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Music Review: The Left Banke

July 21, 2009

If you know this band, you’re either (a) a fan of obscure 60s pop, (b) a hipster musician with funky glasses, (c) old or (d) all of the above. I am none of those; I am (e), A guy who could pick up nothing but an American AM oldies station on his crappy boombox in French River bush in the early 90s, and got a song stuck in his head despite never being able to hear it clearly.

The song was Pretty Ballerina, which sounds nothing like anything else I like, but hooked me with its bizarre melody and oddball orchestration. It would be a couple of years before I learned who performed the tune, thanks to a (d) all of the above I met at a used record store. Finding stuff was hard before the Internet.

Later, when I sought out more Left Banke music, I was happy to learn Pretty Ballerina wasn’t a one-off or a novelty. This is what these guys really sounded like. Led by a hairball prodigy named Michael Brown, a multi-instrumentalist who wrote the band’s ethereal, trippy music, The Left Banke put out one fantastic LP in 1967, which included Pretty Ballerina and another early hit single, Walk Away Renee. People liked it. I won’t say they loved it. But they liked it.

Why haven’t you heard of The Left Banke? Maybe you know a song or two, but really, Michael Brown and the boys were never household names. Part of the problem was a bizarre breakup, which saw Brown firing the band, who then toured as The Left Banke, while Brown also toured as The Left Banke, leading a gang of hired hands (Wikipedia claims one of those players was David St. Hubbins … er, Michael McKean, but I’d have to check that out). In other words, some serious soap opera bullshit for a band with only a couple of minor hits.

Later, the original lineup, including singer Steve Martin, reformed for a while, but the magic was lost, and the members of the band slipped into obscurity. Brown went on to play with The Beckies. Martin changed his name to Steve Martin Caro so you wouldn’t think he was a comedian, but nobody noticed.

I still play this music a lot. It works on sunny, warm days when you think you should be feeling bright and cheery, but you aren’t. And I know a lot of people swear vinyl offers more than CD, but let me tell you: when I finally got the compilation disc There’s Gonna Be A Storm, I heard so many layers in this music that it was like the first time with a new lover.

For a while, I used to think it was a shame that The Left Banke hadn’t scored huge the way other unusual bands of the time did, like The Doors or the Jefferson Airplane. But now I’m glad things worked out the way they did, for purely selfish reasons: I love that moment when I play their music for someone for the first time, and they take a visible trip through “what is this crap” to “hey, this is all right” to “holy shit, this is amazing!” Works every time.

Podcast link: The Bass Player tells all …

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