Left Banke: Everything Returns Again
introduction, interview and photos by Daniel Coston
For longtime fans, the dream of the Left Banke’s return to the spotlight has been something that many thought would never happen. Despite numerous attempts to reform over the past thirty years, the band had not taken the stage since 1968. Given the fact that even the band’s music had been out of print for many years, it seemed that the band would never have the chance to shine again.
But early this year, the nearly improbable took place. Original bassist and vocalist Tom Finn, and drummer and vocalist George Cameron reformed the band, pulling in with them the sizable talents of vocalist Mike Fornatale, Grip Weeds guitarist Rick Riel (who switched over to drums and vocals for the band), and keyboardist Joe McGinty. The new band debuted in March with two stunning shows at Joe’s Pub in New City, proving that all these years later, the band could pull off their eclectic sound in a live setting. The band has also left the door open for original vocalist Steve Martin, and keyboardist Mike Brown to return, ensuring that the band’s story will continue to rewrite itself in the months to come. Couple all of this with the reissue of the band’s first two albums (1967’s Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, and 1968’s Left Banke Too) on Sundazed Records in May, and it seems that the Left Banke were indeed 45 years ahead of their time. Tom Finn leads us through the band’s past, and present.
Tom Finn: What [George] did was, gather a couple of guys down on the Lower East Side along with our old friend, Charly Cazalet, who plays bass. We’ve known Charlie forever, since The Left Banke began. He played bass on our third album, Strangers on a Train [recorded in 1978].
And so he got Charly and he got a guitar player named Paul Alves, and a piano player named Mickey Finn, who auditioned for them, and they rented some space down on the Lower East Side in a basement. And George got inspired. And his vision was to do a band that could back up Steve, myself and him, so we could be more like a vocal group and just sing. And we wouldn’t be held back by having to be super musicians. Because the thing was always our vocals, and he figured that this way there would be a nice production behind us, and actually SOUND like The Left Banke. So, with that in mind he started this band up.
Big Takeover: You decided to move forward after realizing that Steve Martin wouldn’t be available, at least for a while. How did you find Mike Fornatale?
Finn: He called me, or actually, he sent me a Facebook message. And he said, “Hey, I wanna just offer my services, I don’t ordinarily do this, but being that it’s The Left Banke, if you need anybody, please , you know, I’m available.” So I brought him in. And he sang, and he nearly blew my mind! And so I’m saying to myself, wow! This guy is really GOOD!
So then George and I started to fall in in back of him. In other words, put him on the Steve Martin part. We’d sing the songs that WE sang the lead on on the second album. George sang two, I sang two. And then let Mike take the Steve Martin part. And so that is what we’ve been doing! So we had Mike Fornatale on lead, George and I doing backgrounds, and we had a very credible trio like we had with The Left Banke!
Well, I think people are gonna be a little surprised. at how good it sounds. Because we’ve been working hard [at this]. And I don’t think the Left Banke ever… I know they never sounded this good before on stage
Big Takeover: You guys kind of got thrown out there on stage when “Walk Away Renee” hit. I know you didn’t play…
Finn: No, we couldn’t play. I think I was playing bass for six months. When that happened, it was ridiculous! George wasn’t even our drummer when that happened. Our drummer was Warren [David]. And then he got thrown out of the group, and George was thrown on the drums. I was put on bass because there was nothing else for me to play! I couldn’t play guitar! And so I played the bass. It was easier! That’s why we never had a guitar player, really. And so we used Hugh McCracken most of the time [on studio sessions]. At least we used the same guitar player.
Big Takeover: How is it to hear those Left Banke songs again? Not only hear them but in a live setting as you have been rehearsing them the last few months?
Finn: It’s been unbelievable because, like I said, we’ve never ever done that! Not even in the 60's. First of all, when we went out on stage with Mike Brown and Steve Martin in the early days, nobody had monitors! I couldn’t hear the vocals! And George behind the drums, he couldn’t hear anything at all. As a matter if fact he just stopped singing, it was pointless.
I mean, we didn’t even do our own songs on stage, that’s how bad it got. Because, you know, when you are in front of an audience, they want to rock and they want to dance and they want to have fun! And The Left Banke material, what are we gonna do, “Barterers and Their Wives” ? So Steve started doing music by black groups. Like The Temptations, and James Brown, and things like that.
So, as incongruous as it sounds, it’s like oil and vinegar, but The Left Banke on stage was like a... black r&b group. (Laughter from both.) And so as far as our songs, the only songs we did were, “Walk Away Renee”, “Pretty Ballerina”, “Desiree” and “She May Call You Up Tonight” and everything else was, cover songs, we never did any other Left Banke material. And for the second album, we NEVER played any song on stage. So when you ask me how it feels to be doing both full albums live, with vocals, and hear it through monitors, I gotta say that it sounds great, because I’ve never heard it before!
Big Takeover: Well, let’s go back to the beginning of the group itself. Now I know you had been playing in a couple of bands in New York before The Left Banke. Tell me a little bit about The Magic Plants. I know the name, but I don’t know very much about their history.
