The Artistry of Mike Leander

Swinging London in the mid-1960s was a hip time for music, with pop, rock, rhythm and blues and folk all blending together to serve as the soundtrack of an era unique in cultural and music history. The scene has been well documented, mostly focusing on fashion and artists out front on stages, album covers and magazines. Less covered are the musical forces behind the scene, the talents who helped realize the music as producers, arrangers and musical directors. One in particular was a renaissance man who could do all three jobs. You may not have heard of Mike Leander, but as you continue reading this article you will start to appreciate his contributions to the music of that period.

One of Mike Leander’s earliest productions was in 1962 when he picked up a song written by Geoff Stephens called Problem Girl. Stephens, who two years later would write the hit The Crying Game, could not read music. That did not deter Leander from recognizing the commercial potential of the doo-wop tune and he gave it to the Chariots, a group unique for being an all-black UK-based group. The song was released on the Piccadilly Records label, a reminiscence of the golden age of that style in the US in the 1950s.

1963 brought with it a serendipitous meeting at the Marquee Club in London, when Mike Leander saw a young guitar player called Jimmy Page. At the time Page was still in art school, heavily influenced by Salvador Dali and toying with the idea of becoming a full time artist. Leander put an end to these thoughts by inviting Page to do studio session work for him. This was the first step toward a full time career for Page over the following five years, resulting in hundreds of sessions, many of them uncredited. Back to that first session with Mike Leander as a producer, it was for the studio-based group Carter-Lewis and the Southerners, for a tune called Your Momma’s out of Town.

Mike Leander’s career got a huge boost when later that year he signed a three-year contract with Decca Records as a musical director. He was only 22 years old but already with a reputation as one who could use his arranging and orchestration skills to create songs from slivers of musical ideas and meet deadlines. This was a critical asset for Decca, a conservative records empire who was trying to get into the youth market after famously turning down the Beatles. And who signs that year to Decca but the bad boys of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones, a feat orchestrated by their young flamboyant manager Andrew Loog Oldham.

Andrew Loog Oldham with the Rolling Stones

1964 comes along and the 20 years old Oldham, after staging The Stones as the “bad boys of rock n roll” alternative to the clean look of The Beatles, starts a parallel path with pop music. As a studio band to provide the backing tracks he had a roster of musicians named the Andrew Oldham Orchestra, consisting of the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page, his future band mate John Paul Jones and others. Oldham had a fascination with the success and style of Phil Spector, who was a superstar producer across the pond. What a better way to be the English Spector than covering the legend’s first single before he became a legend. Oldham picked “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, a hit Spector wrote and performed with The Teddy Bears in 1958. The Stones assembled in the studio on January 2nd 1964 to record the song with then-singer Cleo Sylvester, later becoming a film, stage and television actress. The musical director on the session was Mike Leander, who also co-wrote the B-side, an instrumental fittingly named “There Are But Five Rolling Stones”.

His position at Decca provided Leander access to some of the best talents in British pop music in the 1960s. Some of them worked with Leander at the very beginning of their career, while still unknown. Such is the case of Joe Cocker, who in 1964, after working with his band Vance Arnold and the Avengers, signed a solo contract with Decca. His first single with the label was a cover of The Beatles I’ll Cry Instead, a John Lennon feature from the album and movie A Hard Day’s Night, released earlier that year. Leander wrote the arrangement and produced the session, again featuring the ubiquitous Jimmy Page. This is a great version of the song, but it tanked on its release. Cocker would have to wait a few years before hitting the big time with a different Beatles song.

