Music

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Via Spector and serendipity, the harpsichord invaded pop

Phil Spector in the early 1960s.
Photofest/Film Forum
Phil Spector in the early 1960s.

On Jan. 24, ALLISON — mezzo-soprano Allison Messier and harpsichordist Paul Cienniwa — performs at Quincy’s Thomas Crane Public Library. The duo’s raison d’être, re-interpreting rock and popular repertoire with Baroque sensibility, puts an old spin on newer music, but also a new spin on a less-old but rich tradition: pop music borrowing classical trappings. The harpsichord’s pop history, in particular, is a diverting tangle of aesthetics, opportunity, and technology.

The harpsichord gained pop prominence in the 1960s, an era of lush, heavily-produced studio wizardry. The famous, notorious Phil Spector’s studio-engineered amalgamations — the so-called Wall of Sound — grafted the harpsichord’s metallic pluck onto massed pianos and organs. But soon, the instrument came to the fore, starring in the Righteous Brothers’ Spector-produced “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” or the Beach Boys’ “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man),” or The Mamas & the Papas’ “Monday Monday.”

It spawned its own intricate, wistful genre: Baroque pop. The style’s quintessence, The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renée,” was anchored by Michael Brown’s elegantly jangling harpsichord. Across the Atlantic, it bridged the passage from rock into psychedelica for numerous groups: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Zombies, the Kinks.

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But harpsichords had already been hanging around studios, available for experimentation. Consider the legendary RCA Studio B in Nashville, built in 1957 at the behest of producer and guitarist Chet Atkins, and soon after home to a harpsichord, which twanged its way onto country and country-pop records — a particularly florid example being Norro Wilson’s rollicking playing on John D. Loudermilk’s 1961 “Language of Love.” (Serendipity was occasionally imposed: A harpsichord only chimed through the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” after organist Brian Auger arrived at a recording studio to find no organ.)

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The harpsichord was hardly the only unusual instrument to grace pop records, but it was perhaps the most enduring. One possible reason: The timbre’s suitability to then-dominant forms of musical consumption. The treble-heavy pop soundscape, all monoaural recordings and AM radio, flattered the harpsichord’s stinging buzz. As early as the 1940s, Artie Shaw, the restlessly innovative jazz clarinetist, had Johnny Guarnieri play harpsichord in small groups, the sharp contrast making 78-rpm fidelity into a virtue. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson would, as his producing genius flowered, use the harpsichord as a featured player; but already in 1963, it honed the backing track of “I Get Around,” giving the song a subtle cut and thrust among its radio competition. Such is the harpsichord’s soft-spoken strength, the ear — like the eye — drawn to any bright point. Matthew Guerrieri

ALLISON performs Jan. 24 at 3 p.m. at the Thomas Crane Public Library, 40 Washington St., Quincy. Free admission; 617-376-1316.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.