The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, February 10, 2003

What is it about the 3rd of February that makes it a date for pop music nemeses to call themselves in? It was on the 3rd of February 1959 that Buddy Holly took the ‘plane because he wanted his shirts laundered for his next gig. On the 3rd of February 1967 – surely not a coincidence, for Holly was his avatar, endlessly evoked in repeated seances – Joe Meek, approaching 40, out of fashion, penniless, soon-to-be homeless bankrupt, turned a shotgun on his landlady and thereafter on himself. And on the 3rd of February 2003, Phil Spector was arrested and charged with first-degree murder following the fatal shooting of a moderately well-known 40-year-old actress, Lana Clarkson, in the grounds of his immense mansion. No one else appears to have been in his home at the time of the shooting, which occurred in California, a state in which first-degree murder still carries the death penalty. Musicians with whom Spector has worked in the past, such as Leonard Cohen and the Ramones, have spoken of him as a paranoid control freak not averse to pulling a gun on the artists if they do not adhere obediently to his aesthetic template. All in all, it does not look promising for Spector, yet may be the sadly logical conclusion to a wasted and wasteful career.

I had planned to write this piece before news of the murder broke, but listening to his productions – it almost seems unreasonable to apply the term “music” to them – feel that I would have come to the same conclusion, namely that I find Spector’s records to be oppressive, meretricious, bombastic, pedantic, unfascinatingly hollow, devoid of any interest in or relation to humanity (even the most “inhuman” of music has to acknowledge, by definition, the existence of humanity) and, much worse, destructive to the artists and the music involved, and smugly sinister in its attempts to disguise the reactionary sentiments expressed within it under a coat of post-Camelot faux-liberalism. Spector’s work is about the mechanics of control, and does not necessarily presuppose the existence of something concrete to be controlled. As the controller, his work often descends into grotesque, sub-Mr Arkadin self-pity.

It may well all have been the fault of Lonnie Donegan. Legend has it that the teenage Spector was originally inspired to pick up a guitar after listening to Donegan’s “Rock Island Line.” More probably, the suicide of his father when Spector was 13, and the family’s subsequent move from the Bronx to Hollywood, drove everything driveable. His first attempt at songwriting and production fortuitously turned out to be the international hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him” performed under the name of the Teddy Bears, the song’s title famously derived from the epitaph on his father’s gravestone. As a record it is a self-enclosed hymn, with already enough echo on the lower registers of the piano to suggest at least partial submersion in an underwater grave; quiet, but why is it so explicitly quiet? Compare it with its 1961 sequel, the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” an almost exact parallel – melodically and lyrically – to the Teddy Bears song. The production approach has hardly changed, the tempo remains funereal rather than carnal, Priscilla Paris’ whisper is anything but sensual. The song is either an expression of necrophilia or self-love, and reminds us of the wafer-thin line which separates the two (and as regards “liberal” self-love, compare either with John & Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” from 1972, again produced by Spector, and a song whose structure, by Lennon’s own admission, derived squarely from “I Love How You Love Me.” Despite the presence of the Harlem Community Children’s Choir, the record can hardly be described as open).

“To Know Him Is To Love Him” was a substantial hit around the world, but Spector was ripped off on the money, and a couple of years later flew to NYC to commence work as, firstly, A&R man for Atlantic (one entertains fantastical notions of what Ornette or Mingus records might have sounded like with Spector at the control desk), and then freelance writer/producer, eventually setting up his own indie label, Philles Records. Early Spector hits were generally unpretentious teen fodder (Ray Peterson’s “Corrine, Corrine”) or straightforward, if melodramatically arranged, rock ‘n’ roll (Curtis Lee’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” and “Under The Moon Of Love” – both records owing their vitality to Lee’s driven, slightly over-enthusiastic vocals). Perhaps the earliest signs of what was to come lay in Ben E King’s “Spanish Harlem” which, although more or less a Leiber and Stoller production, did feature contributions from Spector, including a gradually enlarging aural canvas, and the beginnings (Spector wrote the lyric) of what was ultimately to prove a dangerous infatuation with the Other (“With eyes as black as coal that looks (sic) down in my soul…I’m goin’ to pick that rose and watch her as she grows/In my garden”). Despite King’s naturally beneficent vocal delivery, this gives us an early indication that Spector was to become pop’s most pretentious plantation owner.

