Norman Whitfield and Barratt Strong
Are here to make everything right that’s wrong.
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier, too,
Are here to make it all OK with you.
(Billy Bragg, Levi Stubbs’ Tears)
Holland-Dozier-Holland, Whitfield-Strong, Stevenson-Gaye-Hunter, Ashford-Simpson, Brown-Sansone-Calilli: the great Motown songwriting teams. Or at least that’s what I thought.
Most of us can rattle off some Holland-Dozier-Holland and Whitfield-Strong hits. Many of us know plenty of Stevenson-Gaye-Hunter and Ashford-Simpson songs, even if we can’t necessarily list them from memory.
Brown-Sansone-Calilli, though – not so much.
Michael Brown, Tony Sansone, Bob Calilli: the names stare out from many Motown compilations – and every Four Tops compilation – but eventually it dawned on me that these familiar-to-me names made just the sole contribution to the canon of the best label in history: The Four Tops’ legendary 1968 hit Walk Away Renee.
When the hit-making genii that were Lamont Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland fell out with Motown chief Berry Gordy and left the label in late 1967 the most nervous act on the roster must have been The Four Tops.
Since finally hitting the charts in 1964 with the H-D-H composition Baby I Need Your Loving (after an entire decade of dues-paying), the group rode a flying carpet of H-D-H gold: I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), It’s The Same Old Song, Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, Reach Out, I’ll Be There, Standing In The Shadows Of Love, Bernadette, 7-Rooms Of Gloom… but now the magic sorcerers were gone. With no songwriters in the group, it seemed there may no longer be anywhere for The Four Tops and Levi Stubbs’ astonishing voice to turn.
Casting around for material, it seems The Four Tops chose to look outside Motown for inspiration; their first two post-H-D-H hits would prove to be reinterpretations of other people’s hits.
And so, with research, it came to pass – one of the foundation stones for my personal Tamla Motown devotion crumbled: The Four Tops’ legendary 1968 hit Walk Away Renee transpired to be a cover version.
In July 1966 The Left Banke – a so-called “baroque’n'roll” group, unafraid to wield violins, flutes and harpsichords – had scored a number five Billboard Hot 100 hit with Walk Away Renee, a song composed by Mike Brown, the band’s 16-year-old keyboard player (real name Michael Lookofsky) and Tony Sansone. Though credited as a writer, Bob Calilli wrote no part of the song.
Written in the winter of 1965, one month after Lookofsky first met Renee Fladen, it would prove the first of three paeans to Renee – the others being sophomore hit Pretty Ballerina and She May Call You Up Tonight, a track on the group’s debut album.
The Left Banke’s biography reads like a soap opera, perhaps only to be expected when its teenage prodigy songwriter was openly infatuated with and writing a series of songs inspired by the bass player’s ballerina girlfriend Renee Fladen, who would soon move on to date the band’s drummer before growing “uncomfortable” with the attention and splitting the scene.
Such was the turmoil within the group that the vocals for Walk Away Renee, provided by Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro (credited as Steve Martin), were recorded after Lookofsky first left the band. He rejoined only after the record became a hit but hung around only for one album and the initial recording sessions for the band’s second release. The Left Banke spluttered to a halt and neither Lookofsky nor Caro would scale the heights their initial entrance suggested.
The Left Banke’s original sounds like it could have been recorded by The Mamas & The Papas – indeed, Walk Away Renee‘s flute solo (replaced with a muted trumpet by The Four Tops) was purportedly inspired by the arrangement of California Dreamin’.
Baroque it is not, but the arrangement, orchestration and Caro’s straining vocal certainly lend the song an air of youthful desolation missing from The Four Tops’ world-wearier, plaintive rendition.
I’d loved The Four Tops’ recording for as long as I can remember – not least because its lyric piqued my literary side, beginning not only a sentence but an entire story with the grammatically verboten “and” – but had not heard Bragg’s 1986 cover until I shared a student flat with a Bragg completist in my first year at university, 1991-2.
Exploring almost all my flatmate’s record collection over that academic year, I came across Levi Stubbs’ Tears, the lead single from Bragg’s third album, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry. Only his second top 40 hit, Levi Stubbs’ Tears had made number 29 in the summer of 1986; the album, recorded between March and July 1986 with the assistance of the likes of Kirsty MacColl, Hank Wangford, Johnny Marr and Bobby Valentino, became Bragg’s breakthrough release, making the UK album top ten.
Tucked away unprepossessingly on the B-side of Levi Stubbs’ Tears was a short and idiosyncratic track called Walk Away Renee (Version). While it might be considered a throwaway semi-novelty, two things cause it to stand out.
