March 21st, 2015

The band that just walked away Renee (Part I: the song)

RIP, Michael Brown.

Who’s Michael Brown? you ask:

Michael Brown, a keyboardist and songwriter who at 16 was a writer of the 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee” for his band the Left Banke and composed “Pretty Ballerina” for it as well, died on Thursday at his home in Englewood, N.J. He was 65.

Therein lies a tale. The following is a post I drafted in 2010 and (like so many of my drafts) it has just sat around among my other unpublished posts because I never quite found the right time for it. This seems to be the right time.

I once wrote a post about songs with lyrics containing the words “street” and “walk.” But until a commenter reminded me of its existence, I’d forgotten one of the most famous of them all, the monster 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee.”

“Walk Away Renee” is one of the great breakup songs—perhaps the greatest breakup song—of all time. I hadn’t heard the song for decades, but when I listened to it on You Tube, I instantly was reminded of how much I’d once loved its moody tone, its minor key, and the poignant and haunting voice of its lead singer:

I’d always assumed—from perceiving some slight something in the lead singer’s voice—that its members were probably British (the Brits were really big back then). And both the tone and the lyrics seemed to speak of a resignation that seemed experienced and almost world-weary.

But it turns out that the Left Banke was actually a bunch of teenagers from Brooklyn—and almost shockingly young, as you can see from the following video (unfortunately, it features only part of the song):

The video almost seems bizarre; it doesn’t seem as though such sounds could possibly be emanating from these kids—and it’s not just because they’re lip-synching, either. The lead singer (and sorta Paul McCartney lookalike), with the mature and melancholy voice that contrasts so strongly with his cherubic baby-face and his bouncy manner, was only 18 at the time. He was the young Steve Martin (not that Steve Martin), originally named Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro, and the son of a flamenco guitarist and singer.

The tune was written by 16-year old Michael Lookofsky, who composed “Walk Away Renee” under the less ethnic moniker Michael Brown. Renee was the name of another band member’s teen-aged girlfriend, a pretty blond on whom Lookofsky/Brown had developed an unspoken and unconsummated crush.

Mike Brown/Lookofsky was a classically-trained pianist. His father Harry was a violinist who had a small recording studio where the group rehearsed and later recorded the song. The son played the harpsichord on the cut, while dad Harry Lookofsky filled in with the violin that is featured so touchingly and prominently in the background, echoing and complementing the sob hidden in the lead singer’s voice. This just might have been the first (and only?) time that a rock star-to-be elicited a father’s help as backup musician in what turned out to be a megahit.

From whence came such talent, and where did it go? It’s a mystery; we know very little else about the performers. The Left Banke subsequently delivered a couple of other good songs (“Pretty Ballerina” was one), but the band split up quickly and Brown, despite a few more efforts, faded into obscurity and seclusion—as did Martin, as far as I can tell.

As for the lyrics, that credit goes to Frank J. Sansone, another young man who has hardly ever been heard from again. The lead singer’s voice and the music are haunting and well-matched. But the song hits the trifecta, because the words are at least as extraordinary as the music and the singing. They are poetry, conveying a tense pull between sorrow and stoicism, yearning and renunciation, regret and acceptance. You don’t believe me? Tune in for Part II, the lyrics.

34 Responses to “The band that just walked away Renee (Part I: the song)”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    Oh my, oh sigh. oh goodbye,….

    Lord how I loved and still loved that haunting song.

  2. mizpants Says:

    Me too, Vanderleun.

  3. Doom Says:

    Yes, yes. I don’t remember it quite as you remember it. I listened to the oldies on the radio, despising most of the music of the 70’s… at the time, if to a degree even now.

    I collected some, just as I collect favored words, thoughts, and ideas. This song was among them. Albeit, I heard it at a time when the fullness of romance was unknown, if sex already was. A strange school, this thing called life.

