The Spector sound

Phil_SpectorHe’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, has threatened people with guns and is on trial for murder. He’s very rich, and eccentric to the point of weirdness. He’s also acknowledged as one of the greatest artists in pop music: along with Bob Dylan he’s probably the most influential figure in the history of rock and roll.

Phil Spector was chiefly active in the period 1958 – 1973, during which time he perfected what was known as the ‘wall of sound’, a multi-tracked symphonic sound using an enormous range of instruments and choirs never heard before in the history of pop music. He called it Wagner for the kids (a few years later a song writer called Bob Dylan was doing Rimbaud for the kids). The sound was a key factor in the success of girl groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes, but Spector never let it overload the lead vocals. A lot of people in the industry who themselves became influential adopted this lavish production style, including the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and for a time Bruce Springsteen. Though Spector was a guitarist, singer and song writer, he came to leave these activities to others, concentrating on production. He was the first to realise it is the producer who controls the sound the record buyer actually hears, not the artist. The realisation was to give him a string of hits and make him very wealthy.

After Spector, pop music ceased to be catchy tunes performed by talented artists and became a carefully orchestrated sound sculptured for a market.

Between 1960 and 1965 Spector produced 25 top 40 hits and he continued to create top selling and award winning albums throughout his career. Artists whose records he produced include the Crystals, the Ronettes, Connie Francis, Gene Pitney, the Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, the Beatles, John Lennon, George Harrison, Leonard Cohen and the Ramones.

Spector is often credited as songwriter as well as producer on his records. The extent of Spector’s involvement with the creation of these songs is unknown. The songs are often written by established songwriters with dozens of hits to their credit. Yet the Spector produced songs have a family resemblance lyrically. Whether he produced a draft or revised a finished song, Spector certainly controlled the product. Spector’s best known songs are probably ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ by Tina Turner and ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ by the Righteous Brothers. The work he did earlier with the girl groups is unique in pop music. Working with Brill Building song writers like Carol King and untapped black singers like Darlene Love Spector produced songs with lyrics that verbalised the dreams of 13 year old girls like nothing before or since.

I want him and I need him
And someday, someway
I’ll meet him

He’ll be kind of shy
But real good lookin’ too
And I’ll be certain he’s my guy
By the things he’ll like to do

Like walking in the rain
And wishing on the stars up above
And being so in love
(Walking in the Rain)

The night we met I knew I needed you so
And if I had the chance I’d never let you go
So won’t you say you love me I’ll make you so proud of me
We’ll make them turn their heads every place we go
So won’t you pl ease
(Be my be my baby)
Be my little baby                                                                                                                     (My one and only baby)                                                                                                        Say you’ll be my d arlin’                                                                                                        (Be my be my baby)                                                                                                                  Be my baby now Oh ho ho ho                                                                                             (Be My Baby)

When I was a little girl I had a rag doll                                                                           The only doll I’ve ever owned                                                                                               Now I love you just the way I loved that rag doll                                                            But only now my love has grown                                                                                       And it gets stronger in every way                                                                                      And it gets deeper let me say                                                                                              And it gets higher day by day                                                                                               Do I love you my oh my                                                                                                       River deep, mountain high

If you ever wanted to fall in love when you were 13, or later met someone and were disconcerted with the tumult of emotions you experienced. If you ever want to recapture what it was like for the first time, these songs can bring it all back for you. In the 60s these songs crossed all divides: boys liked them just as much as girls, blacks just as much as whites. It’s an absurd but effective combination: sex, innocence and manic orchestration. The post-punks might be cynical and over-saturated, but they still go through the same stuff. Not many 50 year old songs sound as fresh as Spector’s, and that’s probably his greater achievement, even though by establishing the producer guru in the seat of power he has changed what we have all listened to since.

Here’s an appreciation by Mary Elizabeth Williams on Salon:

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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