top of page


One of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century died last week at the age of 94. Of course he lasted that long: a man who in partnership with the brilliant Hal David made sophisticated songs that will outlive us all wasn’t going to disappear in a puff of short life like some sugary bit of disposable pop music.

Burt Bacharach has infiltrated culture and defined it, and knowing and understanding his work is as important now as it ever has been – ask my third-year students when I get them to break down the writing, arrangement and production of a classic Bacharach/David track.

As this deep dive from 2003 suggests, he may not have always been appreciated, he may even have been forgotten by some, and when the attention came it sometimes came with an odd eye. But he was always there. And since this was first published, he’s written and produced more, and was still planning things like a musical with Elvis Costello.

What a drive. What a legacy.

And if you want a soundtrack to accompany this reading at the end you’ll find a link to a wide-ranging playlist of Bacharach and David. Enjoy!


THE BEST AND THE WORST THING that could have happened to Burt Bacharach was his revival as some sort of pop culture icon in the past five years.

For three decades he had been dismissed as the embodiment of memorable but vaguely embarrassing-to-like mum-and-dad music, as the man behind every great lift journey. But then, along with bachelor pads, skivvies, cocktails and arch humour, Bacharach was back, publicly admired by that musical pickpocket from Oasis, Noel Gallagher, cheerily performing in the first Austin Powers film and wining a Grammy for a collaboration with Elvis Costello.

That was all well, but dangerously so. Because the arbiters of cool who giveth, can just as quickly taketh away, and it was clear that for many who rediscovered Bacharach, it was not as a songwriter but as a symbol of a mostly mythical way of life - much in the way the Rat Pack style has come to mean more than the sometimes boorish, often overblown reality.

When the moment, like the skivvies, passes, Bacharach could return to the fringes.

But the renewal of interest in recent years has offered an opportunity to look not only at what Bacharach did an astonishing run of hits from 1959 to 1972 that have passed into the lexicon of pop music, but how he did it. And to dispel some of the myths.

Perhaps the biggest misconception or mislabelling with Bacharach in both the uncool and cool years is the idea that what he made is easy listening. It's a tragically incorrect term if you mean easy listening as basic, plain, easy to play and sing, or wash the dishes to.

There's nothing easy about Anyone Who Had a Heart, which is in the defiantly non-pop time of 7/8, or I Say a Little Prayer, which shifts rhythm and harmony throughout the song, or Promises, Promises where time signatures seem to change every bar.

And ask any singer who's ever attempted to sing a Bacharach song: even if the melodies sound easy enough, the range required, the flexibility needed to handle the sudden and dramatic shifts, is beyond the amateur and many professionals.

A few years ago, Bacharach explained that he wasn't trying to be difficult. "I never did a 7/8 bar to consciously break the rules. It certainly came as a surprise to me when I went to write it down. I'd say, that can't be right, it comes out seven beats to the bar. But it felt right."

Polyrhythm, unconventional chord changes and alternative routes to the end of a song reflected his interest in more than just popular music.

As a teenager in New York in the '40s he immersed himself in bebop jazz and simultaneously in French composer Claude Debussy. He was impressed by the stricter modernism of Berg and Webern, the prevailing mood in classical composition mid-20th century was melody-free serialism after all, but he was encouraged to break the mould in his time studying under composer and teacher, Darius Milhaud, at the Mannes School of Music.

Bacharach has said of Milhaud that "he told me never to be afraid of writing a tuneful melody, whatever else was happening in the song".

For Bacharach would write pop songs: songs to be sung again, remembered later, and maybe whistled when the mind wandered. There was the easy flow of Do You Know the Way to San Jose? that seemed to never run out, and the nagging familiarity of What the World Needs Now, on one hand. Songs five-year-olds could grab on to and enjoy.

Then there's the teasingly distant line of Message To Michael (that breaks into a very Brill Building middle eight) or the way I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself holds itself back. Again, despite their craft, their difficulty, these songs are easily taken in and remembered.

But what marks out a great songwriter from the merely good are the intangible extras.

While Bacharach can be appreciated in the detail, for example, of the way I Say a Little Prayer rises and falls back on itself, adding a new storey each time, he is best understood in the general, in the emotion. Bacharach described himself as someone who writes from an emotional point of view rather than a cerebral one.

