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.