The Left Banke
by Daniel Coston
From Big Takeover Magazine 2003
Daniel Coston: For over 35 years now, millions of people have heard "Walk Away Renee" without knowing anything about the band that created it. In 1966, four very different teenagers fused classically-influenced songwriting and gorgeous three-part harmonies into a song that was both their first single, and their biggest hit. It was also the opening chapter of a story full of personal (and sometimes legal) entanglements, yet continues to rewrite its own history. And even write some new chapters in the process.
The four people at the core of the Left Banke- Mike Brown (pianist/main songwriter), Steve Martin (lead vocals), Tom Finn (bass/vocals) and George Cameron (drums/vocals)- have all fallen out with each other at one point or another through the years, but something about what the band created- the music, the sound, those voices- has continued to bring them back together. To see if that thing they had is still there, and if it can happen again. Which leads us up to recent events...
Tom Finn (Left Banke bassist/vocalist): Mike and Steve have been working together. Mike has been flying down to Tampa [FL, where Steve lives- ed] for the last few years, where he has been recording piano/vocal demos.
[In summer 2001] Mike, Jimmy McAllister [ex-Beckies] and I laid down some basic tracks at his studio in NJ. When we were done Steve came up from Tampa and put his vocal on them, George, Yvonne Vitale [Brown's wife] and I did backing vocals. In all we recorded about five songs.
George Cameron (Left Banke drummer/vocalist): The songs were good. Steve had already done the lead vocals, so Tom and I added harmonies. They weren't as good as they could have been. When we (Steve, Tom and me) get around a piano at the same time, wonderful things happen. We weren't afforded that time, so though it wasn't bad, it could have been really good. What came of those recordings, only Mike knows.
Rick Brand (Left Banke guitarist): About seven years ago, I called Mike up and told him that some people were asking about the Left Banke, and asked him if he would consider doing something with the band again. Mike emphatically said no, and said that if I ever suggested that again, he wouldn't speak to me for the rest of my life.
Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, some of my old friends from high school brought up the band again, and I thought, "Oh well, all I can do is try." So I called Mike up, and he immediately says, "I'm way ahead of you. I've been talking to Steve about reforming the Left Banke. Do you want to join?" So I said yes.
As soon as I started rehearsing with Mike, I immediately remembered what it was like to work with him. Mike has a very specific idea of what he wants out of something, and he is pretty emphatic about what he doesn't want. "Don't play this, play this." Soon, I found myself playing less and less guitar. Then some other problems arose, and the last time I spoke to Mike was about a year ago.
Coston: Recently, with Martin out of the picture again due to personal issues, Brown and Finn have been collaborating with McAllister and singer Shane Faubert, and while no one is quite sure as to what the final result will be, everyone involved speaks very highly of the new project. Finn even recently got Brown (who rarely speaks in public, and whom turned down a request to be interviewed for this article) to appear on an live radio broadcast on New York radio WFMU (check out the station's archives on their website for thisJANUARY 18TH BROADCAST), another sign that something is happening, even if it is still unclear to those involved in this story's latest chapter.
The roots of these recent events began in 1965. While recording with a band at World United Studios in New York City, Tom Finn meets Michael Lookofsky (soon to be Michael Brown), who is the 16 year-old son of the studio's owner, and a budding pianist and composer, in his own right. Finn soon introduces Brown to his friend George Cameron, who in turn introduces the others to Steve Martin, a friend who has just moved from Madrid, Spain. The four are soon hanging out and singing together at World United. Soon afterwards, another friend of Finn's, Tom Feher (now changed to Fair), also begins to stop by.
Tom Fair: The initial sessions took place in World United studio, owned by Mike Brown's father, Harry Lookofsky and run by brothers Bill and Steve Jerome who were co-producers on a number of other studio projects.
The studio itself was kind of ratty by today's standards, way up in the back of a dingy old building on Broadway and 48th Street in midtown Manhattan. There was an old upright piano on one wall of the studio, and another in a separate office in the same building. That office served as the publishing administration office.
Mike would sit at the piano and command rehearsals with his superior musical knowledge. The rest of us would stand around the piano and sing, trying to achieve his ideal vision of each song he originated.
