Little Big Things: Burt Bacharach’s What the World Needs Now

IN THE LATE ’80s, I sat with the great Japanese pop artist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto on a hotel rooftop in L.A. talking about Burt Bacharach. He was the last of three contemporary orchestral visionaries that Sakamoto, in his quietly passionate way, had cited — after Debussy and Ravel and other 19th-century French impressionists — whose music inspired him as a conservatory student.

Sakamoto first mentioned Antonio Carlos Jobim, the cool Brazilian bossa explorer, then Van Dyke Parks, the excitable Southern-born American symphonicist and Brian Wilson collaborator. I had thought that Sakamoto, moving on to Bacharach, was going to emphasize what everyone emphasized in the late-’80s when Bacharach’s name infrequently emerged: the deathless pop songs he wrote with lyricist Hal David, and peerlessly produced. And indeed, Sakamoto did not slight those. But it was the solo albums Bacharach created, the ones on which he occasionally sang, that most compelled Sakamoto.

In the mid-’90s, I spoke with Burt Bacharach. There was a Bacharach revival going on in England. The country’s rave and post-techno scenes had done something difficult to bring off in the U.S. since the ’70s, when film themes largely had ceased appearing on the pop charts: The dance worlds had caused the market for vintage pop instrumentals to mushroom. Artists such as Blur and Oasis — Noel Gallagher called Bacharach-David’s ‘This Guy’s in Love With You’ the perfect song — and Massive Attack consistently touted Bacharach; a reissued collection of his work had entered the U.K. charts.

Bacharach was pretty knocked out and a touch mystified by his vogue. Mike Myers, in his Austin Powers films, cameoed him as the gleaming master of smooth. By 1998, Elvis Costello had swept in, trying to de-kitsch Bacharach’s tuxed-out ’90s impression; Painted From Memory: The New Songs of Bacharach & Costello, the album they wrote, produced and performed together, appeared. Several other Bacharach-themed albums of diverse provenance emerged. But until this month, with the release of What the World Needs Now: Burt Bacharach Classics, no definitive reissues had surfaced in America.

In 1998, Rhino Records threw on one of the stupidest of its vast collection of party hats and compiled a boxed set. But The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection failed, presenting Bacharach the young pop adept and, later, Scepter Records writer-producer, in terms of novelty and record-collector madness instead of mounting the singularly rich Bacharach case. The Look of Love was keen to include Lou Johnson’s sadly misbegotten non-hit ‘Kentucky Bluebird (Send a Message to Martha)’ yet happy to exclude Dionne Warwick’s ‘Message to Michael’, a 1966 Bacharach-David Scepter Top 10that remains one of the most emotionally detailed pop records ever. And the set ignored Bacharach’s solo work.

On What the World Needs Now, compilers Jim Pierson and Mike Ragogna chronicle that improbably glorious saga. They draw from Bacharach’s California music, the albums he wrote, arranged, conducted, produced and occasionally sang on for A&M Records between 1967 and 1979; of the reissue’s 23 tracks, two (‘Walk On By’ and ‘[There’s] Always Something There To Remind Me’) come from Hit Maker!, a 1965 album recorded during Bacharach’s previous solo stint at Kapp Records, and one (‘Raindrops Keeps Falling on My Head’) appeared on 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid soundtrack. Although the compilers do not shy away from Bacharach’s singing — in a whispery, fully engaged tenor no more fluent or glamorous, ironically, than Bob Dylan’s or Lou Reed’s — this is instrumental music culled from a breed of album few except Quincy Jones have essayed lately. Bacharach was working in a once-commercial form where arranger-conductors sought to instrumentalize songs previously made popular in usually far fierier vocal versions; many of those releases made up what came to be dismissed as “elevator music”. But under Bacharach’s baton, the practice yielded something radically different.