Gene Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take” shows stirrings of portentous and unsubtle rhythmic emphases over a routine Goffin-King ballad, but the Spector “wall of sound” as we know it blossoms in the course of “Uptown” by the Crystals – in fact you can hear it happen at the beginning of the second verse, as a second rhythm section audibly makes itself known to bolster the sonics. Sung by Barbara Alston, the song concerns a downtrodden “little man” who only becomes “a King” when he visits the Other “in my tenement.” The chord changes are tempting, but the record comes across as a glorification of Spector’s own cultural tourism.

Far more disturbing was the Crystals’ unreleased follow-up “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” The poignancy of King’s melody hardly serves as any kind of counterpart to Goffin’s lyric, which seems to me like a prototype Taliban manifesto, exalting the virtues of violence against unfaithful/disobedient women. Alston’s vocal is clearly uneasy about the whole thing, and it might be relevant that she never again took the lead vocal on a Crystals record. “He’s A Rebel” again tells us how great and individual Darlene Love’s baby (or, if you like, Spector) is, apart from when he’s with her. The excruciating and overwrought plod through “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” by Bob E Soxx and the Blue Jeans introduces another Spector trademark – of magnifying something essentially banal by means of pomp and bluster to make it appear avant-garde and/or profound. Note that here we have a black singer interpreting a song from that KKK-excusing Disney flick Song of the South. Note generally the complete subjection of black singers to Spector’s whiter than white wall of sound over the next 2-3 years.

There is not much to say about the well-known run of hits involving the Crystals and Ronettes. Some commentators (perhaps you needed to be born in the 1940s to appreciate Spector) exalt records like “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” as being Roy Liechtenstein’s pop art transported and reinterpreted within the context of the pop song, and constituting the most articulate expression of teenage dreams and wishes. But a cursory view of the lyrics reveal just how conventional, conservative and dreary these “dreams” are – almost without exception they return again and again to themes like marriage and children, about giving themselves up to their babies, in both senses. The Republican Party would have been proud to use these lyrics as a basis for their election manifesto. Nor do they work particularly well as pop records; the vast armies of musicians employed by Spector (generally pissed-off West Coast jazzers making a living reading flyshit, or else trainee stars like Harry Nilsson, Sonny Bono, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert and Leon Russell) slow the dynamics of the music, making the rhythms ploddy and undanceable; and what they produce is not very interesting sonically. Spector may have used five guitarists, two bassists and three drummers, but they are all playing the same, banal riffs. The only interesting commentary comes from the out-of-phase castanets which rattle their spermatozoa conduits through tracks like “Be My Baby” (the triple snare drum fills, as on many other Spector records, sounding like rape) and “Then He Kissed Me.” Ronnie Spector’s voice is caressing and brilliant, but too often on Ronettes records does she sound as though she’s struggling to make herself heard, even on what is supposedly the personification of the adolescent male fantasy of female domination, “Be My Baby.” Appropriately, in the booklet which accompanies the Back To Mono boxset compilation, the photograph used to illustrate the lyrics to “Be My Baby” illustrates an elated Spector being literally cradled in the arms of the Ronettes as though they are about to go down on him en masse. He can barely hide his hard-on…and of course he ends up marrying one of them.

It’s a marvel, really, at how these records were taken at all seriously as pop. Compare the sludge-filled, overbalanced plod of things like “Walking In The Rain” with the ebullient and unforced jouissance of what was being produced by Motown at the same time. Spector could never have been capable of anything with the lightness and genuine good humour (humour seems to be a complete absentee from Spector’s work) of something like “Please Mr Postman” or “Mickey’s Monkey” – not to mention the genuine ingenuity of Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield and Holland/Dozier/Holland, working with more or less the same large-scale number of musicians, but without any of the grandstanding (with Spector you are never far away from the semi-despondent cry of “Look how big mine is!”).

