Strings Attached: 5 Amazing Baroque Pop Songs from the ‘60s

Baroque pop was one of the many sub-genres of rock and roll that emerged as the ‘60s rolled on. It was a time when certain artists were compelled to test the boundaries they could expand upon, or maybe even smash. Loosely defined, baroque pop is the style of music that emerged when classical instrumentation was introduced to the pop rock format. The development resulted in some of the loveliest and most enduring songs of that era.

Videos by American Songwriter

The five songs we’re highlighting here differ significantly in terms of the stature of the artists who recorded them. What they have in common, however, is how well they represent this one-of-a-kind pop music offshoot.

1. ”Care of Cell 44” by The Zombies (from the album Odessey and Oracle, 1968)

If you’re looking for the ultimate baroque pop album, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything quite so representative as Odessey and Oracle, the Zombies’ day-glo masterpiece. That album begins with the bouncing harpsichord playing of Rod Argent on “Care of Cell 44,” which brims with stunning, Beach Boys-style harmonies and endearing instrumental flourishes.

If you didn’t see the title and didn’t listen too closely to the lyrics, you’d believe this was just a happy song about a lovers’ reunion, albeit one with bittersweet undertones thanks to the natural melancholy in lead singer Colin Blunstone’s vocal. Little would you know, though, that the missing lover is actually stuck in prison, a whimsical touch by songwriter Argent that elevates this beauty even higher.

2. “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins (from the album Wildflowers, 1967)

Joni Mitchell wrote this song, and Collins fell in love with it and recorded it before Mitchell even had the chance. Collins, producer Mark Abramson, and arranger Joshua Rifkin were already in on the baroque pop craze, understanding how Collins’ gorgeous vocals popped amidst all that antiquated instrumentation.

Yet none of that would have mattered without the inherent beauty of Mitchell’s song. The ideas expressed seemed to fit so well with the times, as young people started to question the tried-and-true, and wondered if there was a better way to go about their lives. Mitchell allegedly wasn’t too keen on Collins’ version, and she would perform her own folk-flavored take in 1969. But Collins’ variation on the song has endured for being as pretty as it is meaningful.

[RELATED: Who Wrote the Jubilant “Hello, Hooray” by Both Alice Cooper and…Judy Collins??]

3. “(Do I Figure) In Your Life” by Honeybus (released as a single in 1967)

This song has lived on as a cover version over the years, with Joe Cocker and Paul Carrack among the monumental vocalists who have put their stamp on the tune’s indelible melody. Honeybus’ follow-up single, “Can’t Let Mary Go,” was the bigger hit, reaching the Top 10 in the UK. But “(Do I Figure) In Your Life” is just sheer perfection, a gorgeously sad song about what happens when the most important person in your life starts to pull away.

Pete Dello was the main creative force behind Honeybus, but he left the band not long after their initial success. That’s a bummer; it would have been interesting to see what more this band might have accomplished. That said, leaving behind this gem is pretty good consolation.

4. “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles (from the album Revolver, 1966)

The Beatles had already embraced strings on their 1965 hit U.S. single “Yesterday,” but that was more like a folk song with some classical instrumentation providing a bit of flavor. “Eleanor Rigby,” on the other hand, was written in such a way that it was clearly earmarked for a baroque pop treatment.

Doubling-down with the string quartet used for “Yesterday,” producer George Martin arranged the players in such a way on “Rigby” that the drama of the tale was heightened to a thrilling degree. While there’s been some debate over the years between group members about who was responsible for the bulk of the lyrics, we can all agree that the heartbreaking loneliness emanating from the song’s title character is what makes this such a memorable track.

5. “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke (released as a single in 1966)

You can argue about what the first baroque pop hit was when songs like “Walk Away Renee” started to pop up in or around 1966. But there’s no denying that this wonder of a song ranks among the very best this genre ever produced.

What’s amazing about that is that Michael Brown, The Left Banke’s chief writer and singer, was all of 16 years old when he put this track together. It’s got all the baroque pop signposts: the unique instrumentation (harpsichord and flute), the lush melody, and the heartbroken lyrics. It’s a startlingly mature lyrical sentiment as well, as the narrator realizes it’s easier for him to be apart from Renee if they can’t quite come together in romance.

Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

6 Classic Rock Stars of the ’70s—Where Are They Now?