"Desirée", The Left Banke, 1967.
The Left Banke perfected its singular sound on its iconic debut single "Walk Away Renée," a Top Five hit in its original release and an enduring pop standard in the years since, and on its equally affecting follow-up "Pretty Ballerina." The subsequent album that bore the titles of both singles was an equally impressive achievement, demonstrating remarkable depth and showing the band to be much more than a mere two-hit wonder.
The Left Banke's story is liberally strewn with bad choices, missed opportunities, interpersonal acrimony and squandered potential. But the negative aspects of the band's history are far less pertinent than the fact that, in their all-too-brief existence, the Left Banke created a consistently magnificent body of work that stands with the most original, inventive and emotionally resonant pop music of its era.
The members of The Left Banke were still in their teens in 1965, when Tom Finn struck up a friendship with Steve Martin-Caro, né Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro, who'd recently arrived in town from his native Spain. Finn and Martin had originally met on the street outside of Manhattan's City Squire Hotel, watching a mob of screaming girls awaiting the arrival of the Rolling Stones. They were soon joined by Finn's friend George Cameron and the Magic Plants' drummer Warren David-Schierhorst.
The budding band soon began visiting World United Recording, a modest studio at 48th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, where Finn's previous outfit the Magic Plants had recorded. There, they fell in with 16-year-old Michael Brown, a classically trained pianist and budding composer who was working at World United as an assistant and sometime session player. Brown was the son of the studio's owner Harry Lookofsky, a veteran jazz violinist who'd played on numerous sessions and recorded on his own as Hash Brown.
Since Brown had the keys to the studio, the quintet - with Martin on lead vocals, Cameron on guitar, Finn on bass, David on drums and Brown on keyboards - began convening there for late-night rehearsal sessions. Martin, Finn and Cameron quickly developed an organic vocal rapport, honing the distinctive three-part harmonies that would become a cornerstone of the Left Banke's sound. Brown's advanced musical skills increased the group's options considerably.
"I think we all knew from the beginning that we were doing something special," Finn states. "We'd sing our songs around the piano with Mike, and it really started to sound good. Then he started to write bridges for some songs that Steve and George had written. At the time, Michael and Warren were the only ones who could really play, so we gravitated towards Michael because he played piano really well and had so much musical knowledge."
Soon, Brown's father took an interest in the nascent combo and became its manager, publisher and co-producer. Lookofsky's involvement would help to advance the Left Banke's early career, but his multiple roles (not to mention his status as father of the band's main songwriter) created conflicts of interest that would soon help to splinter the lineup.
The Left Banke began cutting tracks at World United in early 1966, recording such early tunes as "I've Got Something on My Mind" and "I Haven't Got the Nerve," both of which would end up on Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina. Aside from David's drumming and Brown's piano and harpsichord, the remaining instruments were played by session musicians. David was soon ousted from the band by Lookofsky after the drummer ran off to California with Brown; Lookofsky had the underage pair stopped by police at the airport and sent home.
"Walk Away Renée" (with "I Haven't Got the Nerve" as its B-side) was released as the Left Banke's debut single in July 1966 on Mercury Records' Smash subsidiary. The song, inspired by Brown's unrequited crush on Finn's girlfriend Renée Fladen, remains unmatched in its evocation of romantic longing. Its bittersweet lyrical imagery is driven home by Martin's aching, plaintive lead vocal and Finn and Cameron's heartbroken harmonies, and by John Abbott's stately, expressive arrangement, which incorporates flute, strings and Brown's harpsichord.
"It's about loving someone enough to set them free," Brown later said. "There's a certain purity to 'Walk Away Renée,' and its purity comes from the idea that a dream lives, even if it's just as a fantasy." According to Brown, Fladen was present when he first attempted to record his harpsichord part. "My hands were shaking when I tried to play, because she was right there in the control room. There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later."
"Walk Away Renée"'s success created a demand for live performances, and the inexperienced band - with George Cameron moving from guitar to drums and new member Jeff Winfield taking over on guitar - did its best to adapt to the demands of the stage.
"Our first gig was at Our Lady of Solace church in the Bronx," Finn recalls. "Tony Sansone, who was Michael's co-writer on 'Walk Away Renée,' set it up. We took Renée with us because she looked so good, and we arrived in a limousine. When we got out of the car, the girls started screaming and the cameras started flashing, and when we played you couldn't hear us because the girls were screaming so loud. We got paid a hundred bucks for the show, and we spent $75 to rent the limousine. We were starving at the time, but that's where we were at; it was more important for us to look good and make a big splash when we arrived. You've got to remember that we were all teenagers, and we wanted to be the Beatles. But we also wanted to be as good as the Beatles."
The second Left Banke single, "Pretty Ballerina" - another Renée Fladen-inspired Michael Brown composition - lived up to the musical and emotional standards set by its predecessor. Recorded in November 1966 and released the following month, it reached the Top 15.
