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He Can Hear Music 

Pop genius Jeff Barry on love, songwriting, Phil Spector and the art of just doing

Thursday, Jun 9 2005
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Photo by Wild Don LewisHardly anyone’s heard of Jeff Barry, and yet his rhythms are in our blood; his sounds, sensibilities and worldview are part of our collective DNA. When gay couples began lining up to get married in San Francisco last year, their anthem was “Chapel of Love,” which Barry composed with his former wife and Brill Building songwriting partner, Ellie Greenwich. When Brian Wilson experienced his greatest musical epiphany, he was listening to Barry's “Be My Baby.” (Wilson responded particularly well to Barry’s “feminine” style, and covered several Barry-Greenwich compositions with the Beach Boys: “Be My Baby,” “(And) Then He Kissed Me,” “I Can Hear Music.”) Barry’s also responsible for some of the greatest American pop-songwriting traditions. Take the tragic-accident trope: Besides co-writing “The Leader of the Pack,” Barry had his first hit with “Tell Laura I Love Her” (originally about a rodeo), in which the young hero dies in a stock-car race. The proud nonsense-lyric/slang tradition? Barry penned “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Hanky Panky” and “Bang-Shang-a-Lang.” Barry co-invented the girl-group sound and phenomenon, writing and/or producing for the Ronettes, the Exciters, the Dixie Cups, the Crystals and the Shangri-Las. But his influence as a producer didn’t stop there. Barry experimented early with Caribbean sounds (“Iko Iko,” “Montego Bay”), and discovered Neil Diamond and created the iconic sound of Diamond’s great early recordings (“Cherry, Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Red, Red Wine,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Thank the Lord for the Night Time”) — a sound he reproduced on the Monkees’ cover of Diamond’s “I’m a Believer.” Barry’s Monkees work also led to a project especially dear to his heart, the Archies, whose bubblegum anthems (including “Sugar, Sugar”) recombined for children the elements that had made his early Phil Spector work special: whimsy, romance, hooks aplenty and a dose of magical gibberish. It was an honor to sit for an afternoon in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and ask Barry how the hell he did it. L.A. WEEKLY: How did you write “Be My Baby”? JEFF BARRY: I don’t know! I don’t know how I wrote any song. It’s not a how. Sometimes I wonder how much of the Phil Spector “wall of sound” was Jeff Barry. None. As I recall, when we were writing “Be My Baby,” I was banging on the file cabinet — you ever see the [short] ones that you roll around? I would always get a chair and bang on it; the top sounded like a snare drum, and the side was like a kick drum. I would sing and make up words, and play the piano. And to my recollection I came up with [Barry sounds out the opening drumbeat to “Be My Baby”]. That’s the ultimate Phil Spector signature! No. The signature is the sound of what he did arrangement-wise. The epitome is “River Deep — Mountain High” — a bunch of acoustic guitars all at once. But everyone knows that as the Phil Spector drumbeat. Well, that’s okay. It’s not original to me, either. Probably the first time I heard it was working with Lieber and Stoller. Lyrically, [when you’re writing], you want to come up with something that everyone is aware of, but no one ever talks about. Like a couple — and they know they’re cool. “We’ll make them turn their heads every place we go” [from “Be My Baby”] — I thought that was cool. ’Cause everyone’s going to smirk at that, relate to that, and they’ll remember that. And you know, all the rest of it is “The night we met I knew I needed you so, and if I had the chance, I’d never let you go.” And that’s stuff we’ve heard. Yeah, but “I’ll make you so proud of me . . .” is gorgeous. Yes, exactly, the second verse — I really like that second verse! I end up writing lyrics that are more feminine than masculine. I can’t help it. I try to write something butch and this romantic thing comes out anyway. Sometimes I suspect you wrote “Be My Baby” all by yourself. No. Let me tell you this. If someone put a gun to my head and said, write a hit song or I’ll pull the trigger, and I said, can I co-write? And they said, yeah, you got one phone call — I would call Phil Spector. Maybe not at the moment, but... Are you still friends? Do you talk? [Sighs.] No. But that’s not because he’s accused of murder. No, we haven’t talked for a while. Is that