TEARING DOWN THE WALL OF SOUND
The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector
By Mick Brown
Published by Bloomsbury
The career of this legendary record producer has already been exhaustively covered in many books, so do we need another? I myself have contributed pages about the eccentric self-styled “genius” who, in the twilight before Beatle sunshine, conjured up a mighty tsunami of sound in which shipwrecked instruments, be they trumpet or cowbell, ended up beached like an oil slick, on a tiny, tinny 45rpm disc to be enjoyed on cheap phonographs and car radios by adolescents of body or brain.
“Little symphonies for the kids”, he said he was making, and he called on his arrangers to throw in a little Strauss here and some Wagner there while pushing his engineers to up the volume till stomachs turned and eardrums burst. Somewhere in the swell were girlie-cute black voices but none amounted to much. Ronettes, Crystals, Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans—interchangeable groups, dispensable, too. Spector was the star, the control freak, the rock Svengali stirring his alchemy into smash hit mushes like “Doo Do Ron Ron” and “Be My Baby”, captivating, like a teenage crush, the likes of Beach Boy, Beatle, Stone, and this writer.
The magic touch lasted from the early 1960s, the age of the snappy single, till the coming of the Great Thinkers like Dylan and Lennon, individuals averse to taking orders. The little kids deserted as the acid spread and the concept album squashed the dreamy teen scene. The Wall of Sound formula with its Generalissimo came tumbling down.
He went on to work for hire for the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and The Ramones but he was no longer the Tycoon of Teen, as Tom Wolfe had crowned him in a 1965 article, no more the “flowering genius” on a par with Cellini and Thomas Jefferson. So he holed up behind stone walls—mansions and finally a castle in Alhambra, near Los Angeles.
As a neighbour and fellow rocker I was included in a party of sycophants invited to a soiree at his eyrie. Wearing shoulder-length fright wig, blue shades, frilly shirt, raucous tweed jacket and 4-inch Cuban heels, our host offered us midget sandwiches and a rambling lecture on pop history. When I dared to correct him he locked us all in and went rummaging for weaponry. “He’s kidding”, explained a bodyguard.
Mick Brown, a good sleuth, has added to the Spector library by building a scary portrait of a psychopath, based on extensive interviews with fellow workers and civilians. Guns are waved, pointed, even pressed against the skulls of those who crossed Spector. Even poet Leonard Cohen experienced the cold steel. My own violinist, an Iwo Jima veteran, was death-threatened for snickering at the drunken producer.
Was this the result of trauma—the Jewish nerd with the domineering mother and the father who killed himself, followed by the experience of having goyim toughs urinate on him after a performance, as a Teddy Bear, of “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, the epitaph on his father’s grave?
Part of the answer lies in the four hour interview granted to Brown, a coup that spins this circular book so that we begin and end with the interview, our heads drummed with the nag of this self-confessed rank outsider: “I have devils inside that fight me….I’m not happy unless I’m not happy…In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible”. His only sanctuary had been the recording studio—now gone forever—because there he felt “reasonable” and “comfortable”. Had he been a good person? “Reasonably good. I mean I haven’t done anything….” Silence.
Two days after the interview was published in the “Telegraph” magazine Phil Spector, at dawn, appeared at the back door of his Alhambra castle with a gun in his hand and blood on his body to inform his waiting chauffeur: “I think I killed somebody”. Slumped in a chair in the foyer was the dead body of Lana Clarkson, a statuesque erstwhile B picture star. Broken teeth were scattered about. She had been shot through the mouth. “She kissed the gun”, Spector later explained. And, he said, her last words were “Da Doo Ron Ron”. How dare she kill herself in his castle!
The authorities felt otherwise and so, four years and a string of celebrity lawyers later, the man who brought majestic moments of grandeur to the tinsel world of pop, holding us in his vinyl Wagnerian thrall, will be leaving a legacy of bloodstains and broken teeth. Spector is charged with murder.”Ye shall reap as ye shall sow”, said one of his discarded girl group singers. But as Raymond Chandler wrote: “The law is where you buy it in this town”. This is a timely and well-researched piece of journalism. All it needs is closure.