With the death of Tom Finn last month, all four original members (Finn, Michael Brown, George Cameron, Steve Martin Caro) of The Left Banke are gone. Baroque pop pioneers whose influence is still felt today, The Left Banke were an oddity at a time of psychedelia and social mayhem–precocious New York teens in love with intricate arrangements and Beatlesque aspirations. They had a couple of major hits (“Pretty Ballerina,” “Walk Away Renee”) but weren’t temperamentally suited for rock stardom. And yet, the music still sounds timeless and grand. Scott Schinder tells their tale.
Tom Finn, the last surviving member of the Left Banke’s classic lineup, died on June 27, 2020 after years of declining health. Finn’s death followed the recent passings of his former bandmates Michael Brown, George Cameron and Steve Martin Caro (billed as Steve Martin during his years with the band), as well as songwriter/instrumentalist Tom Feher, a frequent collaborator during the band’s original run.
In The Left Banke’s ’60s heyday, the New York outfit’s persistent “baroque rock” tag failed to fully convey the breadth and depth of its exquisitely textured arrangements, its heart-tugging three-part harmonies and its evocative, emotionally resonant songwriting. The band began its recording career at the top, launching their career with the iconic, Brown-penned single “Walk Away Renee,” which became a Top Five hit and remains an enduring, much-covered pop classic.
But the inexperienced teenaged combo quickly ran afoul of a series of mishaps that helped to derail its promising career. Indeed, the Left Banke’s history is strewn with poor choices, missed opportunities, interpersonal acrimony, squandered potential and managerial neglect. Originally anchored by a fragile musical prodigy and managed by his Murry Wilson-like father, the band was prematurely destabilized by internal dissention and outside pressures.
Despite this, the Left Banke’s first two albums, 1967’s Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina and 1968’s The Left Banke Too, rank with the era’s most distinctive and enduring music. And the group’s subsequent absence from the public eye, combined with the longstanding unavailability of its albums—finally remedied when Sundazed Music reissued them on CD and LP in 2011—only increased the Left Banke’s mythic stature amongst its admirers.
Even in the heady musical atmosphere of 1967, “Walk Away Renee,” and its Top 20 followup “Pretty Ballerina,” also written by Brown, stood out. The Left Banke’s beguiling blend of youthful innocence, autumnal melancholy and precocious musical sophistication remains in a class of its own.
Tom Finn met Steve Martin, born Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro, in 1965, on the street outside of Manhattan’s City Squire Hotel, watching a mob of screaming girls awaiting the arrival of the Rolling Stones. Finn had been in a garage band, the Magic Plants, which had released a punky single, “I’m A Nothing,” that had been picked up for release by Verve Records. Caro had recently arrived in town from his native Madrid with his mother, flamenco singer-guitarist Sarita Heredia. Finn introduced Martin to his musically inclined friends George Cameron and the Magic Plants’ drummer Warren David, nee Warren David Schierhorst.
The Magic Plants – I’m A Nothing 1966:
The Magic Plants had cut their single at World United Recording, a modest studio at 48th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. World United was owned by Harry Lookofsky, a veteran violinist who’d played on numerous sessions, and who’d made jazz recordings on his own as Hash Brown. Finn, Martin, Cameron and David met Lookofsky’s 16-year-old son, Michael Brown, a classically trained pianist and budding composer who’d been working at the studio as an assistant and sometime session player, and who had the keys to the studio.
“We wanted to be the Beatles—but we also wanted to be as good as the Beatles”
The five teens began convening at World United for after-hours rehearsals, gathering around the piano and working out harmonies on British Invasion hits as well as the original tunes that they were beginning to write. Martin, Finn and Cameron quickly developed a distinctive vocal chemistry, and Brown’s advanced musical skills expanded the fledgling group’s options considerably.
“I think we all knew from the beginning that we were doing something special,” Finn told me in 2011. “We’d sing our songs around the piano with Mike, and it really started to sound good. Then Mike started to write bridges for some songs that Steve and George had written. At the time, Michael and Warren were the only ones who could really play—I had just started playing guitar—so we gravitated towards Michael because he played piano really well and had so much musical knowledge.”
