Thursday, May 24, 2007
The Great Pop Masterpiece
The legend of Michael Brown is pretty familiar to pop music geeks of a certain age. He was a precocious 16-year old music student in 1966 when he formed the Left Banke and wrote, arranged and recorded "Walk Away Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina." Both of those songs were hits, and it seemed like the Left Banke, and Michael Brown, were on their way.
But to those to whom much is given, much trouble is also given, and Brown, never comfortable on stage, and perhaps (unfairly) feeling the band could not keep up with him, soon split, and a year or so later, ended up producing and writing songs for a band called Montage. That didn't work out and the band broke up after making one album. (Despite the fact that it is probably the weakest album with which Brown was ever associated, his signature is unmistakeable.)
A couple of years later, Brown hooked up with a singer/bass player named Ian Lloyd and formed a band called the Stories, who were, in many ways the third point in the pop triangle of Big Star and the Raspberries. But while the Raspberries and the Stories shared an obvious debt to the Beach Boys, the Stories were strongly piano-based while the Raspberries and Big Star were all about ringing guitar chords. And even though all three bands relied on strong melodies and soaring harmonies, the Stories' music was much more firmlyy rooted in Brown's classical training and a love of a frenetic, almost Glenn Gould-like bed of keyboards.
The Stories released two albums in which Brown participated, but then he and Lloyd fought and Brown split again. Shortly afterward, the Stories actually had a hit, with Hot Chocolate's "Brother Louie," but one listen to that song and it's obvious that Brown had nothing to do with it.
Brown dropped off the map for a few years, and then resurfaced with a band called the Beckies, from St. Louis. I don't know how he found those guys. On paper, it was an unlikely match: young fresh faced innocents from the Midwest teaming up with a by-now battle scarred, paranoid New York music veteran.
However - a big however - the album they released in 1976 (called The Beckies) is, in my mind, a POP MASTERPIECE. Maybe THE pop masterpice.
Now, I may be alone in thinking this. Certainly no one has thought enough of it to reissue it on CD. Even when I first purchased it, in the summer of 1976, I found it in a cut out bin for $1.99 in a second hand record store on 12th Street and Broadway in NYC. But the fact that I remember so clearly the circumstances of the purchase says a lot about how important the album has been for me.
I have been listening to this record off and on for 31 years now, and it still sounds as fresh to me as the first day I heard it.
It's a sneaky record, I will admit. It's easy to hear it as a bland '70's pop/rock JoJo Gunne/Crabby Appleton wannabe (especially considering that it came out at a time when so much interesting and edgier stuff was going on musically in New York City.). But listen closely: the subtleties of Brown's writing, arranging and producing soon become obvious. The stops and starts, the bed of keyboards, the string arrangements, the counterpoint in the harmonies, the classical echoes in the solos, are all musical themes Brown had explored before, (albeit never as as successfully.)
The Beckies was the last album Michael Brown worked on. I have no idea what has happened to him. There is a fan website that has downloads of radio interviews with him in 2003, but I haven't listened. As a rock and roll romantic, I don't want anything messing with my image of Brown as the Villonesque artist manque. He is that great tragic figure, the musical genius who could never find a home. I would say that it's a shame, and I can't even begin to imagine what he would have created if he could have harnessed the demons that seem to have kept him from staying active. At the same time, I have to say that the Beckies album is a glorious way to end a career.
The Stories - Darling
The Stories - Please, Please
The Beckies - River Bayou
The Beckies - On the Morning That She Came
The Beckies - Fran
(Check out Gooder'n Bad Vinyl, a sharity blog featuring a great selection of out-of-print vinyl downloads.)