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Burt Bacharach Comes Back

The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection

compilation produced by Patrick Milligan
Rhino, $49.98, three compact discs

Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach

executive producer, John Zorn
Tzadik, $22.97, two compact discs,

1.

This is what a cultural resurrection looks like nowadays when the system is really working. The machinery is oiled and the gears properly lined up as a body of once-discarded material is inserted again and permitted to work its way, at first randomly (as a test) and then with increasing calculation, through the layers of the marketing universe, to issue as a collection of shrinkwrapped products to be duly catalogued and appraised in a range of magazines and television shows.

The case in point is that of the music of Burt Bacharach, the songwriter, film composer, arranger, and producer (and sometime performer) who enjoyed a remarkable run of hit records throughout the 1960s and then largely disappeared from view, after a disastrous 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon and the breakup of his long collaboration with the lyricist Hal David. In the twelve years or so of unbroken success preceding the Shangri-La debacle, he had come to be viewed not only as a last bastion of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of the well-crafted song—hitting the Top 40 again and again with songs that even Tony Bennett could love—but as an involuntary emblem of whatever notion of luxurious glamour the beleaguered epoch could cling to. If discussions of his music tended to revolve around the complexity of its meters or the novelty of its instrumentation, discussions of Bacharach himself focused on things like his marriage (one of four) in 1965 to Angie Dickinson, the casual elegance of his clothes, the relaxed, almost bashful grace with which he appeared to enjoy the comfortable trappings of his life, his movie-star looks (he was, in the words of Sammy Cahn, “the only songwriter who doesn’t look like a dentist”).

The brilliance of his music seemed to bestow on him the rare fate of being able to enjoy his good fortune without the slightest twinge of guilt: he was simply the luckiest of guys. Then, having achieved this apotheosis, he proceeded to fade slowly into a Southern Californian haze. Not that he ever stopped working, or indeed altogether stopped having hits; he won an Oscar for the main title theme from the 1981 movie Arthur; he married the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager and collaborated with her extensively; with Sager and a number of others he wrote the 1985 song “That’s What Friends Are For,” whose profits were donated to help fund AIDS research. These however were little more than after-echoes of the stream of songs he wrote for Dionne Warwick and other singers during the period that generated now-standard tunes such as “Wives and Lovers” (1963), “Walk On By” (1964), “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (1965), “Alfie,” and “I Say a Little Prayer” (both 1967), to cite only some of those that have been most hackneyed through repetition.

Perhaps the worst enemy of Bacharach’s reputation was the numbing effect of hearing his five or six most familiar songs trotted out on oldies stations or transmuted into appropriate background music for the waiting room at the clinic or the lull before the in-flight movie starts. After a decade or so of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” its once-novel melody seemed no more adventurous a prospect than a promenade on a treadmill. It became difficult to hear the orchestral textures and structural intricacies that had once made Bacharach’s music seem an exploration of interesting and unknown territory. Far from being an emblem of what was most exciting about popular music in the 1960s, Bacharach was on his way to becoming a symbol of the sort of scientifically crafted, antiseptically perfect romantic balladry that ends up being sold as fodder for nostalgia to insomniacs—“this collection is not available in stores”—on late-night television.

Bacharach’s reemergence became noticeable when younger musicians such as Elvis Costello, Eric Matthews, the Cranberries, Oasis, Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, and the Pizzicato Five began to pay tribute through “cover versions” (reinterpretations), imitations, and allusions, or gave interviews making much of Bacharach’s influence on their work. The revamping, or more precisely reversal, of Bacharach’s reputation evolved further under the guidance of the composer John Zorn, who oversaw performances of Bacharach’s music (newly arranged or disarranged) at the Knitting Factory and elsewhere by a variety of downtown New York avant-gardists inspired by what Zorn described as “advanced harmonies and chord changes with unexpected turnarounds and modulations, unusual changing time signatures and rhythmic twists, often in uneven numbers of bars.” This extended project culminated in a number of concerts uptown at the Kaufman Cultural Center in 1997, and the simultaneous release (under the provocatively puzzling rubric of Great Jewish Music) of a double-CD set featuring such postmodern all-arounders as the guitarist Marc Ribot, the trumpet player Dave Douglas, and the cellist Erik Friedlander.

While such approval bestowed a kind of hipness by association, a more mainstream recycling was achieved through the interpolation of Bacharach’s old songs into the soundtracks of movies such as The First Wives Club, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Since movie soundtracks now are often simply compilations of pre-existing recordings, they serve to introduce younger audiences to the hits of previous generations, a purpose once served by television variety shows of a sort that no longer exists. The expanding Internet, in the meantime, revealed an international corps of Bacharach aficionados, Nils of Sweden and Roberto of Italy and Ian of Australia and the fan who declared “I am Japanese Bacharachmania,” tirelessly swapping factoids and lists of favorite songs. The revival had gathered sufficient steam by 1997 to prompt a campy guest appearance in the retro-Sixties comedy Austin Powers, in which Bacharach came dangerously close to figuring as a sort of Liberace of the Pop Art era.