Harry Lookofsky soon took an interest in the band, which settled into the lineup of Martin on lead vocals, Cameron on guitar, Finn on bass, Schierhorst on drums and Brown on keyboards. Finn claims that it was Lookofsky’s idea for his son to join—and later to promote him as the Left Banke’s resident musical genius.
“When we first started,” Finn says, “Mike was not considered to be a member of the group. It was my band, and I introduced all the people to one another.”
Lookofsky appointed himself the band’s manager, publisher and producer. His involvement would help to advance the Left Banke’s early career, but his multiple roles created conflicts of interest that would soon help to splinter the quintet.
The Left Banke began cutting tracks at World United in late 1965, recording such early originals as the Martin/Cameron collaborations “I Haven’t Got The Nerve” and “I’ve Got Something On My Mind,” as well as an early attempt at “Walk Away Renee,” which would be recut a couple of times before becoming the Left Banke’s debut single.
“I Haven’t Got The Nerve” from The Left Banke’s debut album:
Aside from Schierhorst’s drumming and Brown’s piano and harpsichord, the instruments on those early sessions were played by seasoned session musicians, including guitarist/bassist/arranger John Abbott, who Finn later credited as a key contributor in developing the Left Banke’s studio sound. Production was handled by Harry Lookofsky and World United’s house engineers Steve and Bill Jerome. Schierhorst introduced “Walk Away Renee”‘s distinctive drum beat, which session drummer Al Rogers would duplicate on the released version.
“Walk Away Renee,” whose authorship is credited to Brown and co-writers Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone, was famously inspired by Brown’s unrequited crush on Finn’s girlfriend Renee Fladen.
“It’s about loving someone enough to set them free,” Brown later said. “There’s a certain purity to ‘Walk Away Renee,’ and its purity comes from the idea that a dream lives, even if it’s just as a fantasy.” According to Brown, Fladen was present when he first attempted to record his harpsichord part. “My hands were shaking when I tried to play, because she was right there in the control room. There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later.”
Schierhorst was quickly ousted from the band by Harry Lookofsky after the drummer ran off to California with Mike Brown, financing the trip by selling Brown’s coin collection. Lookofsky had the underage pair stopped by police at the airport and sent home. While Lookofsky was dropping the boom on Mike and Warren’s west coast adventure, he recorded Martin, Finn and Cameron’s vocals for “Walk Away Renee.”
Having come up with a satisfactory take after some unsuccessful attempts, Lookofsky sold “Walk Away Renee” to Mercury Records’ Smash subsidiary, which released it in July 1966. The song’s peerless evocation of longing was driven home by Martin’s plaintive, aching lead vocal, and by Finn and Cameron’s heartbroken harmonies, by Abbott’s stately arrangement, incorporating flute, strings and Brown’s harpsichord.
The success of “Walk Away Renee” created a demand for live performances, and the inexperienced quintet—with George Cameron moving from guitar to drums, and new member Jeff Winfield taking over on guitar—did its best to adapt to the demands of the stage.
“Our first gig was at Our Lady Of Solace church in the Bronx,” Finn reports. “Tony Sansone, Michael’s co-writer on ‘Walk Away Renee,’ set it up. We took Renee with us because she looked so good, and we arrived in a limousine. When we got out of the car, the girls started screaming and the cameras started flashing, and when we played you couldn’t hear us because the girls were screaming so loud. It was ridiculous; we were signing autographs, but we could barely play.
“We got paid a hundred bucks for the show, and we spent $75 to rent the limousine,” says Finn. “We were starving at the time, but that’s where we were at; it was more important for us to look good and make a big splash when we arrived. We were really into the minutiae that went into creating that image, so we really played that role. You’ve got to remember that we were all teenagers—I was 17, and Mike was 16—and when you’re teenagers, you do things for different reasons.
“We wanted to be the Beatles—but we also wanted to be as good as the Beatles,” Finn asserts. “When we started playing those shows, we were all about harmonizing and singing and posing and riding in limousines and making a big splash when we arrived. We were living out our rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. But even though we put on this whole big thing about looking good, when it came to the music and the actual creative side, we did have a very honest approach to what we did. We sang and played from our hearts. We were still more of a vocal group and still trying to master our instruments, but we had very strong ideas about what we thought was good and what we thought was lame, and we followed that.”