Mike Leander’s name started to become known in the music industry, reaching over the Atlantic and catching the ears of Jerry Wexler, who together with the Ertegun brothers built one of the most revered record labels in the industry, Atlantic Records. Wexler promptly invited Leander to visit New York City and work on some of the label’s projects. And what luck, for one of the songs he assigned to Leander as an arranger was for the Drifters, one of the label’s major hit makers. The song was none other than Under The Boardwalk, produced by Bert Berns. The session had a major setback when on the morning of the recording Rudy Lewis, lead singer for the band, was found dead, likely as a result of an overdose. Wexler was able to postpone the session for a day and another Drifter, Johnny Moore, took the lead part. Enhancing the Spanish-tinged arrangement so popular during those times, Leander added a wonderful string orchestration to the song, helping it peak near the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Back in England, Leander’s acquaintance with Andrew Loog Oldham landed him what in my opinion is his most interesting and enduring assignment as a musical director, and the assignee was the young, beautiful and then very innocent Marianne Faithfull. In 1964, still a pupil at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Convent School, Faithfull was discovered by Oldham who wasted no time rushing her into a recording studio.

Marianne Faithfull, 1964

Leander remembers: “As far as Andrew was concerned Marianne was the Virgin Mary. She not only had that fresh innocence but she looked like the Virgin Mary.” Faithfull wrote about working with Leander in her autobiography: “Mike Leander was the person I worked with directly and with whom I actually made the record. I could get along with Mike. He was the musical director and the person I actually dealt with on earth. Leander was young and reasonably hip, but he was locked into Denmark Street, the pop music mill.”

Marianne Faithfull with Mike Leander

Their first session together took place at Olympic Sound Studios on May 28, 1964. The song Oldham planned for Faithfull to sing was one by composer Lionel Bart called “I Don’t Know (How to Tell You)”. Take after take ensued, with Virgin Mary struggling to find the proper register for the “awful” song, as all concerned seem to remember. Oldham was most candid, calling the song “fart-stopper”. Realizing that the session was going nowhere, Oldham suggested the try the B-side.

Marianne Faithfull, 1964

Legend tells the story of how Oldham locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room asking them to write a song “with brick walls all around it, and high windows and no sex.” The duo came out of the room with a song they titled As Time Goes By, a melancholic ballad light years away from their usual fare of rhythm and blues numbers. Oldham quickly realized this is an oddity in their repertoire, changed the word Years to Tears to avoid confusion with the theme song from Casablanca, and gave it to Marianne Faithfull. She remembers: “Andrew played me a demo of the tune with Mick singing and Big Jim Sullivan on acoustic guitar. He handed me a scrawled lyrics sheet and I went back into the studio and did it. As soon as I heard the cor anglais playing the opening bars I knew it was going to work. After a couple of tracks it was done.” The orchestration, cor anglais included, is the stuff that legendary recordings are made of, with musical directors who get the most out from the artists they work with.

Leander recalls the experience of working with Marianne Faithfull at the very start of her singing career: “She was terrified and very slow to make her presence felt. Andrew could be very intimidating when he fired on all cylinders but I have always been good with girl singers. She had no experience at all. It was not as if she had even been in a band for a couple of years.” As Tears Go By made it to the top ten in the UK charts, and more hits from her debut album followed. This Little Bird again carries Mike Leander’s touch, with the light string arrangement and use of a dominant harp part that gives the song its unique character. In a typical magazine article, Record Mirror extracted this pop-star nonsensical nugget from Faithfull: “The trouble with having a record called This Little Bird is that I don’t like birds. I’m being involved in publicity situations where I have to pose with birds — I’ve just come from the London Zoo where I’ve been photographed with a dove. But I can’t stand even a dove.” The song, luckily, lasted much longer than the commentary:

Leander kept working with Faithfull as a producer of all her 1960s albums, generating more hits with covers and fresh material. The following year she covered the Beatles’ then-new song Yesterday, giving it a beautiful interpretation with her low sensuous voice. Leander on Faithfull: “With Marianne, I soon learned to take what I could get. She was never a brilliant singer but a wonderful creator of musical moods. If Andrew and I ever got a sound for Marianne, I suppose it was a plinky-plunky orchestral one.”

From the same 1965 album, Go Away From My World, comes a more cheerful song with a great arrangement by Mike Leander. Summer Nights would have been a standard, forgotten pop song if not for the brilliant use of harpsichord and Faithfull’s voice.

