Thursday, 7 January 2010

Always Magic in the Air

New York State of Mind Charted in Full

There has been a gap in the market for a book focusing on the Brill Building songwriters and the good news is that Ken Emerson's account, while clearsighted in charting later artistic and commercial decline, is as detailed and loving as one could possibly hope for - a joy to read from beginning to end and a fitting tribute to the music that even some of the writers didn't expect to last (Barry Mann rushes off in a panic to compose more songs at the news that a current hit is drifting down the charts).

Early chapters concentrate on individual teams but as the book progresses their fates and business interests become intertwined, the slightly older Leiber and Stoller emerging as major players, producing or "editing", as they modestly call it, the contributions of younger writers as their own interest in appealing to a younger demographic wanes. There's a general promiscuity, too (creatively speaking), with writing partners sneaking in a quick collaboration on a morning when the regular soulmate is busy.

Some unsung heroes emerge: publisher Don Kirshner's role in creating the circumstances which allowed, for a few Eden-like years, his writers to flourish, and the visceral excitement of George Goldner when he hears a palpable hit. Someone ascribes the emotions of a twelve year old girl to him, hearing magic in the likes of Chapel of Love when no one else can.

But what gives this tale of connected personal, creative and business lives an especial poignancy is that the Brill Building story is also that universal tale of time passing: partners falling out; writers approaching thirty who can no longer empathise with a younger audience; the emergence of the self-supporting artists like the Beatles and Dylan causing writers like Gerry Goffin to question their purpose (he says that he now tries simply to be an "adequate" writer; one longs to tell him that the best of what he created with Carole King will never need apology).

A general exodus from New York in the late sixties, linked to the expansion of Don Kirshner's business interests which made him less hands-on with his writers, were factors in the decline of these crafted pop songs - the New York musical mix, particularly the passion for Afro-Cuban rhythms, permeated the best Brill Building recordings - and Emerson (rightly, in my view) cites Bacharach's decreasing involvement with African-American artists like Lou Johnson and Chuck Jackson as contributing to blander work in the 70s.

These writers were, in one sense, hacks, and Emerson doesn't flinch (any more than the writers themselves) from distinguishing between the trash and the gems, but what comes through more than anything in this warm and compelling account is that - not only in Bacharach's case - the best artists always brought out the best in the writers, who took enormous pride in their achievements. And Emerson has a knack for selecting the moments that matter, none more so than when, around 1960, amid fears that this music has had its day, the Drifters' Charlie Thomas finds Doc Pomus chanting: "Rock'n'roll will never die." When Thomas retorts that it's "just a song," Pomus replies: "No, it's not a song, Charlie. It's a place in your heart." This music may or may not live forever, but as Emerson says "it still resounds half a century later," and I can't imagine a better chronicler of those who shared their creative lives with us. This book will send you back, with a fresh delight, to the records.

2006 review. Image: Don Kirshner with Carole King and Gerry Goffin, from an article by Kevin Smokler in Tablet Magazine looking at the Jewish American context of "the magic created at Aldon."

Related sites I'd particularly recommend:
this page of goodies from the oldies connection website is devoted to Always Magic ... It will point you to a range of reviews, a book excerpt and a couple of streamed interviews with Ken Emerson. One is an interview on WFMU with Bob Brainen, on realplayer, complete with lots of relevant music including rarities. I couldn't open the direct link for the other, an interview on WFUV, so go to the link provided for the main page and put "ken emerson" into the archive search box. The file then opened - on my PC, anyway - in media player.Spectropop - an amazing resource about the interrelated fields of girl groups, Phil Spector and the Brill Building writers - the essence of early 60s pop, in other words - very well laid out, with a large section devoted to individual writing teams as well as a feature on Don Kirshner and Aldon Music. Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield are summed up perfectly: "Though their songs lacked the social consciousness of Mann & Weil or the depth of Goffin & King, their best songs fit the definition of perfect Pure Pop - catchy, tightly constructed songs that anyone could appreciate." See the Spectropop review of Always Magic in the Air here (scroll down if you're not waylaid by other CD and book reviews of tantalising items from 2006).

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