The Left Banke’s next single, “Pretty Ballerina”—another Renee Fladen-inspired Michael Brown composition—reached the Billboard Top 15. The song’s instrumental track was once again played by Brown and a cast of studio pros.
Finn: “I remember the first time I heard ‘Pretty Ballerina’ on the radio, in Michael Brown’s hotel room, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. It came on the radio and I said, ‘Wow, this doesn’t sound like anything else that’s on the radio.’ That’s when I really realized how different we were to everything else that was around in 1967.”
“Pretty Ballerina”‘s b-side, the Brown/Martin-penned rocker “Lazy Day,” was, atypically, performed entirely by the band members. One of the few guitar-dominated songs in the Left Banke songbook, “Lazy Day” showcased the soaring fuzz guitar of Jeff Winfield, whose brief tenure in the group had already ended by the time the song was released.
The Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina album was released in February 1967. In addition to both sides of the two eponymous singles, the LP collected seven more tracks cut during the previous year. According to Finn, though, the band was already on the skids, the members’ personal tensions exacerbated by the pressures of touring, and by their increasing conflicts with their manager.
“The original band was completely destroyed within eight months,” Finn observes. “Right after ‘Walk Away Renee’ and ‘Pretty Ballerina’ became hits, we churned out the album, and then it was over. We really needed someone to look out for us, and we never had that. Maybe things would have been different if we’d had good management.
“As soon as we had the hits, Michael and his father completely took over. We’re out on the road doing these long tours, and Harry’s stealing all our money. Steve, George and I eventually put our foot down, so Mike decided to throw us all out.”
Finn says that, after their initial hits, Lookofsky attempted to rebuild the group around Martin and Brown and fire the other members. Guitarist Jeff Winfield was a victim of that purge; Finn says that he and Cameron were quickly asked back when Lookofsky failed to find suitable replacements. Rick Brand was hired as the band’s new guitarist; it’s Brand who appears with the band in Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina‘s cover photos, although he only plays on one album track, the Brown/Martin/Cameron composition “Let Go of You Girl.”
Lookofsky also fired co-producer/engineers Steve and Bill Jerome, whose studio skills had been crucial in the creation of the band’s hits, midway through recording the album.
“Steve Jerome used to go out on the road with us as our road manager, and when we got back, Harry would take all the money,” says Finn. “Steve was a genius recording engineer, but Harry didn’t want to pay him, so he got rid of him.”
After the Jerome brothers’ departure, the Left Banke moved from World United to Mercury Records’ Manhattan studio. “The trust was gone,” Finn recalls. “Now, we were at Mercury Studios recording with some by-the-book staff engineer with a white shirt and tie, who didn’t understand the first thing about what we were trying to do. That was the beginning of the end for us.”
Despite the internal machinations, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina is a remarkably accomplished debut. While “Lazy Day” and “Let Go of You Girl” feature the entire band’s instrumental contributions, the remaining tracks match Brown’s keyboards with a variety of New York session players, including such studio stalwarts as the aforementioned John Abbott, guitarist Hugh McCracken and bassist Joe Mack.
“When we recorded the first album, we weren’t really a performing band yet,” says Finn. “We were still learning our instruments. But our intent was always to play. We did do some shows then, and I think Michael felt like a fish out of water, playing his electric piano in the corner, and he could never get the band to sound as tight as he would like it to sound. You’ve got to remember that when we all got together, Michael had been practically living in the recording studio for over a year, watching hundreds of sessions. So his experience was far, far further along than ours was.”
‘We were always fighting. Everything good that we ever came up with was the result of some kind of brawl.’
Although Brown wrote or co-wrote all but one of Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina‘s 11 songs, Finn disputes the popular conception of Brown as The Left Banke’s mastermind. “It wasn’t about Michael Brown being some Svengali and us being his puppets,” Finn states. “It was a combination of everyone’s input. Mike was in no way the leader of the group or the brain behind the group.
“If you look at a song like ‘Lazy Day,’ that’s a garage-band song, yet it’s got these complicated chord patterns,” Finn continues. “That’s Michael Brown’s influence on the group. He came from playing classical music, and he had his own thing. He did like the Beatles, but he was a different kind of a guy from the rest of the group. The way he played the piano and the way we sang fit together to create what we were.”
