Left Banke Part Two: The Laughter And The Rain
introduction, interviews and photos by Daniel Coston
Originally published in winter 2011 issue of the Big Takeover Magazine
In part one of my interviews with the Left Banke, we talked about the band’s original formation in 1965, as well as their recent reformation. Now, we go into the studio with the band, to talk about their sensational first two albums, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina , and The Left Banke Too , as well as the band’s current plans for recording new songs.
Formed in 1965 after a chance meeting by Tom Finn and Michael Brown, the Left Banke burst onto the scene in 1966 with a sound that was too easily labeled as “baroque pop.” Their sound encompassed rock, pop, lush string arrangements, and a stunning three-part harmony sound. But the success changed the formula. Brown and his father, Harry Lookofsky, fired the rest of the band, and tried to form their own version of the group. Eventually, the rest of the band (Finn, George Cameron and Steve Martin-Caro) regained the rights to the Left Banke’s name, and the trio soldiered on.
In March of 2011, Finn and Cameron debuted a new edition of the Left Banke, and wowed sold out crowds over two nights at Joe’s Pub in New York City. Speaking as someone who attended both nights, Finn and Cameron have found the lineup that can capture on stage what the band originally did in the studio, and can finally continue the sound, and story that they first created in 1966.
BT: How is it to talk about the Left Banke as a living, breathing band again?
George Cameron: It’s kind of weird. It’s like, you don’t quite believe it. Doing that first show was like, “Wow.” That’s the way we should have gone out, in the first place. Not the way we did get thrown out to the ring, with nothing. But this time, it’s even better.
The people that managed us before were products of the 1950s. They threw the groups out on the road, and they kept all the money, and the band made their living off the road. They [the managers] didn’t think it through. They didn’t about what kind of product they had, and that it would have been viable to put a quartet with us. So this time, we have more control over our situation, and we’re being smarter.
For me, it was like an unfinished product. We just dropped out of sight. We never really got to show our potential, to keep going, and show what else we can do. And hopefully, we’ll be recording an album soon, and you’ll see the progression. New songs, new stuff, and go on.
BT: Tell me about the new songs, and Ralph Affoumado, who will be producing the new record.
Tom Finn: His name is Ralph Affoumado, he is a Julliard graduate In conducting. He has a rich history of conducting orchestras, and is currently the Choirmaster at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Ralph fell in love with The Left Banke back in the 60's, and he actually tried to help us get back together in 1969. He convinced Michael Brown and the rest of us to try working together by doing something, that wouldn't create a lot if pressure, so he suggested that we all write a commercial, and come together and help one another record them. We did that, and I think what's floating around today known as The Left Banke's commercials are actually those sessions, which Ralph acted as producer and engineer.
Right now, I've been writing some new songs and I fully intend to get ahold of some of Michael Brown's unrecorded...songs, and re-do them with this newly constituted Left Banke. We're also listening to some songs from Tom Feher, and Feher and Ralph have written some new songs together. I also have my ears open to new material by songwriters that I know, and like.
BT: Describe World United Studios. What was the building like?
Cameron: It was in, a ten story building. [Lookofsky] was on the third floor. It was hidden away. The office was downstairs, in a duplex, and the upstairs was the studio, and we hung out there all the time.
Finn: I clearly remember the way we did things at the beginning of our recording career. We would play our instruments all night long, Mike had the keys, so there was a lot of ideas being tossed around, nobody was pushing us, we had the studio all to ourselves. George and Steve used to work out their songs together. George played his guitar, and he and Steve played songs like "Nerve," "Something on my Mind," and "Let Go Of You Girl." I'd jump in on the high harmony notes, and Mike would play piano, and he also started to write bridges for two of those songs. That was Mike's first attempt at writing for, or with us.
Steve was the most vocal, but, we all would scream at Mike stuff like, “No, not that”, or “Yeah, That's it, that's it.” Finally, Mike would have some ideas on tape and he'd go away, and next time we got together, he'd play what we had come up with the last time. Then we'd continue and add our harmonies to the melody that we now had pretty much worked out.
