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The Phil Spector Deal: From Music, To Madness, To — Murder?

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The other night I was watching ABC News Nightline – as is my normal late night viewing habit right before Jimmy Kimmel, Uncle Frank, and Guillermo give me a few good yuks and lull me off to dreamland — when they ran a piece which caught my attention. It was about the Phil Spector murder trial.

Now, I have to tell you that normally such sensational and scandalous celebrity stories don't do a lot for me. To me the usual category this stuff falls under — what with Anna Nicole, Paris, Britney and the like — is one of distraction. In other words, I've always believed that the media focus on these types of stories serves no real purpose other than to numb the public into a state of ignorant bliss. What better than celebrity dirt to divert our attention away from more important issues such as how we're presently being raped at the gas pump, or how the Democratic congress just this week caved on the issue of continuing funding for the Iraq war?

But I'll save the rants on those particular topics for another time and place. The Phil Spector deal caught my eye because, as a music fan, I'm still somewhat dumbstruck by the whole thing. You see, Phil Spector was, and is, one of my musical idols.

As a fan, I know all too well of Phil Spector's reputation both inside and outside of the recording studio. He is one of those maybe not so rare birds in the music business to whom both the terms genius and lunatic could be equally applied. And this was long before he was ever accused of shooting the House of Blues waitress he brought home to his Hollywood castle for a night of drinking and who knows what else, presumably because she simply decided it was time to leave.

Spector has been described as the ultimate control freak inside the recording studio. He's been known to drive his musicians to the brink of madness in take after take after take, just to get the sound of something like a tambourine right. For example, during the recording of the Spector produced Beatles album Let It Be, the already splintering band apparently was so divided over the final result that Paul McCartney eventually felt compelled — decades later — to release the Un-Spectorized Let It Be…Naked version of the album.

By some accounts, this type of control also extended beyond the recording studio into Spector's personal life.

His former wife — the singer Ronnie Spector, with whom he also produced several landmark recordings with the Ronettes — is said to have left him over such behaviour. Spector is also apparently no stranger to guns. Just ask the Ramones, who according to music legend, were themselves held at gunpoint during the recording of their collaboration with him, End Of The Century.

On this week's Nightline broadcast, segments of an interview Spector did days before the alleged murder of Lana Clarkson were played in which he described taking medication for schizophrenia, even though by his own definition he was not schizophrenic. What is fairly well established is that Spector's particular brand of looniness went far beyond the eccentricity and narcissism typical of both Hollywood and the music business in general.

Which is why, up until now I've mostly turned my head away from this latest media circus of Hollywood celebrity scandal. As a fan, it's just been too painful for me to watch.

You see, what I know about Phil Spector — or what I knew up until now I guess — is this:

He is responsible for some of the greatest, most timeless records ever made. With the Ronettes alone, he perfectly captured all of the wondrous innocence and vulnerability of teenage love on such records as "Baby I Love You," and especially the brilliant "Walking In The Rain." With "River Deep, Mountain High," he coaxed out of Tina Turner what probably remains her greatest, and single most career defining performance. With The Righteous Brothers "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" he cast the blueprint for every self respecting "blue eyed soul" record which would follow it. With A Christmas Gift For You, he made what is probably the ultimate rock and roll Christmas album, and maybe even the best Christmas album ever.

The common thread with all these records is, of course, Spector's trademark "Wall of Sound" — that swirling whirlwind of strings, bells, and castanets that feels like being engulfed in the eye of a musical tornado. But his influence extends far beyond even these achievements. You could start by saying that any record you have ever heard that starts with the classic "boom; boom-boom; Crash!" drum sound owes a pretty mighty debt to Phil Spector.

Beyond that, you could say that such albums as Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds and Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run — two undisputed rock masterpieces he wasn't even directly involved in helping to create — still bear the product of his unique brand of recording genius. Both Wilson and Springsteen spent long, pain-staking hours that taxed the patience of the musicians they used to the limit — looking for that "million dollar sound" in the creation of these landmark albums. The Phil Spector influence on both albums is simply undeniable.

I don't know exactly what happened that night up in Phil Spector's Hollywood castle. I wasn't there, so how could I? What I do know is that it represents a tragedy on a multitude of levels. This is certainly true for the family of Lana Clarkson.

But I think what is most sad for fans of all those great records that Phil Spector made is that history now stands a very real chance to remember him more as the aging — possibly crazy — rock and roll casualty who shot an innocent down at point blank range, than the genius behind so much history making music.

Sad, because whatever Phil Spector eventually became, once upon a time to know him was to love him.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • JC Mosquito

    In the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and roll, Phill had repeatedly told the interviewer that “To know him is to love him” was inscribed on his father’s grave.

    Near the end of the interview, however, he let go a Freudian slip and said, “That’s the inscription on MY grave.” Like a dead man walking.

    I dunno – Spector hasn’t been relevant for a long time, I don’t think, other than the couple of 30 – 40 years old albums mentioned before. Like a ghost, he’s been haunting the living world of rock ‘n’ roll history, with little heard from him except rattling chains, perhaps, or maybe cymbals… and tympanis… and glockenspiels…. and string sections…. and baritone saxes….

  • http://www.myspace.com/jpaulspencer J. P.

    The great producers all self-destruct, with the salient exception of George Martin.

    Phil Spector. Joe Meek. Brian Wilson. Who’s next?

  • JC Mosquito

    Actually, I can’t see Rick Rubin or Brendan O’Brien leaving anytime soon.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I used to work for Rick, Skeet. And he is a very brilliant guy, but part of what I think makes him an unlikely candidate to do a “Spector” or a “Wilson” anytime soon is the fact that he is also remarkably centered.

