Michael McKean sets the record straight on The Left Banke

In short order, you’ll be seeing my Random Roles with Michael McKean – who can currently be seen within the cast of Christopher Guest’s new HBO series, Family Tree, but when the piece pops up on the AV Club, it’ll be without the brief segment that you’re about to read.

Sometimes I just can’t resist asking a question that has no place in the piece I’m talking to someone about, and in this instance, I really wanted to know the truth about his connection the the ’60s baroque-pop band The Left Banke. There’s been a persistent rumor that McKean was in the line-up of the band for a very brief period, but it’s one of those odd little footnotes that I’d never actually heard or read him comment on, so I figured, what the hell, now’s my chance to get the truth straight from the horse’s mouth.


Me: Due to the recurring tendency of semi-truths to find their way onto Wikipedia and be claimed as fact, I was wondering if you could set the record straight on exactly what your connection was to the Left Banke. Were you actually a member of the band?

Michael McKean: No, but…okay, here’s what happened. The Left Banke put out a couple of singles. “Walk Away Renee” didn’t do anything, and then…I think “I Haven’t Got the Nerve,” maybe? I’m not sure what the second one was. But they did nothing. Then they made an album, “Pretty Ballerina” was on it, and… [Hesitates.] I’m not really sure of the way this shaped up, but, anyway, what happened was that the Left Banke’s first two singles didn’t do anything, but then all of a sudden “Walk Away Renee” did become a hit, and their career kind of started, and they put this album out, which had some really cool songs on it. But after that, everybody split it up. It was just a disaster. I don’t know what happened there.

But Mike Brown, who was the main composer and kind of the guy – he was something like 18 at the time and was a real prodigy – he put together a new version of the Left Banke, and it was me, Warren David on drums, and a guy named Bert Sommer on bass and mainly on lead vocals, because he had a voice that was kind of high-pitched like Steve Martin, who was the original lead singer, except that Bert had a much better voice. So we rehearsed for three months, we had our pictures taken as the New Left Banke, they recorded a single while I was there, but I did not play on it because I wasn’t very good. [Laughs.] I was 19 years old, I wasn’t much of a guitar player, so they got good studio guys to do it. I don’t even think Warren, my friend the drummer who got me into the band, even played on it. It was called “Ivy, Ivy.” So I was with the band and yet not with the band. “Ivy, Ivy” was released, and it was a complete dud. Nobody cared. It’s not a bad record, but it just didn’t happen. And then there were some squabbles.

Mike’s manager, our manager, was also Mike’s dad: Harry Lookofsky, a famous New York session man, string arranger, string leader, and violinist. He also went by the name of Hash Brown, as in Hash Brown and his Orchestra. But, anyway, that’s what happened: they had this big fight, party time was over, and they pulled the plug. And I grabbed as many instruments as I could, and the fancy new clothes that they got us, and I headed downtown and went back to school at NYU. [Laughs.]

So here’s the song that, despite what you may have read on Wikipedia, does not feature Michael McKean, followed by its B-side, “And Suddenly.” McKean’s right, it isn’t a bad record. And neither is its B-side, for that matter. But, y’know, this is coming from someone who can’t begin to tell you how many times he’s spun There’s Gonna Be a Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966–1969, so you’ll want to take my opinion with a grain of salt, I reckon.

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14 Responses to Michael McKean sets the record straight on The Left Banke

  1. george cameron says:

    who is this guy i along with steve and mike were the writers, I have no idea what this guy is saying but not true the group was steve martin george cameron mike brown, jeff winfield, tom finn the original drummer was warren david who left for the coast and I became the drummer and friend tom feher. along the years people have climbed to be in the group. why? who knows but this was the team never heard of this guy, sorry

    • will says:

      This guy is Michael McKean, as the piece says, and he’s not claiming to have been in the group – the incarnation that recorded the “Ivy, Ivy” / “And Suddenly” single – beyond rehearsing and having his picture taken. I would think that Mike Brown would be able to confirm if McKean was around, though.

      • Jan Zamojski says:

        But, George Cameron, isn’t it the case that Michael Brown had “Ivy, Ivy” and “And Suddenly” recorded under the Left Banke name with alternate musicians from the ones you mention as “the team” – I mean, clearly at least with a different vocalist than Steve Martin (i.e. Bert Sommer)? This has long been the account vis-à-vis tensions that emerged after (during?) the finalization of the first album, with most of said team regrouping to record again (“Desiree,” perhaps most notably) with Brown prior to his ultimate departure. Is that part at least accurate?

    • Ken says:

      He’s pretty famous…
      Michael John McKean (born October 17, 1947) is an American actor, comedian, writer, composer and musician well known for his portrayal of Squiggy’s friend, Leonard “Lenny” Kosnowski, on the sitcom Laverne & Shirley; Charles “Chuck” McGill in the AMC drama Better Call Saul, and for his work in the Christopher Guest ensemble films, particularly as David St. Hubbins, the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of the fictional rock band Spinal Tap from the film This Is Spinal Tap. He co-wrote A Mighty Wind, which won the Grammy for “Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media”, as well as A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song.