The success of As Tears Go By drove The Rolling Stones to cover their own song the next year, with an arrangement and mood influenced by the big chart topper of that year, Yesterday, the original Beatles version. Notice the use of acoustic guitar throughout the song and the entrance of the strings in the second verse. Arrangement: you guessed it, Mike Leander:

Throughout the 1960s his role as producer and music director at Decca enabled Mike Leander to apply his talent to songs by many other artists in a variety of styles. Back in 1964 he worked with Decca artist Lulu (of Shout fame) on the song Here Comes the Night. This was the first recorded version of the song, reaching no. 50 in the UK charts at the end of 1964. It did not come close to the success the song saw when receiving its definitive cover by Them with Van Morrison only a few months later. However Lulu’s version is great, and it is amazing to think that she was only 16 when recording the song.

Another artist to benefit from Leander’s orchestrations was Marc Bolan, who was able to sign with Decca in 1965. His first recording with the label included the songs The Wizard and Beyond the Risin’ Sun, a single that failed to chart. An obscure song in Bolan’s catalog, it is a wonderful artifact of that period in British music, beautifully orchestrated by Leander.

In 1966 Leander, this time acting as a co-writer, helped the duo Peter and Gordon with the last song they were able to place in the UK charts. After their no. 1 hit World Without Love two years earlier, they were not able to capture that position again and their last attempt was a little British ditty called Lady Godiva. Songs of that sort were very popular in the US, similar to Herman’s Hermits chart toppers Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter and I’m Henry VIII, I Am, and Winchester Cathedral by New Vaudeville Band. Leander was versatile, providing different types of artists what they needed.

1967 was a great year for Mike Leander, with two of his greatest achievements as an orchestral arranger. The first was for the brilliant Days of Pearly Spencer by David McWilliams, this time acting as producer and arranger. The song would not have been the same without the sweeping parts he wrote for the strings. It was a B-side single that received substantial airplay on radio Caroline and massive promotion after its release but failed to chart in the UK. Other European countries like France, Belgium and the Netherlands were kinder to this great song.  The lo-fi effect on the vocals, in the days before computers and audio plugins, was achieved by having the singer call from a phone booth and recording his voice coming through the receiver.

The pinnacle of Mike Leander’s 1960s run is without a doubt his only arrangement for the Beatles. We are in February of 1967, and the Beatles are deep into the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul McCartney reads a newspaper article about Melanie Coe, a London suburb girl who left a note for her parents and ran away from home. He comes up with a melody and has the idea of using only a strings ensemble to back him up, similar to his previous forays into that style with Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, both hugely successful. In need of an orchestrator, he naturally called up George Martin, urging him to come up with the goods quick. Martin, a busy man with a career outside the Beatles, had other commitments (a Cilla Black date in this case) and asked for more time. Sir Paul’s creative juices were bubbling with urgency, driving him to break an unwritten code within the Beatles cosmos and seek an alternate arranger. He found it when he recalled being in the studio when Marianne Faithfull recorded her version of Yesterday two years earlier. Mike Leander was promptly summoned and delivered the goods on time. Awkwardly, Martin was the one working with the classical instrumentalists in the studio for this orchestral arrangement, the only one in the Beatles career he did not write.

George Martin conducting

In his book All You Need is Ears, Martin recalls the episode: “I recorded it, with a few alterations to make it work better, but I was hurt. I thought: Paul, you could have waited, for I really couldn’t have done it that afternoon, unless I had just devoted everything to The Beatles and never dealt with any other artist. Paul obviously didn’t think it was important that I should do everything. To me it was. I wasn’t getting much out of it from a financial point of view, but at least I was getting satisfaction. The score itself was good enough, and still holds up today, but it was the only score that was ever done by anyone else during all my time with The Beatles. However, it had happened, and there was nothing to be done about it.” Though he was hurt, Martin did mention that “Mike Leander did a good job.” I think he did a magnificent job, no less effective than any score Martin wrote for the Beatles. It is one of McCartney’s peaks with the band, aided by the Greek chorus, a brilliant contribution by John Lennon. Also of note on this recording is harpist Sheila Bromberg, the only female musician ever to play on a Beatles record.

