Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator" — an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Phil Spector.
The former American record producer and songwriter Phil Spector cannot escape his fate come July. Between now and then, California’s court of appeals will confirm or refute the 19-year incarceration judgement that the grand jury doled out in 2009 for the murder of Lana Clarkson in 2003. Regardless of the judge’s decision (the defence has little hope of proving Spector’s innocence), the verdict will be the epilogue to a long judicial battle that has transformed a pop producer’s demiurge into a tragic clown. Over the past fifteen years, the general public has witnessed a great number of eye-catching tabloid covers, and Spector’s slow descent into hell hovering between the tragic and the pathetic.
Over and above these media-friendly controversies and judicial debates, this scandal seems to have overshadowed Phil Spector’s significant contribution to musical history. For over forty years, from doo-wop girl bands to Tina Turner, from The Beatles to The Crystals, he never stopped giving pop music its edge, turning it into a genre worthy of interest, despite musical killjoys of intelligent experimental music and the self-proclaimed avant-garde. We regularly draw attention to the paradox of the mediocre musician who becomes a genius producer, drawing parallels with insignificant football players that turn out to be great coaches. In truth, this distinction is hollow. Spector’s career as a producer lingers on, a musing on the nature of sounds and orchestrations that began around the era of the Teddy Bears, a band he formed with his high school friends at the end of the 1950s that eventually fizzled out.
On this note, we definitely hold dear the “Wall of Sound”, a production technique that Spector created at the beginning of the 1960s at Gold Star Studio in Los Angeles. He applied this technique to all of the music he worked with, turning it into an indispensable production standard. The “Wall of Sound” can be characterized by the mix of classical acoustic and electric instruments, superimposed layers of sound recorded in an echo chamber. The result, calibrated for FM radio and mass diffusion was intended as a “Wagnerian approach to rock ‘n’ roll” according to Spector himself—never shy of grandiose statements.
We’ve made a selection of the best pieces produced or inspired by Spector, with the deliberate omission of Celine Dion and Starsailor.
The Ronettes: ’"Be My Baby" (1963)
Why do we resent 1960s girl bands to a certain degree? Because it gets exhausting after ten minutes? True. But these first ten minutes of listening time often reveal simple and graceful works that sum an era up within three or four choruses. Spector composed and produced this piece in 1963. Within a couple of days, it had rooted itself at number two in the charts. He was once even married to one of The Ronettes for a couple of years, although we all already know far too much about his private life to elaborate on this.
The Beatles: “The Long And Winding Road” (1970)
In 1970, Spector produced one of the most emblematic British pop albums (Let It Be), proving then, in a decisive career move, that he was not wed only to a particular Californian sound. He fought with half the band while they recorded it, however this was at a time when The Beatles spent a lot of their time arguing and fighting with each other.
George Harrison: “Bangladesh” (1971)
He apparently got on best with George. Spector produced this 1971 single, a charity initiative by Harrison, in aid of the populations affected by the Indo-Pakistani war.
The Beach Boys: “God Only knows” (1966)
Spector never produced anything for The Beach Boys. But the Californian hedonists, namely Brian Wilson, were obsessed by Spector and the “Wall of Sound” technique, which they tried to reproduce and emulate on their mythical album Pet Sounds—a true landmark in the history of pop music.
This last heartbreaking track is quite revealing of Spector’s influence in the realm of contemporary pop anthems. In spite of his reputation as a true music mogul and pop Godfather, Spector only worked with a limited number of artists, yet his role in the evolution of production standards runs deep. Today’s polyphonic pop revival, that includes bands like The Ganglians and garage enthusiasts Magic Kids, owe a lot to The Beach Boys and to the aforementioned “Wall of Sound”.