A Conversation with Burt Bacharach Through the turbulent '60s, the composer was of the musical opinion that what the world needed was "love, sweet love." Approaching 80, he finds himself in a different mood. He talks about At This Time, his new CD.
NPR logo

A Conversation with Burt Bacharach

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5056125/5134123" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Conversation with Burt Bacharach

A Conversation with Burt Bacharach

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5056125/5134123" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Burt Bacharach's new album is a collection of protest songs. Let me say that again: Burt Bacharach's new album is a collection of protest songs. Yes, the same Burt Bacharach, the one who wrote some of the most famous love songs and lush pop music ever.

(Soundbite of "Alfie")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) What's it all about, Alfie?

(Soundbite of "I Say A Little Prayer")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup...

Backup Singers: (Singing) Makeup...

(Soundbite of "Always Something There to Remind Me")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) And there is always something there to remind me.

(Soundbite of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?")

Backup Singers: (Singing) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa...

(Soundbite of "Walk on By")

Unidentified Singer: Walk on by...

(Soundbite of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head")

Unidentified Singer: Raindrops keep fallin' on my head...

(Soundbite of "What's New Pussycat?")

Mr. TOM JONES: (Singing) What's new, pussycat?

(Soundbite of "Close to You")

THE CARPENTERS: Ah, close to you...

ELLIOTT: Burt Bacharach didn't actually pen the lyrics to all those hits. He composed and arranged the music. But at 77, Bacharach found himself incensed at the war in Iraq and the state of the world. So he decided to write about it in song. His new CD is called, "At This Time," and he even does a little singing on it. There are also guests on the album, including Dr. Dre, Rufus Wainwright and Elvis Costello.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) This stupid messy world just keeps getting worse; so many people dying needlessly. Looks like these liars may inherit the Earth. People pretending to pray and getting away with it.

ELLIOTT: Burt Bacharach joins me now from the studios of KCRW in Santa Monica, California.


Mr. BURT BACHARACH (Songwriter): Hi, Debbie. Hi, everybody. To clarify one thing, Debbie, when you say it's a protest album, there are some protest songs. There are some songs of dissatisfaction and disappointment and frustration, yes, and I would say that I'm still writing love songs. I mean, basically, you could say this is a continuation of writing love songs. Many of my love songs that I wrote were about the anguish of love not working out. This is still a love song. Instead of a love song about one individual to another individual, a relationship breaking up, this is about a whole world coming apart and the heartache I feel for that.

ELLIOTT: We should say you're perched there at the piano while we're talking today.

Mr. BACHARACH: I am sitting at a piano, you know?

ELLIOTT: Can you play us a little of one of the songs on your new album?

Mr. BACHARACH: You know, it's--do you have a 40-piece orchestra for me?

ELLIOTT: I'm afraid I don't.

Mr. BACHARACH: No. Believe me, it's better on the record than it's going to be right here, but I'll give you an indication and maybe you can lay the record over it. It comes out of a trumpet.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. BACHARACH: (Singing) I've been hoping for a better day. It's a long time coming but I'll wait anyway, till the dark clouds have all blown away and the sun shines again. I keep trying, I've been holding on, for the days are empty in a world that's gone wrong. Life's a miracle or a foolish tale. I don't know. Go ask Shakespeare. Love's the answer, like I said before. It's the one thing needed maybe now even more. Love's the secret we've been looking for till the sun shines again. So I keep hoping, and I'm holding on, 'cause the cold wind's blowing but I know love is true. There will come a day when the sorrow is gone and the sun shines again.

Now you see, Debbie, there is that hope of love. That thought pervades through the album.

ELLIOTT: You write that you were grateful to be able to do this and not have to worry about it being a big hit.

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, or certainly being able to get played on radio, you know? I had a record company that wanted this album. He said, `Don't give me 10 songs that we'll try to get played on the radio, Burt. Have something that runs six, seven minutes.' So to not have that concern, to just have the freedom to write without somebody looking over your shoulder, that's pretty great.

ELLIOTT: Now it makes me start to wonder, thinking about, you know, back in the '60s, when you were at the pinnacle of your commercial success. The Vietnam War was going on. It was a time of social upheaval. Back then, you know, how did you feel about these issues, or were you in a place where you felt like you had to do what would get played on the radio?

Mr. BACHARACH: Listen, when I started writing songs, Debbie, I started writing songs that I thought could be commercially successful. And how was I during the Vietnam War? I kind of, like, never protested. That's the irony about this, isn't it?


Mr. BACHARACH: And, I mean, I never was a political person. I never marched. I was upset about it, but I just stayed in my cocoon of just keeping writing music. And I didn't like what was going on with Vietnam, the whole Nixon years. I just have trouble with people that don't tell the truth, that lie, you know?

ELLIOTT: What's different about you today that makes you feel like it's time for you to sing about this? If you didn't like what was going on back then but that wasn't something that you wanted to put into your music, what is it about today...