"Pretty Ballerina"'s instrumental track was once again played by Michael Brown and a cast of studio pros. But the single's bracing B-side, the atypical Brown/Martin-penned rocker "Lazy Day," was performed entirely by the band members. One of the few guitar-dominated songs in the Left Banke catalog, "Lazy Day" showcased the soaring fuzz guitar of Jeff Winfield, whose brief tenure in the group had already ended by the time the song was released.
The Left Banke's early success would prove to be a mixed blessing. The band members' personal disagreements were exacerbated by the pressures of touring, and by their increasing conflicts with their manager. Finn says that, after their initial hits, Lookofsky attempted to rebuild the group around Martin and Brown and fire the other members. Jeff Winfield was a victim of that purge, although Finn and Cameron were quickly asked back when Lookofsky failed to find suitable replacements. Rick Brand was hired as the band's new guitarist; it's Brand who appears on the cover of Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina, although he only appears on one track, "Let Go of You Girl."
Lookofsky also dismissed co-producers Steve and Bill Jerome, whose studio skills had been crucial in the making of "Walk Away Renée" and "Pretty Ballerina." After the Jerome brothers' departure, the band would record at Mercury Records' Manhattan studio, working with less sympathetic house engineers.
The Left Banke toured extensively to promote their singles, although the players' limitations prevented them from tackling most of their technically challenging original material on stage. "Our set list had more R&B and British rock covers than Left Banke songs," Finn explains. "We were still learning our instruments. The only Left Banke songs we played were 'Walk Away Renée,' 'Pretty Ballerina' and 'She May Call You Up Tonight.' We tried to play some of the others once or twice, but they sounded terrible, so they were quickly dropped."
Although the roadwork had a positive effect on the band's instrumental chops, other factors made touring unrewarding. "They'd send us out on these badly-planned tours with terrible equipment, driving four or five hundred miles between gigs, and by the end of it we couldn't stand each other. Then we'd get home and we wouldn't get paid," Finn says.
The strain of the road weighed heaviest on the mercurial Michael Brown, who eventually opted out of the Left Banke's touring lineup; his place was filled by Emmett Lake. "Being on the road was hard for Mike," says Finn. "He had the first prototype of the Clavinet on the road, and it sounded great. But it went out of tune very easily, and that became a nightmare for him. We'd throw it in the back of a U-Haul trailer, and by the time we got to the gig it sounded horrible."
The one-two punch of the band's hits set the stage for the February 1967 release of the first Left Banke LP. In addition to both sides of their first two singles, Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina includes seven more tracks cut during the previous year, including the early effort "I've Got Something on My Mind" and six more recent recordings.
Brown and Martin co-wrote "She May Call You Up Tonight," which became the album's third single, "Let Go of You Girl" (to which Cameron also contributed) and the haunting, poignant "Shadows Breaking Over My Head." The remaining three tracks - the medieval-flavored "Barterers and Their Wives," the jaunty, frenetic rocker "Evening Gown" and the country-flavored "What Do You Know," featuring a rare Michael Brown lead vocal - were co-written by Brown with band friend Tom Feher, who would continue to collaborate with various future permutations of the Left Banke. While "Lazy Day," "Let Go of You Girl" and "Shadows Breaking Over My Head" feature the entire band, the remaining tracks match Brown's keyboards with a variety of noted New York session players.
"By the time we finished the first album, the original band was really over," Finn asserts. "The trust was gone. We really needed someone to look out for us, and we never had that. But we did some good stuff."
Although it largely escaped the public's notice upon its release in November 1968, The Left Banke Too is an unsung gem that remains close to the hearts of a dedicated cadre of fans. Recorded after the departure of keyboardist/songwriter Michael Brown, the sophomore disc finds his former bandmates - frontman Steve Martin, bassist/guitarist Tom Finn and drummer George Cameron - rising to the occasion to produce music whose ambition and expressiveness matches, and in some cases surpasses, that of the band's more prominent prior work.
The Left Banke's original lineup had combusted shortly after Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina's release, and the group split into two factions, with singers Martin, Finn and Cameron on one side, and Brown and his father, manager/producer Harry Lookofsky, on the other. The schism led to Brown (with help from songwriter Tom Feher, who had contributed to the first album, and singer Bert Sommer) releasing his own single, "Ivy, Ivy" b/w "And Suddenly," under the Left Banke name, and releasing it in April 1967 on the band's label, the Mercury Records subsidiary Smash. After Finn, Martin and Cameron hired lawyers and won back control of the band name, Smash withdrew support from Brown's single. But the resulting confusion over the competing Left Bankes resulted in a loss of commercial momentum from which the band would never recover.
The two factions temporarily reconciled in the spring of 1967 to record a pair of Brown/Feher compositions, "Desirée" and "In the Morning Light." Brown produced those sessions, with John Abbott (who played and arranged on the first album) as arranger and various New York session musicians playing most of the instruments.
