Rutles in it. A search of that song name and Rutles brought me to your excellent article. Okay, I hear “What Goes On?” in “What Do You Know?” but I really gear The Rutles. I’ve been going through my to match which Rutles song(s) and it’s like a combination of “LIving in Hope” and “Goose-Step Mama.” Maybe the similarity is in Michael Brown’s and Neil Innes’ vocals and the harmonies. And I see you also have an article on The Rutles, which I shall read. I wonder if Innes unconsciously copied The Left Banke a decade later.

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