Finn: The Magic Plants were, WAS, one person actually, named Michael Wexler, nicknamed Mick Wexler. And he got the name Mick, from Mick Jagger. Because he actually had a complex and he walked around like and pretended that he was Mick Jagger. He actually did that.
So, I had a drummer named Warren David Scherhorst, who was actually The Left Banke’s first drummer. I figured the three of us should hook up and become The Magic Plants. In other words, Mick Wexler was looking to put together a band, to support his record. The A-side was called, “I’m A Nothing” And the B side was, "I Know She's Waiting There" which was the better song of the two. Oh, God! “I’m A Nothing”, what a bad song that is! After a few months Warren and I decided to put our own band together. So, we started looking for musicians to audition for us.
How it ties into The Left Banke is, see Mick was a guy who ran around with long hair, was a songwriter and was a good guitar player. So he ends up at one point with an audition for Harry Lookofsky. Don’t ask me how he got that audition, but he did it.
Harry Lookofsky, was a professional studio violinist, and he was Michael Brown’s father, he owned a small recording studio, (World United) and he was very ambitious. On the business side, he was almost like Colonel Parker (Elvis's manager). You know, he was almost a carnival huckster in a way. In other words, to him, it was like, “Here’s this guy with long hair and he sings like in that new style, so I think I‘ll sign him up to a quick single deal, and see if we can throw some of my musician friends on there, and see if we can back him up, and I‘ll put out a record.” So that’s what he did. And they put out a record on World Artists Records. And I think that they were associated with MGM/Verve Records, or something like that.
But the interesting thing about this is that because of his association with Harry Lookofsky and World United Studios, you know where Mike Brown was working as an assistant there, you know, cleaning up and setting up things, I went up there and I actually met Mike Brown. I got the idea that Harry Lookofsky was holding auditions, so I started looking for band members for my group.
I had met Steve Martin on the street corner on Broadway. The Rolling Stones were staying at this hotel called The City Squire, and I was coming from World United Studios, and I was walking up to get the subway to go down to The Village, and I saw all these girls screaming their heads off, and running down the street. And so I sort of ducked into a doorway. I had hair almost down to my shoulders. And I ducked into this doorway, and there in the doorway was Steve Martin standing there! And he had short hair.
And all these girls ran by screaming by, and they looked at me for a second and they thought that I was one of them, and they came around me. And I said, “No no no!” And then they went by and ran around. And then the Rolling Stones pulled up in a limo, and they screamed and ran over there. And I said to Steve, who I didn’t know, I said, “Hey, isn’t that a great way to make a living?” And he said, “Yeah, it sure is, man!” And that’s how we met!
When I met Steve on the street, I felt really sorry for him, because his father had just died, and he was in New York, and he was lonely as hell. And I would go uptown to watch. You see, all the girls from The Village went uptown to hang outside the hotels. To watch the Rolling Stones. So I went up there.
And every time I went up there I saw Steve, haunting around, watching it, too, because he had no friends, nowhere to go, nothing to do. So I went back up there and there were guys from The Village hanging around, too! And so, it became like a little mini-scene up there outside the City Squire Hotel.
And so of course I wasn’t trying to get to see The Rolling Stones or anything like that, but I was watching the girls. And so Steve and I would stand in doorways there a lot, and I would teach him how to sing, you know, like two-part harmony. In other words, the two of us would go into a corner and sing, “If I fell in love with you,” and he’d sing, “If I give my heart….” and we’d harmonize.
And he took the high note, of course, little did I know that he was a better singer than me! You couldn’t have told ME that back then! We sang, and sang. So, to make a long story short, I took him down to Greenwich Village with me. And I said to him, “Listen man, I can’t keep on coming uptown. So hang out down here, this is at Downstairs Figaro’s, there’s a lot of kids down here, you’re gonna make friends.” And I said, “Here’s one,” and I saw George Cameron, and I said, “Hey, this is my friend, Steve. He’s new in New York,” and George was friendly so, he and Steve became good friends and started singing and writing songs together. It was pretty obvious that the two of them were very special, because whenever they sang, a lot of kids would gather around them.
About a month later, or two months later, they started singing together. Because George was a singer, too. That’s where I met him, I met him a year earlier at a rock and roll show that we were both doing. I was in a singing group, and he was in a singing group. Only his singing group had long hair. They were called The In-sects and my group was called The Castels, and we were more like a doo-wop group. This was like late ‘64, or something like that, and that is when I met George.
And [George and Steve] started singing, and they tried to get a group together. So I invited them up to World United Studios to audition for Harry Lookofsky. Because I knew that they were looking to get a deal. And so I said, “There’s a guy uptown that I know. I tell you what, I’ll meet you there.” And we made a date. And I brought Warren with me, my drummer.
And so the four of us, Steve, George, Warren and I we all met there and I introduced these guys to Mike Brown, who was setting up a session. We had no intention, none, not a single thought that [Brown] would be in the group with us, Because we were all stylish and hep (nobody used the word hip) and we could sing, and we were hanging out down in the Village. And Mike Brown was really not into any of that. He was very conservative, even nerdy. But I think he really wanted to be like us. At this point you have to remember that we were just a bunch of kids.