The Left Banke’s modern classic sound gained additional exposure via the radio jingles that the band recorded for Coca-Cola, Hertz Rent-A-Car and Toni hairspray. Those ads demonstrated that the band could even make the humble acts of drinking a Coke or renting a car sound mysterious and beautiful.
The Left Banke toured extensively to promote their singles, although the band members’ instrumental limitations prevented them from tackling most of their technically challenging original material on stage.
“Our set list had more R&B and British rock covers than Left Banke songs,” Finn says, adding, “We were really a garage band, and we were still learning our instruments. The only Left Banke songs we played were ‘Walk Away Renee,’ ‘Pretty Ballerina’ and ‘She May Call You Up Tonight.’ We tried to play some of the others once or twice, but they sounded terrible, so they were quickly dropped. The rest of our set was all covers: Beatles, Temptations, James Brown, anything that we thought would excite an audience.”
“She May Call You Up Tonight”-The Left Banke:
Although the roadwork would ultimately have a positive effect on the band’s developing chops, other factors made touring unrewarding. Finn: “They’d send us out on these badly-planned tours with terrible equipment, driving four or five hundred miles between gigs, and by the end of it we couldn’t stand each other. And we sounded like shit. Then we’d get home and we wouldn’t get paid.”
The strain of touring weighed heaviest on Michael Brown, who eventually opted out of the Left Banke’s live lineup. “Being on the road was hard for Mike,” says Finn. “He had the first prototype of the Clavinet on the road, and it sounded great. But it went out of tune very easily, and that became a nightmare for him. We’d throw it in the back of a U-Haul trailer, and by the time we got to the gig it sounded horrible. For a guy who was used to playing classical piano, it was torture to be playing an instrument that would be out of tune on every show. So he decided to stop touring and stay home and write and produce, like Brian Wilson. We resented that, so we hired a lawyer to get us out of our deal with Harry.”
When the Left Banke’s original lineup combusted after the first album, the group split into two factions, with singers Martin, Finn and Cameron on one side, and Brown and his father on the other. The schism led to Brown—with help from band friend Tom Feher, who had co-written three songs on the first album, and singer Bert Sommer—recording his own single, “Ivy, Ivy” b/w “And Suddenly,” and releasing it under the Left Banke banner in April 1967 on Smash. Brown assembled and rehearsed a prospective new lineup that would have included Sommer and a returning Warren David, as well as unknown 18-year-old guitarist Michael McKean, who would later emerge as a renowned actor/comic and a founding member of Spinal Tap.
After Finn, Martin and Cameron won back control of the band name, Brown’s new lineup quietly disbanded and Smash withdrew support from the “Ivy, Ivy” single. But the resulting confusion over the competing Left Bankes resulted in a loss of commercial momentum from which the band would never recover.
Finn: “Our legal team and our fan club had gone to work sending letters and telegrams and news releases to all the radio stations in America, telling them that ‘Ivy, Ivy’ was not the real Left Banke. But we didn’t realize that that would come back to haunt us. After that, the DJs wouldn’t play anything by the Left Banke. There was a bad vibe out there about us.”
Brown assembled and rehearsed a prospective new lineup that would have included… unknown 18-year-old guitarist Michael McKean, who would later emerge as a renowned actor/comic and a founding member of Spinal Tap.
The band members temporarily reconciled in the spring of 1967, long enough to record a pair of Brown/Feher compositions, “Desiree” and “In the Morning Light.” Brown produced those sessions, with John Abbott as arranger and various New York session players providing most of the instruments. While the sunny “In the Morning Light” wouldn’t be heard until it turned up on The Left Banke Too, the sweeping orchestral epic “Desiree” was released as a single in June 1967.
“After Mike Brown lost control of the group, he realized that he couldn’t stand what his father had done to his first project, and he wanted back into the Left Banke,” Finn explains. “He had this song that he’d written with Tom Feher called ‘Desiree,’ and he wanted to be reinstalled as a member of the group. He asked us, we thought about it, and we said ok.”
Despite a tape mishap that forced the band to use a lower-fidelity mono dub in place of the original stereo backing track, “Desiree” was arguably the Left Banke’s most impressive achievement to date. It should have been a valedictory triumph for the band. Instead, “Desiree” stalled at #98 on Billboard‘s pop chart. Although it became a minor hit in a few regional markets, most radio programmers—still leery of anything Left Banke-related in the wake of the “Ivy, Ivy” fiasco—avoided playing it.
