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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon