Brandy: Best Song Ever?

Brandy by Looking Glass

Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) by Looking Glass

The song Review by Bill Ectric originally appeared on the website of The King Tut Vintage Album and Cassette Museum of Jacksonville

I’ve been saying for years that my favorite song is Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl), released by the band Looking Glass in 1972. If you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, you heard the character played by Kurt Russell call the song “possibly Earth’s finest composition.” So now, in the spirit of not wanting other people to get all the credit for saying things, I believe it is high time to present my thesis to the King Tut Vintage Album and Cassette Museum of Jacksonville.

Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) is my desert island song. It is almost impossible to pick one favorite song among the countless choices, but in this thesis, I will explain how the lyrics, vocals, beat, and instrumentation, all combine to make Brandy the perfect song for me.
The members of Looking Glass when Brandy was released were the “classic line-up” of Elliot Lurie (guitar, vocals), Jeff Grob (drums), Larry Gonsky (piano, backup vocals), and Pieter Sweval (bass, backup vocals). According to Wikipedia, the recording also featured James Giampa on congas, Chuck Connolly on backup vocals, and horn arrangements by Larry Fallon.

Let us start with the beginning of the song.

I like electric guitar, be it clean or distorted, blues, jazz, psychedelic, or rock & roll. With that in mind, one might assume that my favorite song would explode with flailing lead solos, and if I could choose more than one song, I’m sure one of them would. Brandy has only a few subtle guitar licks, done tastefully, but that is enough to satisfy my requirement. After all, an exhibition of show-off guitar pyrotechnics might get old if listened to constantly. After Cream disbanded, Eric Clapton told Darrin Fox in an interview, “I had gotten so tired of the virtuosity – or pseudo-virtuosity – thing of long, boring guitar solos” (Fox, Darrin, June 2001, Guitar Player magazine, p. 108).There are at least two versions of Brandy available. The one that was released as single 45 RPM record has a little more guitar than the album version. The single is also a little bit faster. Both versions begin with a couple of lilting string bends, but the single version extends the guitar “licks” for a couple more measures into the intro. Lurie repeats the same, or similar, guitar flourishes throughout the song, playing chords the rest of the time. The difference between a lick and a riff is this: A riff is usually a recognizable series of notes. When you hear the intro to Smoke on the Water or Sunshine of Your Love, you know what song it is. A lick is more generic and usually consists of fewer notes. Bending a note on a particular fret of one string and then plucking the same fret of the next string is a lick. Guitarists use many standard licks, and create new ones, without necessarily sounding derivative. The guitar intro in Brandy is a series of licks which, taken together, could almost be considered a recognizable riff. And it’s enough to meet my requirement for electric guitar.

Guitarist Elliott Lauri wrote Brandy and sang the lead vocal on the record. His vocal timbre is perfect for the song. Consider Lurie’s contemporaries. Since Brandy was released in 1972, I will stick mainly singers from that era. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant could really belt it out, but that high wail would get old if that’s all there was to listen to. For that reason, I must rule out any song by Zeppelin, Rush, AC/DC, and the like, even though I like them. There are more technically gifted singers than Elliott Lurie, like Billy Joel or Michael Buble, but Lurie’s voice is perfect for this song. He is not self-consciously crooning, nor is he trying to “belt it out.” He sings it very naturally and comfortably. His voice has an “everyman” quality that would not be out of place in grunge music. Other singers possess the same vocal qualities of Lurie, but only Lurie sang Brandy. We will discuss the other musicians later in this essay.

Love, romance, physical attraction, and longing are classic universal themes in popular music, possibly the oldest themes in storytelling. The lyrics of Brandy tell the story of a woman who falls in love with a man, and although he seems to like her too, he can’t stay. He has to go away. The story unfolds like a good novel. The words evoke images that range from the familiar to the profound. The first two verses:

There’s a port on a western bay
And it serves a hundred ships a day
Lonely sailors pass the time a way
And talk about their homes.
There’s a girl in this harbor town
And she works laying whiskey down
They say ‘Brandy fetch another round’
She serves them whisky and wine.
The Chorus:
The sailors say Brandy, you’re a fine girl,
What a good wife you would be,
Yeah your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea.

