When Burt Bacharach raises his voice in anger – f-word included – it's not an easy listening moment. That's why one of the key lines was deleted from his most recent album, At This Time.
"I always wished the record company had let that stand, that last line of Who Are These People?" Bacharach says in a broken whisper that sounds every one of his 79 years. '''We gotta make a change, before it's too late'. That's the way it is on the record. But what Elvis (Costello) sang, what I WROTE was, 'We gotta make a change, or else we're all f---ed!'
"The way Elvis sang 'f---ked' was just . . . I mean, it could make you laugh, make you feel good and give you chills at the same time," he sighs. If anyone can deploy such a delicate balance of emotions in one song, it's Burt Bacharach.
By contrast, the act of corporate censorship was typically ham-fisted. It came at the behest of Sony UK's top dog, Rob Stringer, who believed that At This Time had to adhere to the middle-American morality code as determined by influential CD retailer, WalMart.
It's amusing to note that Stringer had cut his teeth on the profanity of the Clash circa '76, when Bacharach was already napping on his laurels as the premier American hit-maker of the post-war era.
But that was just the tip of a veritable iceberg of irony.
At This Time marked the first time in Bacharach's long career that he had written his own lyrics. Some tripped to the beats of hip-hop renegade Dr Dre (NWA, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent), and most simmered with fury at the actions and inactions of George W Bush's White House.
"I've been writing love songs all my life, never rocking the boat," Bacharach wrote in his first blog of June '06. "The closest I came to writing music with any social and political connotation was What the World Needs Now is Love. When that song was written 40 years ago, it was an important song. And, now, it is a thousand times more so."
Somehow, in this incredibly daring leap of company and conviction, all that the Grammy judges heard was 2005's Best Pop Instrumental Album. Like the American voice of dissent at large, it was as if Bacharach's words simply didn't exist when Costello sang:
"This stupid mess we're in just keeps getting worse
So many people dying needlessly
Looks like the liars will inherit the earth
Even pretending to pray
And getting away with it."
As per his mild-mannered reputation, the songwriter is gracious about the whole bizarre whitewash. He makes a point of calling Stringer "a great record man". Few men alive know what that means as well as he.
Late in 2007, Bacharach quietly clocked up a golden anniversary in pop: fifty years since his first number one record, with Marty Robbins' version of The Story of My Life.
Written in the Brill Building in New York, the hallowed songwriters' factory that fuelled the American music business in the '50s, it would be the first of nearly 50 top 10 hits he wrote with lyricist Hal David before their litigious falling out of '73 (of which, more later).
In a sense, the 29-year-old pop novice was slumming it in the Brill corridors, where Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Phil Spector, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were all racing to write the next vacuous teen hit. "You could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours," King recalled to journalist Simon Firth.
"I never liked rock'n'roll," Bacharach confesses today. His more sophisticated ambitions had been ignited in the bebop jazz clubs of the '40s, buzzing to the radical harmonic experiments of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He'd toured as Marlene Dietrich's musical director and studied with Darius Milhaud, the French composer renowned for furthering the polytonal innovations of Stravinsky, Bartok and Debussy.
Bacharach would soon bring an enigmatic complexity to pop that would creep under the world's skin and stay there. "Easy Listening," we came to call his signature sound of muted horns, stacked strings and elaborate melodies, but anyone who has performed one of his songs knows that label is an absurd misnomer.
"I'd rather that than 'elevator music'," the maestro laughs, but his exasperation shows through. "You take a song like Anyone Who Had a Heart, and you tell me that's easy listening? You gotta be kidding. Hold it up to the light and you see it's not easy at all. But if you wanna call it that, hey, be my guest."
The toe-tapping challenge of that tune's time signature shifts may sound academic (5/4 to 4/4 to 7/8, if you're counting), but Bacharach suspects such subliminal lures to be the basis of his longevity. He's scathing about the record men he knew in those early days, the ones who insisted he dumb down his melodic and rhythmic eccentricities before they'd let a star like Marty Robbins or Perry Como record his songs.
"I started producing records out of self-defence. It was a way to protect the material," he says. "It was sort of like being in the army and listening to the second lieutenant say 'Charge!' and everybody gets killed. The second lieutenant doesn't know what he's talking about any more than the (record) man who ruins a perfectly good song by making a four-bar phrase when it belonged as a three-bar phrase.
"But when somebody let me get in the studio and set the tempo I wanted to set, put the strings where I wanted to put them, write the orchestration, make the record . . ." he leaves the rest of that story to the record books.
So complete and detailed is Bacharach's vision for a song that he's mostly disinterested in the countless cover versions they continue to spawn. Recently, ultra hip rock duo the White Stripes furthered his legend – but mainly their own – by covering I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself with all the delicacy of a sawn-off shotgun.
Asked about such questionable tributes in general terms, Bacharach mutters a polite demurral containing the verb "to butcher", and notes that at least they were "done right " once. And it's not a generational thing. In '66, when Cher had first crack at the song he considers his personal best, Alfie, he let her know she'd blown it.
By that time, Bacharach and Hal David had found their voice. With gospel-trained New Jersey girl Dionne Warwick, they forged a bond that shadowed and often bettered the new "singer-songwriter" model of the 1960s, the one that changed the dynamics of the business forever. Amazingly, Bacharach claims to have had little interest in the Beatles, though of course he was aware of them: they covered his song, Baby It's You, on their first album.