Cameron: We had a great arranger in Johnny Abbott. We had our own studio to play in, and that was fun. So we’d be in there for 24 hours a day, and all we did was sing, and write songs.
BT: The first thing that you recorded was, “I’ve Got Something On My Mind,” which you co-wrote, George. How did that song come about?
Cameron: I originally started it, in the Village, with Steve. I didn’t really think much of it, until we brought it up into the studio, and that originally was going to be the single. Now, what person in their right mind, who writes a song, says, “No, ‘Renee’ is the single.” And that’s what I did! It could’ve been a hit, too, but something told me that “Renee” would make it. It was that weird a song.
BT: What was the inspiration for that song, as well as “Haven’t Got The Nerve”?
Cameron: Women are complicated.
BT: George, when you first came to the group, you were playing guitar, and Warren David was playing drums.
Cameron: Right. And Warren David was a great drummer, an innovative drummer. What happens was, he was a transsexual. He wanted to be a woman, and he didn’t want to play drums, anymore. And they said, “George, do you want to play drums?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And I got on the drums, and I fell in love. I said, “Oh, this is where I can throw all my anger and everything at.” I finally found an instrument that worked for me, and I got into it.
I played drums on everything else on the first album, except for “Renee,” and “Pretty Ballerina,” [and “Something On My Mind”], and that’s because Mike Brown went out and hired studio guys.
Tom Finn: On "She May Call You Up Tonight," I clearly recall that I was playing the bass with the band and I wanted to use a bass line that I heard Paul McCartney play on The Beatles song "You Won"t See Me," and Michael loved the bass line, So, when John Abbott our arranger came in, I played him the part and he wrote it out for Joe Mack, the studio bass player, to play. This was the way most of our songs were done.
The group would come up with the drum parts and bass parts. We didn't have a guitarist until Jeff Winfield came into the group, so whatever guitar parts we had were done by a new studio guitarist named Hugh McCracken. We gave him his first sessions in New York.
With “Renee” and “Ballerina”, we did demos on both of them, at least a week before the master sessions. When it came time for the recording, John Abbott was conducting the strings and woodwinds, and Mike was at piano, or harpsichord. and we all were there singing, or waiting to sing. These tracks went very quickly, with the exception if “Pretty Ballerina.” John Abbott had written in a harp part, so this lady was there with her gigantic harp and we tried and tried to get it sounding good but, after about a half hour, Harry Lookofsky said, “Let's forget it.” It just had too many overtones, it was hard to record.
The reason our parts were played by studio musicians was, WE WERE SINGERS THAT WERE VERY YOUNG, EXCEPT FOR MIKE, WHO WASN'T A SINGER. HE WAS TAKING MUSIC LESSONS SINCE HE WAS 6 YEARS OLD, ON PIANO. THE REST OF US WERE LEARNING. WE WERE VERY,VERY YOUNG KIDS, SO WHEN THERE WERE SESSIONS WITH STRINGS AND WOODWINDS, THEY HAD TO BE DONE LIVE. THERE WAS NO PUNCHING IN OR OVERDUBBING. THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR MISTAKES. THESE SESSIONS WERE UNION SCALE, AND COST A LOT OF MONEY. THEY HAD TO BE DONE IN ONE OR TWO TAKES. NOT LIKE TODAY, WHEN PEOPLE TAKE WEEKS OR MONTHS TO DO ONE PART. It was for this reason that George and I were not playing instruments on all the tracks on our first album. You can read quotes from Michael about how we had to de-tune these studio musicians from their common work-a-day attitudes, and learn to play like a band. We don't want any of our fans, or other musicians to think we were just another studio thought up product. That's not the way it was. We, the band members called the shots, along with our arranger John Abbott.
Cameron: We did that every day. That was our life. We didn’t think about money in those days. We just thought about girls, and playing.
BT: And how old were you guys, at the time?
Cameron: Seventeen. But that’s what a normal 17 year old thinks about, except for playing.
The first time we ever got excited was when we heard [“Renee”] on the radio, going to some show! I’m going, “Holy shit, this is real!” Everybody started cracking up!