When Spector relented on the grandiloquence a little and allowed spatial awareness to intrude upon his work, there were admittedly glimpses of interesting ideas – the genuinely unsettling and unsettled arrangement, for instance, on Darlene Love’s “Strange Love” or the unresolved cadences of Love’s “Stumble and Fall” (with Hal Blaine’s drums appropriately stumbling in distended rolls), or, best of all, when Spector let Ronnie be herself, gave her a beautiful Valentine of a record – her cover of the old doowop standard “So Young,” the strand from which Lynch, Badalamenti and Cruise subsequently drew their own musical visions. For just about the only time in Spector’s music, compassion makes itself known here.

When Spector signed the Righteous Brothers, they were the first male voices with which he had worked for at least a couple of years; yet his work with them is no less histronic or purposeless, least so on the overblown “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” which remains nothing more than a grotesque minstrel show parody of black soul vocalese, and in particular a slowed-down parody of the Four Tops’ contemporaneous “Baby I Need Your Loving” which is scarcely less gratuitous or patronising than Vanilla Fudge’s dreary demolition of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” two years later. Subsequent assaults by Bobby Hatfield’s beyond-hammy falsetto on “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide” are unlistenable – the murder perpetrated on the latter, in particular, is bloodier when set in contrast with Sinatra’s definitive, grieving and understated performance of the same song on Only The Lonely, not to mention the genuine emotion which Roy Hamilton brought to his recordings of both songs in the ‘50s.

I haven’t mentioned Brian Wilson yet, and purposely so, because in Wilson we not only have a musician who, apart from contributing keyboards to some Spector sessions, idolised Spector and listened (and still listens) to “Be My Baby” every day as some kind of talisman/prayer point, but also understood that he, Wilson, could do more with what Spector started, and bring some emotion and architecture to the Wall. Thus Hal Blaine striking a half-filled watering can in “Caroline No” conveys more emotion than a boxset full of martial rolls and crashes, because with Wilson his interest in humanity is paramount. Bassist Carol Kaye, a Spector and later Wilson regular, cried when Wilson played her “God Only Knows” on the piano for the first time. You cannot cry at anything Spector produced, because even the melancholy continually comes across as self-propagating egotism (feel my imagined pain! never mind the pain I cause to others!). Joe Meek was as chilly a human being as Spector, but even at his most seemingly dictatorial you never lose sight of Meek’s eagerness, and even lust, for adventure – not just to try something different, but to convey something of himself onto his productions. Rarely do Spector records caress the listener. The Wall of Sound could easily have fitted into Michelangelo’s mausoleum of a lobby for the Lawrentian Library in Florence. It is cold and fundamentally anti-human (not the same thing as “inhuman”). That having been said, two tracks of this period – “This Could Be The Night” by the Modern Folk Quartet and “Paradise” by the Ronettes – provide clear pointers to Pet Sounds. As both songs were co-authored by a youthful Harry Nilsson, it’s understandable that they offer an escape route which Wilson took and Spector isn’t.

Perhaps most anti-human and sickest of all is the way in which Spector makes his wife perform the clearly heartfelt lament of “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine,” forcing her to express her emotional and physical pain, all of which was caused by him. It is perhaps the cruellest performance ever imposed by a producer on an artist in pop history, only approached by what Bjorn made Agnetha sing on “The Winner Takes It All” (and I remain ambivalent about the mechanics behind Abba’s later work). Go on Ronnie, tell the world you’re in pain – no one’s listening, they just want to get off on it (cf. the screams on Eminem’s “Kim”). Those massed drums thumping (they literally sound like wifebeating). It is a horrendous ordeal to hear; little wonder that the track was never given a UK release. One wonders how narrow an escape she did make.

It’s perhaps entirely in character that Spector’s one indisputable masterpiece of a record was sung by another battered wife whose husband got a label credit but who was kept out of the studio. “River Deep Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner was of course the record towards which Spector had been building over the previous five years, the orgasm towards which he had been fucking pop music. A hollow masterpiece it may be, but in its own David Bomberg way, the art within it exploded into precisely ordered rhombi of sonority.