While the appropriately sunny "In the Morning Light" wouldn't be heard until it turned up on The Left Banke Too, the grand, orchestral "Desirée" was released as a single in June 1967 and was arguably the Left Banke's most impressive, expansive achievement to date.
"Desirée" should have been a valedictory triumph for the band, but instead the song stalled at #98 on the Billboard pop chart. Although it became a minor hit in some regional markets, radio programmers - still leery of anything Left Banke-related in the wake of the "Ivy, Ivy" controversy - largely avoided it. The reunion with Brown ended there, and Finn, Martin and Cameron (who by then had also parted with the band's guitarist, Rick Brand) continued as the Left Banke, although it would be another year before their next release.
The next Left Banke single, recorded with producer/arranger Artie Schroeck, paired the Finn/Martin/Cameron composition "Dark Is the Bark" with the Finn-penned "My Friend Today." When it arrived in June 1968, the Four Tops' recent hit cover of "Walk Away Renée" was fresh in listeners' minds. But that didn't help "Dark Is the Bark," which failed to chart altogether - a fate that would befall all of the band's subsequent singles.
Its lackluster reception aside, the Left Banke's first effort as a threesome demonstrated them to be capable of intoxicating, mysterious songcraft that matched anything they'd done with the prior lineup. On both songs, their harmonies were augmented by the voice of Steven Tallarico, then a member of the New York band Chain Reaction (which shared management with the Left Banke) and soon to gain fame as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
Despite the commercial failure of "Desirée" and "Dark Is the Bark," Smash Records gave the go-ahead for a second Left Banke album, and teamed the band with producer/arranger Paul Leka, who had recently scored a hit with the Lemon Pipers' bubblegum-psych number "Green Tambourine." Leka acceded to the trio's insistence on dispensing with the session players who had dominated their previous recordings, allowing the band members to record their own instrumental tracks. Longtime collaborator Tom Feher was also brought in to play piano on the sessions and contribute to the songwriting.
"We were still pretty optimistic at that point," Finn recalls. "We'd been playing for about two years, so we'd gotten some confidence and we'd gotten a lot better on our instruments, and we were writing some good songs."
The sessions with Leka yielded six tracks, which would be included on The Left Banke Too along with "Desirée," the as-yet-unreleased "In the Morning Light" and both sides of the "Dark Is the Bark"/"In the Morning Light" single. In addition to showing Finn, Martin and Cameron comfortably taking the creative reins, the six new songs also show the three stretching beyond their formal roles within the group. For instance, Finn sings lead vocals on his compositions "There's Gonna Be a Storm" and "Nice to See You," while Cameron steps up front on the Tom Feher-penned tunes "Goodbye Holly" and "Bryant Hotel." Meanwhile, Martin plays drums on "Goodbye Holly" and bass on "Bryant Hotel," while Finn doubles on guitar and bass on most of the songs.
"We had always intended to be a multi-lead-singer group and try different things, but we were never allowed to do that on the first album," Finn explains.
Feher plays piano on all of the Leka tracks, except for his lilting composition "Sing Little Bird Sing," on which he provides 12-string acoustic guitar. And departed member Rick Brand returns to play 5-string banjo on "Bryant Hotel."
Although The Left Banke Too showed their creative batteries to be fully charged, it wasn't long before the group's morale was sagging. The album was lost amidst a flood of new hippie acts, and the band - which toured with Tom Feher on keyboards and new guitarist Tim Hayden - experienced a new set of frustrations with its new management team, which Finn says kept them on the road, with little financial reward and no discernable career benefit to the group.
"They had us out there milking the hits to pay their bills, and it just felt like we were getting nowhere," Finn explains. "We really started to fall apart in early '69, and then we were done."
Although the trio disbanded, Steve Martin and Michael Brown reunited in the studio shortly thereafter to record one more single, "Myrah" b/w "Pedestal," which was released under the Left Banke's name in November 1969. In 1971, Martin, Finn, Cameron and Brown came together to record Brown's songs "Love Songs in the Night" and "Two by Two." The results were released under Martin's name, both as a single and on the soundtrack LP of the little-seen film Hot Parts, both on the Buddah label.
In the 1970s, Brown would record with Montage, Stories and the Beckies, while a 1978 Finn solo project would evolve into an abortive Left Banke reunion with Martin and Cameron; a set of demos from that project would see release in 1986, as Strangers on a Train in the U.S. and Voices Calling in Britain. In the years since, various combinations of Left Banke members, including Brown, have periodically reunited in the studio to work on new material, but the fruits of those efforts have remained unheard by the public.Years of speculation regarding a Left Banke reunion came to an end in March 2011, when Finn and Cameron teamed with a group of New York musicians for a pair of shows in New York, marking the first Left Banke gigs in more than four decades and the first time many of the band's songs had ever been performed live. The reunion shows' rapturous reception underlines the ongoing fan interest in the Left Banke, and the fact that the songs from The Left Banke Too were as well-received as the more familiar hits demonstrates the high esteem in which this album is held by the band's admirers. (Scott Schinder)