July 2007

Arts & Letters

Pop producer in B-grade movie actress murder trial

By Robert Forster
Mick Brown’s ‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector’

On 23 May 2005 Phil Spector entered a courtroom in Los Angeles to hear evidence to be admitted to his trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson. He arrived wearing a permed ash-blond afro, the top of which stood nine inches from his head. He was nattily dressed in a blue shirt with large gold buttons and a black jacket with silk handkerchief and silver broach. This image immediately flashed around the world. That night the comedian Jay Leno joked on his TV show that Spector "looks like he's already got the electric chair". For long-time friends of Spector the photograph would not have seemed so strange, nor would his wish to appear like this in court. Wigs and flamboyant, attention-seeking clothes have been a part of Spector's wardrobe since the early '60s. The petulant look on his face they would have known too, masking keen intelligence and the fact that he was not in control of the circumstances around him. And finally, they would have known that after all the years of him waving guns around, someone had to get shot.

Phil Spector is a record producer. Actually, you could say he was the first record producer. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records, who knew and worked with Spector early in his career, deftly places him in rock history. First there were the producers whom Wexler calls the "documentarians", people like Leonard Chess who in the '50s recorded blues singers such as Muddy Waters live in the studio. Then there was the more sophisticated pop approach of the "servant of the project", which is where Wexler puts himself, "whose job was to enhance; to find the right song, the right arrangement, the right band and the right studio ... to bring out the best in the artist". And then came Phil Spector, who co-wrote some of his artists' songs and worked with the same musicians in the same studio to create a signature sound that varied little from record to record. This is the "producer as star, as artist" category, and Spector is the starting point.

His main acts were The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Righteous Brothers and Darlene Love. The songs are ‘Be My Baby', ‘Da Doo Ron Ron', ‘You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'', ‘He's a Rebel' and so on. It's a very hefty body of work, and it has a royal place in pop history. This is the sound of 1962-63: a massive wash of instrumentation and arrangement with a lead vocal wailing over the top, usually about a boy whom the singer has just met and wants to marry. It's pre-Beatles and pre-Dylan, the last big gasp of innocence before the '60s rush it all away. It's candyfloss hair, the Kennedy administration, big voices and simple choices: He walked up to me / And asked me if I wanted to dance. And it's magnificent.

Spector was born in the Bronx, New York in 1939, and most of his recorded work was done in Los Angeles. The tug between the coasts, his travels and loyalties to both places, drive his life and the narrative of Mick Brown's book (Bloomsbury, 512pp; $32.95). Spector's father committed suicide when he was nine. His one sister was schizophrenic, his mother was domineering and his parents, both from immigrant Jewish-Ukrainian families, were related (perhaps first cousins) before marriage. As a family knot it's wildly overheated, and the manic, sensitive, preening, precocious boy who projects himself into the LA music scene of the late '50s was the result of it. His first hit, and still the best song he wrote on his own, is ‘To Know Him is to Love Him' - a gorgeous love song, but the chill is in knowing that the epitaph on his father's gravestone read, ‘To Know Him Was To Love Him'.

By late 1961 Spector had his whole operation in place. He did it by turning the same motivation and talent that had got him out of his family and into the pop charts to his next goal, to be a record producer. He blitzed both coasts, taking what he could get from whomever he met. So he co-wrote ‘Spanish Harlem' for Ben E King, played guitar on Leiber and Stoller sessions, and produced a few singles. Importantly, he also gathered mentors. Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, songwriter Doc Pomus and West Coast promotions man Lester Sill all dug the crazy kid with pop dreams. It was Sill who set up the Philles record label, the first piece of the empire. Spector had the studio (Gold Star), the musicians and the song-writing contacts. All he needed was the artists, and those he often stole - and after that came the sound.

What Spector makes of its famed description is not in this book. But nevertheless ‘wall of sound' is attached to him, the way ‘ambient' dogs Brian Eno and ‘surf music' sticks to Brian Wilson. As a description of what he does it's not bad, although probably the best album Spector has produced, John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, is a minimal bare-knuckle ride that has nothing to do with a wall of sound. But as a demarcation point, and as a sense of how the songs came out of a teenager's radio, it's accurate. Brown, with the help of Larry Levine, Spector's long-time and long-suffering sound engineer, gives a good account of the components and uniqueness of Spector's recording style. Basically, it's three of everything - piano players, bass players, guitarists, percussionists - where the usual was just one. Spector's genius was to weld them together into a coherent but still overwhelming sound, allowing the drummer to conduct and the singer to soar gloriously.

The result, in tracks like ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah', an old Disney-movie song from the '40s, is astounding. That he could take an old chestnut like this, mould it into something new and make a hit of it shows what he could do with instrumentation and groove. But it wasn't all sound with Spector. He was a brilliant arranger too, able to dismantle the sound and then rebuild it through the progression of a song. The 15 musicians sitting in the studio were not all blaring at once, and this is what stunned others when they saw Spector work: the amount of time he spent refining the players' parts until he not only got the sound but the arrangement he wanted. Because of the primitive studio equipment of the time Spector was in effect recording his mixes live. "Symphonies for the kids", he called them, and he was right.