Sometimes we'd stay up until 3 in the morning or even dawn, working on songs, jamming or just pissing about. Music was the only reason for existence. When that was done, we'd often "crash" on the floor, or the couch in the office, or head back down to Greenwich Village to sleep in a cheap hotel with a group of sympathetic Rolling Stones' groupies or whatnot.
Cameron: All we did was go upstairs to the studio, and play and sing all night long. When things needed to change, we would go next door to this arcade called Fascination, and play this bingo-style ball game. The workers there loved us, we were so odd. I think that those were the best times. The music was still our driving force and we got along. Well, most of the time.
Coston: A friend soon suggests the name the Left Banke, and everyone agrees on it. During one of these sessions, Finn introduces the band to his then-girlfriend Renee Fladen. It is said that Brown was so taken by her, he wrote three of the band's best-known songs- "Walk Away Renee," "Pretty Ballerina" and "She May Call You Up Tonight"- about Fladen.
Tom Fair: Renee was a girl of Swedish parentage with blond, almost white-blond hair. A number of us fell madly in love with her, and she was willing to oblige both Tom Finn and myself, but she spurned Mike Brown, and thus he in his anguish wrote the song of unrequited love that gained him chart action and a fatter bank account than the rest of us.
Tom Finn: Renee was a very bright young girl.
Tom Fair: She eventually married Woody Klamm, the blues-harp player from a group called "The Strangers," moved to Boston and had a baby.
As far as the record being done in parts, I don't know. I do know that originally it was being recorded with drummer Warren David, but the version that was released involved drums by studio musician Al Rogers. There was a big scene in which Mike Brown and Warren ran off to California with Mike's coin collection, and were met at the airport in LA by police tipped off by Mike's dad, Harry.
Harry considered Warren a bad influence on Mike, and I think he was nudged out of the group. That's when George Cameron was put behind the drums for the group, but George didn't play on the hit single releases. Buddy Saltzman played drums on "Pretty Ballerina."
Tom Finn: The session of [Walk Away Renee] was done at World United Studio was our third attempt at recording, As I remember it was a very good feeling session and everyone involved was satisfied.
That's the way things were done back then. It was a singles (45) minded environment, nobody thought anything of it. As a matter of fact it was much better than trying to do a whole album.
Tom Fair: I think the other guys would agree, writing songs with Mike Brown was torturous. He'd get a title or a basic idea of what he wanted to say, a first line or something, and then he'd come up with the melody and overall musical arrangement.
If you were his collaborator, you were expected to somehow discover exactly which words he wanted to say, so basically he was picking your brains, but if you wanted to add your own twist to it, you were in for it. I think he just wanted company at the piano, someone to harass and batter into submission, and could have just as likely written all the lyrics himself.
Once "Walk Away Renee" was a hit, recording moved over to the better equipped Mercury studios. My most vivid recollection is Mike Brown's big oversized shoe tapping time to the music as he recorded the vocal to the only Left Banke track on which we hear his voice, "What Do You Know?"
Tom Finn: We worked on [the harmonies] a lot.
Cameron: Our favorite song to sing back in the day was the Beatles' "You're Gonna Lose That Girl." We sang that song all the time, and everywhere. After that, anytime we got together to sing we would just come up with some amazing harmonies. It really can't be explained. We just loved to sing and we sounded great together, and we did it best when we weren't given parts to sing. Just let us go and stand back.
Coston: With good reviews, and backing from the band's new label, Smash/Mercury, "Renee" eventually reached the Top 5, with their second single, "Pretty Ballerina," climbing the charts soon after. Pressed into service as a touring outfit, the band recruits guitarist Jeff Winfield for a few dates, and an appearance on the TV show "Where The Action Is." (He can also be heard on the band's recording of "Lazy Day.") Winfield is soon dropped, and replaced with Rick Brand, a veteran of the New York City-based Spyders.
Rick Brand: "Pretty Ballerina" was entering the Top 20 when I joined the band. I was a couple years older than everybody else, and was the last to join, so I was always the outsider in the band. I tried to get along, but I was kept at some distance. In many ways, especially because of their ages, the Left Banke was their high school. They grew up together, trusted together, got big together, and fought together. And it's hard to know outside of that circle what that is like.