How hollow? Indeed the song has a wooden heart. It compares love for the Other with love for a rag doll and a puppy – mute, obedient objects who won’t complain about being mistreated. But the terrible, ecstatic awe of both Tina Turner’s vocal and Jack Nitzsche’s for once genuinely multilayered orchestration combine to produce a pop record which actually sounds as though it’s going somewhere, rather than standing still and demanding that you admire it. The dynamics are felt – the quiet middle section remains potent, with its congas and finger snaps, before strings and brass gradually work their way back in, up the register until finally Turner and Spector come, scream, as one. That moment is the cynosure of all Spector’s art, and after it the art could only disintegrate into its fundamental components. The final resonant chord of the record sounds as though the Wall of Sound has been knocked down, demolished.

It was Spector’s finest creation, and because he refused to subscribe to payola shenanigans, radio stations decided to freeze him out and the record stiffed everywhere except in Britain, where it sold a million. Spector retreated to his opiate of a Xanadu, briefly to re-emerge in 1969 to produce some sides for Sonny Charles and the Checkmates. A garrulous and overwrought assassination of “Proud Mary” was the nadir of this period; while “Black Pearl” acts as a kind of bookend to “Spanish Harlem,” and “Love Is All I Have To Give” is more or less an excuse for Charles’ David Ruffinesque vocal to articulate Spector’s plea to Ronnie to “let me live again” (how devalued that expression sounds here, compared to the genuine distress with which the suicidal Jimmy Stewart sobs the words at the climax of It’s A Wonderful Life). The song here is virtually buried under all the ornamentation, the sliding scales of which perhaps constitute a pointer to what My Bloody Valentine would do two decades hence, and a forlorn violin comes in at the fadeout to play some klezmer licks.

After that, Spector retreated, only to come out as a “class” producer, a signifier devoid of signified, to be displayed like a trophy by rockers needing a revival – by Lennon, by Harrison, by Clapton, usually using nothing more than his trademark echoes, now sounding more tangible and less extreme with advances in recording technology (it is a myth that Spector’s sound was unreproducable, as evidenced by the success with which people like Ivor Raymonde and John Franz, with the aid of a Fairchild compressor, were able to reproduce it pretty accurately on the Walker Brothers and Dusty Springfield’s series of mid-‘60s hits; or indeed Roy Wood with Wizzard in the early ’70s, at much less cost and with much more humour). Records such as Lennon’s Rock And Roll or Leonard Cohen’s Death Of A Ladies’ Man sound like long, slurred, drunken barroom conversations set to some autopilot Spector music.

Individual efforts during this period such as Cher’s “A Woman’s Story” attempt the faux-grandeur of old, but sadder is Dion’s interminable reading of “Born To Be With You.” This latter clearly aspires to kaddish status – when Dion sings “sleep eternally” one almost expects the band to break into “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” – but it’s no more profound than “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”; it, and its follow-up “Make The Woman Love Me” are lumbering, ponderous beasts of records which can’t quite summon angst, making a bonfire out of a couple of discarded lighters. It is significant that Bruce Springsteen and his band visited the studios during the sessions for the latter, and even more so that with “Born To Run” – recorded and released in the same year, 1975 – he managed to do Spector better than Spector. Even to a non-Boss believer such as myself, it’s obvious that in “Born To Run” the epic grandeur – achieved with just the usual E Street Band line-up – is heartfelt and the emotions expressed in the song are urgent and genuine. In its intuitive understanding of the dynamics of pop, it grasps what Spector never could; because Springsteen didn’t, and doesn’t, shut himself away from the world with only his own unmarked standards to live up to. A recording console is so much more straightforward to fuck than another human being.

And with recording studios in the ‘70s not being what they were in the ‘60s, Spector’s records suddenly started sounding smaller – as though anyone could do it. Anyone could have recorded the Ramones’ version of “Baby I Love You” – indeed Dave Edmunds had done so seven years previously. Since 1980 it has been mostly reclusion and silence, except for some aborted sessions with power pop band Outrageous Cherry, and recent sessions (which remain likely to be released) with Starsailor. I cannot say that I am wringing my hands in anticipation. Hear the strident yet subtle brilliance of Trevor Horn’s production of tAtU’s “All The Things She Said” and then imagine what a lumpen, sunken, self-pitying pudding of a record Spector would have made out of it.

But then again, the events of the 3rd of February – in a year in which we may be compelled to question all our beliefs in this thing called pop music as never before – may well serve as a reminder of what happens to those of us who value music, art, wires and plastic over the flesh and blood of humanity.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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