The Left Banke: Walk Away Renee

July 15, 2006

LeftB.SWE.320230.jpgIn 1966, rock and roll invaded classical music’s personal space by including orchestras, string quartets, oboes, and harpsichords in their arrangements “Eleanor Rigby,” Joshua Rifkin’s “Baroque Beatles” as well as his arrangements for Judy Collins were all co-existing at this time. There was also a short-lived group called The Left Banke who managed to put out two significant singles: “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina.”

Forty years before Rufus Wainwright’s music was inaccurately called baroque-pop, this group was also labeled baroque pop. This is a song I’ve always liked but have never analyzed. So, I’ve included the lyrics with a formal analysis, and a short hand transcription of the song with straightforward annotation. Let’s look and see whether “baroque pop” is an accurate appellation.

Walk Away Renee

Verse 1: A
And when I see the sign that points one way
The light we used to pass by every day

Chorus 1: B
Just walk away Renee,
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my
block are not the same
You’re not to blame

Verse 2: A
From deep inside the tears that I’m forced to cry
From deep inside the pain I, I chose to hide

Chorus 2: B
Just walk away, Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
Now, as the rain beats down upon my weary eyes,
For me, it cries

Verse 3: A
Now as the rain beats down
Upon my weary eyes For me it cries

Solo/Bridge: C

Chorus 2: B

Verse 3: A
Your name and mine inside
a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me,
though they’re so small

Chorus: 1 B

Calling the verse A, the chorus B, and the solo/bridge C, the form is:

formrene.gif

FORM
The verses and choruses are orchestrationally identical. The only eccentric moment is the flute solo (C) where the music seems similar to the verse, it is in reality a contrasting bridge. This is peculiar because bridges usually are sung, soloists usually improvise on some stretch of music already heard, but here it carries a double contrast of a flute solo (we had not heard one up to now, why now?), and a whole new section with a new progression (too bad you didn’t write another set of lyrics to go here instead of the flute solo). This is the song of an 18-year old kid from New York (Michael Brown, born Michael Lookofsky) who supposedly had some classical training. (I can’t find any details, but there are several websites that can fill you in on the group, and its alpha male, Brown.)

MELODY

Glance through the transcription and see that the a theme and its progeny permeate the song. It is not so much developmental in the Classical or Romantic sense, but the melody is organic in that most of it springs from the opening melodic figure (a). The song’s most blatant nod to the Baroque period is the falling chromatic bass melody in the first eight bars.

HARMONY

I’ve chosen to call the chord at the end of the first phrase a II, over the imagined roar of disapproval from my theory colleagues (m.8). You want me to call it a V/V, but it doesn’t ever function this way in the song. It is, rather, a major chord built on the 2nd scale degree that borrows from a secondary dominant logic but refuses its function. The next eight bars betrays their rock roots in two 4-bar phrases of I vi IV V (the chord progression in most 50s pop songs; think “Heart and Soul”). Another interesting coincidence is that, the opening 8-bar phrase achieves a slower statement of the 4-bar I vi IV V phrases in the chorus.

The tasty choral harmonization in the B sections are reminiscent of the Byrds, and a bit of the Association. The held ‘a’ pedal in the middle voice offers a tasty and touching dissonance to the chorus.

If Mr. Brown had “classical training” I doubt that it was much. He likely knew some classical repertoire, but his work shows that he hadn’t studied traditional harmony. In this song, the drive toward the dominant works beautifully; I’m not convinced he knows what to do once he gets there (ms.6, 16-7). This turns out to be an asset and part of the song’s charm.

The obbligato string writing throughout, inserts effective voice leading and poignant dissonance that evokes a classical, ok, maybe baroque sound.

RHYTHM

(FYI: My transcription of the ‘a’ theme is rough. It is actually much closer to ‘a2’ rhythmically.) There are a few touches that make the rhythmic language of this song effective. All of the phrases are launched with a quarter rest. And once launched, the rhythmic emphasis shifts to offbeat quarters. The figure in measure 17 is the lead in figure for the song that serves double duty at drawing an AB section to a close. The composite rhythm of these two voices is a quarter followed by six 8th notes, and it is a hot little hook (m.17).

Baroque pop?

If you really need a label, well, ok. But just because a harpsichord plays does not mean the song is Baroque. Nor for that matter, a string quartet, which didn’t come to blossom until after the Baroque period. Like “Salty Dog” the opening falling chromatic bass reminds me of Purcells’s “Dido’s Lament” and the Bach b minor “Crucifixus” and many other pieces from the era. The awkward parallel octaves, the II – I chord progression, the almost country open/close figure add up to make the piece more pop than Baroque. Adding strings and harpsichord add a sophistication to the orchestration of the song but doesn’t take it out of 1966.

rene.gif

RECORDING SESSION CREDITS

“Walk Away Renee”
Drums: Al Rogers
Bass: John Abbott
Guitar: George (Fluffer) Hirsh
Harpsichord: Mike Brown
Strings: Harry Lookofsky & Friends
Flute: unknown session man
Arranger: John Abbott
Lead Vocal: Steve Martin Caro
Backing Vocals: George Cameron & Tom Finn
Engineer: Steve Jerome
Studio: World United NYC
Date: early (1966)
Produced By Harry Lookofsky, Steve Jerome, Bill Jerome

The hilarious part of this video is the flute solo. All of a sudden we start ascending into the sky. What’s happening? Is that a bird house? No, it’s the Virgin Mary, no. It’s. What? a UFO? No, it must be Renee! Is that REALLY Renee? The cute guy singing is Steve Martin Caro and the composer is the harpsichordist.

So obviously lip synced. Is that a baseball field they are on? The applause at the end makes me feel like I’m at a golf course.

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