He Can Hear Music
Photo by Wild Don LewisHardly anyones 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 Barrys feminine style, and covered several Barry-Greenwich compositions with the Beach Boys: Be My Baby, (And) Then He Kissed Me, I Can Hear Music.) Barrys 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 didnt stop there. Barry experimented early with Caribbean sounds (Iko Iko, Montego Bay), and discovered Neil Diamond and created the iconic sound of Diamonds great early recordings (Cherry, Cherry, Girl, Youll 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 Diamonds Im a Believer. Barrys 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 dont know! I dont know how I wrote any song. Its 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]. Thats 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, thats okay. Its not original to me, either. Probably the first time I heard it was working with Lieber and Stoller. Lyrically, [when youre 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 theyre cool. Well make them turn their heads every place we go [from Be My Baby] I thought that was cool. Cause everyones going to smirk at that, relate to that, and theyll 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, Id never let you go. And thats stuff weve heard. Yeah, but Ill 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 cant 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 Ill 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 thats not because hes accused of murder. No, we havent talked for a while. Is that romanticism actually how you are as a person, or just as a songwriter? Its the same thing. Im one person. I never thought about it, but Im 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. Its the same guy. If I had a switch to write love songs and then go home and beat my wife Thats 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 hadnt 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, heres one of the most naive songs I ever wrote. I sang it, Todays the day well say I do . . . , and I said, heres the naive part, And well never be lonely anymore. Thats bullshit. But when I wrote that in the 60s, you know, it was, bluebirds are flying, were going to get married, everythings going to be great. But at the same time, the professional part of me knew I was creating entertainment for young people, mostly girls. Thats 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, youve got to write sleazy, I probably wouldnt have been able to write effective, authentic sleaze, because Im not sleazy. The idea that well 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? Its sad. Why is it sad? Its tough. Its not easy being me! [Laughs.] Its tough. How? [Sigh.] I think if youre a romantic, youre vulnerable. If its not reciprocal, or if it changes more in the other person, that childlike naiveté [can easily] be hurt. I dont know how it is to be some tough guy. The fact that youre still a die-hard romantic only makes me feel justified in loving your music and taking it seriously. I dont care what people call the songs, or if they are sometimes reviewed-slash-judged as being simplistic, bubblegummy, blah blah. To me, its stupid. It would be like reviewing a Porky Pig cartoon and saying, theres no depth of plot there, they have no underwear, and they only have three fingers . . . Its meant for children! Its not Full Metal Jacket! Its like musical Disney. Thats what it is. It wasnt 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 childrens art is meaningful for adults even if there is a naiveté to it. Theres 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, youre right. I read a Rod McKuen poem the other day that said something about the loveliness of loving you . . . And he said: See, now thats what you should be writing. And I said, fuck you thats a lyric from Sugar, Sugar that I wrote for 3-year-olds. I just cant believe the loveliness of loving you is not a 3-year-olds sentiment. And it was record of the year. And I went, wow, thats interesting. To become record of the year, its more than 3- and 4-year-olds asking Mommy to buy it. And the fact its still on the radio every day. Isnt that cool? From Doo Wah Diddy Diddy to Skooby Doo, your nonsense lyrics have a real childlike emotional power theres something heroic about them. Heroic? Ah, jeez. I love you! Im a hero! Id love to be a hero. Id love to be a friggin hero. You are a friggin hero. [Barrys eyes go misty.] Every artist youve 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 thats a glaring question, because the production is so much a part of that music. But even the songwriting I dont know if you were helping to write those songs. No, but Im singing background and Im very influential. He went on to do the Holly Holys, and thats not my kind of production, that kind of big, epic-sounding, Im-not-quite-sure-what-it-means kind of song. I like songs that are direct and accessible and I know what they mean. Heres 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! Id 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 didnt need to look around and see what everybody else was doing so Id know what to do. I didnt 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 didnt know what doubt was. If you only throw strikes, youre not worried about throwing a ball. I didnt know it was impossible. I didnt 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 dont know I was having a great time and coming up with a new way to say the same old thing. Thats what its really about. A new way to say, I love ya. Want ya, I need ya. Cmere. Thats the assignment. Thats why country musics 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 couldnt get the drummer to . . . I dont know what it was, but it didnt feel right. I say, okay, here comes the bridge, gimme that fill. And Im trying to get him to lay back! Finally, I guess I got him so exhausted it took almost three hours. Im sure anybody else would have thought I was nuts what am I doing? What am I trying for here? Not that Im any kind of prima donna, it just was like no! Its wrong, and I know theres a right. Its out there, I know it. Its there, and its behind one of those bushes, man. Lets find it, lets do it, lets get it, because its going to be good when we get it. So when youre inventing new music Thats the word! And no one has ever said that word before. Thats exactly what I tell people: Im not a songwriter, Im not a record producer, Im an inventor. If youre inventing something new, what are your standards of quality? There is no standard. Its when you have done it, whatever the thing is, and you go, yeah, okay. You dont know if its good, you just know when to stop. Cause you can. You just know you like it and you cant 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, whats 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, youve got a lot of shit going. It wasnt 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 wasnt all this built-up history around it. Exactly! You know what I call it? Kitty Hawk. They didnt know what they were doing! They pushed it off the friggin hill to see if it would fly. Not to get rich. Now, today, its all computerized and they know its gonna fly. Cause I guarantee you they had 95 models that already flew in tests. Today, the music is mechanical and perfect everythings in pitch. Then, it was [all] by ear. You didnt hear if something wasnt perfect. The tempos perfect today, the pitch is perfect, the singer doesnt 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 theres a special energy to art when you dont quite feel ready to do it. Thats when youre just trusting your instincts and finger-painting. And just going for it with absolutely no self-consciousness or fear of making a mistake. Its all about creating emotion. Thats what show biz is. If you leave em the way you found em, you blew it.
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