“Desiree”: 30 Hours in the Making

I met John Simson around the time Zero to 180 had first hung out a shingle and was grappling with its mission and scope.  After explaining the website’s concept to Simson, I remember asking if he might suggest any overlooked songs worthy of celebration.  Much later, I would learn the depth of Simson’s involvement in DC’s multi-faceted music scene over the last few decades, in the course of pulling together first one and then another long-form tribute to Silver Spring recording studio, Track Recorders.  It’s probably a good thing that I waited until I had more experience under my belt before following up on Simson’s recommendation, though a part of me still needs to ask:  What took me so long to examine the back story behind “Desiree” by The Left Banke?

For one thing, digitization efforts in recent years have increased access to music industry publications, such as Billboard and Cashbox, making it easier to piece together history from primary sources.  Thanks to a tip from 45Cat contributor davie gordon, anyone with web access can read Claude Hall‘s original front page story from the September 2, 1967 edition of Billboard, “Long Sessions Required for ‘Serious’ Pop,” in which we learn that “the Left Banke just spent more than 30 hours in planning and producing their new single – ‘Desiree’ – for Mercury Records.”

“Desiree”     The Left Banke     1967

Charlie Fach, director of record product for the label,” notes Hall (who coined the term, easy listening), “thought this set a record for the firm, but considers the group ‘the most creative act in our corporate history.”

Given the considerable time and expense that went into this song, 45Cat contributor RecordDragon rightly asks, “Does a true stereo version of the A-side exist?”  Sadly, that does not appear to be the case, at least judging from streaming audio available on YouTube, not to mention the LP label itself  [see image further down the page].

Rear text of 45 picture sleeve:

“Putting it rather mildly, you are about to listen to a major achievement.  The Left Banke (and this is the same Left Banke that gave you “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina“) has created a masterpiece.  Dozens of hours in the recording studio have resulted in this, their greatest creation — “Desiree.”  Since their first record, the avowed policy of the Banke has been that each successive record must be better than the last.  A lofty goal, yes; but one that they definitely have reached.  Much of the success lies with Michael Brown, who has quit performing with the group to devote his full energies to composing-producing-arranging for the Left Banke.  The other reasons are Steve Martin, Rick Brand, Tom Finn, and George Cameron.  Listen carefully.  You’ll begin to wonder how they’ll outdo themselves the next time.”

Music historian (and member of St. Etienne) Bob Stanley, in his appreciation of the Left Banke’s recorded legacy for the 20 March 2015 edition of The Guardian, bitterly notes the group’s cleaving into two factions (“one of the most pointless and depressing scraps in pop history”) that resulted in the simultaneous release of two singles in 1967 [“Ivy Ivy” vs. “She May Call You Up Tonight“], both bearing the name, Left Banke.  By the time Michael Brown had rejoined the group in late 1967, “the momentum was lost.”  Futhermore —

The real tragedy of this was that the Left Banke then released arguably their greatest single, Desiree.  Urgent strings played “Eleanor Rigby” line at double speed, a bassoon was used as percussive counterpoint.  There was a booming brass bridge – or is it a first chorus? – of Wagnerian import before massed harmonies sang out the title.  “Desiree” was a masterpiece; it dared radio not to play it, laughed at contemporaneous efforts like the Stones’ Satanic Majesties and the Beatles’ lightweight “Hello Goodbye“, urged other groups to follow its lead, and then peaked at No 98 in November 1967.

Oh, dear:  Label says, “Electronically re-recorded to simulate stereo”

Simson himself — in a Zero to 180 exclusive — provides additional historical context:

One of my band mates from my high school band, the Valhalla Chemists, was a member of Stories, a great early 70’s band that Mike Brown started with Ian Lloyd, my good friend, Steve Love and drummer Brian Madey (Brian and Steve were my rhythm section when I opened for Jethro Tull in 1971 [debut album released]).  Their first record had a Beatlesque single, “I’m Coming Home” that did fair, but the follow up album had some amazing tracks on it and was not doing well so the label forced them to cover a big hit in England by Hot Chocolate called “Brother Louie” and it was a number 1 smash.  Mike Brown hated it and left the band. 

