“The other thing that I really enjoyed were the early compositions of Bacharach and David. I thought that they were so good because prior to that time there had been little of bitonal or polytonal harmonic implication in American pop music, and we are to thank them for providing that through those early Dionne Warwick recordings.” Frank Zappa, interviewed for Songtalk, 1987.
OK… if you know what bitonal or polytonal harmonic implication is then drop me a line, but note that one of rock’s most left field artists found those tunes to be a cut above. What Zappa seems to have not known (or not bothered with) is that Hal David wrote the lyrics and Burt Bacharach provided the sophisticated melodies and, I presume, the bitonal wotchamacallits.
They were a phenomenally successful song-writing partnership. Growing up I’d be struck from time to time by a song with a really strong, unusual yet quite attractive and natural sounding melody. With the passage of time I found out that a lot of those songs were composed by Bacharach and David. “Trains and Boats and Planes”, “Alfie”, “Walk on By”, “Message to Martha”… the list goes on. Their go to vocalist was Dionne Warwick, and with her they put over 50 recordings into the American Hot 100 in less than a decade (Warwick’s first hit was “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962). Add in the hits they had with other artists (Herb Alpert, BJ Thomas, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Gene Pitney) and the hits they had on the other side of the pond with the likes of Sandy Shaw, Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black (and Tom Jones) and you get some idea of what an outrageous hit making force they were.
But that was back then, right? What’s left for us now?
Note that the name on this compilation is BURT BACHARACH. His fame has survived much better than Hal David’s, and he had some hits after the two of them parted ways – though they are not his best work. David perhaps got a bit lucky in teaming up with Bacharach, and his lyrics certainly haven’t stood the test of time that well. It was a man’s man’s man’s world back in the sixties, and David’s lyrics repeatedly portray women who haven’t a life or a clue without their man around (a trend that reaches it’s heights – or plumbs it’s depths – on “Wives and Lovers”). The arrangements are often corny to modern ears and my! Some of those sixties recordings sound pretty bad.
It’s Bacharach that works the magic with memorable, rich, adventurous melodies and unconventional but pleasing song structures. These guys operated out of Tin Pan Alley and they broke all the rules in an era when writing to a formula was everything. The melodies were sometimes too long, ran for too many bars without repeating, their choruses didn’t fit in were they were supposed to and also went on rather longer than was deemed commercially prudent. But see above, Bacharach not only got away with it, he had astonishing success doing it.
The best songs here have marvellous melodies over rich chord structures. It’s no wonder that Paul McCartney – one of the best writers of pop melodies – and Elvis Costello – rock’s polymath – revere Bacharach.
So for the ages we’re left with the melodies (not to mention the polytonal harmonic implications, and I’m done mentioning that now, I promise) and some superb vocal performances. Some of the greatest singers of the time had hits with these songs. Dionne Warwick seems to have faded from the collective conciousness but Dusty Springfield and especially Aretha Franklin have fared better. Springfield delivers a great example of calculated 60s cool with “The Look Of Love”, and Franklin is great value with “Say A Little Prayer” (and so are her backing singers). Warwick, the definitive interpreter of the Bacharach and David song book, is under represented here but then if she got her fair due the album would start to become Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits. Still we get her on the classic “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and her version, more understated than Cilla Black’s, of “Anyone Who Had a Heart”.
A lot of top vocalists recorded these songs, so there’s room to spread the joy around a bit, but Richard Chamberlain (AKA Doctor Kildare) is surely a bridge too far. If you don’t care much for the carpenters you’ll be choking for them after you hear Chamberlain’s version of “Close To You”. Twice we get two versions of a song. Cilla Black is a belter and doesn’t score well in the restraint stakes, but she still does a better job of “Alfie” than the oversinging Barbra Streisand (the prototype for the weapon of mass destruction that is Celine Dion), and it’s no contest between the pretty good Diana Krall and the fabulous Dusty Springfield for “The Look Of Love”.
With this sort of anthology there is a balance to be struck between hits and history, so I won’t get steamed up over the inclusion of “Magic Moments” (one of the duo’s first big hits, but also one that they wrote before they really hit top form), but I will cock an eyebrow at the omission of Warwick’s first big hit.
Burt Bacharach was one of the greatest melodists of popular music in any era. This collection bears witness to his craft and also to the craft of some great singers.