Springsteen, Bowie, Richard Thompson & The EasyBeats all have Friday on their minds!

Damn that alarm! Always too early. Every day. Every day.
 
Funny how I know the alarm is bound to ring yet somehow it’s always a surprise.
 
Another day. Here they come, rolling out their carpet of misery.
 
Mournful Monday. Terrible Tuesday. Woeful Wednesday. Tormenting Thursday.
 
Still, still … I got Friday on my mind. Friday on my mind.
 
Guess Mama was right – I should have listened in School.  
 
Maybe then I’d have a job that meant something to me instead of this endless grind where I’m treated as if I’m no more than a cog in a wheel.
 
Got to get through.

Monday morning punch the clock.
 
Monday night punch the clock.
 
Tuesday morning punch the clock.
 
Tuesday night punch the clock.
 
Wednesday morning punch the clock.

Wednesday night punch the clock.
 
Thursday morning punch the clock.
 
Thursday night punch the clock
 
Friday Morning punch the clock.
 
Friday night punch the clock.
 
One of these Friday nights I’m really gonna punch that clock!
 
 

 
 

I do my job. As well as they’ll let me.

Anyway they ain’t said I broke no rule.

Maybe one day if I keep my nose clean I’ll get that raise in pay they been promising for so long. Maybe.

Until then I’ll keep my mind fixed on Friday when I ain’t just one more guy on the shift.

My time. Off the clock.

My time. Off the clock.

Friday on my mind. Friday on my mind.

An undeniable hit from the first second of the intro!

And, a massive 1966 worldwide hit it proved. Top 20 in the USA, top 10 UK, No 1 in The EasyBeats Australian home and also in Holland.

In Australia it’s an iconic symbol of the emergence of a far away continent into pop culture consciousness.

So it’s been voted Australia’s best song of all time as well as being safely lodged in their National Sound Archives Registry.

The song was written by Henry Vanda and George Young lead and rhythm guitar respectively. Dick Diamonde held down the bass with Gordon Fleet behind the drums. The impassioned vocal courtesy of Stevie Wright.

All their energy and talents mesh together here perfectly to lay down a pop classic that always comes up no matter how many weekends it has kickstarted.

Friday on my mind is a wonderful adrenaline rush of a song that sums up a universal feeling. The sense of gathering excitement is brilliantly realised.

Perhaps they were able to capture such a feeling because as the sons of migrant families to Australia they were hyper alert, as migrants often are, to the signals of culture all around and desperate to make their mark in their new world.

They met up at Villawood Migrant Hostel and via intense practice and stints at ‘Beatle Village’ venue in Sydney they became a formidable live band ready to conquer a continent and take on the world.

Their second Australian release in 1965, ‘She’s So Fine’ had launched them into pop orbit and brought them adulation at near Beatles level at home.

But the epicentre of the pop world in 1966 was London. So it was there in September with Shel Talmy (producer of hits for The Kinks) at IBC studios that they recorded the record that will always define their career.

Let’s return to the term, ‘hyper alert’. Perhaps the single artist in the modern era who most exemplifies that quality is David Bowie.

Sharply intelligent, artistically omnivorous and hugely ambitious he hoovered up every influence in the 1960s air (and in all the decades thereafter) right up to his majestic sign off with, ‘Blackstar’.

His 1973 record, ‘Pin Ups’ celebrated the 1964 to 1967 world that David Jones/Bowie moved in before his own career ascended to the stratosphere.

Bowie lends, ‘Friday On My Mind’ his own wild glamorous sheen.

Now, The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, is well known to be tuned in to the blue collar life.

Growing up in New Jersey his ears will have pricked up at the skewering of working class realities captured by The EasyBeats.

And, Bruce pays his dues. So, arriving to tour Australia he has no hesitation in pulling out, ‘Friday On My Mind’ and bringing the full force of his personality and the drive of the E Street Band to lift the roof off!

As the 21st Century approached Playboy Magazine decided to ask a series of musicians for their choices for the music of the millennium.

Playboy assumed that the responses would be choices of music from the 20th century and for all but one contributor the assumption proved correct.

The exception was the list provided by English guitar and songwriting genius Richard Thompson.

Richard must have delighted in producing a list that included both, ‘Sumer is Icumen In’ and, ‘Oops! … I Did It Again’.

