The strange story of Renee, who was invited to walk away

A great pop song is a wonderful sound to tickle your ears with. Sadly they seem to be less common these days. I only hear the occasional chart act doing anything interesting – Lady Gaga, Gorillaz, Clean Bandit, and, err… that’s about it. Though, to be fair, I’m not listening to Radio 1 these days – I discovered Clean Bandit months after they had a number one single.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that back in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, and possibly the Eighties, there were more singles around that grabbed you by the lugs and made you pay attention.

“Boring old fart,” I hear the Greek chorus shout from behind me.

Recently I heard on the radio one of the pop songs I would consider a classic, Walk Away Renée. The Four Tops. Ah, yes, the Tamla Motown record label, and those great songs created by Holland/Dozier/Holland and other Motown house writers.

For people in my age group, Tamla Motown was a big deal and the label’s singles were frequently heard at my school’s sixth form/staff discos – yes, really, I’m not making this up, we really did this back in the Seventies.

Except, no. The song I heard on the radio was, indeed, Walk Away Renée, but it was not the Four Tops. This was yet another revelation to me courtesy of the informative Sounds Of The 60s programme presented by Brian Matthew on BBC Radio 2 each Saturday morning.

If you are a hip popster you perhaps already knew this but Walk Away Renée was first recorded by the band The Left Banke in 1966. The Four Tops version followed in 1968. The song was written by The Left Banke keyboard player Michael Brown, aged 16, about Renée Fladen-Kamm, who according to Wikipedia was the bass player’s then girlfriend.

The Left Banke version is described as baroque pop. It is interesting but, for me, not as good as The Four Tops version. This could be because I’m more familiar with the latter, but I don’t think so. See what you think, here’s The Left Banke…

And here’s The Four Tops…

I think The Four Tops have it. First, it’s hard to sit still, the Motown beat just gets to you. If you were a musician, what would you give to get the drummer and bass player on your recording? Second, the lead vocal of Levi Stubbs is heart-rending. Ah, yes, I’m back at the school disco. Third, the arrangement is superb – it pulls you in from the beginning. And, fourth, the production is more rounded, finished – but not so polished as to lose its spontaneity.

Yet it’s not just the performance and the production, it is a great song, an unusual song from the off – the opening word is “And”. I can’t think of any other song which does that. At school we were told not to start sentences with “And”, it was not grammatical. Then when I trained as a journalist we were told we could start sentences with “And” – a habit I still have, as you may have noticed. But even on newspapers we never started with “And” at the very beginning of a story. In fact, the whole opening line is wonderful: “And when I see the sign that points one way…” You know it’s not going to end well.

Being a great song it has lent itself to other cover versions. For example, Linda Ronstadt – tragically no longer able to sing due to Parkinson’s Disease – recorded this version with Ann Savoy…


But it doesn’t end there. Billy Bragg must be a fan of this song, and of The Four Tops. Not only has he recorded a song of his own called Levi Stubbs’ Tears, he has also covered Walk Away Renee. But, being Billy, he did it rather differently. He retained the tune, picked out on guitar by Johnny Marr, but added his own lyric, in his own style, which speaks of bus rides, nose bleeds, the fun-fair, and Mr Potato Head. It’s still very touching…

Generally speaking I think great pop songs are best not covered – though, as I said, it is possible I prefer The Four Tops’ cover because I heard it first.

But, now and then, a cover comes along that breaks this rule. Remember the Bacharach-David song I Say A Little Prayer For You? It was a 1967 hit for Dionne Warwick. This, apparently, is the unedited version with the count-in…

Of course, you probably also remember that it was very quickly back in the charts, sung by Aretha Franklin in 1968…

And many, many more have covered the song, including the late Jackie Leven. That is Jackie a man, not a woman, but I love that he kept the lyric about putting on make-up and a dress (though it annoys my musician wife Kathie Touin). It is another great version, to be found on the album The Mystery Of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery Of Death, which adds something to the original…

There are other examples of covers, in my opinion, improving on the original. The Carpenters, for example, who recorded Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft, first recorded by Klaatu. As well as Richard’s arrangements and Karen’s singing, I particularly like the cheesy intro they added to the song – and the alien who says “Baby” is priceless…

But of course most of us knew The Carpenters version before we came across Klaatu. Finding covers of really well known hit singles, that work really well and add something to the song, is harder. Apart from I Say A Little Prayer For You, I’m struggling. Any ideas?

Graham Brown

Postscript

I mentioned Clean Bandit, and that I came across them months after they enjoyed a number one single. I then discovered that many friends, including some younger folk (ie early thirties), do not know their music. This is an outcome of the low sales of singles in the UK and the lack of interest in the charts. At one time nearly everyone would have known the number one single – they might not have liked it, but they would have known it.

Anyway, for those who do not know Clean Bandit, they have extremely catchy songs, great production, creative use of auto-tuning – and someone has put money into their videos as well. Considerable investment, in fact. This is Come Over (featuring Stylo G)…

To find out more

Clean Bandit website: http://cleanbandit.co.uk/

Wikipedia on Walk Away Renee, The Left Banke and Motown:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walk_Away_Ren%C3%A9e

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_Banke

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motown

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

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