What the world needs now, is love, sweet love: Appreciating Burt Bacharach

Thanks Burt. You left us so many great songs, songs which connected us with a particular time, songs which drew out our emotions, songs which expressed our hopes and dreams. We all have our favourites–for me it’s that marvellous centerpiece anthem in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Raindrops keep falling on my head (I was born and raised in Victoria after all). Pop musicologists identify Walk on by as your most popular song in terms of sales and plays. The song played most right now  following your death is What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. Gosh, I wonder why . . .

The world could use a steroidal dose of love. Putin’s invasion of the Sovereign State of Ukraine continues unabated and with increasing intensity. The aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey and Northern Syria is intensified by the cruel poverty resulting from decades of violence. The endless stream of homicides in the US is echoed in Canada, with subway crime in Toronto, and the massacre of daycare children in Ottawa; The list of missing and murdered Indigenous women continues to grow. Racism and sexist behaviour are epidemic in organizations such as the RCMP, the Canadian Military, and in non-profits and churches.

We are however so reluctant to put love in action—it is a verb after all. There is work to be done, close to home, and on the horizons of our lives. Losses and tragedies are increasingly visible in the non-human world as the ravages of climate change move inexorably forward. Everyone needs love, everywhere. Your 1965 song puts the challenge out there so very sweetly.

As you know, your song has a rich history. With lyrics by Hal David and your music it was first recorded and made popular by Jackie DeShannon (Dionne Warwick initially turned it down as “too country”—Bonnie Raitt, what d’ya say?). It was released on April 15, 1965, on the Imperial label after a release on sister label Liberty records the previous month was canceled. It peaked at number seven on the US Hot 100 in July of that year. In Canada, the song reached number one. Written against the backdrop of the Vietnam war the text of the chorus is more plaintive than a first listen suggests:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No, not just for some, oh, but just for every, every, everyone

The text is anything but strophic; It took you some time to match text to tune; but it works–and it endures, decades later. The three/four waltz melody is memorable, the arrangement entertaining. Such music makes me smile, along with tens of thousands of other listeners.

There have been other similar motivations to love in the pop music catalogue. The love named here is no mere emotional, heartthrob, and erotic personal love. This is brotherly, womanly, communal, life-engaging love. This is sacrificial love, love that bends and tilts as necessary for the benefit of all participants. It is the love where strangers become one; it is a love which bears the sorrows and delights of others; it is a love for the time of birth, and for when the end of life draws near. It is a love less of me but of us. Africans call this UbuntuI am because we are.

The Beatles’ chanted All you need is love. In a reggae beat, I once joined 7,000 people in singing Bob Marley’s One Love in a Kingston, Jamaica arena–an awesome experience. We need such music to help push back against a dominant and domineering cultural competitiveness which praises the strong, that renders the weak weaker. We need space to share such music, music capable of creating an environment of hope, even if just for an instant. We need memorable tunes that we can carry with us day after day. We need texts that help us believe that change, real change is possible. So thanks Burt, for this song and all your songs. Another song, penned by Abba expresses my feelings well.

Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing
Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music
For giving it to me

One thought on “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love: Appreciating Burt Bacharach

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  1. As a fellow musician, I can’t get enough of great music and the two of many songs that you refer to indeed strengthen the saying of love and appreciation of the gift of love and music. Thank you once again for the reflection of music and love not only the love of music but love especially now more than ever!!


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