Phil Spector, who died in prison on January 18 from complications of COVID-19, was the very model of the modern music producer, and also a convicted murderer. That, it seems, isn’t a problem. Had Spector opined that there are two genders, or that all lives matter, his music would be off the radio. Instead, he shot Lana Clarkson in the face and we still listen to him.
This is as it should be. The artist and the art are only the same in copyright law, and only then for a few decades after the artist’s death. Even during that period of posthumous profit, the music business is notorious for prizing apart the creator and the created. And you enjoy Bernini's sculptures, even though he sent a servant to slash the face of his unfaithful mistress with a knife
In Spector’s case, we cannot afford to have it any other way. The sound of Spector is the sound of the American apogee. His technology is the same valve and point-to-point wiring that put a rock band in every garage, a man on the Moon, and two nuclear bombs on Japan. His public were the children of the Baby Boom, the richest, healthiest, best-educated, and most optimistic generation in human history. We cling to the Wall of Sound like Winnie the Pooh clings to the string of his balloon.
In a five-year run from 1961 to 1966, Spector turned the producer from a white-coated technician to a budget-busting impresario limited only by his talent. After 1966, however, Spector produced little music of interest and wrote less. His silence echoes down the long years of Pop’s decline like his reverbs. America went over the cliff like Wile E. Coyote in the same decade.
Spector’s musical signature, the Wall of Sound, is as much an aural icon of the analog age as the baseball broadcast and the stadium rally. It is a late artifact of the golden age of radio, and the valve technology that made it so powerful—not the Seventies’ era of transistors and amplification, and not our era of digitized tinniness. His songs have more in common with Wagner than Quincy Jones, and not just in their overwrought sentimentality.
Music sounds better when it is loud—volume alone stimulates adrenaline—but in 1961, when Spector devised the Wall of Sound with the engineers at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, amplification was behind the times. The new and lucrative form of Pop music was delivered to its audience, the new and lucrative demographic of teenagers, by much the same means as the big bands had been delivered to their parents. The jukebox, that symbol of the Fifties’ youth revolt, had been invented in 1890, and the vinyl long-player in 1931. Juke boxes, AM radio, and records all used small speakers driven by warm but low-powered amps.
These limitations meant that the only way to make music seem louder was, as Wagner knew, to make it sound richer at the moment of performance. The raw material of the Wall of Sound was the doubling and tripling of instruments in the rhythm section—two drummers playing the same beat, a second bassist playing a harmony a fifth higher than the root notes, three guitarists playing the same line, three pianos. On top of this thunderous foundation, Spector stacked a full orchestra, massed vocals, and novelty percussion.
But his real innovation happened on the other side of the glass. In 1961, four-track mono recording and spring-reverb units the size of refrigerators were the state of the art. Spector compressed the performances of dozens of musicians into as little as four microphones, each of which picked up “bleed” from any instrument that happened to be nearby. He compressed the sound further by pushing the needle into the red, which recorded enharmonic distortion onto the tape in mono. He compressed it again by “bouncing down” the rhythm section and orchestra tracks to free up a track for the lead vocals. And he compressed it yet again by feeding the whole lot through heavy reverb, which creates further enharmonic distortion, and a real “echo chamber”: a basement room filled with speakers and microphones.
The records that Spector made between 1961 and 1966 are so compressed that they erupt out of the smallest speaker. They are louder than life. Their technology replicates the intensity of their subject matter, adolescent desire. This was still subject to its own kind of compression: In 1960, while Spector was working up the Wall of Sound, the FDA approved the Pill.
Spector called his hits “little symphonies for the kids.” They were a soundtrack to adolescent passion, not a guide to adult life: “Da doo ron-ron-ron, da doo ron-ron.” The exception is his and Tina Turner’s masterpiece, “River Deep – Mountain High” (1966)—not least because of the adult anguish that Turner brings to the vocal.
The Pop single was meant to be a three-minute experience about finding true love. “River Deep – Mountain High” is about the long aftermath of fate. Cresting the peak, Turner emits a high, wordless cry, the trumpets fanfaring somewhere above her, maracas juddering in the engine room. Then everyone lands on a B-flat. The sonic impact is so great that for a moment, all we can hear is the bass and Turner’s voice in a sea of echo. It is a moment of pure weightlessness.
“River Deep – Mountain High” was a massive hit in Europe, but it peaked at Number 88 on the Billboard chart. Was it that Turner was too black for white radio, and Spector’s production too white for black stations? Or was it that Pop was becoming louder but weaker?
Spector stopped releasing records for two years, and in that time the latent effects of the new technology changed the music and the business. Multitrack desks and stereo in the studio, massive amplification at the festival and in the living room, a pompous grasping after significance through Adult-Oriented Rock. The density and richness of tone that Spector had captured became a sound from a lost age, and Spector a weird curio.
After 1966, Spector was for revivalists like John Lennon and The Ramones, or fellow misfits like Leonard Cohen. The empty gloss of reverbs on Lennon’s nihilistic, narcissistic anthem “Imagine” is almost satirically bare: a hollow vessel for Lennon’s feeble noise. The production on Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), imposed by Spector without Cohen’s knowledge or approval, is drugged and bedraggled, like Spector himself.
Only on The Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio” (1979) does Spector sound alive. And only on their End of the Century album do we hear why he might have preferred not to sound like it, and then, for the next four decades of silence, not to sound like anything at all. Spector has met his equals in sincere parody, the only group as backward-looking as he is. In reviving the sound of American glory, he hears the truth that the golden age is gone, and that it was all downhill, for him as for America, after that moment of divine weightlessness.
It’s the end, the end of the Seventies,
It’s the end, the end of the century.
Dominic Green is deputy editor of The Spectator’s U.S. Edition.
Photo by John Matthew Smith via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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