Tom Finn: I’m in the Taft Hotel, or the Wellington Hotel, in Michael Brown’s room. And he’s getting ready, we’re goin’ somewhere, I think we were getting ready to do the Clay Cole TV show. And the radio is on. And, “Pretty Ballerina” comes on the radio. So I said, “Hey , Mike!” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, I hear it!” And so it’s playing, and I’m listening to it. And it hits me like a ton of bricks, all of a sudden. And I said to myself, “Holy Shit! Will you listen to what we are putting on the radio here?” I said, There’s nothing LIKE this on the radio, man! There was NOTHING on the radio that was so sophisticated as that. I thought to myself, “MY GOD! We are actually doing something that is completely different! We are changing the face of the music business here!”
Cameron: Leonard Bernstein toadying “Pretty Ballerina,” didn’t hurt, either [on a 1967 CBS TV special, “Inside Pop.”]. I saw it when it aired, I didn’t know it was coming. And I said, “Holy shit.”
Finn: Generally, the first album was done pretty quickly, and we all felt involved in every aspect of the record. Although, I don't think Steve, George or I were very happy with the way things started changing during the second half of our first album. After the big hit, Mike and his father started to call all the shots, but we didn't like the way things were going.
In hindsight, I really wholeheartedly believe that "She May Call You Up Tonight" should have been the follow up to “Walk Away Renee.” “Ballerina” was great, but “She May Call” had more of an uptempo group sound to it. Ballerina should have followed [“She May Call]. But after the hit, Mike and Steve were fighting, and Mike wanted to show the world that he was the only writer. He had co-written “She May Call” with Steve. Stupid egotistical behavior.
When the original lineup broke up, that was the end of a family. I mean, we had it all, a good writer, although he wouldn't, or couldn't stick to the way we first did things. With everybody having a say, and everybody doing their own songs, too. Every one of us knew what we wanted to accomplish, but we were too young to know how to protect ourselves, and our producer/manager/publisher should have sent us for music lessons on our chosen instruments, not throw us out of the group.
BT: What is your recollection of the “Desiree” session?
Cameron: I didn’t play drums on that. That was all studio cats. I thought it was over-produced. I like the song, but I didn’t like the horns, but it just sounded like there was too much going on. It was a great song, but Mike wanted more, and more.
Finn: After Michael tried and failed to throw out the three singers, he realized that his father screwed everything up, and he really wanted to give it another try. So, we said okay, and we did “Desiree,” which Mike had written With Tom Feher. “Desiree” bombed because it was too blaring as a production, and because radio DJ's were confused about who was, and who was not The Left Banke.
BT: On the second album, it seems like you expanded the singing more, and all three of you took on lead vocals.
Cameron: We liked the idea of doing different things. Steve never wanted to be the only lead singer. When we first outlined this, we were all going to sing. This was always a group that had three singers, and that’s what we started to do on the second album.
Finn: Now I realized I had to step up and do this album, Brown was gone, so I took the best elements we had left were Steve Martin-Caro's voice, and Tom Feher's songs, and our harmonies. And I decided to flex my songwriting abilities and try to pull a rabbit out of the hat. I even brought in a young Steven Tyler to help us strengthen our harmonies. We heard hundreds of songs that writers had sent us like "Sunday Will Never Be The Same" I thought it had a nice melody, and I almost said, “Okay.” But when I heard the lyric, "I remember children feeding flocks of pigeons," I said, “WHAT?” And to this day, I'm glad we didn't do that song.
BT: Tell me about “Dark Is The Bark,” and “My Friend Today?”
Finn: I wrote "Dark Is The Bark" with Steve Martin. He said, “Here's the title,” and I said, Dark Is The WHAT?” What does that mean? I wrote the rest of the song about darkness, and about a lovely girl that couldn't experience love. So, in the end all ends well, and she's saved by my special power of transforming her lonely empty life into something good. Sounds pretty omnipotent, huh?