romanticism actually how you are as a person, or just as a songwriter? It’s the same thing. I’m one person. I never thought about it, but I’m not Jeff Barry the guy, the husband, the father, the friend, the boyfriend, the lover — and then Jeff Barry the songwriter, record producer, lyricist, music-business guy. It’s the same guy. If I had a switch to write love songs and then go home and beat my wife — That’s not unheard of! I think you are what you eat; you are what you write. When I was writing those songs, I was socially innocent. I hadn’t been around the world and been with a million girls. I really had a very simplistic ’60s, teenager-in-the-’50s kind of outlook on life. It was simple and romantic and naive. “Chapel of Love,” I mean, I performed that at a concert [a while ago], and I said, here’s one of the most naive songs I ever wrote. I sang it, “Today’s the day we’ll say I do . . . ,” and I said, here’s the naive part, “And we’ll never be lonely anymore.” That’s bullshit. But when I wrote that in the ’60s, you know, it was, bluebirds are flying, we’re going to get married, everything’s going to be great. But at the same time, the professional part of me knew I was creating entertainment for young people, mostly girls. That’s who was buying the records. And I was conscious that I want to keep it clean, and fun, and that if the parents heard the song, they would approve. At the same time, if someone said, you’ve got to write sleazy, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write effective, authentic sleaze, because I’m not sleazy. The idea that “we’ll never be lonely anymore” is naive, but it sounds like the general romanticism of your songs is something you still live by. [Huge sigh.] Or not? It’s sad. Why is it sad? It’s tough. It’s not easy being me! [Laughs.] It’s tough. How? [Sigh.] I think if you’re a romantic, you’re vulnerable. If it’s not reciprocal, or if it changes more in the other person, that childlike naiveté [can easily] be hurt. I don’t know how it is to be some tough guy. The fact that you’re still a die-hard romantic only makes me feel justified in loving your music and taking it seriously. I don’t care what people call the songs, or if they are sometimes reviewed-slash-judged as being simplistic, bubblegummy, blah blah. To me, it’s stupid. It would be like reviewing a Porky Pig cartoon and saying, there’s no depth of plot there, they have no underwear, and they only have three fingers . . . It’s meant for children! It’s not Full Metal Jacket! It’s like musical Disney. That’s what it is. It wasn’t meant for adults. But the funny thing is, as it turns out, those kids grew up, and as adults they still like the songs. The best children’s art is meaningful for adults even if there is a naiveté to it. There’s nothing wrong with still having a romantic ideal. You were one of the primary inventors of the teen pop-musical lexicon, including the use of nonsense lyrics; you created a world, a fantasy world, in your music Maybe I lived in it! Maybe I was just reporting! What you were doing was so new: The sound was new, the lyrics, the thematic values, the whole concept of a girl group and what that meant [Nonsense lyrics] are the hook — the stuff that gets attention and you remember. But I was also conscious of putting in real stuff. Somebody once said to me, you write all this bubblegummy garbage, and I said, “Yeah, you’re right. I read a Rod McKuen poem the other day that said something about “the loveliness of loving you . . .” And he said: See, now that’s what you should be writing. And I said, fuck you — that’s a lyric from “Sugar, Sugar” that I wrote for 3-year-olds. “I just can’t believe the loveliness of loving you” is not a 3-year-old’s sentiment. And it was record of the year. And I went, wow, that’s interesting. To become record of the year, it’s more than 3- and 4-year-olds asking Mommy to buy it. And the fact it’s still on the radio every day. Isn’t that cool? From “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” to “Skooby Doo,” your nonsense lyrics have a real childlike emotional power there’s something heroic about them. Heroic? Ah, jeez. I love you! I’m a hero! I’d love to be a hero. I’d love to be a friggin’ hero. You are a friggin’ hero. [Barry’s eyes go misty.] Every artist you’ve worked with, from Phil Spector to Neil Diamond to Andy Kim, made the best music of his or her career while working with you. So I have to wonder how much of their greatness came from you. Certainly with Neil Diamond that’s a glaring question, because the production is so much a part of that music. But