A couple of years back, I heard my compatriot Anne Murray sing a song called "Time, Don't Run Out On Me" that lingered with me till the morning after the show. So I went and looked up who were the writers. It turned out to be a late work by Gerry Goffin, written decades after the hit-choked early Sixties when he could do no wrong: "Who Put The Bomp? (In the bomp-bah-bomp-bah-bomp, who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong?)", "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?", "Take Good Care Of My Baby", "The Loco-Motion", "It Might As Well Rain Until September", "Up On The Roof", "I'm Into Something Good", "Pleasant Valley Sunday"... The hits grew thinner in the Seventies and Eighties - "Do You Know Where You're Going To?", "Saving All My Love For You" - and eventually the ram fell out of the rama-lama-ding-dong entirely. But he never stopped writing. Time ran out on Gerry Goffin yesterday, at the age of 75.
His milieu was a little outside my comfort zone, although, now I think about it, I can claim in my own recorded catalogue 11 notes from a Goffin & King song: It's the little bit of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" that Jessica throws in toward the end of our "Sweet Gingerbread Man". Other than that, however, we'll try to find a representative Gerry Goffin number for our Song of the Week department over the summer weeks.
Goffin and his young wife, Carole King, were the embodiment of a particular school of songwriting that I wrote about in The Daily Telegraph almost 20 years ago. The headline they gave it - "Songwriter's Block" - was a pun, explained in the first paragraph:
You can find musical styles named after regions (West Coast jazz), towns (the Charleston) and streets (Broadway) but there's only one that defines itself by an office block, an undistinguished brick edifice at 1619 Broadway in midtown Manhattan: the Brill Building. If you're a songwriter, it's the most prestigious address in town. And, even in an age when the New York songwriting community has mostly scattered and now faxes and e-mails its hits in from ranches in Montana, that corner of Broadway and 49th Street still exerts a powerful emotional pull.
This month, the Brill becomes one of the few buildings this side of The Towering Inferno to get a movie made about it: in Grace of my Heart, Denise Waverly, a songwriter not unlike Carole King, arrives in New York in 1958, gets a job in the Brill Building and falls in with a producer not unlike Phil Spector, a singer not unlike Lesley Gore, etc.
The last time I went to the Brill, it was to see Paul Simon; in the late Fifties, like hundreds of other teenagers from the outer boroughs, Simon used to take the subway into town and make the rounds of music publishers, hoping against hope that one day he'd sell a song - maybe to someone in the Brill Building itself. Unlike most of those teens, Simon made it: today, his songs are indeed published by a Brill Building publisher - Paul Simon Music. On the other hand, the first time I went to the Brill, it was to see Irving Caesar, veteran Tin Pan Alley lyricist ("Tea For Two", "Just A Gigolo") and a tenant for half-a-century.
When Caesar moved in in the late Twenties, the Brill was already a Tin Pan Alley landmark. Fats Waller was among the other composers and lyricists with offices there. But it was the writers who moved in after Caesar and Waller and before Paul Simon who gave the building a musical identity. It began in 1958 when Al Nevins, guitarist for a cocktail-lounge act called the Three Suns, teamed up with Don Kirshner, Bobby Darin's business partner, to found Aldon Music. Nevins was an older guy full of Alley savvy, Kirshner was younger with an eye for the up-and comers. At a time when rock 'n' roll's first burst of energy - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino - seemed to be waning, Nevins and Kirshner's idea was a simple one: to apply Tin Pan Alley disciplines to rock 'n' roll.
When Caesar had starting writing pop songs, music publishers' offices were little more than a maze of poorly partitioned cubicles, each with a battered upright on which some frazzled composer would be trying to pound out an opportunist novelty hit without inadvertently plagiarising any of the tunes being similarly pounded out all around. At Aldon Music, the offices were more spacious, but the requirements were the same - you had to crank out hit after hit. Kirshner built up a stable of youngsters - almost all from New York, almost all born between 1939 and 1942. If they seemed like an extended family, it's because they were: for example, one day Mrs Greenfield happened to hear her neighbours Mac and Eleanor Sedaka's little boy playing the piano and suggested he try writing a song with her son, an aspiring poet; Howie Greenfield and Neil Sedaka teamed up and, among their youthful efforts, was a tribute to Neil's high-school sweetheart, "Oh, Carol"; Carol Klein changed her name to Carole King and repaid the compliment with a number called "Oh, Neil". Unfortunately, it flopped, but by then Carole had settled down with a lyricist called Gerry Goffin; needing a singer to do a demo for a new song of theirs called "The Loco-Motion", Goffin and King turned to their babysitter, Eva Boyd. Kirshner liked the demo so much he decided to release it as a single and Miss Boyd - rechristened Little Eva - had a Number One.
