Benedict Benjamin, aka Ben Rubinstein and formerly of Peggy Sue and Mariner’s Children, is preparing his debut album Night Songs, due for release next month. Listeners to his music – you can hear it yourself below – will recognise among the influences the soothing harmonies of the Everly Brothers among the touchstones, and here Ben reveals what the brothers’ music means to him and how it has helped shape his own.
It’s strange when songs you’ve been left unmoved by many times before suddenly start making sense to you. Generally it’s because of all the other stuff you’ve crammed into your head since first hearing them – films, books, songs, ideas, life experience – combining and fermenting to create a mental context where they start meaning something to you. I always vaguely knew their hits but I suppose I only really started listening to The Everly Brothers after Phil Everly died in 2014.
I don’t know what all those other things that created my way into The Everlys were but a big part of it was working evenings and nights and walking home through deserted London streets. There’s something cold and nocturnal about the melodies and reverbs of songs like ‘Crying in the Rain’ and ‘Love of My Life’ that made walking through freezing cold winter nights in London bearable and even romantic. I got the feeling that walking home alone was exactly the setting those songs were written for.
This probably isn’t being read by people who are Everly Brothers novices but in case you need some background I’ll do some explaining. Don and Phil Everly grew up in Kentucky and started singing and performing at an early age on their parents’ radio show. In the late fifties they started releasing some of the most perfectly written, structured and produced pop songs that combined their country roots with R&B, skiffle and rock n roll, all came in at under three minutes and could be stuck in your head for days after only one listen. I remember playing ‘So Sad (To Watch Good Love Turn Bad)’ to a friend who had never heard it before then later that day hearing him singing the song note for note and almost word perfect to himself under his breath.
Even though the lyrics were very much of their time there remains something about the specific type of sentimentality in their songs that perfectly captures the romantic longing of being young and lonely. Songs like ‘Walk Right Back’ and ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’ are about heartbreak but the melodies are written and harmonies sung in such a way that make them feel triumphant and the listener feel almost happy to feel or have felt whatever shitty heartbroken feelings the songs reference.
Their records are also filled with these beautiful saturated plate reverbs that elevated their already incredible voices onto a whole other level. It also added a dreaminess to tracks like ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream‘ and ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ that they would never have thought of as psychedelic at that point in time but kind of is. It’s another thing that makes listening to their old recordings really interesting given what we know came next in musical history.
But obviously the most commonly noted thing about them was their harmonies. They weren’t impressive technically, 99% of the time they sang in thirds (which if you don’t know is the most obvious and commonly used harmony in pop music) but these were blood harmonies and their two voices were so perfectly matched that at times they sounded like one. Even though what they were doing was technically very simple I still find myself pausing songs every now and then just to make sure. Their voices combine so perfectly it creates something that’s hard to quantify and though it should be easy to replicate it’s not. Neil Young said when he inducted them into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, that every band he had been in when he was a kid tried to capture their sound ‘but we never did get it.’
Their story is pretty sad and has it’s fair share of the type of ridiculous legal bullshit that mars the backstory of almost every major artist. The most unbelievable example being that due to a row with their publisher they were forbidden from recording any song that they themselves had written between 1961-64! Fortunately they kept on finding brilliant songwriters to work with and the quality of their work didn’t diminish but still, they were great songwriters themselves (see ‘Cathy’s Clown’, ’Til I Kissed You’, ‘Maybe Tomorrow‘) and to be forbidden from working on your own material must have been heartbreaking.
They also hated each other. Every account gives a different reason: Don’s decision to make a solo album, addiction to prescription drugs (ritalin), different political views etc. but producer Dave Edmunds wrote about how, though brothers, Don and Phil were just two completely different people. They’d been singing together professionally since they were kids and were never able to give each other the time or space that people who love each other but don’t necessarily get on that well need to have a functional relationship.
Something I really love about a lot of the pop music of this era, that the Everlys had in spades, is the dichotomy of the dreamy production and the lyrics. Though the themes are innocent and naive there’s something in the guitar sounds and the reverb that suggests something strange and forbidden underneath. There are moments where you can hear the energy of the sixties generation straining at its leash, about to tear forth. It’s something David Lynch tapped into in Blue Velvet with his use of ‘In Dreams’ by Roy Orbison; the wholesome, Christian, white picket fence image of suburban America that masks something a lot less wholesome beneath.
Anyway I could say a lot more but I’ve probably already gone on way too long. The Everly Brothers were a massive influence on me when writing and recording Night Songs and probably will be in everything I write. From a creative standpoint listening to them made me want to sing in close harmony all the time and made me think about melody in a whole new way. It taught me about how the hell you write a song under three minutes and it also made me really think about reverb, forcing me to learn and research their different types and how to utilise them. It’s a testament to the archive of the internet that those lessons can be sought out across the generations at the touch of a button. If you’re interested in studying any piece/band/period/genre of music from any era it’s generally there.
I listen to them at least once a day, find myself singing their harmonies with my Dad most times I visit and with my girlfriend every long car journey we take. My next project is getting my niece (two years old) and nephew (two months) into them. I think there’s something nursery rhyme like in alot of their melodies that’ll make them the perfect gateway drug for introducing kids into good music. I’ll keep you posted on my/their progress.
Words: Benedict Benjamin
Night Songs is due for release on March 25.
Benedict will be playing an album launch gig at The Islington on March 30 – details are here.