Make It Easy on Yourself
Burt Bacharach’s first hit had come in 1957, with the hokey country ballad The Story of My Life, his first collaboration with lyricist Hal David. The first of the songs that would define him came in 1962, with Tommy Hunt recording I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself, then Jerry Butler tackling Make It Easy on Yourself. The definitive version of that song was recorded by the Walker Brothers in 1965, a huge, overwrought edifice – strings, timpani, and Scott Walker piling on the melodrama – that highlighted the drama of Bacharach’s writing.
(They Long To Be) Close to You
First recorded by the actor Richard Chamberlain in 1963, but brought to perfection in 1970 by the Carpenters, Close to You highlights one of Bacharach’s preferred tricks – an instrumental melody line that’s jaunty and melancholy. (Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head was practically the same song, and if you prefer your cuts a little deeper, so was Hasbrook Heights.) It’s worth noting, too, that Bacharach’s writing was caught in a virtuous circle: it was so perfect that the best singers wanted to record his songs, which in turn made them even better.
Walk on By
Most songwriters would be happy to retire after something so perfect as Walk on By, a song versatile enough to have been recorded with equal sincerity and commitment by Isaac Hayes, the Stranglers and Gloria Gaynor. Bacharach was a writer of astonishing sophistication – his songs have chord progressions and melodic shifts so eccentric they bypass feeling unexpected and move straight to shocking – but listen to Dionne Warwick’s definitive version of this song and hear how simple the instrumental setting is: it’s all designed to serve her topline melody.
A House Is Not a Home
The earliest recordings of 1964’s A House Is Not a Home have the undeniable air of musical theatre – you can imagine Warwick on stage as the lonely heroine belting it out. Yet its message about love defining existence was so simple and heartfelt and its melody so indelible that it could be tackled as jazz (Bill Evans), reggae (Sugar Minott), to showcase sitcom actors (Windsor Davies and Don Estelle), and – most spectacularly – as a despairing, state-of-the-art piece of quiet storm R&B by Luther Vandross, who leaves no note unreached, no sustain upheld.
My Little Red Book
Bacharach’s own recording of My Little Red Book (sung by Tony Middleton) is a staggering piece of melodrama, more like something by Jacques Brel than suitable for Don Draper to put on his apartment’s “music center”, dissonant and off kilter. Love interpreted it as straight-ahead garage rock, flattening out Bacharach’s chords and imbuing it with a feral, sexual excitement that seems to radiate young male hormonal confusion.
I Say a Little Prayer
The next three might be the best pop songs ever written, and in the case of this one, Bacharach and David were definitely served by having Aretha Franklin sing it (if Warwick was the pair’s definitive interpreter, she couldn’t get near Franklin on I Say a Little Prayer). It’s such a supple song, burbling along contentedly as Aretha goes about her day – “The moment I wake up / Before I put on my makeup” – before releasing into the ecstatic release of the choruses, Franklin giving in to the intoxication of pure love.
This Guy’s in Love With You
Proof that Bacharach’s melodies were strong enough to be carried even by people who couldn’t really sing came when the trumpeter Herb Alpert sighed his way through This Guy’s in Love With You – and sounded perfectly suited to it, like someone wandering through a park in the afternoon sun, unable to believe his good fortune. The song – like Walk on By – is just a breath, a dandelion clock on the wind, albeit a heavily orchestrated dandelion clock on the wind.
I’ll Never Fall in Love Again
No matter how perfect Bacharach’s melodies, Hal David’s lyrics were sometimes even better – as on I’ll Never Fall in Love Again (Bobbie Gentry’s version is the perfect one, resigned but still hopeful; Warwick’s sounds oddly prissy). Here were words and music in perfect combination – Bacharach’s playful melody pushing David to ever more perfect couplets: “What do you get when you kiss a guy? / You get enough germs to catch pneumonia / After you do, he’ll never phone ya.” A song Cole Porter would have been proud of.
Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)
Come the 80s, and the rise of AOR, Bacharach’s melodic sensibility was in tune with the times – the grown-up lushness of his work fitted in with FM radio programming – and he seized on it with his co-write of Christopher Cross’s theme to the Dudley Moore movie Arthur. The years had not dimmed Bacharach’s facility for something that left the listener unsure whether to feel unsettled or contented.
God Give Me Strength
With another upswing in Bacharach’s reputation in the second half of the 90s, he teamed up with Elvis Costello for 1998’s Painted from Memory, a truly startling record (you might view it, partly, as Costello’s sequel to Almost Blue, his Nashville album – another exploration of the very heart of American pop). Bacharach could probably write this stuff in his sleep, but his ability to find a startling melody between the chords was wholly undiminished.