Walk Away Renee Quadruple WhammyDecember 28, 2010
Walk Away Renee is unarguably one of those songs that has passed into that category marked ‘timeless‘. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as Linda Ronstadt, T’Pau, David Cassidy, Frankie Valli and even Japanese pop duo Pink Lady (no, me neither), in turn being given the country treatment, the overblown 80s synth rock treatment (gads) and all manner of disco/pop/soul treatments. What I love about Walk Away Renee is that, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, when I hear it again I’m always tricked into thinking I’ve just joined the song half-way through.
And when I see the sign that points one way
The lot we used to pass by every day
Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
Maybe it’s the use of the word ‘And‘ as the very first word, maybe it’s the short short verse, but either way it gets me every time. It’s often assumed that it was written by Motown staff writers for the Four Tops, but that’s not true.
The lyric of Walk Away Renee is the slightly-stalkerish product of a love struck 16 year old (16!!) called Michael Brown, keyboard player in cult 60s sunshine pop group The Left Banke. The Renee in question was Renee Fladen-Kamm, a leggy free-spirited blonde who happened, in proper Spinal Tap tradition, to be the girlfriend of the band’s bass player. So infatuated by her was Brown that when the Left Banke recorded the song, he was unable to play his part of the song as she was watching from the studio’s control room.
“My hands were shaking when I tried to play, because she was right there in the control room,” he says. “There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later.“
Wow! When I was 16 I think I was still playing with my Action Man, certainly I wasn’t writing proper adult love songs, let alone recording them in a proper recording studio and having hits with them (#5 on the Billboard Hot 100, July 1966, Pop Pickers). With it‘s chamber orchestra intro, harpsichord backing and flute solo (nicked from California Dreaming), Walk Away Renee is pure baroque ‘n roll, a fantastically perfect arrangement and execution that is hard to match.
Hard to match, yes, but not impossible. The Four Tops‘ 1968 version takes out the Left Banke’s chamber pop elements and replaces them with a huge dollop of soul and those instantly recognisable Motown calling cards of drum beat, sweeping strings and stabbing brass. Produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the vocal performance is magnificent - uplifting yet melancholic, Levi Stubbs giving the equivalent vocal performance to what young Michael was feeling in his poor wee love struck heart the day he wrote it. Fact – Rod Stewart loves this song. Want to hear those vocals in all their isolated glory? Of course you do. I’ve posted them before, but hear ‘em here. No stabbing brass, sweeping strings or drum breaks to obscure the most perfect soul vocal you’ll hear this week.
I’ve never been that big a fan of Billy Bragg (I know, I know, shoot me…) but I do love his version of Walk Away Renee from the aptly-named Levi Stubbs’ Tears EP. Less Motown, more a homage to the talking blues of Woody Guthrie or early Bob Dylan, but done in those dulcet Essex tones (Bard of Barking? More like the Bark of Barding ho ho) he tells his own story of unrequited love (“I couldn’t stop thinking about her and every time I switched on the radio there was somebody else singing about the two of us………she began going out with Mr Potato Head…. I went home and thought about the two of them together until the bath water went cold around me….“) whilst Johnny Marr picks out the familiar melody in the background. S’a beautiful version, man!
Renee seemingly moved on from the Left Banke’s bass player and onto the drummer before Walking Away for good. It seems that young Michael was never to receive her attentions. Nae luck Michael….