Burt Bacharach: The lounge lizard bites back

The king of easy listening has gone hardcore political on his latest album. James McNair asks: what's new, Bacharach?
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Joe Public, too, has recognised that the best works by Bacharach and his most celebrated collaborator, Hal David, are as much balm for the senses as they are songwriting gold. "We should have an international Burt day where everyone sips cocktails, dons crushed velvet suits and lounges out listening to Dionne [Warwick] singing Burt and Hal's songs", opines one fan-site posting.

But, at 77, Austin Powers's spiritual father has suddenly gone hardcore, dressing hip-hop loops hatched by 50 Cent and the Eminem producer Dr Dre with biting, self-penned lyrics that take the Bush administration to task. At This Time is a metaphorical shake of Bacharach's weary, silver-grey head; a dismayed look at the world that we have created.

"It was important for me to be taken out of my comfort-zone", says the album's creator. "I'm just being honest about this reflective time in my life. Other people can write what they feel in their Newsweek column, but I put it in my music. I won't get on stage with the Buffalo Philharmonic and say something derogatory about Bush, but my feelings are on the album.

"The record isn't out yet in the US, but it will be interesting to see how it's received. I don't think they'll throw things at me, but a couple of journalists have asked me if I'm afraid of losing my core fan-base. If it happens, it happens - I can't be concerned about that. The thing is not to lose the core of my heart."

Bacharach's hitherto unsuspected subversive streak has taken some by surprise, but, if you look beneath the softly parping horns, his music has long betrayed a man wary of received wisdoms. Working alongside the lyricist Hal David in a smoke-filled room in the Brill Building in the late 1950s, Bacharach was already taking liberties with the pop song's form. His fusing of bebop, classical, and Brazilica was one thing, but having studied modern composition under Darius Milhaud, Burt was also adept at lacing his work with time-signature changes, uneven bar-counts and asymmetrical melodies. The verse melody of the 1958 Perry Como hit "Magic Moments" finds Burt employing the latter device to admirably catchy effect, its notes coming in bunches of five and six.

"Occasionally there would be complaints", Bacharach said in 1978. "With 'What's New Pussycat?', someone said, 'This is an oompah-band waltz, how is somebody in a club in Paris going to dance to this?' I said, 'They'll find a way. It feels right the way it is'. I think it was Dionne [Warwick] who told me the turn-around bar on 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' was in 7/8 time. I couldn't believe it. It wasn't intentional - that's just the way it came out."

Back in 2005, Bacharach and Dr Dre no longer seem such unlikely bedfellows. The Dre-produced Eminem has also worked magic with uneven bar-lines and the inventive use of scansion, and you can imagine him rhyming "pneumonia" with "'phone ya", as Hal David did in "I'll Never Fall In Love Again."

"I can't profess to be a huge rap fan", says Bacharach, "but do I like Dre's sounds? Yes - I think he's a masterful producer. As far as Eminem goes, for me the key to understanding his work was seeing 8 Mile, the movie that tells his story. It helped me to understand that rap is a social necessity. It gave me respect for the genre."

"You have to remember that working with urban artists is nothing new for me", he adds. "Think of Aretha Franklin, and bear in mind that it wasn't so long ago that I did a whole album with Ron Isley (2003's Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach). That wasn't exactly rap music, I agree, but it had the same roots."

Dre aside, other collaborators on At This Time include Elvis Costello, and Rufus Wainwright, who has a songwriting style that owes something to Bacharach's flounce, and to the Brill Building's writing tradition in general.

"Elvis has been a friend for a long time", says Bacharach of Costello [the pair recorded the lauded Painted from Memory in 1998]. "When I played him "Who Are These People", it was right up his alley, because he's really anti the current administration."And Rufus? "I just think he's a wonderfully distinctive singer, an old soul, really. We got together in Italy and I asked him if he'd like to replace my temporary vocal on "Go Ask Shakespeare." I met with no resistance."

Fittingly, Bacharach was honoured with an "inspiration" gong at last months GQ Awards. Among those leading his standing ovation was Bob Geldof, who sang "Trains And Boats And Planes" with Burt at a benefit for Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy in 2000. The gong served to underline pop's rediscovery of all things Bacharach: his "A House Is Not A Home" was recently sampled by Twista, Kanye West and Jamie Foxx, and he is a guest on the talent search show, American Idol.

The Mike Myers-penned Austin Powers films were important for Bacharach. He was given cameos in 1997's Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery and its two sequels, and even aside from these movies' liberal use of his music, it wasn't hard to see why. "Mr Bacharach was wearing bright California clothes: a green jacket, rust coloured slacks, a brown and yellow striped tie, a dark blue shirt", ran a 1968 profile of Burt in The New Yorker.

Visually at least, Burt was once Austin Powers with better teeth; a real-life playboy with a bachelor pad in Manhattan and racehorses that he named Alfie and Reach Out, after two of his best songs.

Bacharach says that he didn't mind the Myers comedies presenting his work as high kitsch; the important thing was that they brought his music to a whole new audience. He also agrees that it was pleasing that Myers' screenplays were alert to the seductive powers of his tunes, but with four marriages to his name (with Paula Stewart, the actress Angie Dickinson, his fellow songwriter Carole Bayer-Sager, and since 1993, to Jane Hansen) you could argue that Burt himself has been one of the chief benefactors of his music's aphrodisiac qualities.

Still, it's for his songs that Bacharach will be remembered, and of the 150 or so that he penned with Hal David, they don't come much better than "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". BJ Thomas, who crooned the Oscar-winning version featured in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, has always claimed that he was Bacharach's second choice as singer, Burt supposedly writing the song with Bob Dylan in mind.

In 1996, Hal David told Mojo magazine that the three qualities he had always sought in his lyrics were believability, simplicity, and emotional impact. "When we were writing, Burt and I always tried to find something that was original. There was no fun in being like everyone else."

Elsewhere, Bacharach has said that he sees songwriting as like "making a four-minute movie with highs and lows", and compositions such as "I Say A Little Prayer" and "The Look Of Love" certainly hold to his view that a good song should always fire emotions that people can identify with.

What, though, are the songs that Burt Bacharach wishes he had had written? "A couple of Michael McDonald songs for sure", he says. "The way the chords and the melody move in "What A Fool Believes" is fantastic. I wouldn't have minded writing Earth Wind And Fire's "After the Love is Gone", either."

'At This Time' is out on Sony/BMG