Richard as a teenager was playing and attending the iconic 1960s clubs like the UFO. And, who,knows that he crossed paths with The EasyBeats. He certainly recognised a classic guitar figure when he heard one.

There’s a caricature of Richard a misery laden, doom and gloom merchant. In truth he’s a serious musician with well honed wit who can turn his considerable gifts to any subject he chooses.

Listen to him give Friday another dimension.

Few songs appeal so powerfully to so many artists.

Wanda and Young with The EasyBeats have succeeded in keeping Friday on our minds eight days a week.

Mona Lisa must have had the Highway Blues …

‘The Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues – you can tell by the way she smiles’ (Bob Dylan)

Ah, The Mona Lisa. La Gioconda. Leonardo Da Vinci. Lisa Gherardini.

There is a fascinating post to be composed concerning the artistic, cultural and historical significance of the most famous painting in the story of art.

A painting of enormous influence which has beguiled artists, scholars and the public for more than 500 years.

Such a work would have to pay proper attention to; the signifance of the Renaissance in Florence, the relationship between secular and sacred art, the role of patronage in an artist’s life and the thorny subject of the role of the male gaze in the representation of women throughout the ages.

I wish the author of such a study well.

For my part, although I have an abiding interest in art history I must confess that when I hear the name Mona Lisa my initial response is not to reflect on the weighty matters outlined above but instead to launch, full throatedly, into my own rendition of a 1959 Rock ‘n’ Roll classic out of Sun Studios in Memphis.

‘Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?’

I refer, of course. to Carl Mann’s immortal, ‘Mona Lisa’.

Well, great googly moo! Ain’t that just a barn burner!

Texan Eddie Bush provides the overproof White Lightning guitar with Carl pumping out the setting the woods on fire piano underneath his amazingly assured vocal.

W. S. Holland on drums and Rob Oatwell on bass make sure that the song’s rhythmic attack never lets up as a few million synapses in your cerebral cortex flash and flash and flash until it’s permanently seared into your memory.

Carl and the boys recorded, ‘Mona Lisa’ at Sun Studios and it was issued, after some hesitation by Sam Phillips, in March 1959.

It went on to be a top 30 Billboard hit and to sell well over a million copies. It’s a certifiable Rock ‘n’ Roll classic and the record which will ensure that the name Carl Mann burns bright in history.

It might well have sold even more had Conway Twitty not put out his own version after hearing Carl’s far superior take on a visit to Memphis.

Astonishingly Carl was a mere 16 year old when he laid down, ‘Mona Lisa’. He had been born in the rural area of Huntingdon Tennessee in August 1943.

The Mann’s had a lumber business which Carl would return to after the heady months following the issue of Mona Lisa turned into a life sapping grind.

Growing up in Tennessee Carl; in church, through The Grand Ole Opry and from youthful forays into honkytonks drank deep of the living streams of Country, Rhythm and Blues and Rocksbilly music that were the virtual birthright of Southern musicians.

Inevitably the towering figures of Hank Williams and Elvis loomed large in his musical imagination.

Carl was something of a musical prodigy and while barely a teenager he had performed on local radio in Jackson and featured on WSM’s Junior Opry. It was in Jackson that he made his debut recordings for Jimmy Martin’s Jaxon label.

His output for Jaxon includes a prime slice of Rockabilly in, ‘Gonna Rock’n’Roll Tonite’ coupled with ‘Rockin’ Love’ which was issued under the name of Carl Mann and the Kool Kats.

It was when W S Holland, who had played with Carl Perkins, hooked up with Carl that the introduction to Sun Records was made.

Carl never managed to hit the mother lode again with Sun and his subsequent mainstream country music work is undistinguished.

However, the late 1970s Rockabilly revival in Europe gave Carl an opportunity to demonstrate that Mona Lisa wasn’t entirely a fluke. In Holland he made two eminently listenable albums with stellar guitar from Eddie Jones.

Tiring of travel and over fond of the bottle Carl wisely retreated to Tennessee where he remains.

Perhaps, as he rocks on his porch swing he sometimes, purely for his own amusement, croons a stately version of Mona Lisa and smiles as he realises that he created a lovely, warm and very real work of art all those years ago.

P.S. Through pure serendipity I wrote this post on Carl’s 74th Birthday. Many happy returns Carl!

Notes:

‘Mona Lisa’ was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston. It was penned for the film, ‘Captain Carey’ and won the duo the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 1950 Academy Awards.

