When Life Was Brill review – ‘When we ran out of lyrics we’d use a doo-bee-doo’

Neil Sedaka’s celebration of the Brill building songwriters of the 1950s paints an idyllic picture without the racial tension, closeted sexuality and hidden addictions

Neil Sedaka takes us back to the early 1950s in When Life Was Brill (Radio 2), back to the small corner of Manhattan that became the home of American music, specifically 1650 Broadway and the Brill building, local hangouts that helped nurture the early careers of Carole King, Paul Simon and Burt Bacharach. Songwriters, we learn, were set up in cubicles to write the hits for acts like The Crystals and The Righteous Brothers, encouraged by publisher Don Kirshner (known as “the man with the golden ear”) to go for the commercial gold.

Their lyrics – full of stupid cupids and secret loves and even more secret diaries – articulated the youthful dreams of the songwriters and a lack of sophistication that worked in their favour. “When we ran out of lyrics we’d use a doo-bee-doo,” admits Sedaka. It’s the American Dream realised: pioneers on the frontiers of pop, feeling their way to success.

Still, with the programme focusing on this vision of classic pre-summer of love America, you can’t help feel like you’re in an episode of Mad Men. Well, one without the alcoholism and the hysterical housewife on Valium. Perhaps that’s the problem. Films like Grace Of My Heart and That Thing You Do! painted that world of Brill-era songwriters as one underpinned by racial tension, closeted sexuality and hidden addictions. You can’t help but wonder what secrets lay behind the multiple doo-bee-doos. Disappointingly, this programme doesn’t tell us.

Kerry Shale reads from the fascinating and lyrical memoir of avant-garde classicist Philip Glass, Words Without Music (Radio 4). His childhood growing up in suburban Baltimore reveals his proto-feminist, poker-faced mother, Ida and, significantly, a father who fell into the record selling business. Seeing Charlie Parker at the Cotton Club, we learn, sealed Glass’s ambition to be a musician. “If you go to New York to study music, you’ll end up like your uncle Henry spending your life travelling from city to city, living in hotels,” warned Ida. A warning which read as an enticing invitation to his future self.


Priya Elan

The GuardianTramp

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