You wouldn't call the emotional underpinning of some of his best-known songs “easy” either. As Costello pointed out recently, there's a sense of darkness in his music that's sometimes, but not necessarily, reflected in the lyric. There's that romantic doubt in some of his sunniest songs which makes his music enduring, Costello said.

Somebody else once said of Bacharach's Walk On By that heartache doesn't pour out in such numbers as it does in soul music, rather it settles over the singer like an overcoat broken into the contours of the wearer. It becomes part of the singer's social disguise, what hovers around her as she's riding the bus or window-shopping on her lunch hour.

While Bacharach and his lyricist in the '60s, Hal David, were associated in most people's minds with the great writers of the Brill Building period writing teams such as Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, they were markedly different in tone.

Bacharach and David were not writing about or for teenagers. In truth, they couldn't: both men were older than the best-known Brill teams who were not long out of high school, and had toured the world, seen wars, lost and made money.

The emotional language of their songs, both lyrical and musical, was perforce more nuanced, more calibrated to lives already led than lives to come. The sense of sophistication that these songs brought to the Top 40 was not accidental.

"When I was doing those songs with Dionne [Warwick], I was thinking in terms of miniature movies, you know?" Bacharach said. "Three-and-half-minute movies with peak moments and not just one intensity level the whole way through."

It should also be understood that Bacharach's success as a songwriter lay in his control. Not only over his craft, but also over the end product. As with screenwriters, songwriters in the '60s were the useful but dismissible element in the process. Once their part had been done they were sent away while the real work of making a record was done by the producers, arrangers and, occasionally, even the vocalists.

It was a system that had worked well since Tin Pan Alley at the beginning of the century and was as efficiently applied at the soul powerhouses of Motown and Stax as it was in the Brill Building publishing heartland of New York.

Bacharach chafed under this system. He didn't just write songs, he figured, he wrote whole pieces that should be played in particular ways. Changing the rhythm, the arrangements and the feel made them lesser songs.

"I became a producer and arranger out of self-defence," Bacharach told Pulse magazine in 1995. "I'd write a song and the record company would come to my publisher and say we like it but Burt's gotta change this three-bar phrase to four bars. If he changes it, we'll give him so-and-so to record it. And we wanted the record so we'd compromise. But they came out terrible."

None of this meant anything at first, when he was just another hack on the payroll. But once he began racking up a few hits, he earned enough grudging respect from the publishers and record companies to be given his head with a few songs and the demo singer he and David had discovered, Dionne Warwick.

When those early written, arranged and produced by Bacharach songs with Warwick (beginning in 1962 with Don't Make Me Over a song that shifts between 12/8 and 6/8, neither normal for pop songs, but which has no trouble conveying the intelligent defiance of its protagonist), succeeded, the resistance to songwriters taking control weakened everywhere. At Motown, for example, songwriters such as Norman Whitfield, and later artists such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, took control in the studios.

With Bacharach in charge there were telling arrangements such as the mix of woodblock, (the soon to be signature) flugelhorns and strings in Walk On By that gave it a layer of class without trumpeting it. Or the glockenspiel in one of his great tragic melodies, A House is Not a Home, and the parping trumpets, incongruous organ and simple two-beat timpani of Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

This control didn't, couldn't last, of course. Not for Bacharach, who was at first a songwriter after all, and would send his songs wherever they were wanted, and not for lesser talents who could not always produce the quality and the hits.

Maybe that, as much as the break-up of his partnership with David in the early '70s and the severing of the relationship with Warwick, can be blamed for contributing to the long, fallow years that lasted until the late '90s.

They were fallow commercially and creatively. While Bacharach had a few hits in the '80s the sentimental That's What Friends Are For and the throwaway Arthur's Theme they did not deserve to be compared with the product of his peak years. It wasn't until he combined with probably the finest all-round songwriter of the post-punk years, Elvis Costello, for 1999's album Painted From Memory, that Bacharach rediscovered his best.

Here were songs that had his unmistakable romantic touch, coupled with the twists that marked his confidence. They reminded us of his past but didn't seem stuck there. They reinforced what we should have known but too easily forgot, that at their best Bacharach songs seem to be timely but also timeless.

BURT AND HAL (AND ELVIS): A PLAYLIST click here to listen


bottom of page