Then, I got more serious, and penned "My Friend Today," which Steve sang, I wrote it about all the disappointment I felt about Mike Brown, and The Left Banke. Also, I threw in all of the pain I felt from my childhood, and all the times I was made to feel unwanted, unworthy and unloved. I then decided to do an about face, and wrote "Nice To See You" and There's Gonna Be A Storm," about the current 1968 vibe that was in the air, cosmic psychedelic tunes that sounded better if you took some LSD. I also sang lead on those two.
When we did the second album, Mercury figured okay, they’re gonna stick us with some talented producers. And they did! One was Artie Schroeck who did, “Dark is the Bark” and “My Friend Today”. See we wanted, “Dark Is The Bark” (singing the song), we wanted like classical violins, and we were going with like a Beatley, early Bee Gees type of sound. And what the guy came up with, because he was a jazz guy, he makes it into a jazz waltz, and he puts a funk bass-player on it. Now today, I have a different opinion of it, I think it’s a lot better than I thought it was, but we had no idea of what to say, what to do.
It was really nice when we finished “Dark Is The Bark,” and “My Friend Today,” because we rented a rehearsal space in the Greenwich Village area of NYC, and we got busy being a band. We had me on bass and various guitars, Tom Feher on piano, George on drums, and we had a ball working on the rest of the album. We rehearsed for about two weeks, and then we went in to the studio and played all the instruments ourselves, and at last, we felt like we were going somewhere. But unfortunately, Smash Mercury gave us a producer [Paul Leka] that gummed up the arrangements, and added loads of strings and orchestrations. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't his fault, I don't think we had a great album’s worth of original songs either. So, it is what it is. Although it sounds better now than it did then.
Our album tanked like a big fish on the beach. I remember taking those albums and THROWING them out my window. You know, like Frisbees. (laughter) You know, they gave me a couple of cases of them. You know if I had them today, they’re worth like several hundred dollars each, you know? And I’m sort of glad, though, that people today look at that second album as something that is good. Because, hey, maybe it is good! Maybe I was too critical! Maybe if you look back at it now, it doesn’t sound quite that bad after all!
Our second album had some really nice songs on there, and most importantly, WE DIDN'T SELL OUT. We did our own songs and sang and played them and we had fun doing it.
BT: How did “Goodbye Holly” come about?
Cameron: Oh, now that’s a story! We were in the studio, and they were fixing something on another track. So Steve and I went out and had a couple of beers. So we came back, and Tom Feher asked me to sing “Holly,” And I said, “What?” (laughs) So I said, “Okay,” and Steve jumped on the drums. That’s Steve on drums, and when you hear the reissue, you’ll really hear what the drums sounded like. There’s a lot of drums on there. It’s like Keith Moon on “Goodbye Holly.” Steve got into it, and then I got into it. I changed a little bit of the melody. We had fun. That was a fun, fun, fun session, because Steve was back there pounding away. He could play a little bit of everything.
“Bryant Hotel” was a Feher song, as well. He got me to do that one, and I said “Yeah,” because the Bryant Hotel was a special memory for all of us. We all lived there, partied there. It was like the Chelsea Hotel, but only on 53rd Street. All the uptown musicians would hang out there. The key was weird for me, and I tried to get them to change it, but they couldn’t do that without ruining something else. It’s a fun song to sing. When you read the lyrics to that song, it’s hilarious. Tom Feher is a good songwriter. There’s a really good story there.
BT: Looking back, some people may find it surprising that Tom Feher stayed with you guys, despite writing a number of songs with Mike Brown.
Cameron: He was there with us, 24/7. He would make us crack up, goof on us when we did something stupid. He was a part of the band. He shared everything, lyrics, music. Feher kept everybody in a good mood. He deserves the credit.
BT: How did you feel when you first realized that so many people still followed the Left Banke?
Cameron: When I first saw the page on Facebook, I was floored. I had forgotten about it, but people were still staying how much they loved it, and how much they missed it. And I was like, “Oh man, we’ve got to do this.” The fans are behind you, and you did something that somebody else likes.
You don’t always realize that you’re different, and it takes someone else to see you, for you to see it yourself, in a way. Because it was just music to us. We just went for the music that the four of us wanted to write, and it turned out to be great.