I Love This Freakin’ Band!
The Left Banke
It’s June of 1999, and I’m driving my car down one of those endlessly humid highways. I haven’t had the best of days, and I’m missing a girl that I’m no longer seeing. I have the local oldies station for its noon show, and the dj announces a song that “a lost 45 by the Left Banke.” Having heard their biggest hit, “Walk Away Renee” for years, I turn the radio up. The song is “Pretty Ballerina,” the band’s second single, released in early 1967, and the one that should’ve been bigger than “Renee.” Everything about the song, it’s instrumentation, its piano melody based only on the white keys, and Steve Martin Caro’s amazing vocal, hits my lonely soul all at once. My world stops, and I think to myself, “What is THIS?”
A few months later, I’m at a local record shop, and somebody has turned in a CD copy of all of the Left Banke’s recordings. I happily give them $6 for the CD, and immediately fall in love with every song on the collection. The amazing three-part harmonies, and the use of strings combine for a sound that comes off like the Zombies’ younger, more melancholic American cousins, and I’m hooked.
The band’s story began in New York City in late 1965, as the city is filled with teenagers hoping to be rock stars. Four teenagers meet up, and talk about forming a band. One of them, Michael Brown is the 15 year old songwriting son of famed violinist Harry Lookofsky, and has access to his dad’s studio. The other three, singers and musicians Steve Martin (later to revert to his given name, Steve Martin Caro), Tom Finn and George Cameron, all of whom are a year or two older that Brown, join in, and start learning to play together.
From the beginning, they are a youthful, volatile lot, with numerous arguments. Brown at one point flies to California, and his father has him sent back home. Amongst all of this, the band has recorded a few songs to sell to record labels, and one of them, “Walk Away Renee,” finds the band at home at Smash/Mercury. By the end of 1966, “Renee” is a top five hit, and the band learns to play together as they hit the touring circuit.
“Ballerina” goes to number 14 in early 1967, and the band releases their first album. But as often proves to be the case, nothing stays calm with the Left Banke for long. Brown decides to break away from the rest of the band, and put out his own single under the Left Banke name. That single “Ivy Ivy,” gets to number 40 before the rest of the band files an injunction to stop the single. The band settles everything soon after, but the injunction makes radio stations afraid to play new singles from the band, for fear of further legal action. The band will release some of their best work in the coming year, including a second album, but it will largely fall on deaf ears.
After officially breaking up in 1969, its bandmembers have spent much of the last forty years trying to refom the band, only to let the same arguments split them apart again. Despite all of this, the work that comes out of these occasional recordings are still good, down to the demos that Brown, Caro and the band put together in 2001 and 2002. My collection is filled with CDRs of the band’s demos and singles that fans and collaborators have traded with me, and I really do believe that there is a fantastic record in there that may never see an official release.
I interviewed several of the bandmembers throughout that 2001-2002 period. I helped find all of the existing film footage of the band, including rare film of the band on a New Jersey TV show in early 1966 that no one seemed to know about. I’ve touted their praises to any and all that would listen. I may never get to meet the guys in the Left Banke, see them live or see them release one more great album. But there is something endearing in their dysfunctional contrariness. They will never wear bad clothes on one of those 1960s reunion package tours. They will never have to be seen on a PBS “My Music” special, trying to recreate something that they put together as young men. You will never have to see them, and say, “Wow, look at them now. They look so different.” By their absence, the band has created an aura of mystery that is sadly lacking in our modern-day music scene, and left the music to stand on its own. Which is what it should be about. The MUSIC.
Sadly, the sole reissue of the band’s music on CD, the one I picked up for $6 over ten years ago, is now out of print, and CD copies go from $60-$80 on ebay. Thankfully, their music is now available on ITunes, and loyal Left Banke have kept the music going, even when the band and their record label couldn’t provide it. Be it in a car, or on a website such as www.leftbanke.nu, the music is always there, waiting for the next moment of discovery.
April 7, 2010
P.S. What I said above about the Left Banke never reuniting? Scratch that. I saw and photographed them in New York in March of 2011, and it was beyond amazing. Their albums are now also remastered, and available through Sundazed Records. This band still defies my own expectations, which is something that all good music can do.
-Daniel, October 2011