There’s a craft that has all but disappeared from pop music these days — the craft of the arranger. Nowadays, the producer (or some other ProTools-mouse-clicker responsible for reassembling last year’s hit into the next hit) has usurped that task. Gone, largely, are the people who, using pen-and-ink, wrote notes on paper, orchestrating what Brian Wilson once described as “teenage symphonies to God.”
In addition to being a noted songwriter, sound track composer, conductor and producer, the late Jack Nitzsche was an arranger of stunning abilities. He was responsible for the Phil Spector sound of an aching heart cushioned in lush strings, throbbing drums, tremolo-drenched guitar and soaring harmony vocals. He arranged the choir on the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He worked closely with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and won Oscars for his film work on An Officer and a Gentleman.
Hearing is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story is a career retrospective that covers much of that ground. It’s a jaw-dropping collection of 26 songs that show off the breadth of Nitzsche’s talents working with others or releasing music on his own.
The child of German immigrants, Nitzsche grew up in Newaygo, a Michigan farm town near Grand Rapids. He studied composition via correspondence course while working in a Muskegon foundry before finally succumbing to the lure of Los Angeles. He hooked up with Sonny Bono and Terry Melcher and helped create a golden era of Los Angeles pop music. He arranged songs for Bobby Darin, Doris Day, Lesley Gore, the Righteous Brothers, Lou Christie and countless others.
These songs are filled with such innocent, wide-eyed sexuality that listeners can’t help but be seduced. On “Move Over Darling,” Doris Day rebuffs a would-be lover with “Our lips mustn’t touch” before finally relenting, cooing “Make love to me …” Yowza! Nitzsche’s version of Link Wray’s “Rumble” is so slinky that it prompts the question why strippers never dance to music like this anymore. Later, he branched into rock ’n’ roll decadence, arranging a creepy, creaking version of Marianne Faithfull’s “Sister Morphine.” The compilation ends in 1979 with Nitzsche’s new-wave works with Mink DeVille and Graham Parker.
Nitzsche died in 2000, and it could be argued that worthwhile pop music died long before that. Hearing is Believing is a great reminder of the craftsmanship that once went into making great pop records.
Brian J. Bowe writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.