Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ellie Greenwich

Overlooked this past week was the death of songwriter Ellie Greenwich. Along with husband Jeff Barry, Greenwich wrote some of the best pop anthems out of the Brill Building in the early ‘60s. Her best known works included the thrilling “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the giddily melodramatic “Leader of the Pack,” the glorious “River Deep, Mountain High,” and (my personal favourite) “Be My Baby.”

Produced by Phil Spector, “Be My Baby” was a hit single in 1963 for The Ronettes. Brian Wilson, who called the tune “the greatest pop record ever made,” built the foundation of The Beach Boys' music on that very song. In subsequent years “Be My Baby” has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (even the Library of Congress added it to the United States National Recording Registry in 2006). What makes this song so great? In the early ‘60s, girl groups routinely sang about love and heartbreak. Many of the Brill Building songs expressed the anguish of broken hearts and doubts of fulfillment (as in “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”). But Barry & Greenwich, in “Be My Baby,” wrote a number where a woman stakes her claim to both stand up to her man and also let him know that if he let her go, he’d be the loser. Who could argue? The memorable opening gunshot of the drumsl, thumping defiantly like a beating heart, ushers in the urgency of Ronnie Spector’s desire. When she pleas for the guy to be her baby, she’s not talking about him doing it maybe next week, she says be my baby, NOW!

“Be My Baby” goes way past seduction into making the listener feel like an idiot for ever considering refusing her. Spector’s voice is so erotically charged that you are hypnotically entranced by the possibilities in the promises that the song offers. In Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese used “Be My Baby” over the opening credits of his fever dream about a petty hoodlum who gets seduced by both the Church and the Mob. The Ronettes here get turned into sirens luring the protagonist (Harvey Keitel) into sin and guilt. What other song would have had the potency to make moral rot look so seductive?

The only other pop song from that period that caught the deeper yearnings within adolescent desire was perhaps The Beatles' exquisite “Eight Days a Week.” Not bad company.

Treat yourself:

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