TRACKING PHIL SPECTOR….(CD Review)

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.

Gene Pitney…

Darlene Love….

Ronnie Spector (the partial exception to the Seasoned Pro rule–she had made records but was still living at home when he met her)…

Bill Medley….

Bobby Hatfield…

Tina Turner…

Sonny Charles…

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.

Bury them.

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.

“THE VOICE” IN CONTEXT (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #96)

Back when Phil Spector started hiding his soon to be wife, Ronnie Bennett of the Ronettes,  from the world (and the Beatles), John Lennon would ask him “Where’s the Voice?”

When Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes’ first big hit, on the radio, he pulled off the road, and has said more than once that he’s played it every day since. He’s also said it wasn’t Phil Spector’s production that made the impact.

Ronnie herself reported her first meeting with Spector in her autobiography and described his response to first hearing her sing as something along the lines of “That’s it. That’s the voice I’ve been waiting for!”

Phil also frequently described himself as the only person who could have made Ronnie. or any of his other discoveries, stars, or at very least famous.

After reading Ronnie’s memoir years back (early nineties’ I’m guessing), I built some vague ideas and questions that had been rattling around in my head for about a decade (about how long it had been since I first heard “Be My Baby”), into a conclusion.

The conclusion: Phil Spector was the only person who could have kept Ronnie Bennett from becoming a superstar, and he used a three-step process. He signed her. Then he married her. Then he–no other word for it–tortured her.

You can read the book and find out the details–including the day John Lennon visited divorce court as a friend of both parties and came face to face with who Phil Spector really was.

Knowing all that, I still never quite understood “Be My Baby” as anything more than a great record with a great vocal.

Today, though, listening to the final volume of the Bear Family’s bottomless survey of “doo-wop,” broadly redefined as the vocal music of Black and Urban Immigrant America from 1938 to 1963, prepared for “Be My Baby” to fit the concept just like so many others (especially the early Motown acts, even including the Supremes and the Temptations) who aren’t usually included in the narrative had done.

I was still prepared for it when the famous intro, courtesy of Hal Blaine, brought the usual smile.

I wasn’t prepared for the Voice.

Having heard it a thousand times didn’t prepare me for it to cut through not only Spector’s gargantuan production, but every record that preceded it, not only on this final disc, but every disc that covered the twenty-five previous years. Today, on the way back from the doctor’s office, it hit me the way it must have hit Phil Spector, John Lennon, Brian Wilson….as something new and startling in the world.

It hit me as something completely new, no matter how much its similarities to Frankie Lymon and Brenda Lee were still obvious. They never had to fight Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and none of those who did ever made it sound so easy to blast a clean hole through it.

Today, Ronnie did.

Maybe it was the Bear Family’s famously superior mastering or having surround sound in the car or just the mood I was in (getting past my annual with the endo is always a relief).

Maybe it was just that the sprinkling of girl group records in the latter volumes of the series had made me rediscover how different the quality of female yearning was from any attitude copped by the boys of that or any era.

Whatever it was, today, like no day before, she was the Voice, maybe because the Lost World she represented seemed even more lost than all the other Lost Worlds surrounding her.

Be sure to stay tuned for the conversation which, among other things, covers their plans for the upcoming “Christmas album” which would be A Christmas Gift tor You from Philles Records (later Phil Spector), the greatest Christmas album ever made and, of course, released the day John Kennedy was assassinated…the day John Lennon had to step in and save us from.

You  know. For a while.

I really recommend reading Ronnie’s book, but for those who would like a shorthand version, you can go here for the gist.