Nat King Cole’s typically poised performance atop a Nelson Riddle arrangement of the song was a massive No 1 hit in 1950.

There have been innumerable versions since with my own favourites being those of Willie Nelson and The Neville Brothers.

Fine CDs of selections Carl’s best work can be found on the Charly and Bear Family labels.

Carl’s revival period can be found on the CD, ‘In Rockabilly Country’ on the Rockhouse label.

Lavender, The Lark and The Sublime

If you grow it they will come.

Lavender that is.

Not so far away several acres of transplanted heaven glows blue and purple.

Hip high bushes tremble in the Summer breeze.

A Summer breeze carrying an intoxicating scent that lifts the heart and calms the spirit.

Peace comes dropping slow.

Rows and rows of nature’s glory climb towards a hazy horizon.

People of all ages and cultures walk the straight path between the rows with like devout pilgrims.

In the shimmering stillness there is an awareness of profound blessings to be harvested here.

Settling into the self, breathing slow, sloughing off the shackles of busyness.

Emerging into simple being.

Being.

The bonny birds wheel higher and higher in the sky making perhaps for Leith Hill.

Leith Hill where the young Ralph Vaughan Williams’ musical soul was quickened and nourished.

A musical soul which survived the horrors of war to produce quicksilver streams of tender beauty.

A musical soul which evoked in, ‘The Lark Ascending’ a sense of the mystical gyre uniting life and death.

Walking among the lavender it seemed as if this wondrous music infused the air.

I have chosen to feature an incandescent performance by by Nicola Benedetti.

Listening we are invited to enter the realm of the sublime.

Note: I would urge you to seek out the astonishing poem by George Meredith which inspired Vaughan Willians to create his own masterwork.

Nick Drake : River Man, Oh how they come and go …

I was woken this morning from a full five fathom sleep by the shrill steam whistle of a ferry boat about to depart for the tranquil sanctuary of some green Nordic isle.

As I floated upward into consciousness I carried with me a gift from my subconscious: no doubt inspired by the moon above the harbour the previous evening.

So .. luxuriating in the drowsiness of my summer vacation and not equipped or inspired to present you with my customary impeccably researched and deeply pondered musings I offer to you the gift given to me.

Nick Drake. For a spell in the 1970s I was deeply obsessed with the persona and music of Nick Drake (whereas now I remain merely mildly obsessed).

And, there is good reason to be obsessed with the music of a man who left to us, after such a short life, so much intense beauty.

I will have much more to say about Nick Drake later.

For now I will content myself with stating that he was a songwriter with a particularly English, romantic and lyrical sensibility who wrote songs of mythic power.

He was a superlative guitar player with a wholly distinctive tone and sound. And, he was a singer whose voice will haunt your imagination.

River Man has a beguiling pastoral grace demonstrating all the above virtues. I’ve chosen to showcase a live in the studio version recorded for the great British Disc Jockey and cultural bellwether, John Peel.

Nick Drake seemed to live his life drifting further and further away from the safety of the shore.

Yet, even as he heartbreakingly faded away from us into the unknowable blackness beyond he was able to pull from his inner being shafts of light that still blaze with creative fervour.

Like the the moon his music has a mysterious attraction that moves the tides of our hearts.

Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker : I Cover The Waterfont

Often, when we tell the story of our own life, to ourselves, or to others, the narrative teems with incident. An action movie filled with high drama.

Now, reflecting on my own life I have come to realise that a more apt comparison would be one of the contemplative, steady gaze movies directed by Robert Bresson from France or Yasujiro Ozu from Japan.

The meaning is won, revealed, not through a hectic series of heroic events but powerfully accumulated through close attention to small details and patient meditation on the weathering, sometimes destructive, sometimes ennobling, passage of time.

Life is mainly waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting for what you want or need the most.

Waiting for your mother’s or father’s attention.

Waiting for the fabled excitement of love and romance and high passion to blow into your life like a hurricane.

Waiting for someone to recognise you as the one they have been waiting for.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting on the waterfront for the one, miraculously found, to return.

Waiting, worrying, wondering why she had to go.

Waiting, never understanding why she had to go.

Waiting, rheumy eyed, obsessively scanning the horizon for her to return.

Waiting, waiting, covering the waterfront.

Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker.

Bluesmen. Brothers in The Blues.

