Monday, November 25, 2019

Baroque Pop

Baroque Pop emerged in the mid-1960s when Pop and Rock recording artists began incorporating elements of Western Classical Music into their production; the ultimate contribution, of course, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. Many pop songs by then had already made use of instruments previously associated with classical music, such as harpsichord and strings, but Baroque Pop was distinguished for a majestic, melancholic sound that was more reminiscent of the Baroque Music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Bands like Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull would take the madrigal sound to its extreme in the 1970s. With Bach heavily integrated into the mix, Baroque Pop often utilized counterpoint, two separate melodies that intersect. Baroque Pop adds on non-classical instruments like guitars, electric organ, and drums plus eastern influences like the sitar, but its orchestral qualities are always placed in the arrangement's forefront.

Popular examples are The Left Banke's "Walk Away RenĂ©e," The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" which feature a string quartet. Others, like The Zombies' "Time of the Season" and Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" don’t contain classical instrumentation, but are still of the style due to their baroque-like features, particularly on the Bach-inspired organ melodies that play throughout "A Whiter Shade of Pale." It's definitely Pop and not Rock, maybe rock lite, with a harpsichord, a pot of tea and two cats in the yard.

In the UK, baroque's starting point was the Zombies' "She's Not There," which stuck out dramatically in 1964. The Zombies went on to record "Summertime," which sounded more like "Greensleeves" than Gershwin.

In New York, Michael Brown must have bought the 45 of "She's Not There," which was a far bigger hit in the States. Brown formed a band called the Left Banke and roped in his dad, an arranger called Harry Lookofsky, to oversee their first single. "Walk Away Renee" was the first bona fide baroque pop hit at the end of 1965.

In the mid-60s, harpsichords and string quartets were all over the place, even the Rolling Stones had "Lady Jane." Sgt. Pepper was the high point, but the influence of Baroque Pop was far-reaching with bands like Strawberry Alarm Clock and up and coming singer/songwriters like Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley, and early, pre-Buckingham Nicks, Fleetwood Mac. Maybe the ultimate nod, in addition to Tull and Gentle Giant was Renaissance, with the lilting vocals of Annie Haslam. 

Other 60s contributions include the BeeGees, Harper’s Bizarre with Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song,” which everyone thinks is called "Feelin' Groovy," and one-hit wonders like Mercy's "Love" and the Peppermint Rainbow's "Will You Be Staying After Sunday."

We've talked in the past about how the Wrecking Crew, that mix of L.A. musicians who figured so prominently in the pop music of the mid-60s, from The Mamas and the Papas to Sonny and Cher and a hundred or so top singles, but Baroque Pop, taking its cue from The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed, instead used full orchestration. From London to L.A., classical musicians were now pop stars.

Recorded in November 1969 was Edison Lighthouse's "Love Grows," a song you know but probably never even heard the name Edison Lighthouse. It was a top ten smash and stands alongside "Walk Away Renee" and "Elenore Rigby" as a pinnacle example of the genre.
But don't think the genre didn’t last. You can't listen to Tears for Fears or Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Death Cab For Cutie or any of the new folk artists like Fleet Foxes or Sun Kil Moon without understanding their tribute to baroque pop.

Recorded this week in 1969, "Love Grows” by Edison Lighthouse.

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