Masters of Production Part 3: The Spectre of SPECTOR
Part 3 of our exploration into what the Producer meant and means for music was delayed for the worst and best reason possible - Lou Reed is Dead.And Phil Spector might as well be dead, too. Whatever is left of this mercurial mostly sometimes genius rots in the California State Prison: California Health Care Facility in Stockton, doing 19 to life for a shabby alleged crime. Whether this over-compensated, under-medicated gun freak really murdered a faded B-movie boob provider or if it was suicide gone very wrong we will never know, and Phil was too far whacked a witness to be trusted on the stand even by his own defence barrister. Just look at that hair. And again. Go on.So we'll not "go there", but two things worthy of note include:The killer quote from the Prosecutor in his first trial, and do note that unlike in sensible places the American "judiciary" is politicised - in that people "vote" for judges and prosecutors in a most barbaric manner:"You want to say, 'That's Phil Spector. Don't go. You don't want to go. You don't want to go with him. Don't get in that car.'"And a related bit of quotable genius from the reliably bonus batshit insane Klaus Kinski:"One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real."In Phil's case the depravities were total excess jammed into the smallest space possible. 1.65 meters or Five Feet, Five inches. And one mono channel.Much like black and white film, Mono forces technical excellence on every level.After the breakup of his teenage group, the Teddy Bears, Phil moved into producing and writing his own tracks. They were too big, loud and ambitious for Liberty, Capitol and the big majors of the day, so he co-founded a new label before beginning to build his Wall of Sound.Just like Joe Meek, Spector realised that tape and multitrack recording and mixing created new space for innovation. Unlike Joe Meek, Phil had access to deep reserves of money, tech and talent to thicken the Wall with.It's no suprise that some of the most baroque, ambitious and insanely bittersweet pop of the early 60s was built on Spector's Wall.In the right place and right mind, The Ronettes' Be My Baby still has the power to overwhelm ears and heart like a shower of red hot honey filled with razor blades. As Phil himself put it, these were "little symphonies for the kids".Many later accused Phil of just putting everything in, loud, at once, especially super soppy lashings of strings. Few artists who worked with the tiny tonal terrorist enjoyed the paralytic, firearm fixated experience - and usually came away feeling that their vision, and record had been somehow compromised by a man who only let his wife outside in the company of a dummy double of himself, and gave his ungrateful son a top hooker for his 12th birthday.He was insane, impossible and easy to blame. Once again, consciousness of one's own genius is generally cancerous to the soul. Many artists and records felt mashed up against, under and over the damned Wall. Critics and audiences also began to leave this Cuban Heel Heavy behind,River Deep, Mountain High, a single which would have cost as much as the whole of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless to record in today's money, was a complete bomb in the US when first released. Taste was better here, as it peaked in Blighty at Number Three but in the US even massive hype could not shift it beyond an insulting 88 in the hit parade. Ever the recluse, Phil retreated from the scene just as other giants like Brian Wilson, who named Pet Sounds after Spector's initials, started to really evolve the Wall into wider directions.Yet the Wall was not a monolithic Mono citadel of strings and bling. The excellent wikipedia article on it all includes this contemporary insight:In fact, the 'wall of sound' was both more complex and more subtle. Its components included an R&B-derived rhythm section,generous echo and prominent choruses blending percussion, strings, saxophones and human voices. But equally important were its open spaces, some achieved by physical breaks (the pauses between the thunder in "Be My Baby" or "Baby I Love You") and some by simply letting the music breathe in the studio.� Hinckley, Back to Mono (1958�1969)At the sad, smouldering ember of the Sixties burnt out in a load of bummers, Phil re-emerged to salvage something from Let it Be and help helm All Things Must Pass.An ugly car crash in 1974 could not have helped Phil's fragility. When he rose once again at the decade's close his main role was to annoy the fuck out of the fans of cult acts. First, he shot up Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man with gorgeously grotesque over production. Then a last big label attempt to break big with The Ramones closed off his career in any real sense.End of the Century brought back a real punk celebration of pure, AM radio powered ROCK. Again, no-one was happy with the result, but it's hard to avoid loving Rock and Roll High School at maximum volume, anywhere, any time. The Wall is clean, clear, honest and rich in both life and wisdom.Which is not a bad recipe for a great producer - as long as you add a dash of minimal interference with artists and minimal decadence.This is the Way of Albini. Which will conclude our stroll across the mixing desk next week.