Jun 102011

Because of the series in which this post is being framed I run the risk of being perceived as inflammatory for no good reason—or naive or even outright idiotc. I like my share of Phil Spector‘s works; own his box set, Back to Mono; and know more than enough about his influence on The Beach Boys and beyond, including the reach of his studio cats, The Wrecking Crew.  That said, I am tempted to call bullshit on Spector and his Wall of Sound, or maybe more accurately the degree to which it’s praised.

I unabashedly like probably a baker’s dozen Phil Spector productions. The Ronettes were the best of the bunch who worked under him. Ronnie Spector has personality out the whazoo. The Crystals had some winners. He cowrote “Spanish Harlem,” which is, as Lenny Bruce put it, “so pretty, man!” His Christmas album is charming, although a couple of years ago I had my fill of it and have done my best to leave the house whenever my wife wants to play it by the yuletide. Like a lot of Spector’s work, it grows cloying over repeated listens.

I know I’m supposed to love Darlene Love, and lords knows I’d love to if only to make my man Townsman Al happy, but don’t. The Righteous Brothers should appeal to me more, but the guy with the deep voice quickly gets on my nerves. His voice, to my ears, anticipates the entry of a boorish, older guy with scruff beard and a musty, rollneck cardigan. I get anxious imagining the appearance into my life of any one of a half dozen Nick Nolte characters. 

I can’t deny his use of some great Brill Building songwriters, but they were there for others to use as well. Spector didn’t make Greenwich and Barry or Goffin and King the way he may have made the Girl Groups he constructed around their songs. If I want to hear the musical style of late-’50s/early-’60s Sound of the City (New York, specifically) rock ‘n roll Spector capped off I’ll take his prececessors, Lieber and Stoller, and the way they arranged records for The Coasters and The Drifters. To my ears, their music had more romance, more joy, more rock ‘n roll, more swing, more scope than most of Wall of Sound productions involving 12 piano players and 8 drummers. Maybe they should have beaten their women and set guns on the mixing board.

The mechanics of the Wall of Sound make for fascinating reading, but at a certain point, maybe with the 9th guitarist or 4th bassist, didn’t that stuff make his records sounds like mud? The legend of the Grand Disappointment of “River Deep, Mountain High” makes for great copy too, but looking at and listening to the song with a level head, isn’t it really a tale to chuckle over, like a laughable “new direction” taken by a band in a rockumentary? The song’s structure is awkward, to begin with, and Tina Turner, for all her belt-it-out strengths had shaky phrasing. Even in her best performances she sings with little regard to a song’s core rhythms, rushing ahead of the beat, adding her own instinctive accents that don’t seem to be responding to anything in the arrangement. She’s a weird singer, somewhere between Janis Joplin, in enthusiasm, and Cher, in complete lack of finesse and “feminine” sensitivity.

Spector’s inspiration to The Beach Boys is well beyond “Bullshit On” charges. Brian Wilson and his engineers had a much better grasp on where to draw the line on layered overdubs and how to best present those techniques in an uncluttered way. Spector’s best Wall of Sound production, if you ask me, is John Lennon‘s “Instant Karma.” Lennon must have been the first singer since Ronnie Spector who could allow Spector to use his skills in a wholly subservient role. I bet he would have loved to have taken the full weight of Tina Turner, but Ike must have had something to say about that.

The Wall of Sound has been bandied about by a number of artists since the 1970s, most notably Bruce Springsteen, who used it for all it was worth. Did Tony Visconti ever credit Spector for his productions of T. Rex? His hits seem like the sort of records Spector might have made if he could have gotten past his musical Napoleon Complex.  Roy Wood was obviously into Spector, and other glam cats seemed healthily indebted to Spector’s approach. Spector’s work on other Beatles solo records is hard to gauge. The first two Lennon albums seem like they would have sounded the way they did if Spector had nothing to do with them. George Harrison’s most successful album was done with Spector, but of course, All Things Must Pass would have made a killer ep.

