Burt Bacharach is a direct line to a lost musical world

The effect of seeing Bacharach live at the Royal Festival hall was to be hit by more top-40 songs that you'd think a single act could be capable of producing.

Burt Bacharach
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

Many men admit that they became musicians in order to meet girls. Burt Bacharach, the writer of 73 top-40 hits in the US alone, is no different. Piano players look so shy and clever tinkering away onstage – but we know they’re controlling the show.

Marlene Dietrich fell for Bacharach when she took him on as musical director in 1956 (he was 28; she was 55). She propositioned him one night and, when that didn’t work, focused on mixing his energy drinks, washing his tennis shorts and promoting his career in an intense mother/son relationship that took him some years to wriggle free from. On 7 July, at one of two sold-out gigs at the Royal Festival Hall, he said of the Dietrich years, “The music was terrible but I got to see the world.” His new autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, is full of such shrugging observations, of which the most misleading is probably: “I was just the piano player.”

When Mike Myers had Bacharach serenading Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), it was a moment of high kitsch. For a while, no one could admit they liked the great 1970s songwriters – Bach - arach, the Bee Gees, the Carpenters – without saying “guilty pleasure” first. Luckily, all that has changed and while many of the crowd at the Royal Festival Hall clearly discovered him grooving to “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”behind the ironic retro cocktail cabinet, they gave an incredibly enthusiastic reception to the 85-year-old, who looked comfortable in a lounge suit and big, white trainers.

Bacharach is a direct line to a lost musical world. As a teenager in Queens, he met Leonard Bernstein on a bus. (His parting words were: “See you on top some day.”) The French modernist composer Darius Milhaud taught him how to eat tacos between tutorials at McGill University. He has a great memory for the mundane and, in his book, he seems to glide through his early years – playing piano for Vic Damone, fruitless months at the Brill Building – more interested in tennis and women than in music.

He drifts from the Korean war to the Oscars like a kind of musical Forrest Gump but behind the deadpan voice is a complicated youth who, ashamed of his Jewish roots, rails against his sense of inadequacy by jumping on any job or girl that lands in his path.

He is openly neurotic – an entire chapter is given over to his insomnia – and exhibits many of the kinds of obsessive behaviours that his first child, Nikki, later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, suffered in adult life. Bacharach sent Nikki to a medical institution when she was 16 against her mother’s wishes, where she remained for a decade. In 2007, aged 40, she committed suicide. He takes the unusual step of printing a running commentary from Angie Dickinson, his exwife, which blames much of Nikki’s tragedy on his lack of understanding. He also recalls the time he approached Dickinson with a list of 26 things he wanted her to change in their relationship. “I don’t recall the list,” she counters. “You’d think I’d have saved it – held it up to say, ‘See what a prick I married?’”

At his show in London, Bacharach’s small, plush band – strings, trumpets, flugelhorn – fades down while he sings “Alfie” alone in the spotlight and the frailty of his voice is moving. He rarely performed in his own right until he won an Oscar for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (sung by B J Thomas) in 1969. Residencies in Vegas followed, as did a friendship with Sinatra, who once introduced him as “the man that writes music in hat sizes – seven and three-fourths”. While many of his bestknown tunes are presented in annoying, clapalong medleys, you can still hear the quirks and complexities that set them apart, such as the missed beat in “I Say a Little Prayer” that speeds the chorus along.

Best of all, you can see what music still excites him: “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (originally sung by Dionne Warwick, tonight by Josie James) stretches out in all its breastbeating glory and Bacharach jumps up, bent over like a grandpa, hammering the keyboard. His lyricist Hal David died last year at 91 but more recent collaborations with Elvis Costello and Steven Sater still have the right kind of old-fashioned titles (“I Still Have That Other Girl”, “Every Other Hour”), not to mention a luxuriant sadness that recalls a more leisurely time for the love song, when men and women let themselves lie around feeling blue, waiting for the landline to ring.

The effect of this show, like the Abba and Queen musicals that play in the West End, is to hit you with more top-40 songs than you’d think a single act could be capable of, from the stuff you’d expect to the ones you’d forgotten (“Magic Moments”). When he shouts, “Let’s modulate!” during a singalong rendition of “Raindrops”, you are watching the composer keeping himself interested. And at exactly 12.15am, if his book is anything to go by, he’ll be inserting wax earplugs, after his nightly dose of sleeping pills.

“Anyone Who Had a Heart” is out now (Alcourt, £20). A box set of the same name is released on Universal Music (£39.99)

Walk on by: Burt Bacharach in 2005. Photograph: Rob Greig/Time Out/Camera Press.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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