Initiates. High priests. Orphean adepts.

Anam Cara – soul friends.

Sounders of the depths. In their music they tap the source. The energy they draw upon seems to come, direct, from the very core of the Earth.

In touch with such power is it any wonder that they are often described as, ‘glowering’ and, ‘moody’.

I Cover The Waterfront looms in our imaginations like a fevered dream. The great Booker T on organ sets up a heat shimmer from which Van and John Lee emerge like royal travellers from some mysterious distant land bringing testimony of great import.

Some say the purpose of art is to stop time. Well, here, Van and John Lee do a wonderful job of making time eddy and meander as they dig deep into the song. They are both able to lead us away from the tyranny of everyday time into new dimensions of being.

Ships leave harbour and the coast vanishes as they voyage into the open sea. Beside the vastness of the sea humans seem small, insignificant. Yet, the sea is bound by the shore while the human imagination knows no such bounds. With their voices, their intense vocal and imaginative presence, Van and John Lee take us far beyond the mere realms of cartography and circumnavigation.

Their music at its best always opens new territory bringing us visions, emotional insights and dare one say it – mystical revelations.

They bring it on home while we are waiting.

Waiting for someone to reply to the message in a bottle thrown in the sea those many years ago.

Waiting for the knock on the door – sometimes in hope, sometimes in dread.

Waiting before you go out with seed for the sowing.

Waiting before you return carrying your sheaves.

Waiting for forgiveness.

Waiting in vain for the Raven’s return.

Waiting for the Dove to return with an Olive leaf.

Waiting for a miracle.

Waiting for Ahab to sail The Pequod, laden with Whale, back into Nantucket.

Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for The Dodgers to come home to Brooklyn.

Waiting for this terrible day to become tomorrow.

Waiting for the slow train coming around the bend.

Waiting for the full moon to rise.

Waiting for two riders to approach.

Waiting for the barkeep to pour one scotch, one bourbon, one beer.

Waiting for the foghorn to blow.

Waiting for the dawn to break.

Waiting for the wind to howl.

Waiting for the circle to be unbroken.

We are all waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Whatever you are waiting for I hope it will have been worth the wait.

And, as each of us waits, for our own reasons, the music of Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker lends us peace and perspective.

Notes:

The version of I Cover The Waterfront featured here comes from the John Lee Hooker record, ‘Mr Lucky’. I’m sure of few things but I am sure you can never have too many John Lee Hooker records.

This post largely written on the decks of the M/S Lily and S/S Ukkopekka as they sailed in blazing sunshine between Turku, the Island of Vepsa and the town of Naantali in Finland.

The Swinging Blue Jeans : Merseybeat Kings – The Hippy Hippy Shake, You’re No Good

Some Other Guys 2 – British Beat Groups in the shadow of The Beatles

As the 1960s dawned winds of change were blowing not just across the colonies of the British Empire but also whistling through the great provincial cities of England.

A generation of young working class men, now that military conscription had been banished to history, no longer had to shudderingly look forward to years of endless spud peeling, square bashing and boot polishing.

Now, if they had the imagination, the will and the courage they could march to the beat of their own drum. And, if along with the drum they added two guitars and a bass they had a beat group!

If you’re looking for the great provincial city where the new call to arms was most resoundingly answered you have to sail down the River Mersey to Liverpool.

Liverpool was a great port city. And through the port along with the everyday trade goods came more exciting and exotic products that might well have been described as contraband by the colonels of musical good taste at the Palais de Dance and the BBC.

Liverpool sailors on the 1950s transatlantic liners left a Britain still painfully recovering from the financial and physical trauma of World War 2. They left a land where there was still rationing and where the landscape was scarred with bomb-sites.

Arriving in New York their eyes must have been dazzled by the cornucopia of delights advertised in shocking neon colours. Consumer goods that were the subject of near fetishistic lust back home could be picked up off the shelves and carried triumphantly home.

Cameras, sharp clothes and above all records. Records vibrating with power on gleaming vinyl with exotic labels from exotic cities like Memphis, New Orleans and Cincinnati.

Records that nobody else would have. Records that showed you were ahead of the pack. In the know. Records you would let your little brothers listen to but woe betide them if they dared to try and play them when you were out!

Of course these younger brothers, cousins, the kid next door, listened and marvelled and thought to themselves – maybe, just maybe we can form a group and make magic like that encoded in the discs spinning at 45rpm.

