The Other Side of Burt Bacharach

I still have that other Burt in my head

by Marshall Bowden

There is a line of thinking in art, and especially in popular music, that passion and energy always win out over the carefully crafted piece of work, the one where each element has been painstakingly placed. Blame our culture’s love of the novel, the instant, the hot take. The ascendancy  of ‘nature’ over ‘artifice.’ Such notions place the music of Burt Bacharach outside the understanding of many of today’s pop music artists and fans, but certainly there are, and always have been, those that worship at the altar of his singular talent.

Burt Bacharach was a necessary step in the evolution of the songwriter, because he represents the bridge that connects Tin Pan Alley, film and television soundtrack music, and pop/rock music. And Bacharach is famous for his songs, mostly as sung by other performers, and his sound. No one really gives a fig about his albums. Unlike some composer/arrangers who have maintained a steady stream of recordings under their own names, Bacharach pretty much gave up on that by the end of the seventies. But the sound of his music, and the songs that he wrote, many with lyricist Hal David, are as much a part of classical pop music as are The Beatles. 

Bacharach’s first several albums are mostly instrumental arrangements of many of his hit songs. Some feature background vocalists crooning in the background, all feature the Bacharach signature piano, horns, and strings. These arrangements are different than those that accompany the pop singers who had hit records with these songs. They are Bacharach’s impression of his music, emphasizing the things that he wants to emphasize. They feature a light jazz sound often heavily flavored with bossa nova. They wouldn’t sound out of place in a dentist’s office or a mall–but when we say that, we are picturing a specific dentist’s office or mall, one of the era when this music was created. So of course this music would sound right at home in that era.

It’s important to remember that Burt Bacharach was not only a composer, arranger, and pianist, but also a bon vivant and reigning member of L.A. & Hollywood society. His homes in the Hollywood Hills and Pallisades were major properties that he maintained throughout his life (he died at the Pallisades home where he has lived for many years). He was married to Angie Dickinson, an honorary female member of the Rat Pack. She had an affair with Sinatra, and reportedly with John Kennedy also, though she has always denied or refused to discuss it. 

In the era where every songwriter was encouraged to go out and perform their own songs–Carole King, Carole Bayer Sager, Peter Allen, the list goes on–Bacharach may have felt the pressure to be a marquee name performer, but in the end it was his talent as a composer and pop songwriter that was his ticket to fame and power. Others could always perform the songs better than he could, but he was often onstage accompanying them in front of large audiences or on television, which cemented him in the public’s memory. 

What that did do, is get him work on some film and television soundtracks where his music helped define the work. The soundtrack to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is way better than any of his albums adapting his pop hits. The music was instrumental in putting George Roy Hill’s vision over to the audience and giving his protagonists the feeling of anti-authority heroes like the subjects of some twisted Steely Dan song. It conveyed modernity, but it was overlaid with sepia-toned sentiment and a sense of vaudevillian absurdity. 

One thing about Bacharach’s hit songs–they lack so-called ‘blue notes’ and they don’t swing. They’re the musical equivalent of the emotional squonk and repression that most WASP-y folks will be deeply familiar with. Lyrically, Hal David was often able to imbue them with emotion that renders them personal to many people. 

At heart Burt Bacharach was a collaborator, an artist who took inspiration from his co-creators as well as inspiring them. His record with Elvis Costello, Painted From Memory, provided both artists with some needed stretching: Bacharach rose to the challenge of Costello’s earnest and sometimes painfully self-aware lyrics with some of his most affecting melodies in years, while Costello’s singing was a source of amazement. 

The two first worked together to write the song “God Give Me Strength” for the soundtrack of the movie Grace of My Heart. The film stars Ileana Douglass as a Brill Building sixties songwriter who negotiates her changing life and relationships as well as a shift to a career as a performer and a more personal songwriting. The character is obviously based (loosely) on the life story of Carole King. The song is the character’s big breakthrough, Tapestry-like moment, and we watch Douglass performing the track in the studio, lip syncing to singer Kristen Vigard’s vocal. Because of the movie’s plot and time period it made sense for the song that Bacharach and Costello composed to be in the same style as Bacharach’s sixties and seventies work. 

When they convened to work on Painted From Memory they agreed to continue to work within the same stylistic framework, which proved advantageous for both performers. The orchestrations are lush Bacharach specialties but they are saved from the edges of Muzak by Costello’s unvarnished confessional lyrics and a level of vocal performance that was a stretch for Elvis at the time. It serves as a reminder that often the best pop music is highly planned and structured, each flourish and gesture gently laid into its perfect setting like a jewel. 

It had been twenty years since Bacharach had released an album of newly composed material under his own name. The last Bacharach record, titled Woman, had been released in 1978. Like Bacharach’s previous two records, Living Together (1972) and Futures (1976), Woman was an ambitious musical project that had little to do with the public’s idea of Burt Bacharach or what his music sounded like. It was performed by the Houston Symphony and recorded in one live, four-hour session on November 2, 1978 at Jones Hall in Houston. 

The big, cosmopolitan Bacharach sound is there from the opening motif, followed by a jazzy interlude punctuated with Latin rhythms and Broadway musical dance energy. He can’t help being catchy even when he’s not writing explicit pop songs. The seven-plus minute title track that follows is full of gorgeous sophisticated harmonies and makes fantastic use of the orchestra’s brass section in a way that belies the Washington Post description of the record as “an ambitious but mostly ignored collection of jazzlike orchestra music.” The Post is not wrong, really: it is an ambitious record and it was mostly ignored by the public despite some kind reviews. But it is perhaps Bacharach’s crowning achievement as a solo recording artist, as a composer outside the Billboard charting songs he wrote for other artists and the film soundtracks that he composed. 

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