“The reason there’s no stereo version of ‘Desiree,'” Finn says, “is there was an accident with the tape, and the multi-track master somehow got erased. I think we were told that the tape was stolen, which I think was not true. Mercury had just spent a lot of money on the session, supposedly the most money they had ever spent on a record in their entire corporate history. And Mike Brown, on his first production, accidentally erased the tape. At the end of the session, the engineer ran off a mono mix for Mike to take home and listen to. When they came back in for the remix, the original tapes were gone, and the only thing that was left was that mono reference tape.
“So they went back into the studio and copied the mono tape onto a eight-track deck, and started bouncing on the vocals back and forth onto the multitrack. They put the vocals on top of that, and then tried to make it sound like stereo, and then they further destroyed it by putting bass on one side and treble on the other. Some people like the way it sounds, but it doesn’t sound as good as it originally did. This was all a big secret at the time. I don’t know if they even told the record company about it, but that’s what happened.”
The reunion with Brown ended there, and Finn, Martin and Cameron (who by then had also parted ways with guitarist Rick Brand) continued as the Left Banke. It would be another year before the band’s next release, namely a new single combining the haunting Finn/Martin/Cameron composition “Dark is the Bark” with the equally resonant Finn-penned “My Friend Today.” Both sides were recorded with pop-savvy producer/arranger Artie Schroeck, whose credits included work with the Four Seasons, the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Cowsills.
“On the ‘Dark Is the Bark’ single, Mercury gave us Artie Schroeck, who they really liked,” Finn recalls. “He brought in studio musicians for that one, because he’d heard our demo and felt that he could do a better job. He brought in all these top New York players for the session, with a big orchestra sound. It became so jazzy and so different from the way I had envisioned it. I was really pissed off, because the way I wrote it, it was much more classical. I thought it ended up sounding more like The Association than The Left Banke. So they got rid of Artie Schroeck when the single didn’t go anywhere.”
Although the Four Tops’ recent hit cover of “Walk Away Renee” was fresh in listeners’ minds, “Dark is the Bark” failed to chart—a fate that would befall all of the Left Banke’s subsequent singles. Despite the successive commercial failures of the band’s last two singles, Smash gave the go-ahead ahead for a second Left Banke album.
The Left Banke Too teamed the trio with new producer Paul Leka and augmented the threesome with instrumental and songwriting contributions from Tom Feher and backing vocals by Steven Tallarico, later Tyler, whose band the Chain Reaction shared management with The Left Banke. The album found Martin, Finn and Cameron taking the vocal, instrumental and songwriting reins and emerging as a creative unit capable of producing ambitious, expressive music without Michael Brown’s input.
Four Tops – Walk Away Renee (1968):
Finn: “Mercury gave us another producer, Paul Leka, who was coming hot on the heels of writing and producing ‘Green Tambourine’ by the Lemon Pipers, which we hated. This time, we insisted that we were all gonna play our own instruments, with no more of this studio musician crap. So from then on, we played everything ourselves.”
The sessions with Leka yielded six tracks, which would be included on The Left Banke Too along with both sides of the “Desiree” and “Dark Is the Bark” singles. The new material showed Martin, Finn and Cameron stretching beyond their formal roles within the group. For instance, Finn sings lead vocals on his compositions “There’s Gonna Be A Storm” and “Nice to See You,” while Cameron steps up front on the Tom Feher-penned tunes “Goodbye Holly” and “Bryant Hotel.” Meanwhile, Martin plays drums on “Goodbye Holly” and bass on “Bryant Hotel,” while Finn doubles on guitar and bass on most of the songs.
“There’s Gonna Be a Storm” from The Left Banke Too album:
“We had always intended to be a multi-lead-singer group and try different things, but we were never allowed to do that on the first album,” says Finn, adding, “Back in the beginning, Steve didn’t want to be the lead singer, he wanted us all to sing. So on the second album, we all sang lead. Now that Mike was gone, I sort of became the leader, although we never called it that. “By this time, we had a little experience. We’d been playing for about two years at this point, and we’d gotten good enough to do our own tracks.