The “Phil Spector Beat,” BUMP-bump-bump…, may be his most-used device, but my favorite motif from his works is the “suspended fourth” riff from “Then He Kissed Me.” Did anyone feature that cluster of notes before Spector? The Who took that riff and made it the central riff to the more-expansive music that would cement their legacy beyond “My Generation.” Perhaps for that riff alone I will steer our bloated bull clear of Spector’s path; slobbering critics and young musicians thinking the post-Elvis/pre-Beatles years were defined by Spector’s music, however, will not be so lucky.


  18 Responses to “Bullshit On: Phil Spector”

  1. NOTE: This was written just now on a plane. I’ve never been connected to the web this high up before. It feels very…MODERN! My apologies for some typos and spacing issues that I usually try to catch. Maybe I’l fix them later, when I don’t have the woman next to me asleep and leaning so far into my space that my right arm is cramping up. More later! I’ll be touching down in about 2 hours and meeting up with sammymaudlin himself!

  2. Phil’s two moments of genius:

    1. Righteous Brothers – “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. Phil got the balance just right on this one. The sound is a perfect mix if ghostliness and desperation, and it doesn’t overpower the singers like on later Spector/Righteous productions. Spector also emphasizes the contrast between the two voices and manages a beautiful build-up during the extended break before the final fade-out verse.

    2. George Harrison – All Things Must Pass. Hey, I like this album with the exception of the disposable Apple Jam. I’ve heard naked demo versions of many of these songs and they seem a little lightweight. Spector’s production gives them depth and presence. Songs like “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity” have an almost mantra-like quality, and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sound of “Wah-wah” is great. “What Is Life” is a fine update of the ’60s girl-group sound.

  3. Wall of sound or kitchen sink? I didn’t know he co wrote Spanish Harlem and that nudges him up in my eyes but I’m not a fan of the whole wall of sound concept past a few early 60’s girl group songs.

    I’m not opposed to a whole bunch of instruments, to the contrary, I think that Let’s Get It On is the greatest produced song ever, and that has it all: keys, strings, horns, background singers,etc. But I can hear each track distinctly if I listened for it. The wall of sound is just a big blob of music, perfect for listening to songs in mono on a car radio in 1963 but more modern takes on it are not my cup of tea. I acknowledge that this comes down to personal taste so I won’t call bullshit on him outright. Rather I will risk receiving an accusation of “Cop Out” from the Mod and say that the “Bullshit On” should be directed at those who are overly-inflating his contributions past the early 60s.

  4. I’m with you all the way on this – it’s too overblown, there’s no room to breathe. The wall of sound may have sounded fab pumped through a transistor radio in the sixties, but just sounds like a clattery racket recorded down a well now. With production, the song should be the star – not the studio. Which is why George Martin’s output has aged so graciously. Also check out Martin Rushent’s discog for lessons in quality pop production

  5. BigSteve

    I like Spector’s productions. Here’s one of my favorites:


    Of course it helps that it’s a King/Goffin song.

    I think we have to admit that it’s hard to grasp this stuff out of its original context. Others have mentioned that it was designed for lo-fi sound systems. We’re listening to these tracks on big, high quality speakers or, worse, ear buds, and it gives us a weird perspective. Is that Gene Pitney song over the top? It seems so now, but heard through a three-inch car radio speaker it might not be.

    And there’s also an innocence to these songs that our mature and oh so sophisticated sensibilities don’t have access to.

    I think maybe we need to call bullshit on ourselves.

  6. misterioso

    God knows I find Spector overpraised. I have problems with some of his excesses on All Things Must Pass, especially (unlike tonyola) in contrast to some of the pre-overdubbed versions of songs in circulation. I share Mod’s doubts about his importance to the Plastic Ono Band records, Instant Karma! excepted. In general I do think his more is more approach is limited.


    I can’t dump bullshit on Spanish Harlem, Be My Baby, Then He Kissed Me, most of the Xmas record but esp., of course Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, River Deep Mountain High (!!), Instant Karma! and probably some others that I cannot think of. I don’t get Mod’s dismissal of River Deep, which is every bit as great as legend would have it. Plus it pissed off Ike.