Bacharach naturally participated in the revival, staging a highly successful tour with the singer of his greatest hits, Dionne Warwick, with whom he also appeared on a luxurious New Year’s Eve special calculated to suggest the return of an elegance lost since, say, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians; collaborating successfully with Elvis Costello on the song “God Give Me Strength” (from the movie Grace of My Heart), and following it up with Painted From Memory, a heavily promoted album of new songs co-written with Costello. (The album turned out to be something of a return to form, despite the limitations of Costello’s singing.) Another television special, “One Amazing Night,” featured Bacharach in company with contemporary stars such as Sheryl Crow, All Saints, and Barenaked Ladies, and was subsequently released in CD and video form. In the meantime, a flood of CD reissues of earlier recordings has culminated in an ambitious box set from Rhino (The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection) which surveys Bacharach’s progress in the years since his first hit, the 1957 Marty Robbins record “The Story of My Life.”

In such a process, the myth of the original career is amplified by the myth of the return, each step of the comeback charted as part of a legendary progression: years of glory, years in limbo, years of triumphant rebirth. The past is symbolically brought into the present, so that through the contemplation of Bacharach and his music—not as museum exhibit but as living presence—latter-day devotees can gain access to a realm of lost bliss. By a back-derivation typical of pop revivals, the fantasy glamour of the original songs is translated into a description of the era in which they originated, as if life in the early Sixties had been a live-action Dionne Warwick song, with deft periodic accentuation by oboe, xylophone, or celeste. For those who were there the first time around—including those of us who were Bacharach enthusiasts, for whom, before Pet Sounds or Revolver, the 1964 Kapp release Burt Bacharach—Hit Maker! was the cult album of choice—it all has the predictable eeriness of seeing experience transmuted into its movie-of-the-week version, as one moment’s dawning sensibility becomes another’s irresistible marketing opportunity.

Bacharach of course always had as many detractors as admirers. That Rhino’s new box set has been received with contempt in some quarters—Robert Christgau in The Village Voice spoke of “fancy hackwork,” while Neil Strauss of The New York Times announced that “the Burt Bacharach revival stops here”—may reflect an ancient antipathy among those who preferred their rock-and-roll untainted by association with string sections, nightclubs, television specials, or the likes of such “plastic” middle-of-the-road pop singers as Tony Orlando, Tom Jones, or the Carpenters. On the other hand, as the critic Francis Davis observed in a remarkable essay on the history of Bacharach’s reputation, “he is a cultural signifier…pressed into service by pop-record reviewers to commend groups that at least recognize the value of good songs, even if they haven’t figured out how to write any yet.”1 Bacharach was often enough invoked in the Sixties as a rejoinder to the musically illiterate, virtually as a remnant of higher culture holding his own against the onslaught of untutored garage bands. The singer Anthony Newley was quoted to that effect on the back of Hit Maker!2 : “Burt Bacharach has revolutionized the world of commercial recording in the most unlikely way—he has replaced noise with creative music.”

In the event, Bacharach’s revolution was to be drowned out by layers of noise that would have been unimaginable to Newley, who presumably was reacting against nothing more threatening to his sense of musical decorum than the Rolling Stones’ “I Wanna Be Your Man” or perhaps “Surfin’ Bird,” by the Trashmen, instead of anticipating further decades of psychedelic jams, heavy metal three-chord anthems, punk abrasions, and rumbling chasms of trance-inducing amplified bass patterns.

2.

The question remains how much the renewed appeal of Bacharach’s work owes to the fortuitous kitschiness of the associations it can evoke, to what extent he endures as an artifact of the martini-and-cigar subculture, a mere strand in the gaudy tapestry of Lounge: the music track for a lost dream of adulthood set in an alternative Kennedy Era, in which the man who reads Playboy meets the Cosmopolitan girl on a spring evening in Central Park and discovers that Romance really exists.

The wider backdrop to Bacharach’s comeback was the lounge music revival, a phenomenon involving the recycling of Hawaiian exotica and spy movie soundtracks, surf instrumentals, bachelor-pad classics of the stereophonic revolution by easy-listening maestros such as Juan Garcia Esquivel and Ferrante & Teicher, bouncy main title themes from Italian sex comedies, “smooth jazz” (as the current nomenclature has it) in the manner of the vibraphonist Cal Tjader and the pianist Vince Guaraldi, big-band adaptations of pop tunes and TV detective themes, the back catalogs of forgotten torch singers and second-tier nightclub crooners, perhaps at the outer limit Dean Martin singing Christmas favorites: a permissive range extending almost (but not quite) as far as garage-sale standbys like Andre Kostelanetz and Mantovani.

  1. 1

    Francis Davis, “The Man from Heaven,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1997.

  2. 2

    Hit Maker! has recently been reissued under the title Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits, by MCA Records (MCAD-11681).

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