The Left Banke - Biography

By Bob Fagan


The Left Banke is the best-known example of what has been termed “baroque rock,” a style combining creative use of string quartet and harpsichord with rock instrumentation and vocals. If their strident harmonies might have borrowed a bit from the octave-interval harmonizing of the Kinks, they may well have been the first band to use the harpsichord in a pop music format, a good year before the Kinks recorded “Session Man” (featuring the harpsichord playing of Nicky Hopkins) for their 1966 LP Face to Face.


Formed in 1965 in New York, the band was founded by Michael Brown, who played piano and wrote the bulk of the band’s material. Brown’s father, Harry Lookofsky, was a well-regarded session violinist who worked in both classical and popular music. He also ran a recording studio in New York City. Brown had assembled a band to record some of his songs there, but failed to find any label interested in the material. Not for the last time, the band fell apart. Brown’s father took over as manager and producer, and the song “Walk Away Renee” was sold to Smash Records. The 45 reached number 5 in the singles charts. Suddenly needing a touring unit to promote the hit song, Brown hastily reassembled the band, which included George Cameron (formerly the band’s guitarist) on drums (replacing original drummer Warren David), Tom Finn on bass, and singer Steve Martin Caro, who went by Steve Martin. This unit quickly recorded the follow-up release, “Pretty Ballerina,” which made it to number 15.


An album entitled Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina was released shortly thereafter. For a hastily released attempt to cash in on the success of the two hit singles, the record is a classic, with nary a bad cut form start to finish. Several songs were in similar baroque mode, from the Zombies-like “She May Call You Up Tonight” to “Barterers and their Wives,” which might be described as baroque folk doo-wop. The fever-pitch of “Evening Gown” could be Ray and Dave Davies singing over a backing track by the Seeds. The band also finds room for a pair of Beatles pastiches - “Let Go Of You Girl” offers up a note-perfect John Lennon imitation, while “What Do You Know” channels the early country-rock feel of The Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally,” complete with faux-pedal steel guitar and Ringo-esque nasal vocal.


Despite the high quality of the album’s material, it only reached #66 in the Billboard album charts. The band was largely unable to properly duplicate the heavily textured instrumentation and sound of their songs live. Also, the other members of the band came to resent Brown’s controlling leadership of the band, and his favored status as son of their manager. Their resentment turned to outright anger after Brown recorded a single titled “And Suddenly,” using session musicians (including Woodstock Festival performer Bert Somner and future Spinal Tap member Michael McKean) and put it out as a Left Banke record. Shortly after this incident the band once again dissolved.


They reunited again in 1967, staying together long enough to record several new songs, including the single “Desiree.” The record just barely charted, and its failure led to Brown departing the band he had founded for good. The other members continued to record as The Left Banke for awhile, long enough to tour in support of a second LP, The Left Banke Too, which was assembled mostly from previously recorded material, some of it with Brown, and one track reportedly featuring the background vocals of Steven Tallarico, who would soon change his name to Steven Tyler and found Aerosmith.


There have been sporadic reunions involving various combinations of members until nearly the present day. Brown went on to work with the group Stories early in their career. They later had a hit with the interracial love song “Brother Louie;” however, Brown neither wrote nor performs on the song. He has intermittently reunited with various other members of the group to record and occasionally release new material; none of the latter receiving much notice or any chart success. His last known band project was The Beckies, who released an eponymous LP on Sire in 1976. As in the Left Banke, Brown wrote the songs and played piano. The material bore his signature classically-influenced arrangements, but received little attention. After this recording, he has remained silent. Given the lyrical beauty and innovative arrangements of his Left Banke work, it is odd and unfortunate that he has effectively vanished from the pop music scene in the years since.


The very high quality of The Left Banke’s music is such that, despite having only two hits during their short few years of existence, they remain both an influence and a touchstone to musicians as disparate as John Mellancamp (who has been known to include “Pretty Ballerina” in his live shows) to Richard Thompson, who regularly plays “She May Call You Up Tonight” in his live appearances, and to Canadian MOR singer Anne Murray who also recorded a version of the latter song. English folk-punk Billy Bragg recorded an exquisite version of “Walk Away Renee,” forsaking the lyrics entirely for a tragic-comic narration of an ended love affair; The Smiths’guitarist Johnny Marr plays the achingly beautiful melody on acoustic guitar. Virtually the entire catalog of the band is available on the CD release There’s Gonna Be a Storm (1992 Mercury). Michael Brown died in March 2015.


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