Jewelry figures prominently in countless love songs. This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, sung by Elvis Pressley and written by Russell Moody and Bert Carroll, Diamonds and Pearls by Prince, and in Brandy we find:

Brandy wears a braided chain
Made of finest silver from the north of Spain,
A locket that bears the name of the man that Brandy loved.

The historic Silver Route in Spain, built by the Romans in ancient times, runs from the inland river port of Seville to the Northern coastal seaport of Gijón. Merchants transported silver, along with many other products, along this trade route. Much later, in the 16th century, Spanish ships brought gold and silver back from the Mexico and Peru, risking pirate attacks along the way, delivered their goods to Seville, where traders then carried much of the precious metal along the Silver Route to Gijón. Tourists can now travel along this road.

The songs then tells us:

He came on a summer’s day bringing gifts from far away
But he made it clear he couldn’t stay

Bluesman Robert Johnson sang, “I got ramblin’ on my mind.”
The Temptations lamented that, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant explained, “I must be travelling on now, ‘cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”
And Brandy’s sailor made it clear he could not stay because

No harbor was his home.

The bridge of the song may just be my favorite part:

Brandy used to watch his eyes when he told his sailor stories,
She could feel the ocean fall and rise
She saw its raging glory…

Those lyrics have a literal meaning about adventure on the high seas, and they also surge with raging hormones. I know both sensations. Now, I am not a seasoned seafarer by any stretch of the imagination, having virtually no nautical skills, but I do have some ocean-related events etched in my mind. When I was in the Navy, I spent two years on the coast of Spain and did two brief stints aboard aircraft carriers. On shore duty, I towed jet aircraft in and out of the hangar. Out on the Mediterranean Sea, on the USS Independence, and later the USS Lexington, my job was to walk beside the jets while someone else towed them. After the pilot shut down the jet’s engine and climbed out of the cockpit, I hooked up a tow-bar to the front of the plane and the tractor driver towed the jet from the flight deck to an elevator on the side of the carrier. I fastened a tie-down chain to the plane, near the landing gear, to keep the plane from rolling, while someone else did the same on the other side of the plane. The fun part was riding the elevator down to the hangar deck when the sea was rough. Waves crested over us and soaked us as we knelt by the tires, gripping the chains to keep from washing overboard. The ocean stretched as far as the eye could see, on both sides and behind me, and I found it exhilarating.

At one point during my time on the carrier, we docked in Athens, Greece and I visited the Parthenon, but most of my time stationed in Rota, Spain was shore duty. When not working, my friends and I travelled around Spain, flew to London, and took a ferry to Tangier, Morocco. Parts of my novel, Tamper, are based on true events. For example, this excerpt from the novel:

We camped out on a beach in Algeciras, Spain. Under the black, star-cluttered fabric of night, we looked out in awe at the mystical, mythical ocean, where the dark silhouette of the Rock of Gibraltar sat covered with its own stars, which were really lights from windows of houses, hotels, offices, or restaurants — distant civilization. A song by WAR called Four Cornered Room zoomed and whooshed and wailed from our battery-powered cassette tape player, blended with the wind and circled our heads with profound transcendence, while Jim passed his pipe around. Our scalps tingled as the ocean-as-biggest-thing-in-the-world swelled outside and inside us, DNA swimming through an electric womb sea.