  4. MollyNH Says:

    great song, it has a *classical * bent to it
    It seems like the musical prodigies usually come from
    musically oriented families, which affirms that it takes a generation or 2 to produce a winner !
    Sadly, I guess Cher is the exception !

  5. MollyNH Says:

    Neo will you be posting on the Last of the Great, 2 way players, Chuck Bednarik passing !

  6. FOAF Says:

    I hadn’t thought of that in a long time but what a great song. It points up how songwriting is really the crux of pop music. Unlike playing an instrument and to a lesser extent singing, where once you achieve a level of ability you can maintain it most of your life, songwriting is like catching lightning in a bottle and there are many who wrote one or two great songs but could never repeat it. Only a few (e. g. Beatles, Bob Dylan) have been able to build up a large catalog of memorable songs.

    Even in the Tin Pan Alley days, when there were supposedly dozens of songwriters churning out pop hits in Manhattan rabbit hutches, a large proportion of the enduring songs were written by a comparatively small cohort – Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern and a few others.

  7. FOAF Says:

    Oh no, this is the first I’ve heard about the passing of Chuck Bedarik. He is a special favorite of mine because I have significant family ties to the University of Pennsylvania where “Concrete Charlie” played college ball; he is probably the last NFL player of significance to come from Penn.

    There have been some supposed “two-way” players in recent years but nearly all of them (e. g. Deion Sanders) have played wide receiver and defensive back, where you see rugged contact on only a small handful of plays per game. In the 1960 NFL chamionship game – the last NFL championship won by the Philadelphia Eagles – Bednarik played 58 minutes at *center* and *middle linebacker*. In other words on almost every single play of the game he was either receiving major punishment or dishing it out, usually the latter. He is also known for laying a devastating hit on Frank Gifford that caused Gifford to miss an entire season. RIP, Chuck.

  8. miklos000rosza Says:

    Not the 70s, the 60s. 67 at the latest. There was a lot of experimentation back then. Even the Rolling Stones did such classically-tinged songs as “Ruby Tuesday,” “She’s Like a Rainbow,” and “The Lantern.” Songs which were a product of the studio and hard to replicate on tour.

    Those were the days when the Kinks (and Stones)often used pianist Nicky Hopkins, and the band Love featured a harpsichord in almost every song.

    Before things got so lead guitar-based and blues-heavy, no matter the great songs generated when young white guys played the blues.

  9. MollyNH Says:

    I admire musical people, it really is in their blood, happily for the rest of us.
    great bio on chuck FOAF, he served in the war too
    found himself in a dire situation & promised a daily rosary
    if he was spared, a man of his promise !

  10. CapnRusty Says:

    And back then, the black guys were singing love songs, too. * Sigh *

  11. Political Clown Parade Says:

    Thanks for posting this. It brought back sweet memories of a young girl in love with a lifeguard at a community swimming pool.

  12. clarityseeker Says:

    Also wanted to register my “thanks”.
    A young kid at that time, this was one of many regular songs played at the weekend parties in a friend’s basement. Pool table, great sound system, several comfortable chairs.
    Nehru shirt, Beatles hairstyle, and a girl one year my senior, in tow. Holy smokes, it simply did not get any better than that. And so short lived. Only one thing ensured a lasting memory; songs like this one

  13. Stan Smith Says:

    Michael Brown went on to brief fame as a singer for Stories, the band that gave us “Brother Louie.”

  14. Tonawanda Says:

    My first post at this site was when neo put up a thread on “walking songs”. I suggested Walk Away Renee and no doubt had profound insights into the song.

    That thread made me realize that neo had to be read. The bonus was agreeing with and being edified by all the other stuff.

    The Muses are a reality; something to do with how our brains / souls are communications devices.

    The Muse for “Renee” conveyed the sense of infinity found in all good songs.

  15. BillR Says:

    I associate some songs with particular moments and locations, I just do. Sometimes I can put myself back in that moment and look around. This is one of those songs. 1966 or 67, driving in the evening. Good memories, those. Thanks for the reminder, Neo.