Mike Leander left Decca and became arranger and producer for MCA records’ British branch, which brought him an opportunity to work with the singer with whom he will find his biggest success. Enter Paul Gadd, aka Paul Raven, aka Gary Glitter. In 1969, still in his Paul Raven incarnation, Glitter was signed to MCA Records. Leander, who knew him from various musical activities including TV commercials and film, thought he had the making of a rock star. They collaborated on a number of singles that failed to make a dent in the UK charts. This did not deter Leander, who started experimenting with new sounds in the studio. John Rossall, trombone player with the Glittermen, later renamed The Glitter Band, remembers: “The whole Glitter sound started on a Mike Leander instrumental. He was trying to do a Johnny Congas type of thing and it developed from there. He was also influenced by Osibisa’s rhythms. He then put this amazing droning guitar sound on it. He found an old guitar with a really bad action on it and put it through some really heavy Fender tube amps till it was jumping off the floor. Mike played all instruments apart from the brass.” Leander was not only a producer and arranger, he was also a multi-instrumentalist who could layer multiple tracks of himself playing all the instruments: “Mike used to get in the studio on his own with the engineer and play the drums for 20 minutes trying out different drum things and then say: ‘Right, roll the tape’ to the engineer and then record a section that he would then make a loop out of and copy it onto the 24 track. He would go to overdub the bass, floor and small toms on one track, then the bass and the guitar. If he could have played brass then he would have done that as well.”

Mike Leander

And that is how the song that became synonymous with large sport events in the USA was born. If you were an American sport fan in the last 40 years, odds are good that you shouted “Hey” at the right cue in the song in one sport game or another. The song, known as The ‘Hey’ Song to such fans, is otherwise known as Rock and Roll Part 2. Not one of my favorite in Mike Leander’s career, partly because I was never into this flavor of glam, partly because the lyrics are somewhat light on the side of variety:

Rock and roll, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

Rock and roll, rock, rock and roll

You are probably not going to hear that song at sport events in the US anymore. Why? Well, Gary Glitter, aka Paul Gadd, aka Paul Raven, was found guilty in 2006 in the crime of Pedophilia. A serious offense, that. When sport associations and teams in the US found out, they hurriedly took the song out of rotation.

We can’t end an article on a gloomy note like that, so we will close with one more project Leander did with Marianne Faithfull. I realize this is yet another gloomy story, but this time a great song. In the early 1970s the chanteuse was down and out after ending her relationship with Mick Jagger and losing custody to her son. In 1971 Leander literally picked her up from the streets, attempting to help her regain her career. This resulted in a recording of a few songs with him as a producer, but they were shelved due to lack of enthusiasm by record labels. They had to wait for more than a decade, after her return to the charts with Broken English, to see a release as the album Rich Kid Blues. These songs are the sole artifact of her in-between period, her voice starting to show the raspiness that would become her trademark in the years to come. They also form a magnificent album of cover songs, muted in tone and minimal in arrangement, miles away from her mid-1960s albums. Here is a beautiful version of Sad Lisa, written by Cat Stevens and originally released on his album Tea for the Tillerman.

We will end with a quote by Mike Leander, who went through the wild 1960s undamaged, describing best why so many talents chose to work with him as their musical director, producer and arranger: “I was happily married and settled down. My hair wasn’t very long and I was quite straight really. I took it all very seriously and wanted to have a serious career. I did not do drugs and I think I was viewed as reliable, dependable and respected for whatever musical skills I had.” Well said.


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2 replies »

  1. ‘Gary Loog Oldham’?? There is reference to the *Andrew* Loog Oldham orchestra, so how come his first name has turned into Gary twice? Maybe the Gary Glitter influence.

    Otherwise, great stuff! The name was known to me but not the width of his achievements.

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