And, maybe, just maybe, the girls now studiously ignoring them would find them suddenly very attractive indeed!

So its perhaps not so surprising that by mid 1961 several hundred beat groups in Liverpool, with greater or lesser degrees of skill, were channelling Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and The Everly Brothers.

Sweat ran down the walls of The Cavern, The Mardi Gras and Downbeat clubs as groups and audiences buoyant with youthful energy created a, ‘Happening Scene’ which would outdo their wildest dreams and change the world when it transpired that one of these groups, The Beatles, happened to have the mixture of genius, talent and character that changes not just the cultural weather but the climate.

In February 1961 The Beatles were back from their transformative boot camp experience in Hamburg. They now proceeded to hone those hard earned musical chops on home turf.

Though they had played The Cavern in their days as the skiffle group The Quarrymen their first appearance as The Beatles there was as unannounced guests of a long established Merseyside group, The Swinging Blue Jeans, whose own series of early 60s hits have a charm and power of their own which we celebrate here today on The Jukebox.

We will kick off with their signature hit, ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’ which must be a near perfect distillation of the Merseybeat sound.

Boom! The Bluejeans had picked the song up from a 1959 single cut by 17 year old Chan Romero (finding obscure US 45s to cover was an essential part of the Merseybeat group armoury). Chan’s version was a winning sashay which benefited from the musical prowess of Earl Palmer, Barney Kessel and Rene Hall.

What the Bluejeans brilliantly did was to up the tempo, turn up the volume and defy anyone listening not to find out how ecstatically they could dance for the two minutes or so the song lasted!

Their stunning attack must owe something to their experience in Hamburg when they were booed off stage for daring to imagine an audience of drunken sailors, strippers and would be existentialists would go for a jazz/skiffle combo still sporting a banjo in the rhythm section! Wisely they heeded John Lennon’s advice to drop the banjo and rock out for all they were worth.

For Goodness Sake! You just can’t resist the relentless drive they bring to the song. The blood must have fair sung in their veins as they played this one live. It raced to Number 2 on the UK charts for Christmas 1963 and was later a top 30 hit in the USA.

The Swinging Blue Jeans locked themselves into my fondest memory because I loved, ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’ from the first moment I heard it and because they appeared on the very first, ‘Top Of The Pops’ TV show which became an unmissable part of my childhood and adolescence.

The line up that recorded The Bluejeans greatest sides was Ray Ennis on Rhythm Guitar and vocals, Les Braid on bass and keyboards, Ralph Ellis on lead guitar and Norman Kuhlke on drums.

They would ollow up the classic Hippy Hippy Shake with a frantic cover of, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ which lodged just outside the UK top 10 and the US top 40.

Their next hit, featured below, was a cannily chosen cover of a song written by Clint Ballard Jnr and most beautifully sung by Betty Everett, ‘You’re No Good’ This one was top 5 in the UK and just grazed the US top 100. The video clip stars one of my favourite actresses from the 1960s era – Rita Tushinghmam who was also emblematic of the arrival of working class talent in the arts (10 points to all who can tell me which film the clip is taken from)

You want moody? Now that’s moody! Even the most hardened Gauloise puffing Existentialists must have dropped the blank stare for a few minutes as they tuned their bruised souls into this one!

And,for many the lyric of bitter experience telling of a misplayed hand in the game of love must have struck a deep chord.

The Bluejeans last hurrah, as far as the charts were concerned, was a lovely take on the Bacharach/David Dionne Warwick classic, ‘Don’t make Me Over’ which almost made the UK top 30 in January 1966. There’s a tough guys show their tender side feel about this one that always makes me swoon.

I’m sure that many couples swooned together as they slow danced under the mirror ball as Don’t Make Me Over resounded over the dance floor.

The Swinging Blue Jeans have never retired though they have had a revolving door cast of members since their 60s heydays.

They lacked the potency of image and songwriting skills necessary for an extended career at the top. They were thus unable to build on their excellence as a Merseybeat group.

But, a fine Merseybeat group, as the tracks above surely demonstrate, was most assuredly something to be!

Notes:

There are a plethora of Swinging Blue Jeans compilations. My own, which has served me well, is, ‘The Swinging Blue Jeans at Abbey Road 1963-1967’ on EMI.