And so what happened is that we realized that Mike Brown had the keys to his father’s studio there, so you know, we played him a little bit. In other words, it was like, “So, do you want to play piano with us? You’ve got the keys, let us in.” So, we’d go up there afterhours, and plug in and jam, play the drums, and Mike Brown eventually fell in on the piano. And that happened because none of us were great musicians, but our drummer could sort of play. And [Brown] could play the piano, so we would tell him the tune that we were interested in, and sort of what the chords were, and he would pick it up. And then we ended up singing around the piano, because we were all good singers. And that is the beginning of The Left Banke right there.
Big Takeover: Going back to the first couple of records, how much arranging input of those songs did you guys have on those first two records?
Finn: We had 100 percent input on those records. The arranger, John Abbott, who ended up choosing what instruments went on what, listened to everything we said. And when we were adamant about something, he listened closely and he did what we wanted. He wasn’t the type of guy who went home with a demo, closed the door and then came out with his own vision of things. It wasn’t that way at all.
As a matter of fact, John Abbott told me that he felt that I was the creator of The Left Banke, not Mike Brown. I swear to God he said that, I’m not trying to be egotistical here. There’s something you’ve got to remember, it was my group to begin with. I was the one that brought everyone together. And you better believe Mike Brown listened to me, and us. Especially on the first album. Well, that was his only involvement. And that is part of the reason why he left, too, he didn’t like to listen to anybody. But, George, Steve and myself had a big input. None of us ever kissed Brown's ass. There were constant disagreements and arguments, but, in the early days we just loved singing and recording, and we got along very well.
I wrote the bass line to “She May Call You Up Tonight.” And the way I wrote it was, I was looking for a bass line, and if I couldn’t do a bass line, I would go to any lengths to get one. I remember on the second album, I asked Charly Cazalet to help me with bass lines. He helped me to come up with two bass lines for that album, and we worked together until we got it, and I played it.
But on the first album, my playing was not up to par. But I wrote the notes out with Johnny Abbott standing right there, and he wrote it and that’s what was played. Note for note with maybe I would say 85 percent me, and maybe 15 percent the bass player in the studio on that. Where I got the bass line is from listening to Paul McCartney playing, “You Won’t See Me.” (sings the Beatles song) Now if you listen to that, and you listen to “She May Call You Up Tonight”, you are gonna hear the same bass line. Except the chords are different. They don’t come out to be note for note, but it’s the exact same thing. And Mike Brown, when I played it for him, he liked it right away. He nodded, and everything was fine with my bass part there. I was new to the bass and had to learn fast.
And with “Walk Away Renee” , that was even earlier, basically I didn’t even play the bass then! I had just started. But I went up to the A note on the top of it and I just walked it down a half-step at a time. That’s it. It’s a chromatic descending half-step bass line all the way down in the verses. So, basically that’s what I always played, and that’s what was used on the record, at least 50 percent of it, anyway.
Warren David, he played on “I’ve Got Something On My Mind,” and he played on the demo to “Walk Away Renee”. And the demo to “Walk Away Renee”, I wish somebody had it, was done about a week or two before the actual session. And Warren was still around, and he played on it. Now Warren’s part was taken by John Abbott off of the demo, and that’s the part that the studio man, Al Rogers, played on “Walk Away Renee”. The same foot pattern, the same build, the same crash, that’s Warren’s part. That was his field, that was his part. So, to answer your question, we had very strong input on the first album. And I would say that 80-90 percent of our ideas were used.
You also have to remember that when Mike was doing, “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina,” Mike was surrounded by three singers that were giving their all in stereo around him. So the way that he would work is he would set up a cassette recorder, he would play a new song that he was working on, a fragment, and then he would say, “Sing along with me, boys,” and Steve went, “OK,” and Tommy, you take this, and I’ll take that. And then we’d sing, and a week or two later the song is finished. So in other words, he is getting a lot of ideas from us, you know?
I would even say, “Walk Away Renee”, melodically and musically he wrote a very limited amount of. If you really wanted to break it down, I think he wrote maybe fifty percent of that song. And Tony Sansone, the lyricist wrote about maybe 25 percent of it, and the other 25 percent was written by John Abbott, the arranger and us thrown together as a group. A mixture.
John Abbott changed some chords in the hook for, “Walk Away Renee.” I gotta tell you this, I was there, I saw it, I have no reason to lie. Mike Brown played in the key of A, and he didn’t make any chord changes on the chorus. In other words the hook is (sings the chorus in one key), he’s going along the same key, on the same chord, one note, one song, no changes. There was no melody, and there was no minor chord underneath there. John Abbott put those chords in the arrangement. John Abbott put that beautiful F#-minor in there that gives that song the tug. Without that, it would never have been a hit! That was the biggest chord change in the whole song! John Abbott wrote that! John Abbott wrote some of the chords for that song, and he was never credited as a writer. He just looked at it as, “Oh, that’s what arrangers do.”
Maybe so, but there us no doubt that John Abbott was our George Martin.
Stay tuned for part two of our Left Banke, with stories from the band’s past, and their future plans.