Monday, August 15, 2005

Fling them from the top of the Brill Building

The Brill Building, referenced in "Epitaph for My Heart," was a one-stop pop song factory, located at 1619 Broadway in New York City. In the building during its heyday, in the late 50s and early 60s, you could obtain a freshly written song, have it arranged, assemble studio musicians and singers, record a demo, and then try to sell it to various record companies, all without stepping outside. At its wall-busting peak, it housed 165 music businesses.

This sort of division of labor may not sit right with modern audiences, but it's unreasonable to demand that songwriters also be musicians and singers, not to mention models. Merritt has stated that he despises touring (their tours are referred to as "tourettes"), and his band the 6ths demonstrates his desire to be known, first and foremost, as a songwriter by having other people sing his songs. Several of his recordings from the last half dozen years don't even feature Merritt as a musician or singer, like "Acoustic Guitar" and "Waltzing Me All the Way Home."

The Onion: Then how do you actually go about writing Stephin Merritt songs? Do you consider yourself primarily a lyricist?
Merritt: I suppose I consider myself primarily a songwriter. I'm involved with both lyrics and music, intertwined, usually. The lyrics are about the same thing the music is about, usually. They comment on each other, and if I wrote one without the other, like I did on the Future Bible Heroes record [Memories of Love], it wouldn't mean the same thing. Which it doesn't on the Future Bible Heroes record.

The Onion: Do you prefer to sing yourself, or have other people sing?
Merritt: I prefer to have other people sing, because it's a lot easier to judge how well they're doing. Everybody hates the sound of their own voice when it's played back.

69 Love Songs itself seems to be, also, a tribute to the industrialized songwriting process. It's self-consciously packaged like a generic product, using the most bland font of them all, Courier, and the title also brings to mind other store-bought products, like a box of 64 Crayola™ crayons or maybe even 2000 Flushes™.

Including the Bacharach/David duo (featured last week), the Brill Building was associated with several prominent songwriting teams, among them Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil. Wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector made many Brill Building songs into hits, and all three songs this week are Spector productions from the highly recommended Back to Mono boxed set. "I Love How You Love Me" written by Barry Mann and Larry Kolber, Merritt's entry for 1961 on the list, sounds innocent upon first listen, but a second listen will put a knowing grin on your face if you have an unclean mind like mine. On the other hand, "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" (a Goffin/King composition) is not at all subtle, and it's actually quite disturbing - the Three Terrors covered it for one of their performances. And finally, one of the most glorious moments in pop music is "Be My Baby" (penned by Barry/Greenwich), which has an unforgettable drum intro that was borrowed for countless other songs, including the Magnetic Fields track "Candy."

The Paris Sisters - "I Love How You Love Me"
The Crystals - "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)"
The Ronettes - "Be My Baby"


Anonymous cryptoquip said...

"He Hit Me" is a classic--my whole household (38 people, mostly queer) was listening to that last year and going nuts over it.

12:16 AM  

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