First, Johnny Marr’s gorgeous guitarwork; second, Bragg’s lyric – which might just be pop music’s most honest and self-deprecating account of first lust and the follies and embarrassments it induces.
Marr’s fourth introductory chord (0:12) sounds dissonant in comparison with what went before – much like the heady shock of first love. Bragg’s mordant estuary foghorn kicks in just a fraction of a second before that chord, disorienting the listener such that it is immediately clear that this is something different and unexpected from Britain’s foremost agitprop-rocker, something you were most unlikely to hear on the radio in 1986 unless you sought out the darker corners of John Peel’s or Andy Kershaw’s programmes.
Marr’s guitar vibrates and distorts under the weight of his fifth chord (0:17-0:18) and the strings sharply squeak between his fingers and the fretboard (0:19).
It’s only when Marr begins to pick out the melody (from 0:20) that you realise this is another interpretation of Lookofsky’s bittersweet missive to Renee, the girl of his best friend – the perfect backdrop for the nostalgic wordplay of Bragg’s lament.
It’s as lovely a melody as in any of its other incarnations, played delightfully by a briliant guitarist, but after the initial stages this SMIP is driven purely by Bragg’s lyrics and the feelings they evoke.
For even if the listener cannot directly empathise with Bragg’s boy whose nose begins to bleed just because he finally finds himself before The One (0:30), I’ve yet to find anybody who is unable to recognise within this short soliloquy an episode of youthful gaucheness that resonates deep within the memory bank of their own teenage years.
She began going out with Mr. Potato Head.
It was when I saw her in the car park
With his coat around her shoulders that I realised.
I went home and thought about the two of them together
Until the bath water went cold around me.
I thought about her eyes; and the curve of her breasts;
And about the point where their bodies met.
Who hasn’t, at one time or another, sat in that cooling bathtub brooding over a love slipping away? Who hasn’t, at one time or another, tortured themselves with mental images of the sexual pyrotechnics performed by their estranged inamorata and her new beau?
I said, “I’m the most illegible bachelor in town.”
And she said, “Yeah, that’s why I can never understand
Any of those silly letters you send me.”
Rob, one well-intentioned but not particularly gifted 14-year-old schoolfriend, diligently wrote out the entire lyric of Dire Straits’ Romeo & Juliet and sent it to Rebecca, the girl with whom he was breaking up.
Rebecca sent it on to a mutual friend with every one of Rob’s many spelling mistakes corrected in red ink. It subsequently made its way around the school.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her
And every time I switched on the radio
There was somebody else
Singing a song about the two of us.
Our Tune has tortured a nation for almost three full decades (it’s still, unbelievably, broadcast daily by Simon Bates on commercial radio) precisely because every relationship has a song, even if – as in the case of the Minister and The Minister’s Wife – the parties can’t agree on what it is (it’s between songs by No Doubt and Eternal).
It was just like being on a fast ride at the funfair;
The sort you want to get off because it’s scary
And then, as soon as you’re off, you wanna get straight back on again.
The Minister still clearly recalls the moment at which he became certain The Minister’s Wife would be sticking around for a while, as she sat recovering from the headrush of Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris and, still white from the fright, suddenly beamed, declared, “Let’s do it again!” and strode purposefully off to rejoin the back of the queue.
And, finally, the SMIP:
And then one day it happened:
She cut ‘er ‘air and I stopped lovin’ ‘er.
A funny punchine to a tragicomic tale but, with the benefit of hindsight and for the Minister at least, shockingly realistic.
1985 was far from a golden age for hair styling in the East Midlands, and one 14-year-old girl’s Saturday morning trip to the hairdresser’s – the result: a perm on top with a short, straight crop on the back – fair ruined the Minister’s Monday morning wait for the school bus and promptly burst a two-year-old bubble of unrequited love…
Marr’s fingers continue to spin up and down, across and around Lookofsky’s tune until the record fades, giving the listener 25 seconds to digest what has gone before, to think about those who walked away from him and those from whom he walked away, and the horror of the inexplicable hormone-fuelled antics and scrapes into which we got ourselves as kids.
Perhaps it’s not quite what the 16-year-old Michael Lookofsky intended as he longed for his Renee 40 years ago, but it’s certainly closer to reality.
Rolling Stone magazine placed Walk Away Renee at number 220 in its 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.
Renee Fladen-Kamm is a music teacher and artist living in California.
Billy Bragg’s Walk Away Renee (Version):
The Left Banke perform the original Walk Away Renee on Dick Clark’s Where The Action Is in 1966:
Levi Stubbs struts his stuff with three other blokes on US television: