So far, the main focus of my blog has been the production values and instrumentation on various Wall of Sound recordings. But this is of course only the icing on the cake. If the song beneath the galloping castanets, the string arrangement and the giant chorus can’t cut the mustard, there’s only so much you can do to turn subpar songwriting into high art.
Spector and his contemporary pop producers were of course highly dependent of the skilled songwriters of the time. It is no coincidence that the early to mid-1960s are often referred to as the ‘Brill Building Era’ because the famed Brill Building on 1619 Broadway and 49th Street in New York was a sizzling hot bed of frantic songwriting activity. Housing a wealth of music publishers, record labels, management companies etc, the building’s small offices reverberated with the music of young songwriters attuned to the sounds of the day, hoping to score the next major chart hit as they sat by their pianos or strummed their guitars. Many a songwriter from those Brill Building days has reminisced about being holed up in tiny cubicles without windows and only a chair and a beat-up piano. Today, this almost sounds like a prison cell but despite the rather depressing surroundings these aspiring songwriters were able to come up with some of the most beautiful songs of the times.
The most well-known of these gifted writers are obviously the husband & wife duos that have come to personify the Brill Building era’s commercial pop songwriting – Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill. Spector collaborated with all three writing teams – and no wonder! Between them, these three couples notched up a mindblowing list of chart hits for both Spector’s acts and other artists during the 60s.
If these legendary songwriting duos were in the A league, there were hundreds or more obscure writers plying their trade in and around the Brill Building in New York or in similar places in Los Angeles, pitching songs or recording quick demos for publishers and producers on the look-out for their next hit record.
Author Tom Wolfe did an excellent piece on Phil Spector in the 60s that was re-published in the booklet for the Back to Mono box. It perfectly illustrates the hectic, hustling atmosphere at the Brill Building whenever hot producers like Spector walked the hallways: “He walks down the hall and kids sneak up behind him and slip songs, music, lyrics into his coat pocket. He finds the stuff in there, all this ratty paper, when he gets home. Or he is leaving the Brill Building and he feels a great whack on the back of his head and wheels around and there are four kids in the singing stance, their heads angled in together saying, “Just one bar, Phil-Say, wohna love boo-uh ay-yay bubby” (…)”
The Brill Building era could easily merit a whole blog of its own as there is so much to discuss and research. I won’t go into more detail here but if you’re interested in investigating further I can highly recommend Keith Emerson’s ‘Always Magic in the Air – The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era’. It’s a must-read! So,… what’s this about queer in the blog post title? I’ll get to it in a minute. But first, – try to imagine the kind of societal conservatism and constraining gender values of 60s America that Brill Building era writers catered to with their songs. It’s right there in the lyrics for most of the teen dramas penned by Goffin & King, Barry & Greenwich, Mann & Weill or other writers back then.
When the typical ‘boy meets girl’ scenarios were played out in the songs, the boys were often the active part pursuing the girl, – the girl being more passive, hoping that the boy would single her out, turn out to have a heart of gold, marry her etc. You get the drift. It was innocent times – at least judging by the lyrics of the day. Outright sexual references as lyrical content was of course a no-go and songs describing the raging hormones of everyday teenagers were typically veiled with safe imagery of dancing, kissing or boys walking girls home to their front door after parties.
In fact, even as late as 1966, a hit record like Lou Christie’s ‘Rhapsody in the Rain’ could cause controversy with lyrics about a teenage couple sitting in the backseat of the boy’s car “makin’ out in the rain” with the follow-up line “in this car our love went much too far.” Pretty tame by today’s standards, right? But back then, those lines were suggestive enough for radio programmers to pull the plug on the single. Consequently, Christie re-cut the song with “we fell in love in the rain” and “our love came like a falling star” instead of the original lyrics.
If a song like Christie’s couldn’t cut it back then what chance would one about homosexual love have? Love between two boys? Or two girls? Forget it! Writing teen-oriented songs about same-sex relationships bordered on the unthinkable at a point in time where homosexuality was sadly and foolishly still regarded as a sort of mental disorder.
How ironic then that a number of Brill Building era songwriting demos have survived that curiously would seem to portray same-sex relationships. Thus, the ‘unintentionally queer’ title of this blog post. Because make no mistake – none of these demos were ever intended to either go beyond the pitching stage or make a statement. They’re interesting to look into nevertheless.
Whenever a songwriter or songwriting duo had what they thought was a commercial-sounding song, they would quickly record a demo for their publisher to shop around. Often very sparsely produced, the songwriters would either hire a session singer to breathe life into the lyrics or sing the song themselves. And this is where it gets interesting,… even amusing for modern ears. Because when male songwriters sang their latest attempt at a girl group song for instance, the lyrics would spawn some rather unusual connotations for the time. Let’s roll out some examples.
Here’s Neil Sedaka’s and Hank Hunter’s 1963 demo of ‘My Best Friend Barbara’, subsequently recorded by Connie Francis.
The lyrics have lines like “My best friend Barbara told me Jimmy’s no good, and like a fool I listened to her, the way she knew I would, my best friend Barbara” and “My best friend Barbara, she’s going steady with him. And every single night I sit home and cry while Barbara’s kissing him, my best friend Barbara.” You could hardly blame the few people who eventually heard this demo for imagining a ménage á trois with Jimmy playing both sides of the field!
Another interesting example is the demo of ‘He’s Just that Kind of Guy’ cut during the early 60s by songwriting duo PF Sloan and Steve Barri. These guys were based in Los Angeles which had its fair share of prime songwriters butting heads with their New York competitors for chart action.
‘He’s Just that Kind of Guy’ is not on youtube, but here’s an excerpt from the lyrics sung by Steve Barri: “He won’t say all the things that I wan’t him to tell me / But I know that he feels that way deep inside / To other people he may have a funny way of showing his love for me, but I understand he’s just that kind of guy. / I don’t mind that he never thinks of bringing me flowers / And at times he does things that make me wanna cry / He never wears the presents that I buy for him / Still I’d die for him ‘cause I understand he’s just that kind of guy.”
That lyric is very typical for the times, obviously written to reflect a stereotypical understanding of a boy/girl relationship where the girl is at the mercy of her boyfriend’s whims. However, when sung by a guy like on this demo that same set of rather conservative gender roles take on a whole new meaning!
Gender bending demos could also work the other way around. Here’s Carole King demoing her and Gerry Goffin’s ‘Go Away Little Girl’, later a hit for Steve Lawrence. Go to 0:33 for the demo to begin on this youtube video.
“Go away little girl, go away little girl. I’m not supposed to be alone with you. I know that your lips are sweet but our lips must never meet.” That lyric certainly comes across as forbidden lesbian love when sung by a girl, right?
There’s also the same duo’s demo of ‘Just Once in my Life’, which Spector eventually turned into one of my all-time favorite Wall of Sound productions with the Righteous Brothers.
The chorus goes “Just once in my life, let me get what I want / Girl, don’t let me down / Just once in my life, let me hold on to one good thing I’ve found / Don’t let me down / Baby, say that you’ll be staying.” Again, when sung by King the song can be construed as referencing a lesbian relationship at the breaking point, one girl desperately pleading with the other to give it one more chance.
And a last one with Carole King on lead, this time the great ‘Stage Door’ which was cut by male singers acts Peter James and the Searchers.
“Here at the stage door I stand girl and wait for you each night. I watch while you sign your autograph for everyone in sight. Your dreams of fame have all come true, now I’m just a no one next to you and you just can’t look up to me like you used to do.”
Perhaps my two favorite examples are from the wonderfully gifted songwriting duo of Pete Anders and Vini Poncia, two transplanted New Yorkers who eventually ended up writing songs with Spector for the Ronettes and Darlene Love at the recommendation of Doc Pomus,- yet another legendary Brill Building writer who Spector had tremendous respect for.
Anders & Poncia were extremely versatile and could write in any genre; doo wop, girl group, soul, bubblegum, sunshine pop, Beatles knock-offs – you name it. Hardly surprising then, that they also recorded some gender bending demos where Pete Anders sang lines that were meant for a girl to sing – with eyebrow-raising results. None of these rarities are on youtube so you’ll have to be content with the lyrics.
First of the two is ‘She’s the Girl who Stole my Baby’. Like Sedaka’s ‘My Best Friend Barbara’; when sung by a guy this song conjures up the image of a love triangle between two guys and a girl: “He was mine yesterday / She came by and stole him away / He was mine for so long / Then she came by and now he’s gone.” And then: “Sat right down and had my cry / How could she ever steal my guy? / She smiled at him and winked her eye / Then he looked at me and he waved bye-bye / She’s the girl, oh yeah, who stole my baby from me.“
The second song is one Anders & Poncia wrote with Spector called ‘Mary Ann’. Rumour has it that there’s an unreleased Crystals recording of it lingering in the Spector tape vault. The song eventually came out by girl group Honey Love & the Love Notes on Cameo in a version that’s much inferior to the Anders & Poncia demo.
On their demo you can hear Anders sing “My boyfriend says that I shouldn’t go / to any place unless he tells me so / He won’t let me wear my hair up high / I’m gonna find me another guy / ‘cause he says ‘Mary Ann, too much make-up! / ‘Mary Ann, too much make-up!’ / Mary Ann! / I won’t change my make-up / don’t care if we break up.” Hair piled up high? Make-up? Now that was really camped up for a guy in 1965! :-)
Of course, this whole blog post is firmly tongue-in-cheek. And like I started out emphasizing, interpreting these demos as depicting same-sex relationships is totally borne out of our time. The writers probably never gave the gender bending lyrics in their demos a second thought. And why should they? They just followed the standard practice of the Brill Building era. You wrote a song, cut a demo yourself later that day and had a single hitting the street in a matter of weeks. Time wasn’t to be wasted getting hold of some female session singer just because the lyrics suggested that.
The results though do make for interesting listening. And although the demos can be seen as ‘unintentionally queer’, in lack of a better term, they are also strangely fitting when you consider the fact that a large part of hardcore girl group collectors and connoisseurs are of homosexual orientation.