    I once went to Rick about a band I knew here In Seattle (which had a few friends), and his response was “is the greatest thing you have ever heard?”

    When I honestly could not answer in the affirmative, he told me to come back to him once I could say that it was.

    Like I said, a very centered guy. And one, I have very great respect for.

    When I worked for Rick, I was a young kid (at least interms of maturity) who was basically in over my head and I wish to God I could take back the way I blew my big break knowing what I know now. Because for the most part I’m devoid of my youthful bad habits back then.

    But like I said, despite his eccentricities, he is a very centered guy. And I think his genius lies in the way he just lets the artists he works with just do their thing. He trusts them, which is why he picks them so carefully.

    -Glen

  • Frank O

    I am sick of everyone carrying on about how great Phil Spector is. He stuck a bunch of band-aids on the lousey Let It Be sessions, where he was not welcome by everyone as producer anyhow. The Ramones did not get anything good out of the album they did with Spector. Certainly not any good sales or hits. It sounds thin, and it was the end for them pretty much. He had nothing to do with Youve Lost That Lovin Feeling, but I’ll bet that The Rightious Brothers and Sonny Bono had more to do with the wall of sound than Spector did. I’m just sick of it. I’m sick of Rockin around the Christmas tree. Stop making him the God of pop. We would have figured it out without ‘ol Phil. Why don’t you heap some praise on JOE MEEK? The person Spector tried so hard to emmulate? He is the real innovator who broke down the walls. Sick Sick Sick.

    REDRUM

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Frank,

    I guess I could say that I would take your posted twice comments under consideration, but that would be giving them too much credit. To say that Phil Spector had nothing to do with “Lovin Feelin” is of course ridiculous. His imprint is all over that record. As for the Ramones? Well, they never really had any hits or really sold any records anyway and they were only really appreciated years later. But “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio” comes as close to a hit as anything I can think of by the Ramones. The Let It Be sessions were by all accounts a disaster and the Beatles were for all intents and purposes finished as a band by that point anyway.

    But to understand Spector’s greatness, all you have to do is point your ears toward “River Deep, Mountain High” or “Walking In The Rain.” He is pretty much the only record producer I can think of whose sound is identified in many cases above the actual artists he produced.

    While I appreciate your comments, for me they hold little water.

    -Glen

  • JC Mosquito

    Think of how often the term “Wall of Sound” is used to describe a particular style of music production. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other production style associated with a particular producer other than Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound.

    Also, consider when he was making those records – he was right in the gap between the loss of Elvis, Chuck, Jerry Lee, etc. to various (although in some cases temporary) career killers, and The Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Dylan, etc. first wave of the superstars of the Sixties. Yeah, he didn’t do anything for me in regards to the Beatles and the Ramones, but he made his mark early enough to matter. Think of how often Springsteen in his early days went for that operatic, emotional, over the top production. Sometimes the seeds gotta scatter.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    JC,

    I realize that I’m in the minority on this — at least amongst Ramones fans — but I actually think End Of The Century was one of their best records. I’d definitely rate it up there with Rocket To Russia and The Ramones Leave Home. There are spme great songs on that record, starting off with Rock & Roll Radio and going right through everything there from Chinese Rock to Rock & Roll High School. When the two “Walls Of Sound” at play here clash–Spector’s and The Ramones own “Wall”–the results aren’t always pretty and even I’ll admit the sound is occassionally a bit on the tinny side. But song for song, the record holds up pretty well for me.

    Again though, I realize I’m in a monority holding this view and almost half expect a deluge of comments from Ramones fans now voicing their adamant disagreement with me.

    I do agree though that Spector’s work on Let It Be is pretty uneventful. The idea of putting two talents of that magnitude in the same room and expecting things to go smoothly was probably a misguided one at best.

    Especially since the Beatles were already imploding. They didn’t need any of Spector’s help.

    -Glen

  • JC Mosquito

    I see where you’re coming from, Glen, re: both the Beatles & Ramones. I think at the time the fans who had only recently latched on to the punk/new wave thing via Ramones, Blondie, or whoever, were in for a shock – they got the punk facade stripped back to expose the songs for what they really were – pop of the first degree. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was the biggest selling Ramones album for years after it was released – maybe still is.

    As for the Beatles… Let It Be – Naked is a wonderful way to wrap up their set – and I know I’m in the minority on that count. If nothing else, it proves that at the end, despite their personal relationships falling apart, the Beatles could still play – instead of the ramshackle sounding band of the original album, LIBN shows some pretty tight performances – rock solid drumming, steady bass & guitars and keyboard touches in the right places by a band that to this day stands a little taller than whoever is the second best rock ‘n’ roll band of all time.

    There you go, Glen – maybe you won’t be the only target tonight.

    Sk.

  • James Cushing

    Let us not forget Phil Spector’s last two artistically and commercially successful productions: “All Things Must Pass” and “The Concert for Bangladesh,” both for George Harrison, 1970 & 1971. Let us meditate on the irony that this highly spiritual studio album, and the charity concert album that followed it, are linked to a man now facing a murder charge.

  • JC Mosquito

    Mr. Cushing, tonight you are the winner of the Soul of Wit award. No cash, just bragging rights for what’s left of the evening.

  • Kevin Cramsey

    Glen,

    I agree with many other bloggers — Specter has been irrelevant for a long time. Even his best records were basically just teeny-bopper rock. And the wall of sound, well, I find it irritating. Melding all the instruments together to the point of making them unrecognizable does not make for fun listening. It’s a noise, not music. There’s no clarity. No personality. In the end, Specter should be forgotten — erased from music history the way O.J. has been from football because he is a fiend who has spent decades pointing guns at innocent people. He’s a wretched excuse for a human being. I pray he is convicted and rots in his cell, where they won’t let him wear his ridiculous hair.