Reading and reviewing music books often leads to a chain reaction – a brief mention about someone or thing leads to an Internet search and bam, I find myself downloading yet another piece of nonfiction to satisfy my curiosity. And that’s how I went from reading the latest Monkees work to the 11-year-old Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, which actually predates my interest in anything other than nursery rhymes, New York housed a collection of male and female songwriters whose names are quite familiar to Baby Boomers – Bacharach, Barry, David, Goffin, Greenfield, Greenwich, King, Leiber, Mann, Pomus, Sedaka, Shuman, Stroller, and Weil. Led by the great Don Kirschner, whom I know from Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, these power couples cranked out hit after hit while the world waited for the next big thing – the arrival of the Fab Four. Of course there were flops along the way, but by and large, the time these folks spent at Brill put all of them on the musical map.
What most interested me wasn’t the story of how the songs were composed but how much these people had in common: they hailed from the same neighborhood and probably attended the same synagogue. Yes, most of them were Jewish. And, many of them, especially the men, identified with the black groups and solo artists, as well as the Latin performers, who recorded their music. But, and no offense to these famous collaborators, their influence smoothed the edges out of what was then rock n roll and made it more palatable for the average white American. Sure, it led to wild success, but one has to wonder what would have happened had they not made it more marketable.
But that marketability certainly led to a lot of cash in people’s pockets and took many of these writers into the studio to record their own chart-topping hits. Carole King, Burt Bacharach, and Neil Sedaka are household names for the generation just before mine, largely because of their Brill beginnings. Their legend lives on – heck, Neil Diamond, also a Brill denizen, is embarking on his 50th anniversary tour in 2017!
Formulaic song writing wasn’t new in the ‘50s, but the ability of the writers to become more aware of and embrace their cultural surroundings certainly pushed it into popularity by appealing to a wider audience. The pop music factory was borne, essentially, of this philosophy, and continues in its more technologically advanced format. How many singers still rely on someone else to write them a hit? The more things change, the more they don’t. Which led me to my next Google search and the next possible review: The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. Don’t turn that dial yet!