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Classic Mix

Following the recent death of Burt Bacharach, I was reminded of a little wind-up music box I had as a child that played this song of his, and how for years I thought it was just some kind of American nursery rhyme, rather than the soundtrack to a film about a pair of notorious career criminals! With hindsight, though, it’s hardly surprising that the song spawned its own merch, given that Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid was 1969’s highest-grossing film and Bacharach’s soundtrack picked up an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy for Best Original Score. (The song itself won the Oscar for Best Song as well.) Perhaps more surprising, given its gently reactionary ‘old-timey’ sound, is that it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first four weeks of 1970, beating out Diana Ross & The Supremes’ ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’, Peter Paul & Mary’s ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’, The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’, and The Beatles’ ‘Come Together/Something’.

As an inveterate muso myself, I’d like to think that Bacharach’s penchant for unorthodox song construction helped its success. Just the section lengths are weird to start with, comprising nine-bar verses with ten-bar bridges between them. That said, for me the bridges feel more like nine-bar sections too, but with a one-bar extension, and it made me wonder whether the nine-beat metre of the ‘where the hell did that come from?!’ outro at 2:25 might have been intended as a deliberate structural echo.

Harmonically, the verse is based around a tonal cycle of fifths, leaving out just the diminished chord on the F major scale’s leading note and then repeating the iii and vi chords to give a progression of I-IV-iii-vi-iii-vi-ii-V. Intriguingly, the bridge’s progression has a lot in common with the verse, retaining the basic I-IV-iii-vi-ii-V outline, but adding extra V chords either side of the IV instead. Does this help tie the bridge together with the verse musically speaking? It’s a thought-provoking question to consider, as it’s a technique that could be applied practically to fill out half-finished songs, extrapolating from, say, existing verses to missing choruses, or from existing choruses to a missing middle section.

The vocal line is quirky too, and far from straightforward to sing – something that Bacharach’s primary muse Dionne Warwick commented on in relation to the composer’s tunes in general. Take the rising major seventh first heard under the words “his bed” at 0:13, a highly dissonant interval that’s quite difficult to sing on an ‘instrument’ that has no keys or frets. Vocal church-music composers of the 16th century actively avoided melodic major-seventh intervals for this reason, for example, and even in modern song you’ll usually encounter melodic major sevenths only where the singer swiftly proceeds upwards a half-step to ‘complete’ the octave – it’s just easier to pitch a major seventh accurately when you’ve got the octave as a kind of mental framework around it. But Bacharach’s melody ends the phrase on the major seventh interval, and the next phrase then starts on the note a whole step below. Any wonder that B J Thomas struggles to hit that note’s pitch cleanly throughout the song?

Speaking of pitching, notice how neither the opening ukulele nor the jangly piano first heard at 0:23 are particularly well in tune. But this is by no means a criticism, because that gives them a kind of ‘down-at-heel saloon’ character that feels very much in keeping with the film’s revisionist Western context – a salient reminder that tuning decisions can have an important aesthetic dimension. (I would criticise the pianist’s weird Ab after “done” at 0:34, though, which just sounds like a mistake.) I’m also pretty sure that the piano sound we’re hearing is a so-called ‘tack piano’, in other words an upright piano where metal thumb-tacks have been pressed into the felt hammers so that the strings end up being struck by the metal heads of the tacks.

It’s as well to mention that this song was actually recorded in two distinct versions: one for the film soundtrack itself (on which the singer’s voice is noticeably rather ragged on account of a bout of laryngitis); and one which was recorded for the separate chart single (which I’ve been critiquing here). These days, though, the litany of remasterings and compilations can make it difficult to find a decent-sounding version of early singles releases (something I mentioned when critiquing Vera Lynn’s 'We'll Meet Again'), and this song’s a case in point, because I downloaded four of the most popular versions from iTunes, and was pretty appalled by the obvious disparities between them.

My favourite was the version I found on The Scepter Records Story Vol. 3 compilation, which seems cleanly and clearly mastered at a very conservative loudness of -18LUFS. While The Very Best Of B J Thomas also managed reasonable headroom at -13dBLUFS, though, it also inexplicably reversed the stereo image too, as well as applying digital noise-reduction processing so ham-fistedly that the HF side-effects made the opening ukulele sound a bit like it was playing underwater! Super Hits: B J Thomas, on the other hand, decided not only to sum the mix to mono and push its loudness up to -10dBLUFS, but also presented the left channel 2dB louder than the right (ie. the mono mix was effectively panned about 25% off-centre). It was slightly faster than the others too (and therefore 20 cents sharper) and there was a really odd pitch wobble on the fourth beat of the ukulele intro, so I seriously found myself wondering if it might have been ripped from a vinyl copy or something…

But the real howler was a compilation called 1960s Happy Days, which delivered a truly absurd loudness of -8dBLUFS – for perspective, that’s a decibel louder than Lizzo’s recent disco-pop banger ‘About Damn Time’! As a result the lead vocal is frequently covered in distortion, and the degree of mix pumping on the trumpet solo at 1:33 has to be heard to be believed. Whoever cut that CD needs their mastering licence revoked…