  16. parker Says:

    Walk Away Renee is a wonderful song and reminds me of the beautiful ballads of the zombies. Great 60s and early 70s music. Ah to be so young again.

  17. neo-neocon Says:

    Tonawanda:

    Ah, so it was you!

  18. neo-neocon Says:

    parker:

    And also the Hollies had a somewhat similar sound:

  19. parker Says:

    Look throught any window is my cell ring tone. Greatest guitar chord opening ever… better than the Searchers who were better than the Beatles.

  20. Mac Says:

    This song didn’t really sink in on me at the time it was popular, maybe because I was more into folk than pop at the time. It was on the radio and I liked it, but I don’t remember going out of my way to hear more of the band. It was only eight or ten years later, in the ’70s, hearing it as an “oldie”, that I really grasped how magical it is. I then went to some trouble to find the 45. Which now that I think about it was kind of odd–how did one find 45s that were not current hits? But I did.

    Anyway, it is truly one of the masterpieces of that period in pop music. A shame the group never realized the potential it suggested.

    And oh how well I remember that feeling.

  21. Mac Says:

    I guess I’m going to have to hear the album.

  22. M J R Says:

    The Left Banke were pioneers at what was then being thought of as “baroque rock”.

    “Walk Away Renee” was and is a terrific tune. The Left Banke narrowly avoided being one-hit wonders, though, because the follow-up to “Walk Away Renee” — “Pretty Ballerina” — charted as well.

    Give a listen, if you will, to “Pretty Ballerina” . . .

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rzeGqqethE

    (At the opening of the video there is pictured The Left Banke’s big LP; I bought it back then and I still have it.)

  23. Stan Smith Says:

    Ah, the Hollies. Bus Stop and Look Through Any Window both written by Graham Gouldman, another great unheralded songwriter. He wound up in several other bands, Godley and Creme and 10CC.

  24. FOAF Says:

    Molly, thank you for alerting me to Bednarik’s passing. So far I have heard surprisingly little on it.

  25. Joe Says:

    Pretty Ballerina was – is – one of my very favorites. Michael will not be forgotten.

    One small correction, though: Walk Away Renee is not written in a minor key. It just sounds that way because of the mournful violins.

  26. Lee Says:

    http://dubiousquality.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-musiquarium-featuring-left-banke_27.html?m=1

    Couldn’t navigate to Part I of this, but then I am on my phone. Interesting read!

  27. expat Says:

    CapnRusty,
    Do the young today eben know what a love song is? What is really different is that guys weren’t afraid to express their vulnerability. You have to be open to heartbreak to really understand love.

  28. Tim Kyger Says:

    Let’s not forget another Left Banke song: She May Call You Up Tonight. A gem. Covered by Richard Thompson as part of his “1000 Years of Popular Music” bit.

  29. M J R Says:

    “She May Call You Up Tonight” is a track on the LP by The Left Banke, that I referenced in my March 22nd, 2015, 1:00 am comment. Yes, a gem.

  30. Maggie's Farm Says:

    The Left Banke

    Our friend neoneo has been reminiscing about The Left Banke. Those young fellows had talent, but came and went quickly. I hope they saved their $. Here’s Desiree:

  31. Music Fan Says:

    I doubt they saw any money at all. Record companies are notorious for not paying royalties. I think only the most established bands saw royalty money, but even The Stones got cheated by Allen Klien. Money was made by touring, as it is today, but The Yardbirds toured America in 1966, played sold out gigs, and each member got 128£ at the end of the tour for 6 weeks of work.

  32. The band that just walked away, Renee | M.C. Tuggle, Writer Says:

    […] Here’s an excellent explication on the lyrics of Walk Away, Renee: […]

  33. Margaux Says:

    Anybody know what key Walk Away Renee was written in?

  34. Margaux Says:

    Anyone know what key Walk Away Renee was written in?

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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