I had just joined when we recorded "Let Go Of You Girl." Mike liked to work very fast. He played it to me once, and then said, "Let's record." What you hear is my second take. I didn't have time to come up with a big guitar line. And guitar was also a minimal instrument in the band. It wasn't the dominant instrument, and that's how Mike heard it. "Play the G note over and over," he would say.
Coston: Even at this point, the diverse and sometimes polarizing personalities of the band members were already apparent.
Fair: [Brown] had mood swings, would pull rank on the rest of us since his dad owned the studio - you know, hold up the key to the place and inform us that we'd be locked out if he so decided. At other times he could be very generous with money, opportunities and facilities.
Finn: Michael is a mad genius and consequently is hard to work with. Sort of like Brian Wilson but more extreme.
Fair: Steve was the "pretty boy" of the group, of hot-blooded Castillian heritage, thought much of himself and little of others.
Brand: Steve had mood swings, but it always felt good to have him as your friend.
Fair: George was non-committal, kept to himself mostly, kind of secretive, but basically easy to get along with.
Tom was the most outgoing of the group, mediator in arguments, seeker for musical perfection. Tom got along well with other people. Thanks to him I was included in a Left Banke tour as keyboardist, which eventually led to a performing career of my own.
Brand: I really learned to respect Tom. He was the peacemaker of the group, and had an incredible ear for all harmonies.
Coston: With "Pretty Ballerina" reaching the Top 15, and the release of their debut album (Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina), the band continued to tour, although Brown soon opted out of touring, wanting to stay home to write and record.
Tom Finn: We were very, very young and had little or no rehearsal, we also had very poor stage equipment and had to do cover tunes because of a lack of original material.
Rick Brand: The rest of the guys were like, 17, when the band got big, and some of the guys were still learning how to play their instruments when they got sent on the road. Although I will say that Tom and George got to be really good pretty quickly.
George Cameron: Truly I don't think it really sunk in till a little later, when one day we heard "Walk Away Renee" on the car radio. Then I believe we got it, though we didn't really take it all that seriously. What I mean by that is we gave no thought to the business end, and how we were going to present a show. Keep in mind that Steve and I were ardent hard rock types. We liked the Who, the Stones and our stuff was so mellow, and when no outlet for our rock side emerged, shows tended to reflect our frustration. We were bad, and then we were really good.
Tom Finn: Mike was unable to tour he couldn't take the stress. We all decided on Emmett Lake to replace him on the road. During that time we had a better time, but we were thinking more about girls and getting high.
Tom Fair: [Lake] was an excellent musician who came to us through an ad in the paper, but his background was more of a folk/classical and he was very out of place in this scene. With army fatigues and thick beard, he looked more like a member of the Fugs than the Left Banke, who had adopted the Carnaby Street look.
Rick Brand: He looked like Wyoming, or at least what my impression of what someone from Wyoming would look like.
Tom Fair: But Emmett was a competent musician and a gentleman, and did his best to do what was required of him. I don't recall if he was fired, or if he quit - many guys just came and went because they couldn't take the group's internal hassles - but Emmett was only around for a number of months.
Rick Brand: We mostly toured the East Coast, with bands like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Association, and the Toys. We did two tours with the Beach Boys, a 14-day tour, and a ten-day one. We hung out with the Beach Boys quite a lot. They were all pretty nice. They loved Steve. Dennis [Wilson] got to be really good buddies with Steve.
We would go on first, and then there would be three other bands, and then the Beach Boys. Every show that the Beach Boys did was identical. The girls would really go nuts over us, however. One thing I learned on that tour was if you had a hit song that mentioned a girl's name, that was it. When we would do "Walk Away Renee," girls loved us.
George Cameron: We were so different from most of the groups at that time. Most people thought we were from England.
The Beach Boys just stood back stage and loved it. They wanted to manage us at one point.
Tom Finn: The Beach Boys, and Mamas & Papas tours were a lot better, we used their big arena sound systems and monitor speakers, also because of a shorter time on stage we could play mostly originals.