Like all bands, Bacharach-David-Warwick eventually came unstuck, ending their golden reign in high dudgeon. Their Waterloo was the film musical of '73, Lost Horizon. Veteran New York magazine critic John Simon seemingly spoke for all when he said it had "arrived in garbage rather than in film cans."
"Boy, I blew everything up then," Bacharach croaks, clearly still pained by the memory. "I worked on that film for two years and I thought the songs were good, you know? When we wrote them. But when you see it on film . . . Peter Finch is singing If I Could Go Back, and that was a very emotional song, beautifully sung by whoever sang his (voice) in the role. But when you see the film put together, you don't give a shit whether he stays or goes."
Bacharach was showbiz royalty in '73, married to Hollywood golden girl Angie Dickinson. "That really hurt; the failure, the disaster. I didn't take it well," he whispers. He disappeared to his Del Mar retreat in southern California for a full year, declaring his partnership with David "written-out" and throwing Warwick's career into stalemate.
"So everybody sued everybody and I've got myself only to blame for that," he says. "It's all fine now but, you know, if I look for a mistake . . ." Again, history finishes his sentence eloquently. He wouldn't have another hit for eight years, when he co-wrote Arthur's Theme with his third wife, Carole Bayer Sager.
For all his years in the wilderness, Bacharach's comfort is more profound than most songwriters can dream of. It's not just the 48 top 10 hits, nine number ones, six Grammys and three Oscars. Nor was it exactly the slightly ironic embrace of the late '90s cool school, forged in association with Austin Powers kitsch. Like the "king of easy listening" accolade, that was a backhanded compliment that missed the point of why singers and audiences keep coming back.
"There's a lot of resilience, apparently, in my catalogue; in these songs," he says. "Maybe because they had meat on 'em, maybe cause they were urban or cosmopolitan, or they weren’t so easy to figure the first time around, cause there was more to them than your average one-four-five (a common chord pattern) song, you know?"
In spite of Sony's censorship, Bacharach's latest album is not for sale at WalMart, although they naturally stock triple-disc greatest hits packages and several tribute albums. And of course, he'll play mainly his '60s hits – "done right" with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – when he returns to Melbourne in February.
But he's not easy enough to ignore what he sees as his most important work, At This Time. When all the greatest love songs in the world have been sung, he says, "We're all still f---ed."
An Evening with Burt Bacharach and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra:
Wednesday 6, Thursday 7 and Friday 8 February at 8pm at the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall. Ticketmaster 1300 136 166.
Burt Bacharach is often cited throughout Paul Zollo's weighty reference tome, Songwriters On Songwriting (Da Capo Press). Admirers range from pop harmony king Brian Wilson to difficult listening provocateur Frank Zappa, who helpfully noted that "prior to (Bacharach and David) there had been little of bitonal and polytonal harmonic implication in American pop music." It's hard to get a bum note out of Melbourne musos either:
Harry Angus, The Cat Empire: "He didn't just write a tune, he usually has these intricate trombone, flugelhorn or flute countermelodies going on as part of the composition. A lot of orchestration in songs is sort of filler. His arrangements are written into the song."
Ultimate: I'll Never Fall in Love Again (1969). "The brass line at the beginning is almost a better melody than the chorus."
Paul Grabowsky: "His best songs are like miniature music dramas, songs which fold a complex emotional picture into a three-minute format. He uses the rhythm of the spoken word as his guide, and his sophistication as a composer enables him to go way beyond the terrain of most pop music."
Ultimate: Make it Easy on Yourself (1962) "An absolute killer of a song."
Paul Kelly: "No question that Bacharach is great: melodic, inventive and concise – and such lightness of touch. But you can't talk about Bacharach without talking about Hal David. It's the words as much as the music that make those songs so wonderful. I'd love to be able to go back in time and see them at work together on those songs. How did they get the words to fit those idiosyncratic, shifting time signatures?"
Ultimate: I Say A Little Prayer (1967), Walk On By (1964), I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself (1964), 24 Hours From Tulsa (1963). "Little movies all."
Lisa Miller: "He had an ear for the perfect interpreter of his compositions. They had to be brilliant technically to pull off all those orchestral sweeps and dives in the melodies and they had to make it sound effortless so we would all sing along. I love that he didn't favour a typical or smooth voice. That tension saved his songs from potential sappiness and catapulted them to the stars."
Ultimate: Anything. "Except maybe The Blob (1958)."
Kim Salmon: "His stuff sounds so simple and direct and yet he has the most improbable things going on behind the façade. The result is something very complex that anyone can enjoy on first listening. That's the mark of a true artist."
Ultimate: Casino Royale soundtrack (1967). "He's probably the pioneer of that groovy-baroque thing."
Sally Seltmann, New Buffalo: "The melodies to most of his songs are so strong that they can stand alone with no chord accompaniments. Just try singing Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head out loud."
Ultimate: That's What Friends Are For (1982). "Anyone who can write a friendship song that inspires tipsy teenage girls to hug and sway and sing out loud with tears in their eyes is obviously on the path to songwriting genius."
Patrick Williams, Blacharach: "The most extraordinary songs of our time, in terms of his ability to capture the sense of a lyric and embed it in a landscape of music. My band does loving renditions. There's no f—ing around with this stuff as far as I'm concerned."
Ultimate: Reach Out For Me (1964). "I think people find it harder to reach out for help these days. It's a song of reassurance for all of us."
This article first appeared in The Age, Melbourne, January 26, 2008