Top of the pops

How Phil Spector invented teen lust and torment.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
November 10, 1998 4:40PM (UTC)

Love, as anybody who's ever been in it knows, can make you sick with feeling. But nobody ever expressed the dizzying fever of romance quite the way Phil Spector did.

In the early '60s, while Berry Gordy was taking the rhythm of youth and giving it Motown's bright, sophisticated sheen, Spector was grabbing up the same elements and pitching them down a black hole of raw emotion and supersaturated orchestration. What spun out the other end was pop music all right, complete with harmonizing vocals, ardent lyrics and lush instrumentation. But it had a new form -- one that replaced the bounce of innocence with the throb of desire.

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Spector became a musical artist because he was on fire to express himself, and he became a record producer because he wanted to express himself exactly his way. He first learned about creative control as a teenage member of the 1950s one-hit wonders the Teddy Bears, writing and producing for the band as well as playing in it. The song that put him on the map, a hypnotic lullaby called "To Know Him Is to Love Him," might have sounded like an ode to teen romance. In fact, the song was inspired by Spector's father, a man so driven by his own demons that he committed suicide when his son was only 8. The title of the song came from the epitaph on his grave. "To Know
Him" set the tone for Spector's unique brand of hit-making -- taking tunes suffused with great tenderness and injecting them with a blast of utter torment.

Though Spector liked being a musician, he loathed having anyone -- especially industry suits -- tell him what to do. So after the Teddy Bears broke up and he had honed his gifts with a stint at New York's legendary pop factory, the Brill Building, Spector co-founded his own label, Philles. It was there he began to find his groove. Spector continued to play and write, but quickly discovered his real talent was as a musical architect, putting the elements of song together in new and deeply affecting ways.

By the time he was 21, Spector was a millionaire. Within a mere three years, he had produced more than 20 hit singles and given birth to a style bombastically christened "the Wall of Sound." The Jewish kid whose first love was jazz, this reedy little dynamo from the Bronx, had created a noise that was very, very big.

The Wall of Sound was a musical mind-slam; it overloaded the auditory nerves with such sweepingly complex arrangements and such a barrage of instruments that it rendered the individual parts of the whole unrecognizable. Spector called his singles "little symphonies for the kids," but they were closer to opera -- full of romantic Sturm und Drang and more than occasional dips into absolute madness. The Wall was the sound of young love distilled into the three-minute opus -- beautiful and horrible and sweet and suffocating.

To his towering layers of melody Spector piled on lyrics just a little more insistently than anybody else; he added singers whose voices could careen from radio-ready fluff to an anguished wail on the turn of a note. And during the powder-keg tension of the early civil rights era, he had the chutzpah to be colorblind, creating music that refused to be identified by the races of the artists who performed it. It was for his stars the Righteous Brothers (Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield) that the term "blue-eyed soul" was coined, as if the idea of white singers making truly soulful music had not been possible before. But if his music wasn't black or white, neither were the feelings it depicted. Nothing was ever simple in a Phil Spector song.

Because Spector produced as a young man, his music had an authentically
vulnerable young sound. It was simultaneously rough and elaborate; it beckoned with a finger snap and thumped like a heartbeat. And it laid bare Spector's own private and painful bêtes noire -- his hyperkinetic, insomniac energy; his doomed love affairs; his family's legacy of mental illness.

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Spector knew the tumult and the masochism of love, how a blow can seem like a caress when you haven't yet learned the difference between the two. The shocking power of "He Hit Me (But It Felt Like a Kiss)," which was banned by some radio stations because of its lyrics, has only increased over time; it's brutal proof of Spector's unflinching understanding that not all relationships are chaste, "Walking in the Sand"
affairs. His music reflected the intensity of first love and first sex, when one's newfound capacity for pleasure can be so desperately good it crosses over into torment.

Spector had a gift for expressing that raw emotion from a female as well as male perspective. Two of the primary vehicles for his recording studio passions, the Crystals and Ronettes, were the first girl groups to be frankly carnal and unabashed about stating their needs; their voices howled above tsunamis of melody. The heroines of "Then He Kissed Me," for example, were so blown away at being "kissed in a way that I'd never been kissed before" that the music could only thunder along in knee-buckling amazement at the erotic sensation. Ronettes' lead singer Ronnie Bennett -- Spector's lover and later wife -- didn't stop at simply asking to "be my little baby," she demanded that you "be my baby now" with a gorgeously scary urgency. On the painfully majestic "River Deep-Mountain High," his ultimate metaphor for the soaring, sinking nature of love, Spector reduced Tina Turner to trembling, practically choking sobs, as she moaned, "Do I love you, my oh my?" And then, to show men also could be passion's victims, he had the Righteous Brothers throw themselves from the cliffs in such instant pop masterpieces as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" ("You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips/There's no tenderness like before in your fingertips").

But one can only feel so much for so long. By 1966, propelled by the commercial failure of "River Deep-Mountain High," he had begun his disgusted retreat away from the music world and into seclusion. He continued to work sporadically, notably on the Beatles' final group and early solo projects. It was he who put the final touches on the "Let It Be" album, and he who gave Lennon's "Instant Karma" its transcendent edge. The song was one of his last real hits, which may be why it sounds like a supernova, an outburst whose finality only adds to its luster.

The "tycoon of teen" was burned out well before he even hit 30, in 1970. In later years Spector traded his vibrancy for eccentricity. By the time he produced the Ramones' 1980 "End of the Century," he was as famous for being a show business kook as he'd ever been for being a producer. The punk heroes did a cover of "Baby I Love You" that creaked with irony.

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Gothic stories of drugs and vicious guard dogs and bodyguards spilled out from his Hollywood mansion. Spector took to wearing a gun on his hip and, for a while, a gigantic cross around his neck. He could waste entire days listening to the
same track over and over and over again. Guests at his mansion found themselves subjected to capricious lock-ins; his children and ex-wives would claim Spector abused them. The brilliant, beautiful romantic couldn't die like a Romeo or waste away like a Keats; he settled instead for a dementia-tinged exile. Today Spector still works now and then, but mostly, the man who built the Wall of Sound has erected around himself a wall of silence. And if there are still intoxicating melodies playing in his head, he's no longer terribly interested in unleashing them on the world.

Spector was the first producer as star, the first behind-the-scenes recording wizard who was bigger than any of his artists. His 1963 Yuletide compilation, "A Christmas Gift to You," is still better known as Phil Spector's Christmas album, as if the collective talents of its formidable contributors are small potatoes next to the creative firepower of its maestro. He was the man who gave the "American Bandstand" generation a darker and more sexual edge, the prodigy who inspired everyone from the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen. He was the first punk, the visionary who fused the pathos of jazz with the vitality of rock 'n' roll. He was and remains the classic 20th century pop-genius madman.

Spector was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. But with his masterpieces dumped into the uneven pile of Oldies "classics," it's easy nowadays to overlook Spector's contribution. And that's a shame. Because Spector's greatest songs can still make you feel again -- not in a
cloyingly nostalgic way, but in a brazenly real one -- what it is to confront the world with a young and pliant soul. And they can remind you that while hearts are broken all the time by pain and loneliness, those in love can be wrecked just as easily by pure, astonishing joy.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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