That was one big difference between Brill Building pop and its predecessors: in the old days, composers demo-ed their own songs in thin, croaky voices with ham-fisted piano accompaniment. At the Brill, the demos were fully produced arrangements. It's one of life's cruel injustices that Tony Orlando is reviled as the man who gave us "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" and "Candida" and "Knock Three Times" in the early Seventies, when the best recordings he ever made were his unreleased Brill demos of the early Sixties. The production style most associated with the building is Phil Spector and his so-called "wall of sound". Previously, pop producers and engineers had been concerned to make the best possible recording of the performance: that's why, when they're digitally remastered, an Artie Shaw track or early Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey still sounds great. But Spector produced his records with tiny, tinny transistor radios in mind. Thirty years on, on CD, they sound dated, hollow and overblown, and Spector's production is suffocating. What endures, though, are the songs - written by Goffin and King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Well, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Locked up in their cubicles all day, with little opportunity for prolonged contact with anyone else, most Brill Building inmates seemed to wind up marrying each other, though few of these youthful unions survived: to Goffin and King's musical question, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?", the answer turned out to be: "No"; for Barry and Greenwich, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" proved all too prophetic. Only Neil Diamond seemed immune to the need to find a writing partner to marry. Sadder but wiser, older and disillusioned, several Brill alumni re-recorded their perky Sixties pop hits as melancholic Seventies ballads - Carole King did "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" on her best-selling Tapestry album, and Neil Sedaka re-made "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do", slowed down, soulful and shorn of its intro: "Down-doobee-doo-down-down, comma, comma down-doobee-doo-down-down".
In some ways, the Brill songs seem like a last gasp for pop innocence. But don't bet on a happy ending: Brill boyfriends invariably die grisly deaths - in stock cars ("Tell Laura I Love Her") and on motorcycles ("Leader of the Pack"). And the guys that survive prove to have very particular charms: for the Crystals, Goffin and King wrote "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)", with lyrics like, "He hit me . . . and I was glad". It flopped, but, if OJ ever wants to turn his testimony into a musical, it'll come in very useful. At such moments, you can hear these writers straining to say something different, beyond the staple Brill sentiments like "Go Away, Little Girl" and "Blame It on the Bossa Nova". By now, Gerry Goffin was beginning to sound as if he did blame it on the bossa nova. "Am I going to have to write this s*** until I'm 32?" he agonised.
He needn't have worried. By the time he was 32, the Brill era was over. The Beatles had come along and every third-rate garage band was figuring: hey, if those guys can write their own songs, why can't we? Nothing has done more damage to popular music, or been more responsible for its grim fragmentation into a half-dozen mutually antagonistic cul-de-sacs. Post-Beatles pop obliterated the distinction between the author and the interpreter: Kiri Te Kanawa doesn't say, "Actually, I write my own arias", John Gielgud doesn't write his own plays, but the last 30 years of pop music are founded on the unlikely premise that anyone can write good songs and that, therefore, there are now more competent songwriters around than at any time in human history. There aren't.
The high-point of Grace of my Heart is when Denise lets rip with "God Give Me Strength", an intense shot of pristine pop melancholy by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. No offence to Costello, but I wish it had been a new song by Bacharach and Hal David - one of the few songwriting teams to survive the Brill era. Bacharach and David's songs, along with Goffin and King's, Mann and Weil's and those of the other Brill greats, are the rock era's standards - recorded over and over, as Gershwin and Porter and Berlin are: even "River Deep, Mountain High" turns up again on Celine Dion's current album. In that respect, Grace of my Heart subtly mirrors pop's own decline: halfway through, when Denise leaves the Brill Building, the entire film falls apart - in much the same way the careers of so many Brill babies did. Jeff Barry wound up writing "Sugar, Sugar" for the Archies, who, being cartoon characters, were unable to compose their own material; Neil Diamond, a good pop songwriter but a cheesy MOR singer, wound up re-making The Jazz Singer. As for Neil Sedaka, a friend of mine had dinner with him a few weeks back. Afterwards, Neil sat down at the piano and played his greatest hits, and then segued into his current project - a new musical in which Neil's put lyrics to Tchaikovsky's greatest hits.
As Carole King sang all those years ago:
~from The Daily Telegraph, February 15th 1997
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