Rick Brand: Behind the stage curtain, we were the coolest band, and we knew it. We just had an air about ourselves. We all got attention from girls, but they'd really go for Steve. Onstage, Steve looked better than the Beatles.
We would never rehearse. We were spontaneous onstage. Some nights we'd really have a lot of fun, and other nights we'd argue about what song to play next, or anything, and we'd walk off stage. I always that we in some ways presaged the whole punk thing, or some of the ideas of punk. All these bands back then would be trying very hard to be likable to the audience, and we just didn't give a fuck.
Coston: Despite all of the band's accolades and success, tensions within the band were mounting. Wanting to take full control of the band, Brown releases the "Ivy, Ivy"/"And Suddenly" single in April of 1967 under the Left Banke name, despite the fact that no other band members sing or play on it. (Brown's friend and collaborator Bert Sommer sings lead on both songs.) The single gets close to the top 40 charts before the rest of the band takes legal action. Although the four bandmembers will work together six months later on the Desiree single, and the Four Tops' cover of "Walk Away Renee" would reach the Top 15 in early 1968, their own chances of further chart success are irretrievably dashed.
Tom Finn: "Ivy, Ivy" was indeed a messy time.
Tom Fair: You know, now that I think about it, I have no idea why that particular song was chosen, unless it was in spite to the other members of the group, like to say "we don't need your vocals or your songwriting abilities." I don't think the record company had any part in the decision at all - they were just glad to have anything at all to promote during that time.
The song "Ivy, Ivy," is a song which I wrote 100 percent on my own, about a former European model who was at that time a member of the Andy Warhol crowd. It was transformed by Harry Lookofsky into a "Brown/Feher" composition by indicating to me that if Mike's name went on it, it would be released. The great thing about "Ivy, Ivy," although I don't consider it a particularly great song, is that it was orchestrated and produced by the great Bobby Scott, who co-wrote "A Taste of Honey," and "He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother)."
Tom Finn: Steve, George & I got lawyers to stop the "Ivy Ivy" single. After that "Desiree" was released, however all major radio program directors were afraid to play the single because they were warned not to play "Ivy Ivy" therefore they chose not to play anything.
Rick Brand: "Desiree" rose to 22 in Florida, and then was pulled. It just died.
George Cameron: In our happier days we were just happy to be playing and doing what we loved doing. But then...when the egos and disappointments got between us, it sucked and was stressful. When the music becomes secondary, things change. Steve Tyler [later of Aerosmith fame] saw a lot of that part of us, and has said he saw us flush ourselves down the toilet.
Coston: "Desiree" marked the end of the collaborations between Brown and the rest of the band. Nor would its success have changed anything.
Tom Finn: No, Mike would not have stayed if "Desiree" was a bigger hit.
Coston: During recording of "Desiree," Brand disagreed with Brown on the arrangement of the song, and left the band soon after.
Brand: I love the song "Desiree." If you could have heard the signature line played by a guitar and keyboard, it was amazing. Kind of like the chorus of "Day Tripper." But Mike had this idea in his head for an arrangement with a 17, 21 piece band, and it just didn't sound the same to me. So I stormed out of the session.
During this time, I'd had a falling out with George [Cameron]. He wouldn't talk to me directly. We would be in the same room, and George would say to everybody, "Tell Rick..." And I'd be like, "George, I'm right here."
After Mike left the band, we all got together to talk about songs for the next record, and they told me that they'd decided not to include me in the writing for it. They wouldn't let me in on the writing. So I left. They called me later and asked me to play banjo on the "Bryant Hotel" single, probably because they didn't know another banjo player, and did a few gigs with them near the end, but that was it.
Coston: The first band effort without Brown, the "Dark Is The Bark" single in May of 1968, failed to chart, a fate that would befall all of the band's future singles. With Brown, Brand, and, by this time, Emmett Lake gone, Tom Feher began to take a more active role in the band.
Fair: The trip I recall best is an East coast tour that went to Baltimore and Washington, DC. On this tour, I played piano. I don't recall playing guitar although I may have. What I do recall is Mark Volman of the Turtles rolling around on the floor, clowning for the audience.
