With this week’s playlist focusing on the brilliant work of Hal David with Burt Bacharach (and Bacharach with Elvis Costello) Wind Back Wednesday enjoys some time in the company of Mr David, one of the greatest lyricist of pop music, from a brief visit to Australia in 2002. He was here to promote a truly terrible musical made of Bacharach/David songs – a musical he had nothing to do with and could bear no blame for – and was happy to talk about what started his glorious career. Turns out it was the military.
THE ARMY NEEDS YOU ……. TO WRITE HIT SONGS
We all mark out our lives with landmarks: the first love affair; the first house; the first time you felt you weren't kidding yourself that you had picked the right career. Hal David is no different; it's just that his landmarks tend to be marked by chart-topping records.
"My first hit, nobody would remember that, The Four Winds And The Seven Seas, in 1949, a very big hit [for Vic Damone and the Glenn Osser Orchestra], but not a standard now," David says as he stares out across Sydney Harbour and rifles through his 81-year-old memory.
"It gave me confidence because to start off you knock on doors and only sometimes do they open and you're wondering is this what I should be doing with my life? Then you write something people like and then think maybe this is what I should be doing."
The confidence boost was timely for the former journalist and wartime entertainment unit soldier (sharing army digs with future luminaries such as Carl Reiner) who had figured his love of writing and popular music, crystallised in his first lyrics in 1943, had to mean something. And after 700 songs, countless hits and a 15-year partnership with Burt Bacharach that now sits in the canon of great American music of the 20th century, he's been proved right.
"I always wanted to write songs. The army was where I had the opportunity," he wistfully recalls. "The song that helped me buy my first home, I'll never forget that: the song that Teresa Brewer sang [in 1953], Bell Bottom Blues, it was a number one hit in America."
Although David is forever associated with the ‘60s when his partnership with Bacharach was at its height, his songwriting goes well back. By the time of Bacharach and David's association at the warren of Manhattan music publishing offices now known as the Brill Building, David was a decade older than his partner and much older than members of the other hot writing teams such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.
This partly explains why, while Goffin/King, Mann/Weill and Sedaka/Greenfield were writing great songs for and about the recently discovered marketing niche of teenagers, Bacharach and David rarely did. Songs such as A House Is Not A Home, Trains And Boats And Planes and The Look Of Love were too steeped in emotional complexities to be anything other than songs for adults.
"We weren't trying to write for an adult audience or not an adult audience," David says. "We weren't trying to write for kids ... we just wrote the way we wrote. Our backgrounds led us to write the way we did, the general tone of our lives."
It must have been difficult to swim against the tide.
"It's never easy," he smiles. "I'm sure it wasn't easy for those who were writing bubblegum songs. [But] did it seem to hold us back? No, because whatever it was we had and did together the songs had a certain magic that people latched on to."
As David says, if he could identify what it was that enabled Bacharach and David to combine so sublimely so often, he would have bottled it and retired a wealthy man 30 years ago. What is clear is that the sophisticated music of Bacharach inspired and in turn fed upon the equally sophisticated wordplay of David.
"When I hear melodies ... the music is saying something to me," David says. "I hear words, I hear lines. I can put the cassette on and if it's a melody I really like, before the chorus is over I'm at least hearing words and sometimes the title. Burt's music said things to me that the music of other people didn't."