    I don’t see how you can not hear the influence on the Beach Boys, even if you think (and I would agree) that Brian was better at it than Spector was.

    Is it all enough to warrant the genius label? Probably not.

  7. This is pretty much where I landed too, cdm. The Cop Out police will not be showing up at your door.

  8. I don’t dismiss the influence on the Beach Boys, misterioso. By the way, I don’t think I was clear but I kind of love “River Deep” for its awkwardness.

  9. tonyola

    It’s the “excesses” on All Thing Must Pass that help make the album listenable to me, but then again, I’m the sort of guy who prefers sins of commission over sins of omission when it comes to music. George’s tunes tend to be pretty slight with a few notable exceptions. Songs like “Run of the Mill”, “Let It Roll”, “Awaiting On You All”, and “Hear Me Lord” would be pretty thin stuff without Phil’s sonic ornaments. Harrison could have used some of the same production qualities on his later albums. It took Jeff Lynne (no stranger to over-production) to get George to make a truly interesting album again.

  10. misterioso

    Don’t get me wrong: the Spector Big Sound does give some of the All Things Must Pass tracks a grandeur that they deserve; I tend to think George could have got there on his own or, anyway, with a little less bombast. But you are right that My Sweet Lord and Isn’t It a Pity certainly benefit; but in contrast I quite like the “unproduced” versions of Run of the Mill (a lovely and underrated song), Let It Down, and the inexplicably omitted song I Live For You. I never really gave it much thought until I heard the many circulating early versions.

  11. ladymisskirroyale

    For me, the Wall of Sound production was interesting but ultimately sort of gimmicky. As others have mentioned, it seems to have influenced some other bands, many of whom I enjoy more than those early girl groups. I have frequently extolled my love of My Bloody Valentine, especially the album, “Loveless,” and other of the Shoegaze bands of the late 80’s-90’s seem to have used that WOS production in an updated way (although also gimmicky). I also noticed on Wikipedia that Wall of Voodoo named themselves as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Wall of Sound, although I think of their recordings as being more spare (at least the early EP that I own and really like).

    By the way, Mod, harmonic convergence: one of Wall of Voodoo’s albums is entitled “Seven Days in Sammystown.” Are you going to be there a week?

  12. I’m IN Sammystown! More later, we’ve got a breakfast date with Emelio Estevez.

  13. ladymisskirroyale

    Have a great time! Looking forward to posts about your adventures, with or without Emelio.

  14. Mr. Mod, I appreciate your desire to make me happy (as Townsmen Misterioso does). As I’ve said before, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is a classic and I look forward to her rendition each year on Letterman. I’m sure you’d have nothing positive to say about that since it features not only Love but RTH whipping boy Paul Schaeffer. It’s always totally over the top and all the better for it.

    And don’t forget that Love is also the uncredited lead vocalist on The Crystals “He’s A Rebel” and “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”.

  15. machinery

    To know him is to love him is a standout. Not sure if that’s true WOS ???

    I actually think the whole sound, while unique I’ll grant you, was kind of lazy. Put that many people in the room and everyone seems to cover for everyone elses sins. The music suddenly has no soul, yet he was recording a lot of “soul-type” music. I always compared that to the studio band the Temps used … you could hear the sweat and the smoke coming of those guys.

    Funny, no thoughts on how Spector made the Ramones sound bigger?

  16. machinery

    That being said, I’ll give this weird, wacko the props he deserves. He was behind the board for more hits than most can claim. And he did invent a sound that will forever be his. For that the guy deserves his Rock N Roll Hall of Fame statuette. Maybe he can trade it for a pack of smokes … he is in jail, right?

  17. machinery

    And for what it’s worth — I’ve always hated the production on Instant Karma. Really feels like a big mess to me. Sorry.

  18. Well, now that I’ve LEARNED that fact about Ms. Love I won’t forget it – and I won’t forget that she’s excellent on those songs. Thanks!

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