New York City baroque pop band the Left Banke charted only two Top 40 hits during its brief and stormy life — “Walk Away Renee” in 1966 and “Pretty Ballerina” a year later — but the impact of those records and others that were largely written, arranged and produced by the group’s keyboardist Michael Brown have continued to resonate.
Brown died Thursday at 65, according to a post from bassist Tom Finn on the group’s Facebook page and confirmed by family friend Marge Finn to the Associated Press, but the cause of death hasn’t been announced.
Brown’s aching, elegant melodies, played out on harpsichord and clavinet, along with full-bodied orchestral arrangements on many of the group’s recordings, earned it the “baroque pop” appellation, one that became a touchstone through the decades for act such as Elliott Smith, Belle and Sebastian and others.
Linda Ronstadt, who early on delved into baroque pop on her first hit, “Different Drum,” while she was a member of the Stone Poneys, included her version of “Walk Away Renee” on a recent duets compilation album for which she hand-selected the songs.
“That’s a real special song for me in the whole pop music canon,” Ronstadt told The Times last year. “When it first came on the radio, I didn’t have any idea what the words were. It just sounded like, ‘La la la.’ I didn’t know any of the words, I couldn’t understand them, and yet, in a second, it became just one of those haunting songs you can't forget. I don’t know what it is. There’s the feeling when you give up on somebody, and you just let it go. That song nailed that arc of emotion and the arc of how it works. I love that song.”
One L.A.-area ‘60s pop aficionado who was deeply connected to Brown and the music he made with the Left Banke is musician, songwriter and producer Andrew Sandoval, who has, among many other things, organized the recent reunion tours by surviving members of the Monkees.
Sandoval wrote about Brown on his Facebook page shortly after news of his death came out, talking about the place the group’s music holds for him, and agreed to share it with Times readers:
“When I was 18, I lived alone in an apartment in Santa Monica, CA. I was pretty scared and lonely and definitely on my own. I was lucky to have a full-time job. I would come home each night and listen to LPs as I made myself dinner. I really loved playing the British Left Banke anthology, especially the tracks ‘Shadows Breaking Over My Head’ and ‘Pretty Ballerina.’ I could definitely relate to the music and the lyrics. Enigmatic, beautiful and melancholy.
“Not long after, I was able to work on [a reissue of] the first U.S. CD of the Left Banke — ‘There's Gonna Be A Storm’ — with Bill Inglot. At the time, I tried to interview all of the members for the liner notes, but Michael Brown proved elusive.
“He did call me one day and got very emotional since, in order to release the CD, PolyGram had to make a new deal with the band. Their previous deal with Smash had only covered LP and tape, not CDs. I tried my best to explain to Michael (after some intense yelling) that I was only a writer and not a business affairs person. He didn't want to be stuck with the same deal he had since 1966.
“Ultimately, the deal got done and it was one of the compilations I am most proud of (I got to sequence it, which was maybe the best part)…
“Personally speaking, baroque pop was what really spoke to me as an artist myself and it became my dream to record with real orchestration like the Left Banke. I was lucky enough to do this over the course of four albums and also to find players who performed with me live. The brilliant dynamics of Brown's compositions were never duplicated by any other composer that I know of. His chords and voicings were unique.
“After my fourth album, I more or less retired from songwriting. The album I really wanted to make for several years was one entirely of Michael Brown songs from the 1990s. He had demoed so many good ones and I thought that if I could get him to play piano on the basic tracks, I could do a decent job of singing them and arranging the orchestration. I tried to reach him through friends, but they warned it would never work. Alas, it never will.
“I've been touched by a lot of music in my life, but only a handful of artists did I ever want to collaborate or perform with. Michael Brown was one of those rare people who I could imagine producing an amazing album. It is with regret that I mourn his passing and his brilliance not just as one of the finest writers of my favorite era, but as someone I wished I could have shared a song with.”
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