October 27, 2005

Why Harpsichords?

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I t goes without saying that the 1960s saw more experimentation in pop and rock music than any other decade that came before or after it. It should also go without saying that a good majority of this experimentation was due to the growing use of drugs at the time. Drugs helped musicians extend themselves into the uncharted territories of psychedelia and drugs helped the masses appreciate being taken there.

Though for some reason, psychedelic music borrowed a lot of its aesthetic from Victorian England. We seem to almost take it for granted that seeing Paul McCartney in his Sgt. Pepper Victorian uniform tripping on acid makes sense, but really, where is the connection between Victorian England and psychedelia?

The first and best use of the Victorian aesthetic in rock music that I can think of is the mind-blowing faux-harpsichord break in the Beatles’ “In My Life.” So could it just be, like pretty much everything else in music, that the Beatles used something which struck a nerve and the world just followed their lead? Well, regardless of how baroque pop was actually born, the wonderfully incongruous genre made for some of the best music of the period.

Surprisingly, very few classic albums came out of the genre, which found most of its success in key singles of the era. Sure there was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Zombies’ Odyssey & Oracle, two of the greatest albums ever, but aside from a number of other albums more indelible for their sheer originality than actual quality, the genre was more singles-oriented.

The Left Banke was one of the groups that created some of the prettiest and most evocative songs of the decade, but, while coming close on their debut, they never created that illustrious definitive album.

Led by Michael Brown, who was a teenager at the time, the Left Banke is best remembered for their number five hit “Walk Away Renee.” The song was written by Brown at age 16 after being haunted by a girl to whom he was too afraid to express his feelings. Through “Walk Away Renee,” which is dominated by the harpsichord, strings and flute, Brown found a way to form pop melodies and hooks out of classical music elements. The song is absolutely heartbreaking and a perfect introduction to all that baroque pop has to offer.

Archived article by Jared Wolfe
Sun Staff Writer