Heroes (Part 5)
This month, Phil Spector
Phil Spector (jetsetting above) was a millionaire at 21, the architect of the Wall Of Sound, and a monomaniac. John Morrish selects Spector as this month's recording studio hero, and explains why Phil wanted to make a sound on record which no-one could copy.
It is 1963, and a group of men are sitting and standing around in a New York studio, concocting another hit for the Drifters. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were there, of course, through the usual hours of rehearsal, tightening arrangements and polishing individual performances. But no-one could fail to miss a young man, sitting in the corner obsessively running through a bluesy solo.
It wasn't his playing that attracted attention, though without it "On Broadway" would have been a more than usually saccharine number. It was his very individual style. And mostly it was his hair. In those pre-Beatle days, Phil Spector wore his hair long and swept-back like a Salvador Dali or a young Mozart. He would have relished the comparison.
Spector was nothing if not an individual, but his individuality had paid off. Born in 1940, he had by his 21st birthday become a dollar millionaire, and the creator of at least six top ten singles. But that was not enough for him, and we should be grateful for his stubbornness in pushing ahead.
Despite his commercial success, Spector had not yet succeeded in forging a personal style, the hallmark of all the producers featured in Heroes. Casting around for a way of categorising or defining the prevailing quality of Spector's work, I came across the obsolete medical term "monomania". "Madness confined to one subject: an unreasonable interest in any particular thing," according to Chambers' dictionary. To those working with Spector in the slapdash, uncritical days of the early 1960s, before the Beatles had put American music on its mettle, his obsessive, perfectionist interest in each single record he made must have seemed almost a madness.
That was the way he worked, treating each song as an individual entity and lavishing care and attention upon it until he, and he alone, deemed it worthy to be released. The perfectionist knows nothing of delegation, and Spector was no exception. Every job that he could do, he did himself, stopping short only of going to the record plant and switching on the presses. And working always on one song at a time: monomania.
Of course, the idea of monomania is attractive too, because of the way we can make a play on that Greek prefix mono, meaning single, the same prefix used in the word monophonic. Spector is the poet of monophony. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was rarely seen without a "Back to Mono" badge, and the slogan became, in his capable hands, almost a rallying cry. Spector loved mono, both as a way of working and as a way of releasing records. This despite the fact that his busiest years coincided with the development and commercial exploitation of stereophonic sound. There are good reasons for his preference: it was no idle whim.
The roots of Spector's obsessions go back to his very first record, a song he did with his high-school group the The Teddy Bears, called "To Know Him Is To Love Him", a line apparently taken from the words on his father's gravestone. Aged 19, he invested $45 in three hours of time at one of Los Angeles's top studios, and took his group in to put the song down in mono on a single-track tape recorder. To build up the sound he wanted, he bounced the music between two tape machines, adding a new item each time. Of course, as he did so the original material began to get more and more distant and cloudy. He left the clear, ringing voice of his classmate Annette Kleinbard until last, so that it stands out over waves of ethereal background mush.
"To me, the cloudier and fuzzier a record is, the more honesty and guts it has," he said later. "To Know Him" is a remarkable example: Spector displays the art of concealing art. The song seems like the work of a bunch of kids in the studio for the first time and like the output of a master craftsman, at the same time. And with that, Phil's career as a record producer nearly ended. The group signed to a company which wanted to make more commercial records (more commercial than a national number one?) and subsequently (consequently, Phil might say) they had no more hits.
But Spector was sharp, even in those days, and he wriggled out of the contract on the grounds that at only 19 he was a minor when he signed it. He decided he'd had enough of the limelight: a nasty incident with a drunken biker in a urinal after a gig may have helped change his mind. Instead, he decided to learn the craft of the record producer. First he went to Lee Hazlewood who was doing astonishing things with Duane Eddy, mostly by the simple manipulation of different echo types and echo rates, and coming up with the famous "twang".
