From CMJ New Music Monthly, June 1998

Burt's Back

It was really no surprise at all to find swinging '60s icon Burt Bacharach tinkling the ivories atop a Las Vegas tour bus as well as provide music for the soundtrack of the amusing spy flick spoof "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." Afer all, who better to colorfully illustrate how out-of-touch Mike Myers amusing Austin Powers caricature was than the man whose music, not to mention whose suave sense of style, remains one of the most instantly recognizable touchstones of the hip, not hippie, 60s? And what dated album of schmaltzy instrumentals could have better emphasized Austin's retro taste than the fictional spy's fave LP, 1965's mostly instrumental Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits?

Yes, but what was true a year ago isn't quite as accurate today because, well, let's just say that with each passing day Austin Powers is becoming less and less of an anachronism, at least in terms of his musical inclinations, and that after a decade-long absence from the charts and minds of America, Burt Bacharach is on his way to being as much a man of the '90s as he was of the '60s. The liner notes to last year's MCA reissue of Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits begin with this little observation: "Lately there's been a renewed buzz about the music of Burt Bacharach." But that's already beginning to sound like a grand understatement. "Bacharach," Time magazine pointed out last year, "is currently enjoying greater popularity than at any other time since his heyday in the 1 960s and early '70s, when, working against the rock grain, he was responsible for dozens of Top 40 hits." Now that's more like it.

Of course, American pop culture has been recycling past fashions with dizzying speed for a good decade now, so maybe it was only a matter of time before Bacharach came back into vogue. But there's something remarkable about how deeply this Bacharach revival seems to have penetrated the increasingly fragmented contemporary pop consciousness. His name has popped up everywhere from Broadway, where a new show based on Bacharach standards is now playing, to the New York avant-rock underground, which got behind John Zorn's two CD Bacharach tribute Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach (Tzadik) last year; from British rock charts, where a reissued collection of Bacharach tunes titled The Look Of Love hit the top ten a couple of years ago, to the American rock underground, where artists like Eric Matthews and Ivy are embracing the lushly orchestrated sophistication of the Bacharach songbook.

And the list goes on. Outside of Austin Powers, which featured Seattle popsters the Posies doing "What The World Needs Now Is Love" with Bacharach, as well as Susanna Hoffs covering Burt's "The Look Of Love," Bacharach tunes have shown up in the films My Best Friend's Wedding (where Ani DiFranco covered his "Wishin' And Hopin"'), First Wives Club ("Wives And Lovers"), and One Fine Day, which featured Harry Connick Jr. doing "This Guy's In Love With You." That particular Bacharach number has been turning up in some odd places itself: The punk-pop band Fastball tears through a version of it on the Hollywood Records compilation Lounge-a-palooza; and after Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher admitted to nicking part of it for his "Half The World Away," Bacharach invited him on stage at Royal Albert Hall two summers ago to perform it with him. At press time, Gallagher was scheduled to perform the song at an April 8 tribute concert titled "Bacharach: One Amazing Night," set to be taped in New York for broadcast on TNT.

Some of the other performers who will take part in "Bacharach: One Amazing Night" are Ben Folds Five, Sheryl Crow, Dionne Warwick, Chrissie Hynde and, of course, Elvis Costello. Costello had the foresight to cover Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" two decades ago on the Stiffs Live album, and he's been rewarded by the man himself: Last year Elvis and Burt collaborated on the tune "God Give Me Strength" for the film Grace Of My Heart and they're currently working on an album-length effort for release on Mercury later this year.

The award for most popular Bacharach sample goes to "Walk On By"„the Isaac Hayes version of that tune was sampled heavily enough by Hooverphonic for its dubby single "2Wicky" to earn Bacharach a co-writing credit, and it also turns up in the trip-hoppy Mono tune "Silicone." And in the most popular tribute album title category there's What The World Needs Now„jazz saxist Stan Getz used it in 1967, jazz pianist McCoy Tyner did the same last year, and this year the New York indie-pop label Big Deal celebrated its fifth anniversary with its own What The World Needs Now, featuring Shonen Knife doing "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," the BMX Bandits tackling "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and Mitchell Rasor's melancholy "I Say A Little Prayer" Oh, and several Bacharach Internet sites have reported the existence of a Danish Bacharach tribute band by the name of the Bacharachs.

To be sure, elements of this Bacharach renaissance can be chalked up to the nostalgia that helps keeps Broadway in business these days. Back when Bacharach and his most famous songwriting partner, Iyricist Hal David, co-wrote the musical Promises, Promises, their marriage of mainstream pop idioms and Broadway traditions may have been considered innovative, but after countless Sondheim productions the Bacharach/David formula has more or less become the standard„ in fact, the label Varese Sarabande just released a tribute to Broadway Bacharach titled Broadway Sings Burt Bacharach. Similarly, Bacharach was initially considered a heretic when, in 1958, he broke with the strict verse/chorus/verse conventions of Tin Pan Alley with "The Story Of My Life" (written with David for Marty Robbins), but his countless hits have since been accepted as part of the pop cannon. No less an authority than Ira Gershwin once crowned Bacharach "the fifth 'B': Beethoven, Brahms, Berlin, Bach, and Bacharach."

Of course, in today's unruly pop universe, Bacharach hardly has a rebel's resume. Born May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in Forest Hills, New York, he studied theory and composition at the David Mannes School of Music at McGill University, and then under the guidance of composer Darius Milhaud, before taking jobs at the Brill Building and as the touring musical director for Marlene Deitrich. When he and David began working together at Famous Music in 1958, they were simply following the conventional path for songwriters of their day, in stark contrast to two of the bigger 'B's who would emerge in the next decade to break new ground in pop„the Beatles and Brian Wilson's Beach Boys.

Given that Bacharach is a product of the mainstream music establishment, it's not terribly surprising to discover that the advice he gave to young musicians in the December 1996 issue of Musician magazine was old school, very old school: "I think it's important to be able to write music down. I try to encourage young people betting in this business to learn solfege, learn the rules. Then you can break the rules down the line. But learn to write it down. I can lead my little boy to a keyboard with three or four 'brains' hooked up and have him play two notes, and it sounds magnificent. That still doesn't make a song."

But that hasn't kept Bacharach from appealing to a younger generation of contemporary pop lovers who may or may not be well versed in solfege„artists like Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, who perform "The Look Of Love" on Zorn's Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach trihute (which also features Marc Ribot, Fred Frith, Medeski Martin And Wood, and Bill Frisell), and bands like New York's Ivy, which claims Bacharach along with fellow swinging '60s icons Francoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg, as formative influences. Bacharach himself has pointed out that it can't really be nostalgia that's driving a new generation of songwriters to his music: "A lot of these kids weren't even born when these songs were around the first time," he told the Detroit Free Press last July. "They're not rediscovering them; they're discovering them .

Bacharach would also prohably agree with how Big Deal Records co founder/co-president Dean Brownrout, a longtime Burt fan, characterizes the current Bacharach revival. "I think there were a lot of people the grunge thing just didn't speak to," he notes. "So a logical backlash to that would be melodies, hooks and songs. And that's what Bacharach is all about."

But it was Burt himself who best put his current situation in perspective when he spoke with USA Today last year. "I think it's a yearning for music and melody. A couple of key people said one day, 'I really like this man's music.' And people tuned in to that. These songs were written before the alternative rock musicians were even born, but the wheel has come around for the second time." END