Mike then produced another version of ‘Desiree’ in 1976 (I think) with a group called Montage, and it was a pretty faithful version to the original Left Banke.  The Banke played my High School in 1967 and did a great version of “A Day in the Life” in addition to their repertoire.

44 years after the song bubbled under the Top 100, “Desiree” would finally receive proper recognition when performed by The Left Banke, with NYU’s All University Choir, Drama Cantorum, on December 10, 2011 (thanks to Music Director, Ralph Affoumado, for uploading this video):

“Desiree”     The Left Banke + NYU’s All University Choir, Drama Cantorum     2011

Pop Music Time Capsule
Excerpt from Billboard‘s Sept. 2, 1967 “Serious Pop” feature article

The talk of the industry is the amount of time spent in the studio — and the astronomical studio costs that have resulted — by the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  But other long hours inside studio walls have been chalked up by such artists as Oscar Toney Jr., Aretha Franklin, The Youngbloods, Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Music Explosion, the Mothers of Invention, and Simon and Garfunkel, just to name a few

The first Aretha Franklin hit — “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You” — took almost three days of work in a Muscle Shoals, Ala., studio.  Papa Don Schroeder, independent producer, said it took 23 hours in a studio to come up with “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify and 27 hours for “Shake a Tail Feather.”  Felix Pappalardi, who produced an album by the Cream recently in New York for Atlantic Records, said it took six hours to do “Strange Brew,” a big British hit.

45 – Italy                                                      EP – Portugal

The reason that it is taking longer to produce records, according to MGM Records producer Tom Wilson is that the record business today is an “intensely creative business.”  Songwriters are trying to say more and the producers and performers are trying to say more in their records.  Any record by the Mothers of Invention takes two weeks to record and two weeks to edit, he said.  And this occurs in spite of the fact that Frank Zappa, leader of the group, sometimes writes out a full script to an album, so the group knows exactly what it’s doing.

At the Monterey Pop Festival, Simon and Garfunkel said they’d been working 51 hours on their current single — “Fakin’ It.”  At that point, they had not finished the record.

45 – France                  45 – Netherlands                         45 – Italy

The Beatles freed everybody, Wilson said.  “And many people don’t realize what fantastic musical growth there has been in a group like the Beach Boys.  Motown product never stays the same, each new record is a little different, a little more sophisticated.”

Innovation is the key element.  Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell taped the sound of a kettle drum backward to get a unique sound on their production of a recent Tommy James and the Shondells hit.  And this is one of the reasons, Wilson felt, why Bob Crewe is such a great producer.  “If he hears a bluebird flying by the window, he’ll stick a microphone out and record it and use it on a record if he likes the sound.”

Records are becoming more and more an art form, says Pappalardi, who has produced records by the Cream, the Youngbloods, the Vagrants and others.  “There’s a great deal of thought put into a record before ever going into a studio, then you’re constantly fighting in the studio to reach your ideal.  I try to get the absolutely best production every time and expect the B side to be as good as the A side.  The time for throwing away the B side is past.”  He said he already spent six hours in the studio with “Sparrow Tune” by Bo Grumpus and hasn’t finished the session yet.

While studio costs have gone up, because many groups do their experimenting in front of a mike, recording costs as a whole have not gone any higher than in previous years, said Wilson.  The reason is that most of the music is made by a small group today; whereas in the old days a record company had to hire 30-35 musicians for a session.

1967:  Year of the Guitar-Phonograph Combo

Just below the fold in that same September 2, 1967 issue of Billboard is an oddball item that almost escaped unnoticed:  “Phono-Guitar Combo Hits.”  Ray Brack reports:

“The hottest phonograph promotional gimmick to emerge with the 1968 lines is the offering of low-priced portable phonograph-guitar combinations.  Three companies are making available this package, guitar and phonograph included, for about $100.  Several other phonograph manufacturers have models with jacks capable of accepting amplified guitar input.”

What prompted this innovation is “the realization that the millions of guitar players in the U.S. do most of their learning by listening to records.”