There is a possibly apocryphal story which I enjoy telling that at that first Top Of The Pops show a fight broke out between the Bluejeans and a scruffy London R&B Band called The Rolling Stones about ownership of a pen used to sign autographs!

The Bluejeans being an iconic Merseybeat band also made an appearance in a breakthrough for realism TV show about the Liverpool Police called, ‘Z Cars’ which was another staple of my youth.

Walk Away Renee : The lost love that haunts the heart

‘One fairer than my love! The all-seeing sun Nee’r saw her
match since first the world begun.’ (Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet)

‘Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small’ (Michael Brown)

Some guys have all the luck. You know the type. They don’t shuffle and stumble. They stride, stroll and swagger through life. Golden apples and golden girls fall unbidden at their feet.

Most of us alternate between times when the tides of life seems to sweep us happily along and times when they treacherously turns against us. We carry on looking on in wonder at the guys who seem oblivious to those tides. Serenely they surf away from us into a golden sun.

And, some other guys just don’t seem made for these times. Fragile souls who retreat from the clashing, clangourous cacophony all around to the shelter of their rooms.

There in solitude and stillness they tune into tender melodies and celestial harmonies that heal their wounded hearts and near break our own when we are privileged to hear them.

From a veiled place deep inside the lonely tears and deep inside the hidden pain they spin glistening threads of gossamer music which surprisingly turn out to have a lasting tensile strength able to comfort and support us through the emotional crises that inevitably waylay us on our journey through the years.

The ultimate example here is the awesome genius of Brian Wilson. There will be much to say about the blessed Brian here later.

Today, we turn to a songwriter of striking originality, and singular achievement, the late Michael Brown, who in, ‘Walk Away Renee’ wrote a song whose incandescent beauty will never fade.

A song of haunting depth which, as we will see, calls out to be illuminated, imagined time after time by singers who find themselves gripped by the need to find within themselves the way to the heart of a masterpiece.

Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1965 Sixteen (16!) year old Michael Brown fell mythologically in love (as sensitive 16 year old’s will) with Renee Fladen who was unobtainable by virtue of her beauty which struck Michael dumb and the fact that she was the girlfriend of Tim Finn, the bass player in the group they both belonged to, ‘The Left Banke’.

Agonised and tormented Michael retreated to his room and communing with the Muses came up with a song which devastatingly yokes a lyric of heart sore adolescent angst to an endlessly enchanting melody set in a sophisticated and elegant arrangement.

An arrangement that features Brown’s spectral harpsichord, a string quartet helmed by his father, Harry Lookofsky, a distinguished classical and jazz violinist, and a melancholic, autumnal alto flute solo.

All of this underpinning a tender, introspective, emotionally truthful vocal from Steve Martin. This is a record of riveting gentleness which insinuates itself into the deepest chamber of your memory like the perfect sunset of your youth.

It’s not hard to hear the influences of the sun dappled Mamas and Papas and the pastoral, Choristers on a spree, sound of England’s The Zombies whose, ‘She’s Not There’ must surely have been on heavy rotation on Michael’s turntable.

Of course, like many, he will have spent untold hours beguiled by the melodic and harmonic genius of Brian Wilson though he will have been one of the very few able to turn admiration into true emulation.

Now when I was seventeen going on eighteen I would have told you that sixteen year olds could know nothing of love. And, when I was over the crest of 20, 30 and 40 I would have said the same.

Now that I have crested further summits I’m not so sure. Not so sure. Perhaps sixteen year olds know every bit as much about love as their seniors. Love is love is love and who dares to think they can truly sound the depths of another’s heart?

Michael Brown writing, ‘Walk Away Renee’ at 16 perfectly captured the sweet ache of young love and lost love. We are all eternally in his debt.

The Left Banke original was issued on the Smash label in July 1966 and ascended to Number 5 on the Billboard Chart. It became a touchstone of its times and and came to serve as the very definition of, ‘Baroque Pop’.

The special quality of the song was recognised at Motown and assigned to the ever reliable, Four Tops who recorded it for their 1967, ‘Reach Out’ album. Issued as a 45 in January 1968 it was top 20 in the US and top 5 in Canada, Ireland and the UK.

Here’s a wonderful example of how the collaborative power of the galaxy of talent at Motown could produce records that simply take your breathe away! So many elements of musical brilliance seamlessly integrated. Much of the credit must go to one of the greatest songwriting/production teams of the era – brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier.