Mr. BACHARACH: It was...

ELLIOTT: ...that makes you need to put it into your music?

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, that was far away, wasn't it? That was, like, somewhere over in Asia. You know, you could just stay in a cocoon and it was far away and remote.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, but there were protesters in the street. There was Bob Dylan.

Mr. BACHARACH: I know. I know that. I know that. I was writing love songs. I mean, I--was my behavior good? No, but it was what it was. So, hey, look what happened to me, you know? I changed.

ELLIOTT: While I have you here, I do want to ask you a couple of things that maybe some of your biggest fans don't know that we found out while we were preparing for this interview. I hope you don't mind. You were once the musical director for Marlene Dietrich?

Mr. BACHARACH: Sure. We played songs like (singing) `Falling in love again, never wanted to. What am I to do? I can't help it.'

(Adopts German accent) `I go see about the boys and--yeah.'

All around the world I went with Marlene. Wonderful way to see the world. Musically, it was a little weird because at the time I was having all these R&B hits, you know? Chuck Jackson, Dionne, and be playing this music in Poland or Russia, for Dietrich, conducting, playing piano for her. Wonderful way to see the world, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You also wrote the theme music to the sci-fi film "The Blob"?

Mr. BACHARACH: Exactly, yup.

ELLIOTT: Do you remember that?

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah. (Singing) Beware of The Blob...

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BACHARACH: No, I can't. I can remember the lyrics: `Beware of The Blob. It creeps and leaps and glides and slides across the floor, all over the wall.' It's just as scary.

ELLIOTT: Not exactly a love song there.


ELLIOTT: Well...

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: ...let me ask you just a little bit--you know, we all, you know, have in our heads these top 10 hits that you're famous for, but I'm curious. In the '60s, when you were writing, you know, that was in the era of rock 'n' roll, but your sound was something different. Yet it really took hold in this era of rock 'n' roll. What do you think the secret was to your sound?

Mr. BACHARACH: I guess it all is connected to having been a well-founded musician, having studied classical music, having studied composition with Darius Milhaud and Henry Cowell and Bohuslav Martinu, having a good base, you know? Like on "Anyone Who Had a Heart," it was a five-four bar.

(Soundbite of "Anyone Who Had a Heart")

Mr. BACHARACH: (Singing) Anyone who ever loved could look at me...

And suddenly it becomes a four-four bar, and I never knew that until I wrote it out. It just felt natural, and to have the end...

(Soundbite of "Anyone Who Had a Heart")

Mr. BACHARACH: (Singing) ...hold me in his arms and never, never ever...

That's a seven-eight bar right there. Very baffling to a studio full of musicians saying, `How do we play a seven-eight bar?' But it was natural to me. So I was doing my thing and working with urban artists, which felt very good whether it was Dionne, The Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Tommy Hunt. So there was this certain sound that was evolving partly because of the composition, the way I was writing and the way I was orchestrating.

ELLIOTT: Is there a moment when you were at your piano and you're working on a composition that something just says, `Bingo. Here it is. I've got it'?

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah. But, I mean, I will get away from the piano then and lie on the couch and go through it in my head. I think it's very key to see and hear it away from your instrument, because if I sit here and I'm playing...

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BACHARACH: ...and these chords really sound, you know...

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BACHARACH: ...and come up with a couple of words that maybe tell me that I should go up here, you know, but I can do that. But that's only four or five or six bars, and to make it evolve from there, the best way for me always is to get away from the piano, sit in a place and hear it in my head, the long form if it's going to run four minutes, and that's where everything gets born, where the strings come in. So, I mean, if you are really a founded, well-grounded musician, I would tell any young musicians out there or just aspiring to be young musicians, learn the rules before you break them. Learn how to write music down, so if you're on an airplane you can hear it in your head, know what notes to put down on a piece of manuscript and learn some harmonic foundation.

ELLIOTT: You know, I think my parents' song is "This Guy's in Love."

Mr. BACHARACH: Oh. Well, how about if I play four bars of "This Guy's in Love" for your parents, all right? Would that be OK? Would they like that?

ELLIOTT: Oh, they would love it.


(Soundbite of "This Guy's in Love")

Mr. BACHARACH: (Singing) You say this guy, this guy's in love with you. Yes, I'm in love. Who looks at you the way I do? So when you smile, I could tell we know each other very well. My hands are shaking, my heart, my heart keeps breaking 'cause...

So you've got more than eight bars there, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Burt Bacharach, thank you so much.

Burt Bacharach's new recording is called "At This Time." He joined us from member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California.

Mr. BACHARACH: Thank you, Debbie. Thank you, all.

ELLIOTT: To bask in a little more of Burt Bacharach's music, new and old, go to our Web site, npr.org. And while you're there, take our Burt Bacharach quiz.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.