 

After two years in Spain, the Navy transferred me to Cecil Field, a Navy base in Jacksonville, FL, where I finished out my four-year enlistment. For some reason, didn’t think much about those times overseas – they seemed like something from a past life. But when I got out of the Navy, I stayed in Jacksonville and went to college on the G.I. Bill in Jacksonville. In a literature class at Kent Campus of FSCJ (formerly FCCJ), we read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses. The feeling of awe and exhilaration raged back into my consciousness like a flood. around this time I really listened to the words in Brandy:

Brandy used to watch his eyes when he told his sailor stories,
She could feel the ocean fall and rise
She saw its raging glory

In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses has grown old, but he still longs for adventure. I won’t quote the entire poem, but he says, in part, “I cannot rest from travel . . . always roaming with a hungry heart . . . Much have I seen and known; cities of men, and manners; climates, councils, governments, myself not least . . . I am a part of all that I have met. . . Some work of noble note may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. . . Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. . . There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: There gloom the dark, broad seas, my mariners, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Also, notice that Brandy watched the sailor’s eyes. There are many songs about eyes, looking into someone’s eyes, hungry eyes, beautiful eyes, far-away eyes. The eyes have it.

Another thing I like about this song is that it’s not mean-spirited. Nobody sets out to cheat or hurt anyone. If I could only listen to one song, I wouldn’t want to hear “you’re a cold-hearted snake!” over and over again. The next lines of Brandy are:

But he had always told the truth lord he was an honest man
And Brandy does her best to understand.

Then, we have another great scene. A picture painted with words:

At night when the bars close down
Brandy walks through a silent town
And loves a man who’s not around
She still can hear him say,
She hears him say Brandy you’re a fine girl
What a good wife you would be
But my life my love and my lady is the sea

The musicianship is top-notch all around. The first thing you hear is Larry Gonsky’s sparkling Fender Rhodes electric piano. A little reverb gives the piano an ethereal quality, but not too ethereal – the piano is still solid. The bass and drums really move, propelling the song forward, not at break-neck speed, but certainly at a healthy clip.

On drums, Jeff Grob demonstrates a tasteful quiet/loud dynamic, steady during the verses and dramatic during the choruses. Darren Ronan, of the Ronan School of Music, says, “This is a well-constructed drum part. It moves the song forward by using standard drumming ideas such as a cross-stick rim shot in the verses to make them feel quieter, then switching to the snare drum for the chorus and bridge, which brings the energy up. The drummer did a good job of catching the accents in the song and vocal part by using his hi hat and cymbal crashes. Technically, the drum part is not overly challenging, but as the best drum parts do, it supports the song without calling attention to itself.”

Pieter Sweval’s bass line doesn’t exactly walk – it dances upward for a couple of notes and then back to the root note, just enough to give the music a groovy feel. Michael Hogan, bassist for The Philters and Sidewalk 65, describes the bass technique in Brandy as “solid from start to finish, melodic, and very much supporting the great vocals. Sweval’s bass provides a nice, subtle lift during the verses, when Lurie is singing in the lower ranges. It’s bouncy, pop/jazzy with perhaps some Latin influence typical of the era.” Even though the average listener may not focus on the bass it when the song plays on the radio, it played an essential role in the recording’s success.

Brandy was the number 1 hit single for the week of August 26, 1972. Looking Glass also had a Top 40 hit in 1973 called Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne. Over the next two years, as is often the case, band members came and went. The group changed their name to Fallen Angels, then to Starz. They never had another big hit.

Looking Glass began as a New Jersey band. They wanted to play hard rock, not adult contemporary. As of 2002, according to an article written by Lisa Rose in the Sunday Star-Ledger (New Jersey’s largest local newspaper), Gonsky was the choral director at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris Township, New Jersey. Grob was a landscape architect in New Providence, New Jersey, but he still performed in clubs as a singer/songwriter. Lurie had written soundtracks for several films, including the I Spy movie starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson and the Disney kids’ show Lizzie McGuire. Bassist Pieter Sweval died of AIDS in 1990.

The article quoted Lurie as saying, “The thing that was limiting the success of the band was this disparate sound. The albums had tracks back to back that didn’t sound like they were the same band, so there wasn’t anything for the audience to latch onto. Is this a pop band or is it a rock band? Is it strings and horns? Is it a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll? Is it lead singer A or lead singer B?”

The answer to Lurie’s question is: all of the above.

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