In his notes for What the World Needs Now, David Konjoyan lightly distinguishes Bacharach’s instrumentals from those of Bert Kaempfert, Ray Conniff or Percy Faith; Bacharach, Konjoyan maintains, compares better with Henry Mancini. But even that sells Bacharach short. From a standard such as ‘Moon River’ to Hollywood themes as variously sly as ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ or ‘Theme From The Pink Panther‘, Mancini typically operated in thrall to melody voiced with unflagging lucidity; for Bacharach, the pop instrumental form proved the aesthetic playground he’d always wanted. It figured as the place where he could best exercise and elaborate the relatively free musical ideas that he, like Sakamoto, had glimpsed in the French Impressionists.

Of course, the sexiness of pop songs had rescued Bacharach, eventually, from the drudgeries of the classical music he’d not particularly liked studying as a kid. But from the structured mess of both, Bacharach eventually made his own instrumental mark, immersing himself totally, as John Zorn once wrote, in “deep explorations of the materials of music”. Listening to the selections on What the World Needs Now,you think that, inasmuch as Bacharach felt restricted by the sublime pop he made with Warwick and others in the ’60s, what left him unsatisfied was the way a hit must abide by the ongoing sonic and rhythmic dictates of one melody conveyor: the human voice. Here was an AM genius with soulful FM ambitions — and the skill and education to know how to realize them. Here was the musician whose Hollywood massive attacks ’90s English musicians recognized, their trad-pop expectations loosened through sonic wave after wave of rave-era instrumentalism.

On What the World Needs Now, many of the best-known Bacharach-David songs, from ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’ to ‘Alfie’, receive instrumental treatments. The way you hear them is perhaps clearest in the case of one of the least famous, 1971’s ‘Nikki’. The piece opens with some swiftly cascading minor electronic-keyboard chords. A muted trumpet then states and restates the melody — mildly windswept, yet moving in its calm way, inevitably somewhere else, as the restless drumming hints — with the repeat transitioned through a brief upswing of strings, which themselves suavely reappear to grab and voice the last few concluding bars. Then the rhythm subtly changes, and a saxophone lies sensuously back, making the chorus sizzle. The rest of the piece is a loose dance of the trumpet, those strings and that sax. The listener goes from the English countryside to a Malibu beachfront to a fire-lit interior, the woodsy acoustic qualities of all locales fused into one colorful blur. The orchestra never acts more grandly than the sax, which in turn never behaves less rudely than the strings.

The reissue is hardly exhaustive; it omits Bacharach-David songs such as ‘Hasbrook Heights’, a suburban romance perfectly sung by Bacharach (from 1971’s Burt Bacharach, still a Japan-only reissue), ’60s tunes as compactly magisterial as ‘The Windows of the World’, film scorings as closely composed as ‘The April Fools’, jazzy rhythmic workouts as alive as ‘Pacific Coast Highway’. But it includes ‘Something Big’, on which Bacharach sings, backed by trim chorale, that that’s what he’s after. “Why do I go on and fill my life with little things,” he asks, doing the “composer vocals”, as Sakamoto termed them, “when there are big things I must do?”

As a kid, my piano teachers insisted that scores unlocked the performance secrets to all music. Although the ‘Whole Lotta Love’ sheet music disproved this, my copy of ‘This Guy’s in Love With You’ worked as fully as Bach. As What the World Needs Now demonstrates, this indicated more than the fact that Bacharach composed on a piano and Led Zep did not; it meant that Bacharach, while working at a polo-shirted stylistic remove from ’60s and ’70s rockers, was still going at things with the zestful inventiveness of the pop times. You can reject his place in the kitsch universe; you can realize that rock purists will always miss him. You can insist he’s no Percy Faith. But then you hear one of Bacharach’s bass clarinets slide over exactly the right drumming, or you hear him vary the tempo in a way that causes most pop musicians today to run for cover, and you just think, well, Burt Bacharach, he’s his own narrative. And whether that universe is closer to Ravel’s or Jobim’s matters not at all.

© James HunterL.A. Weekly, 28 April 2003

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