1963 was Spector's year. After that the competition got too stiff, especially from Motown, and each record that Spector put out had a question hanging over it: How can this be topped? The sheer drama of the records seemed to build in a limit of how far it could all go. Two big final singles brought down the curtain on the era. ‘You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'' by The Righteous Brothers, which is sensational, a mind-boggling funeral of a record that stunned everyone with its length - three minutes and 46 seconds, long for 1964 - and its ghost-like beauty. And ‘River Deep - Mountain High' by Ike and Tina Turner, which is one of pop's most controversial records and supposedly Spector's masterpiece. Tina Turner screams out of the mix in a song that has one too many sections, and a kitsch lyric: When you were a young boy did you have a puppy / That always followed you around / Well, I'm going to be as faithful as that puppy ... It bombed in the US, and Spector quit.

Three years passed until a bizarre offer of rescue came, and with it the final meaningful phase of his recording career. The Beatles called him. Well, not exactly The Beatles. Allen Klein, who had hoodwinked John Lennon into thinking he could sort out his financial affairs, suggested that Spector could salvage the unfinished and unhappy Beatles album Let It Be. So Spector came over and put the strings on ‘The Long and Winding Road', stayed for two John Lennon albums, including Imagine, and did All Things Must Pass for George Harrison, which explains the great retro-girl-group force of ‘My Sweet Lord'. As an unexpected second phase of work it was phenomenal, and equal to the best of his early '60s recordings.

Phase two, though, unleashed his demons. Drinking, bodyguards with guns, Spector with guns, the breakdown of his marriage to Ronnie Spector, three unwanted adopted children, his bottled-up childhood trauma, the head-trip of stardom, years of indulgence of his behaviour - all now came out and ran free. And it was a mess: in Brown's book there are a hundred pages of disintegration covering the period after the Beatles and solo-Beatle work stopped in 1971. Some recording got done, but Spector fired a gun in a Lennon session, held a gun to Leonard Cohen's face and took aim at Dee Dee Ramone. Up in his castle home a lonely and washed-up Spector - in psychoanalysis, on medication and drinking jags - wallowed and made life hell for those around him. There were personal blows: the death of his only son, aged nine, and being sued for back royalties by The Ronettes and Darlene Love. None justified his treatment of other people.

Mick Brown entered in late 2002 to do the first serious interview in 25 years. He got the full treatment: Rolls Royce pick-up, waiting secretaries, postponements. Spector finally made his entrance, to classical music and in a black silk pyjama suit with silver monogrammed initials. The interview was spectacular; as Brown notes, it was as if Spector has been waiting to get a lot off his chest. And it was pure Spector, a mad, brilliant mix of candour and bullshit, in dated hip-speak. There were jokes ("Michael Jackson starting out life as a black man and ending up as a white woman, what's that all about?"), crucial admissions ("I have devils inside that fight me. I'm my own worst enemy"), and fascinating and insightful musical talk. It's a full chapter in Brown's book.

The resulting feature article, titled ‘Found: Pop's Lost Genius', ran in England's Daily Telegraph magazine on 1 February 2003. The next night a chauffeured Spector hit the nightspots of LA; the following morning Lana Clarkson was dead from a single gunshot to the mouth, and the crime scene was Spector's castle. Brown, following the first details on the news, was able to recognise the rooms and furniture from his interview. The reconstruction of the murder and the days and months after slows the action of the book, to Spector's disadvantage. We learn much more about his habit of threatening women with guns, especially if they wished to leave his house at night. And we see in his aggressive posturing after Clarkson's death, both legally and in his public utterances ("she kissed the gun"), someone with no moral core.

In the end it's an old story: a great artist can be a nasty person. Whether Spector did it or not, his association with guns and his cracked personal behaviour were an accident waiting to happen. Brown, who has a limited background in writing music books - the first publication listed in his biography is the frightening Richard Branson: An Inside Story - does a fine job: he guides readers through the technicalities of the wall of sound and gives appropriate period music detail to denote ‘feel'. His style is solid and entertaining, with no manufactured noir weirdness to mirror the life of his subject. Brown quotes from the famed Tom Wolfe portrait of Spector in 1965, ‘The First Tycoon of Teen', and his sniffy description of some of it as "hyperbolic overdrive" shows the distance he wants to impose. This is the level-headed 2007 approach to the carnage and the art, and the drier English chronicling of them works well.

The one false note is the book's tabloid title. The rise and fall of Phil Spector has nothing to do with tearing down the wall of sound. The records he made between 1961 and '71 are going to stand for as long as people are able to enjoy good music. What is being torn down, or at the very least shaken, is Phil Spector himself, and as this book so aptly shows, it's a process that began a long time ago.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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