They were able to draw on the resources of the stellar team of musicians at Motown to create a record which has subtle detail and immense emotional punch.

From the opening brass flourish we are aware that this is not a record you can turn away from. Benny Benjamin on the drums near matches Levi Stubbs vocal for dramatic effect (near matches for Levi at full throttle is surely unmatchable!).

There’s a delightful rhythm guitar part from Eddie Willis and little remarked upon but beautifully articulated backing vocals from one of Motown’s secret weapons, The Andantes.

In the instrumental break there’s a wonderful confection of softened brass and Woodwinds that shows the refined palette of the storied production team.

And then there’s the always in the pocket vocals of Lawrence Payton, Duke Fakir and Renaldo Benson supporting and encouraging lead singer Levi Stubbs.

Levi Stubbs! Levi Stubbs!

When it comes to describing the singing of Levi Stubbs even the word heroic is inadequate. Perhaps only by overhearing mighty Thor singing the warriors home to Valhalla could we find an apposite correlative for the majesty and power Levi brings to, ‘Walk Away Renee’.

This, in contrast to the swooningly affecting adolescent Left Banke original is a 100% proof adult version with Levi adding layers of inured pain and bruised authority to the song. It’s a wind down the windows and put the pedal to the floor performance that never fails to quicken the pulse.

The next take on Renee I’d like to feature comes from the mercurial RIckie Lee Jones. It’s a track from her arresting EP from 1983, ‘Girl at Her Volcano’ where you can also find alluring versions of, ‘My Funny Valentine’ and, ‘Under the Boardwalk’.

When she’s on form RIckie can take any song – one of her own or one from the classic repertoire – and through a combination of the bohemian off kilter charm of her vocals and piano entirely seduce us.

RIckie doesn’t come at the song head on. Rather, she shines a woozy light on its facets illuminating further beauties within. She takes us by the hand and leads us into a dream world where time is bent and stretched. Where past and present merge. A land where we would not be surprised to see the ghosts of past loves floating, just out of reach, before us.

There’s a touch of shamanistic ritual in Rickie’s version or searching for a literary reference you might call it magic realism. Either way it’s wholly Rickie Lee. The boldness of her imaginative invention is testament to her artistic prowess and a lovely tribute to Michael Brown’s great song.

Now for some blue collar New Jersey soul. No, not The Boss. Here’s a characteristically impassioned version by an artist you can always rely on to give his all to a song – Southside Johnny. I must admit to having punched the air many times when I’ve been to see Johnny in concert.

He has always had the gift of communing with his audience to engage them as conspirators in the enterprise of making a song yield up it’s emotional heart.

This version is the heartfelt confession of a man who’s been around the romantic block more than a few times and has the scars to prove it. But not a man who has given up on love or life.

Finally a lovely, lyrical lullaby version courtesy of Linda Ronstadt and Cajun Queen Ann Savoy. It can be found on their fine album, ‘Adieu False Heart’.

There is something of the polished parlour about this performance which glows in the mind the more you hear it (and I’m sure you’ll want to hear it often).

Walk Away Renee is a song you can’t forget. It speaks to you wherever you may find yourself in the deep woods of life.

You may recall it as you emerge, wet eyed and blinking after struggle, into sunny uplands or you may find yourself singing it softly, softly, as the rain beats down again on your weary eyes.

Few songs can make such a claim. God bless you Michael Brown.

Notes:

Michael Brown after Renee: The recorded legacy of The Left Banke was best captured on the 1982 compilation, ‘There’s Gonna Be a Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966-1969’ on the Mercury label. It includes their 2 albums, ‘Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina’ and,’Left Banke Too’ with an added handful of tracks. Sixteen of the 26 tracks were written by Michael Brown. It is a marvellous record.

On the strength of Renee and the wonderful, ‘Pretty Ballerina’ alone Michael Brown deserves entry into the top echelon of pop songwriters.

Two albums was all Michael managed with Left Banke before he fell out with his bandmates. His later work was with Montage (look out for, ‘She’s Alone’), Stories and The Beckies.

Michael died of heart disease in March 2015.

And Renee?

Renee Fladen-Kamm is now a distinguished singer and vocal coach often working with choirs specialising in medieval music.

More versions of Renee to listen to:

Billy Bragg

Cyndi Lauper

Marshall Crenshaw

Terry Reid

Jimmy Lafave

Elliot Smith

Buddy Miller