A few days back, Greil Marcus, who trashed Phil Spector’s Back to Mono box when it came out, recommended it to someone who wanted to know where she should start if she wanted to get to know Spector’s music.
Very Trumpian I thought–doubly so if he was just being mean–but it did put me in the mood to revisit the box…on headphones.
Listening to Spector at this distance creates an audio equivalent of double-vision for us obsessives. No matter how glorious the sound in your ears is, and no matter how completely you are able to forget the gentleman is a psychopathic murderer, there is always the high probability that someone, somewhere has written about how, in order to really hear it, you need to have the original Philles single…and maybe a Bang and Olufsen (at least) to play it on.
Or the rare European-only vinyl pressing from the sixties.
Or the original tapes that somebody heard in their “truest” form on some bootleg version that was playing down the hall while they were meditating in their college dorm in 1968.
Or when they were hanging out with Phil at his home studio during the first of his several hundred retirements back in the sixties.
I’m not sure all those people are wrong either.
I can personally attest that the reissue MGM 45 I purchased “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on, which listed Bill Medley as the producer, blows all other versions away.
And, even if you can blow all that out of your head (and, when the best records are playing, you can), there’s still the fact that Phil Spector isn’t best heard on a box set featuring upwards of sixty tracks. His greatest work is too intense and his workaday efforts too mundane to make the experience anything but disorienting. Just when you’re thinking one more wall of *&&#@ strings will either make you drive a splinter under your eyelids or send you off to sleep, some bit of genius brings Paradise heaving back into view (though, not, I hasten to add, on the record of that name, on which the Shangri-Las blew the Ronettes away).
One thing I did notice this time around, though, was that Paradise came heaving into view most often according to a distinct pattern.
Again and again, my cheap headphones (ain’t no Bang and Olufsen at my house, alas) kept delivering the notion that Spector did his best work when he was working with a new voice.
And, usually, it was a Seasoned Pro’s voice.
Ronnie Spector (the partial exception to the Seasoned Pro rule–she had made records but was still living at home when he met her)…
In every case, Spector soon tired of whatever quality he had heard in them…and (with a brief exception for Darlene Love, whose power he diluted by parceling out her records under various names, least often her own) subsequent productions–or business arrangements–suffered accordingly.
The usual method for burying anyone who hung around too long (usually no more than a record or two), was to do just that.
Their voices anyway.
Because one thing Phil Spector liked to remind all his singers of, was his ability to make them go away, often at the very moment when one more brilliant arrangement (usually provided by Jack Nitzsche, though there were others), was begging for the Wall of Sound to be dialed back a bit and let the lead singer shine.
The one exception was the former Ronnie Bennett.
Her voice, he was never quite able to tame.
God knows he tried.
On record after record.
And when that didn’t quite work–when he couldn’t quite make her irrelevant to her own records the way he had done with literally everyone else, even Darlene Love–he found other ways. Like marrying her and locking her up in his mansion and killing her career and tormenting her for years until she ran away (carrying her shoes down the mansion’s driveway so she wouldn’t make any noise) and finally stalking her and terrorizing her with death threats everybody thought she was crazy to take so seriously until he finally acted out on Lana Clarkson.
The gift she left him was a box set that bends, but never quite breaks.
Nearly all the hidden treasures are hers.