Instant Karma

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil SpectorTearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector by Mick Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I just finished reading Tearing Down the Wall of Sound by Mick Brown. It is a fascinating account of the life of legendary producer Phil Spector, and it ends with his conviction for the murder of Lana Clarkson, for which he was sentenced 19 years to life. Mick Brown interviewed Phil Spector soon before the murder occurred. It was the first interview of Phil Spector in 25 years. It is very possible that the interview played a factor, stirring up the demons that had been dormant for many years. With the benefit of hindsight you could read many warning signs that should have been heeded. Spector had a habit of threatening people with guns. Sometimes in recording sessions. Or when guests wanted to leave. Mostly it was women. As I read the book I started to feel a lot of sympathy for Phil Spector, especially when I was reminded of some of the wonderful music he had produced. A lot more than I knew. For instance, he had produced “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers. That song surpassed “Yesterday” by Lennon & McCartney, as the most played song of all time. And The Beatles? Yeah, he produced their final album. McCartney didn’t like the strings he put on “The Long and Winding Road,” but in spite of the critics–especially the British press–complaining that an American would have the audacity to fiddle with their beloved Beatles, the song was a huge hit, and the album won a Grammy. Paul had no qualms about accepting that award. Spector went on to produce “Instant Karma” and Lennon’s post Beatle solo work including “Imagine,” and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. He recorded The Ramones also, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Phil Spector was known for the Wall of Sound, which he achieved by recording multiple musicians, some who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew, in a little studio called Gold Star Studios. He is known for his girl groups, such as The Crystals, The Blossoms, and The Ronettes. His sound was one of the chief inspirations of Brian Wilson of The Beachboys, who could often be found at Gold Star listening to the Maestro, or later, laying his own tracks down. Pet Sounds, his Magnum Opus, was initially recorded there, or so the legend goes. At one point, Wilson would begin every day by playing “Be My Baby.” His feet hit the floor, then the needle hit the record.

Other hits, not produced by Spector, but recorded at Gold Star included “Tequila” by The Champs and “The Lonely Bull” the first hit single for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

As for mitigating circumstances, Phil’s father committed suicide when Phil was nine, which left a lasting trauma. He could be generous, especially to friends like Lenny Bruce. He was a musical genius, so he gets some slack for that. A genius is often eccentric.

There were a lot of negatives though, especially his treatment of singers, and women, especially wives who were singers. Ronnie Spector got the worst of it. Other singers that weren’t married to him still never really got the compensation for their contributions. His songs would keep earning revenue throughout the years, but would the singers or other musicians every get a share in that?

Anyway, reading Mick Brown’s book, as I neared the end I worried that I was becoming too sympathetic to Spector. It is like students who read The Stranger by Camus, and start to feel too much empathy with the killer, who acted with existential boredom, or even, because the sun was in his eyes. This wasn’t at all the message that Camus intended. Nevertheless, teachers will often notice that happening to the students who read The Stranger.

I guess I feel some sympathy for Spector, and I feel that it was really a tragedy that someone who gave the world such good music had to come to such an ignoble end. Though much less ink is spilled on the life of his victim, Lana Clarkson, who was a tall buxom blonde actress whose star was on the wane, she still comes across as much more sympathetic–a very positive and well-liked individual who was still trying to grab that brass ring though the odds were stacked against her. She was working as a hostess at the House of Blues, making a living but also looking for a break. Spector no doubt dangled some irresistible prospect in front of her, but his real offer was only doom and destruction.

So ultimately I felt overwhelming sympathy for Lana Clarkson, and very little for Phil Spector. But he did give the world a lot of wonderful music, and the book by Mick Brown was fascinating for that reason. It gives Phil Spector credit for the music, but it didn’t let him off the hook for his crimes.

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