“I also had to start writing songs, which I hadn’t really done before,” Finn continues. “Michael wouldn’t let any of my songs be on the first album. So on the second album, I rose to the occasion. I also decided on Tom Feher as a likely candidate to help us, because I liked his songs and he understood where we were coming from.”
In addition to writing three more songs for the album, Tom Feher plays piano on all of the Leka-produced tracks, except for his lilting composition “Sing Little Bird Sing,” on which he provides 12-string acoustic guitar. And departed member Rick Brand returned to play banjo on “Bryant Hotel.”
Despite its embarrassment of musical riches, The Left Banke Too largely escaped the public’s notice when it was released in November 1968 into a marketplace dominated by a new wave of hippie rock acts. Despite its ignominious commercial fate, the sophomore disc is an unsung gem that remains close to the hearts of a dedicated cadre of fans.
Although The Left Banke Too had shown the Left Banke’s creative batteries to be fully charged, the band experienced a new set of demoralizing conflicts with its new management team. Finn says that managers Bill Ottinger and Roger Rubenstein kept the band on the road for extended periods, with little financial reward and no discernable career benefit.
“We really started to fall apart after the second album,” says Finn. “Our management had us out there milking the hits to pay their bills, and it just felt like we were getting nowhere. Bill had originally been hired by Harry Lookofsky as our road manager after he got rid of Steve Jerome. Bill knew we were gonna break with Harry, and he said, ‘OK, I’ll be your new manager.’ He’d never been a manager before, but we said ok.
“So he and his partner Roger opened an office, and we ended up paying the bills. They also took on Steve Tyler’s group the Chain Reaction and two other groups, so they kept us out on the road and used that money to pay their bills and promote their other groups.
“We’d go out on the road, and we’d come back and there wouldn’t be any money,” Finn remembers. “Steve put his foot down and demanded that they get him an apartment on Sutton Place, which is just about the ritziest street in New York. They figured they’d better please him because he was the lead singer, so they tried to keep him happy. But the rest of us were living in rundown second-hand hotels. It just got worse and worse. We really started to fall apart in early ‘69, and then we were done.”
But the Left Banke didn’t die easily. After the trio disbanded, Steve Martin and Michael Brown briefly reunited on a new single, “Myrah” b/w “Pedestal,” released by Smash in November 1969 under the Left Banke name.
Left Banke -“Myrah” featuring Steve Martin from 1969:
In 1971, Martin, Finn, Cameron and Brown, along with frequent session guitarist Hugh McCracken, came together to record a pair of new Brown compositions, “Love Songs In The Night” and “Two By Two.” The results were released under Martin’s name, both as a single and on the soundtrack LP of the little-seen X-rated film Hot Parts, starring former Andy Warhol protégé Ultra Violet.
According to Finn, the Hot Parts tracks were credited to Martin rather than the Left Banke because Brown’s then-manager Dominic Sicilia, who assembled the soundtrack album, “felt that the Left Banke name was poison, that it was jinxed, that there were too many bad vibes attached to the name.”
Although the Hot Parts material could stand with the Left Banke’s best work, and became fan favorites despite their scarcity, the project didn’t lead to a longer-term reunion.
Tom Finn later worked as an engineer at the legendary New York studio Bell Sound, and served as MC and stage manager at Buddy Rich’s Manhattan club Buddy’s Place. He subsequently carved out a lengthy career as an in-demand live DJ, spinning vinyl at some of New York’s most prestigious venues and private parties, as well as at the Clinton White House.
Martin and Cameron, meanwhile, spent much of the next few decades drifting between various low-profile projects, most of which failed to reach fruition. Martin lived in Cleveland, California and Florida, recorded some demos for a proposed solo album, and insisted that he’d never sing “Walk Away Renee” again. He apparently auditioned for TV’s The Partridge Family, and was reportedly a guest in the studio at the Flying Burrito Brothers session where an inebriated Gram Parsons recorded the Burritos’ version of “Wild Horses.”
In 1978, Finn, Martin and Cameron reunited in the studio, as The Left Banke, to record a set of new songs, written mainly by Finn. The project began as a set of demos for Finn’s new publishing deal with Camex Music and evolved into a Left Banke project at the publisher’s suggestion. But Finn says that the music suffered because his bandmates were more interested in getting high than making music.