  2. Alan Merrill says:

    I can remember finishing a set at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village NYC playing the day show in 1967 with my band and emerging from the club into the daylight. Michael McKean was right there on the corner of Minetta Lane just outside the club with Bert Sommer, Norman Kalkutt and Chris Savage (aka Ronald Henry). Bert was talking about the new Left Banke that Mike Brown was putting together with him and McKean, who was a memorable vision, with his very long blond hair, piercing blue eyes and he had the skinniest legs I’ve ever seen in rock n roll trousers. I told McKean and Sommer that it would never work, the offshoot project. The Left Banke already had three chart hit singles at that point in time with “Walk Away Renee” “Pretty Ballerina” and “Desiree” and their faces were fairly well known in the teen magazines and on teen oriented television shows. I told them it wouldn’t work, this new lineup, and it didn’t. The project was submerged in litigation over the use of the name Left Banke. That said, “Ivy Ivy” is a great Tom Feher / Mike Brown song with sparkly spooky guitars and an eerie melody line. Feher and Brown were a very important part of shaping the Left Banke sound. Integral founding members of the team.
    I also auditioned for the Left Banke in 1968 and that’s a whole other insane story, but I digress.
    Michael McKean has done very well since then in some fantastic films. He’s a very talented musician and I enjoy watching him in the new series “Better Call Saul.”

  3. Neil Lipes says:

    Sadly I recently discovered that Michael Brown had passed away much too early at age 65 back in March of 2015:-( That caused me to fondly remember a fellow who was the lead guitar at one point in The Left Banke, I speak of Jeff Winfield. I was a friend of Mr. Winfield years after he was “unceremoniously” removed from the group by Mr. Brown………working with him as fellow members of the motion picture operators union of the IATSE. He was so down to earth, never wanting to speak of his former “life” as a rock musician:-)
    I hope both Michael and Jeff rest in peace…….I shall remember both of these uniquely talented individuals.

  4. Tom Finn says:

    George Cameron doesn’t remember anything. My entire experience dealing with him was a nightmare. I was the person that put The Left Banke together. I brought all the elements together because I wanted a band that wrote and sang. Everything I say here is documented in liner note interviews by all the members. The only guy I didn’t bring in was Jeff Winfield. Michael McKean was a guy that Michael Brown wanted in his new Left Banke which wasn’t to be. Steve Martin Caro, George Cameron and myself Tom Finn hired lawyers and stopped the record “Ivy Ivy” and our lawyers won the rights to use the name The Left Banke. Not Michael Brown his new group or his father Harry Lookofsky. Now George Cameron has formed yet another Left Banke made up of young people that weren’t even born at “Walk Away Renée” time. The real talent in The Left Banke was Michael Brown, Steve Martin Caro, George and I as harmony singers. ~ TF

  5. shel stewart says:

    I too was involved with Mike Brown during those explosive and creative years in the late 60’s /early 70’s.Mike recorded one of my songs “Sad
    Sad World” unfortunately never released.I have been friends
    With Tom Feher for many years.He wrote with Mike Brown
    And they recorded many compositions some of which were
    My recollection of the band consisted of Mike Brown Tom Finn Rick Brandt (guitar) and George Martin.
    Bert Sommers was produced separately by Mike Brown.We’re All Playin In The Same Band was a regional hit
    There were rumors of a newly formed Left Banke .
    Michael was a genius very reclusive and a wonderful person
    I have very fond memories of him

  6. terry hrovat says:

    Here’s another question for Michael McKean. Is Burt Sommer the same guy who recorded Were All Playing In The Same Band?

  7. todd says:

    Great fascinating history from all of you folks! Deserves a book and a movie with a great soundtrack to kill for.
    Back then I was crazy about some group based at the turkish coffee shop on MacDougal Street; the Gurus!

  8. Michael Byrne says:

    Please bury the hatchet, fellas. You were such a great, innovative band. Those of you who remain earthly should get together and tour. I’d definitely pay to see you!

  9. Roscoe Grable says:

    I have read all of these posts, and it seems like everyone thinks this was unique to the Left Banke. I worked in the music industry as a technician in Detroit for a long time, and was lucky enough to know so many local and national musicians (….oh the stories….). This story is so typical of so many bands. I have seen major fights over girlfriends, creative control, song selection, rehearsal schedules, performance venues , clothes choices, and even one time a disagreement about a beer grew over a period time into the dismissal of a drummer. I am not naming names, but a lot of these people would be familiar to you. Stop pretending like this is so rare, it isn’t. But what is remarkable is when I hook up with these guys years later their recollection is always so skewed form what really happened.

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