even the songwriting I don’t know if you were helping to write those songs. No, but I’m singing background and I’m very influential. He went on to do the “Holly Holy”s, and that’s not my kind of production, that kind of big, epic-sounding, I’m-not-quite-sure-what-it-means kind of song. I like songs that are direct and accessible and I know what they mean. Here’s the thing: How the hell did you invent an entirely new sound, a kind of music that had never been heard before? I listened to the radio, but as I look back I realize that there was nothing to look around at! I was at the front of the wave! I’d have to look kind of back! I was Jeff Barry at that time! I was all over the place — I was having pop hits and country hits and R&B hits — all kinds of stuff. I didn’t need to look around and see what everybody else was doing so I’d know what to do. I didn’t care. But how did you do it? Who knows? There was no formula, so there were no rules, so there was nothing to think about, worry about, do like. You just did. And since I had early success, it was like I never failed. So I never doubted myself. I didn’t know what doubt was. If you only throw strikes, you’re not worried about throwing a ball. I didn’t know it was impossible. I didn’t know it was really hard to have a successful career as a songwriter. I was just doing. So you were just running on pure genius. Well, I don’t know — I was having a great time and coming up with a new way to say the same old thing. That’s what it’s really about. A new way to say, I love ya. Want ya, I need ya. C’mere. That’s the assignment. That’s why country music’s so great — they come up with adult ways of saying it. And in terms of production It took me almost three hours to make the basic track for “Sugar, Sugar” because I couldn’t get the drummer to . . . I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t feel right. I say, okay, here comes the bridge, gimme that fill. And I’m trying to get him to lay back! Finally, I guess I got him so exhausted — it took almost three hours. I’m sure anybody else would have thought I was nuts — what am I doing? What am I trying for here? Not that I’m any kind of prima donna, it just was like — no! It’s wrong, and I know there’s a right. It’s out there, I know it. It’s there, and it’s behind one of those bushes, man. Let’s find it, let’s do it, let’s get it, because it’s going to be good when we get it. So when you’re inventing new music That’s the word! And no one has ever said that word before. That’s exactly what I tell people: I’m not a songwriter, I’m not a record producer, I’m an inventor. If you’re inventing something new, what are your standards of quality? There is no standard. It’s when you have done it, whatever the thing is, and you go, yeah, okay. You don’t know if it’s good, you just know when to stop. ’Cause you can. You just know you like it and you can’t wait for people to hear it. So, yeah, I would bang on garbage cans and file cabinets — I wanted to find new sounds, something different, something ear-catching. I love when people say, what’s that? ’Cause if you can have that element in the product on top of a good song, well-sung, nicely arranged, well-produced with a new sound and a great riff, you’ve got a lot of shit going. It wasn’t as calculated as that, though — there were no books. There were no rules. Perhaps pop music was so much better then, in part, because there wasn’t all this built-up history around it. Exactly! You know what I call it? Kitty Hawk. They didn’t know what they were doing! They pushed it off the friggin’ hill to see if it would fly. Not to get rich. Now, today, it’s all computerized and they know it’s gonna fly. ’Cause I guarantee you they had 95 models that already flew in tests. Today, the music is mechanical and perfect — everything’s in pitch. Then, it was [all] by ear. You didn’t hear if something wasn’t perfect. The tempo’s perfect today, the pitch is perfect, the singer doesn’t have to be able to sing — Pro Tools. Pitch-fix. Great. Get the background singers to sing one perfect chorus, then [loop it]. The Kitty Hawk metaphor is another way of saying that there’s a special energy to art when you don’t quite feel ready to do it. That’s when you’re just trusting your instincts and finger-painting. And just going for it with absolutely no self-consciousness or fear of making a mistake. It’s all about creating emotion. That’s what show biz is. If you leave ’em the way you found ’em, you blew it.
Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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