Mark Volman, Turtles: I was a big fan of [the Left Banke's] first album. It was a unique album for its time with some ultra-fine songwriting by Michael Brown. The sound of the group was polished but had a great garage sound as well. As the Turtles we even took a stab at a couple songs in our live show.
Coston: This larger role for Feher included writing the bandís next two singles, "Goodbye Holly," and "Bryant Hotel."
Tom Fair: "Goodbye Holly," although primarily an exercise in songwriting and chord progression, was written with an actual girl in mind, a girl from northern New Jersey who died in a fire. I wrote the song in Englewood, NJ on one of three baby grand pianos in a house owned by Joyce Norden, whom Mike Brown married at one point.
Here's something I never told anyone about the song: I actually wrote it with Davy Jones of The Monkees voice in mind, you know, that vocal he does on "Daydream Believer?" And when George was selected to do the vocal, I was secretly disappointed; I actually wanted to sing the vocal myself. However, to be honest, in retrospect, my voice was untrained and a pain to listen to at the time.
George Cameron: We all sang, and Steve never wanted to sing all the songs. I believe it was Tom's idea for me to sing "Goodbye Holly" and I also sang "Bryant Hotel," which I really wanted to do. And yes, Steve did play drums [on "Goodbye Holly"]. This was the way the group was intended to function. We were all good enough to switch around roles and add to the different sounds those changes create.
Tom Feher: "Bryant Hotel" is one of my favorite songs that I wrote in the Left Banke period of my life. It is about an actual hotel on Broadway in NYC, and reviewers have accurately referred to it as "Kinkish," since it was indeed inspired by the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon."
I'm proud of the lyrical imagery: "Fossils lie in the lobby," refers to the seventy and eighty year old men we'd invariably find seated and staring into space in the lobby of the hotel. "Elevator vacation" refers to the fact that more often than not, the elevator wasn't working. You had to see this hotel to believe it!
As producer for these tracks, on which I played guitar, we had Paul Leka. Paul had a decent track record...and he was called in to salvage the second album which had gotten out of hand with numerous squabbles and changes within the group. But truthfully, I didn't think it was a perfect match, and to this day I shudder when I hear the glissando piano on "Bryant Hotel."
Coston: During this time, Tom Finn continued to emerge as a songwriter, writing and singing several songs, and including a young Boston singer, Steven Talarico (later Steven Tyler) on a few of the sessions.
Tom Finn: I sang lead on "There's Gonna be A Storm", and "Nice To See You." Steven Tyler sang backing vocals on "My Friend Today," "Dark Is The Bark," "Give The Man A Hand" and "Nice To See You".
It was hard to write period, it was hard to get Steve & George to do anything they didn't write.
Coston: After the release of the band's second album, The Left Banke Too, in late 1968, the band slowly dissipates, with all of the band members moving on to other projects.
Ton Finn: Well it's hard to say, did they lose interest, I don't think so. We were starving, we had no other means of income, and nowhere to live. We had new managers (Rubott Management), and they kept us on the road milking the hits, and paying our and their rents. They also signed Steven Tyler's band called the Chain Reaction, and had to support them as well as other bands they signed.
George Cameron: By this time I was so disheartened, disenchanted, and in such disbelief with the state of affairs. I mean, all I ever wanted to do was play music and it had turned into such a nightmare I just didn't care, and probably made everyone around me just as miserable.
Coston: During this time, Brown collaborates with Feher for his next project, the self-titled (and only) release from the band Montage.
Tom Fair: The Montage was a local band from New Jersey that Mike Brown decided he would groom into "the next Left Banke." I think [Mike] had gotten the Phil Spector attitude, in which the producer is the recording star and the vocalists are merely minor parts in his creation.
So he got these guys, who were basically a competent cover band, and used them like trained seals to do his bidding. It's only my opinion, but I think that's why the band never really went anywhere - it wasn't really their career that was being forwarded, it was his.
As far as working on songs, we had a kind of a formula down by that time. I knew what to expect from Mike, and he knew what to expect from me. So the writing went fairly fast. We had the one song about Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, "I Shall Call Her Mary," and the song I consider was the one in which I had the most to say about the lyrics of any Brown/Feher collaboration, "An Audience With Miss Priscilla Gray."
Coston: After the Montage album, remarkably, Brown reunited with Steve Martin for the song "Myrah," which is released as the band's last official single in November of 1969. A year later, Martin, Finn and Cameron reunite with Brown for the songs "Love Songs In The Night" and "Two By Two." The songs were written by Brown, and feature Martin, Finn, and Cameron, but the songs are released as a Steve Martin solo single. The songs get some airplay, but no more is then heard from the band.
Tom Finn: Mike & Dominic Sicilia, who later became Stories' manager, decided it would be best to go with a Steve Martin single on those two songs because they figured the Left Banke name was over. So they just thought Steve Martin would be a fresh start on a new label, Buddah. Don't forget that The Left Banke was contractually obligated to Smash.
Mark Volman, the Turtles: As Flo and Eddie, we did a killer version of "Love Songs in the Night."
Howard Kaylan, the Turtles: "Love Songs in the Night" and "Two by Two" I have recorded myself, and will one day release when I find someone to take a solo project from me seriously.
Fair: Tom Finn and I got involved later in a recording of several of my songs for a film that was never released. On the project, we worked with Rick and Randy Zehringer and Randy Hobbs, all of The McCoys. It was the first time Rick (soon to become "Rick Derringer") had ever recorded on pedal steel; somewhere there may exist a recording of those tracks, but I don't personally have them.
Coston: While Brown went on to work with the Stories and the Beckies during the 70s, the other band members work on other projects, until they reunite in 1978 to record some new songs by Finn.
Tom Finn: [Strangers On A Train] was based upon my songwriting skills in the late 70's. I was going to record solo but our backer thought it would be nice to reorganize The Left Banke to do some of my tunes. Our backer CAM-USA was a music publishing company that had a big hit with a singer named Eric Carmen, "All By Myself" and others, and Eric was a big Left Banke fan.
Coston: Despite the backing, and some promo singles being pressed up, the new album (subsequently titled Strangers On A Train) could not find a home, and is eventually released in 1986 on a small British label.
George Cameron: I actually liked some of Tom's songs. This was a new direction for us, I thought. Good melodies that had a little more punch then our old stuff. I guess I saw it as the next step from our pop days. This was more the kind of music I was into, and I think Steve felt the same way. It had a backbeat. Good guitar riffs. A lot more soulful with a touch of blues. But the partying got the best of Steve and I. Some of those recordings were done with extreme hangovers.
Finn: As far as regret about not having a better release, no record company wanted any part of the Left Banke. At the time, Disco & Punk Rock was in vogue. Also, most of the selections were done in demo form.
Coston: In subsequent years, rumors occasionally surfaced as to a partial Left Banke reunion, usually involving Brown and/or Martin, and then faded away. Although recent events have included a lot of activity, there is no guarantee as to what will happen next, or whether these efforts will ever be heard by you or I. As always, the Left Banke continue to be unpredictable, and a bit mysterious. And a story that may have more than one unwritten chapter still up its sleeve.
Brand: Whatever happens, I really hope that this works out for Mike, and everybody else. To me, Mike as a composer is up there with Brian Wilson, McCartney, and so on. Whoever you want to name, he's there.
Tom Fair: In the days when the Left Banke was formed, the music industry in New York City was wide open to experimentation, and groups sprang up almost spontaneously from the streets and doorways of the city. The Left Banke was such a group. Being involved with the group was a learning experience for me, although there was a lot of stress and pain involved in that process.
Rick Brand: Despite everything I said earlier, if Mike called me up today and asked me to join him, I'd be at his house with my guitar this weekend. And if Steve joins...
Finn: I think The LB is capable of creating some of the most wonderful music ever heard, however any work that would be able to reach the masses would have to be produced by someone that understands the strange dynamics of the groups interactions and be able to treat each member as an important part of the whole and most importantly be able to win the trust and confidence of Michael Brown. That person must also must have balls of steel.