Although Finn considered the resulting tracks to be unfinished demos, they surfaced in 1986, with different track sequences and different cover art, as Strangers On A Train in the U.S. and Voices Calling in Britain. Spotty as the makeshift album is, its best songs—e.g. “Lorraine,” “And One Day” and “You Say” —tap into the Left Banke’s beautifully bittersweet essence, with the trio’s familiar voices carrying the same emotional gravity as in their ‘60s heyday.
Michael Brown—who had recorded albums with Montage, Stories and The Beckies between 1969 and 1976—kept a low public profile from the late ‘70s onward. But he continued to write and record new material in his home studio, and on several occasions reconnected with his former Left Banke bandmates. He even flew to Florida to record some new material with the mercurial Steve Martin Caro, some of which (including the sublime “Airborne”) was released as a privately pressed EP. Although many of Brown’s demos reached the hands of fans, nothing was officially released, and none of those prospective reunions lasted for long.
Meanwhile, The Left Banke’s posthumous prestige continued to grow, thanks in part to such reissues as 1982’s And Suddenly It’s…The Left Banke, on the British Bam-Caruso label, Rhino’s 1985 History of The Left Banke and especially 1992’s comprehensive There’s Gonna Be a Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966–1969, all of which are now sadly out of print, although There’s Gonna Be a Storm remains available on iTunes.
Finn was oblivious to the ongoing interest in the band until 2010, when he set up a Left Banke fan page on Facebook and found himself deluged with responses from fans.
Fans’ wishful thinking regarding a Left Banke reunion was finally answered in 2011. In March of that year, Finn and Cameron teamed with a group of New York musicians (including bassist Charly Cazalet, whose Left Banke connection goes back to the ’60s, and who plays on Strangers On A Train) to launch a new Left Banke lineup to perform the band’s vintage material.
The new, ten-person band (including a two-piece string section) performed several ecstatically-received club gigs in New York, marking the first Left Banke gigs in more than four decades—and the first time that many of the songs had ever been performed live. The new Left Banke delivered the classics with style and sensitivity, navigating the material’s emotional nuances and technical challenges with scrupulous fidelity. A frail Mike Brown even joined the new band on stage a couple of times, playing piano on “Pretty Ballerina” and lending his implicit endorsement to the enterprise.
Recorded November 12, 2011 @ DromNYC, by Froilan Frovelos:
The revival lineup lived up to The Left Banke tradition of rocky internal relations. According to local scene vet Mike Fornatale, who took on the unenviable task of stepping into the new band’s frontman slot, “There was a lot of fighting at rehearsals. This was nothing new, apparently. George told me, ‘We were always fighting. Everything good that we ever came up with was the result of some kind of brawl.’
“It was all very stressful,” Fornatale states. “But it was always great onstage.”
The new-look Left Banke announced its intention to record a new album, but instead quietly broke up in late 2012, partially due to Finn’s health issues, George Cameron briefly resurfaced in 2015 with a completely different band billing itself as The Left Banke. That grouping announced prospective collaborations with Michael Brown and Steve Martin Caro. Those grandiose plans also wouldn’t come to pass.
Brown died from heart disease on March 19, 2015, at the age of 65, and Cameron succumbed to cancer on June 24, 2018, at 70. Caro died from heart disease on January 14, 2020 at 71. With Tom Finn’s passing at 71 on June 27, 2020, all of The Left Banke’s founding members were gone.
As rocky and fractious as The Left Banke’s history was, the band—often working under less than optimum circumstances, and often limited by their own worst impulses—nonetheless left behind a consistently magnificent body of music that continues to touch and inspire successive generations of listeners. With the band’s original participants departed, the various bad vibes and emotional baggage are all in the past, but the music endures.
“We did some good things,” Tom Finn stated in 2011. “Unfortunately, it was nipped in the bud early on, and we were never able to fulfill our potential. What we did in the different incarnations of the group was maybe ten per cent of what we could have accomplished if we’d had decent management and the right support. That disappoints me, because we could have done so much more. But we still did some good stuff, and it makes me happy that people still want to hear it.”
“Shadows Breaking Over My Head”-The Left Banke (rare live club footage):