You never know who you're going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter's not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By - or, better, that TGB needed his column - which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.
I feel as if I’m trespassing on Citizen K’s territory today – taking a song and see where it’ll lead us. The song is Walk Away Renée and if you don’t like that song you might as well do something else, like check out Pharyngula or go over to K’s and see what he’s doing so you can read something stimulating rather than my rabbiting on about an obscure pop song from the sixties.
In the beginning there was the Left Banke.
They have been compared with the Beach Boys and The Zombies and even The Beatles for heaven's sake. They were just pretenders. The reason was that they liked to throw the odd string quartet, harpsichord or flute into their songs so the critics said, “Oh, this is deep.”
The song was composed by Left Banke member Michael Brown, when he was 16, about the girl friend of fellow Banker Tom Finn. Michael had a bit of a thing for Renée, it seems. He apparently wrote several other songs about her as well – Pretty Ballerina and She May Call You Up Tonight.
Renée (above) was present for the recording of the song and it made Michael so nervous he could barely play; his hands were shaking so much. He returned later when she wasn’t around and redid his part in the song.
Renée became uncomfortable with all the attention paid to her and (I’m sorry for this, but I couldn’t resist it) walked away.
Here’s the Left Banke with Walk Away Renee.
And then came The Four Tops, maybe the best soul group ever.
They turned this creepy stalking song into a song of joy. As if Renée were saying, “Hang on, why aren’t you following me?” The Tops had so many great songs in the Sixties that it would be easy to overlook this one. I haven’t, of course, or we wouldn’t have this column today.
The Four Tops got together when they were in high school, in 1956, and the group sang together for decades without any personnel changes. Alas, only one of the original Tops is still alive.
Billy Bragg took the song and ran with it.
He seems to have a fascination with this tune and I’m featuring him twice. On the first track, Johnny Marr plays the song’s melody on acoustic guitar and Billy does a bit of a rap over it. This is an English folk song rap, what we’d call a talking blues if Woody Guthrie had done it.
This version is a self-deprecating account of first love and the follies and embarrassments it induces. This song is at odds with Billy’s reputation as Britain’s foremost left-wing, rabble-rousing rocker.
Billy’s next song, on the face of it, is totally unrelated. It’s called Levi Stubbs' Tears but listening to the melody, I can hear references to the song. Levi Stubbs was the lead singer for the Four Tops and he, and they, feature in the lyrics of this version. I see it as Billy’s homage to the tune, if I may be pretentious for a moment.
There have been many covers of the song by such as Frankie Valli, Southside Johnny, Rickie Lee Jones, Marshall Crenshaw and a bunch of others I won’t name and I wouldn’t want to listen to. So it’s back to basics with the most recent version I’ve encountered by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy.
Ann is longtime friend of Linda’s and a musician and musical scholar. The album, “Adieu False Heart,” from which it is taken consists mainly of Cajun and early 20th century music. It didn’t sell well, but I don’t think Linda needs the royalties, although Ann might.