Then he went to New York, to learn from Leiber and Stoller and anybody else who was around to help. These were the years of his apprenticeship, and the tracks he made during his New York period show him trying on a number of styles with varying degrees of success. He tried vocal group r'n'b with people like Curtis Lee ("Pretty Little Angel Eyes", No 7 in 1961). He tried a would-be Clyde McPhatter clone called Kell Osborne. And he tried the talented but somewhat directionless Gene Pitney. These New York records are brash, clean, upfront, reflecting the somewhat frenzied air of the Brill Building factory-pop era. But at the same time Spector was also keeping open his LA connections.
The Los Angeles records were softer and sweeter in attitude and sound, taking their cue from the Teddy Bears rather than contemporary New York sounds. An attempt to repeat the Teddy Bears' magic, called Spector's Three, came to nothing, but the Paris Sisters were something quite new. Phil Spector bought a song called "I Love How You Love Me" from Aldon, one of the most successful New York factories, then flew to Los Angeles to work on string parts with arranger Hank Levine. Then Phil put the group, three genuine sisters, into the studio and spent hours running over the lead and backing vocal parts. Finally he recorded it, on three-track this time, and then settled down to mix the three tracks together. This took him longer than anybody would have thought possible, but the concentration was worth it.
"Every record can be a hit if you concentrate on it enough," he said later. The Paris Sisters went to No 5. It was Spector's first session with strings (unless you count "Spanish Harlem", where Leiber and Stoller supervised), one of the hallmarks of his style, and the finished disc epitomises his ability to coax memorable vocal performances from singers without outstanding gifts: once Spector had finished with the Paris Sisters, they never had another hit.
It was around this time that Phil formulated his four new "commandments", at least according to girl-group expert Alan Betrock. They were: 1. Music must be emotional and honest. 2. Create a sound on record that no-one can copy or cover. 3. Make sure you get your money. 4. There's never a contract without a loophole. Of the four, the second is the most important for our purposes. It shows Spector working in the same area as Leiber and Stoller and the other producers we looked at last month, hoping to produce himself out of the cover problem. And the way he achieved this never changed, throughout his great period. The skill lay in balancing density of instrumentation with the sense of space provided by all forms of reverberation.
Whenever possible, he tried to eliminate variables, unpredictable factors that might jeopardise his investment of time and money. So he used the same studio (the 122ft by 30ft Gold Star in Hollywood), the same engineers (Stan Ross and Larry Levine), usually the same arranger (Jack Nitzsche), and a solid core of session musicians. And he used three tracks only. The first was for the band, the second for vocals, and the third for strings.
Sometimes Spector was using massive forces, so a disciplined routine was necessary. It rarely changed. First he'd set up about five guitarists with a mike and a lead sheet each and tell them to play through the song, just an absolutely straight on-the-beat rhythm, while he balanced them in the control room. Then he'd do the same with two pianos and two or three basses, usually electric and acoustic to get both warmth and defined pitch, and then he'd ask everybody to play together. Then he'd add two trombones, two saxes, two trumpets and exotic percussion of all sorts. Finally he'd bring in a drummer (usually the incomparable Hal Blaine) and hang one mike over the kit and one in the bass drum.
Then they would record, with echo from the Gold Star chamber and from tape added as the sound went on to the tape. If they wanted to add anything else, they would do it by crossing the sound back and forth between two tape machines. And then the next day they would do the vocals, and after that the strings. Finally, Spector would mix, taking days to bring the thing together from three tracks down to one. They were trying times for his companions. He liked it loud, very loud. The most trying part of all was that he didn't always release the records he spent weeks making. He was obsessional about every detail, right down to the exact timing of the fade.
And he never forgot the lesson he learnt with his very first recording, that by dubbing over the top of instruments you can give them a mysterious, ethereal quality. The device served as a substitute for actual depth because monophonic recording, unlike a well-adjusted stereophonic system, has no means of reproducing depth. Of course Phil knew this, and it goes a long way to explaining his love of mono. The very fact that it had no depth was its advantage to him. In stereo every sound was contained between and behind two speakers (or seems to be). In mono, every sound is produced almost on the "surface" of the speaker itself. It is incomparably more immediate as a medium. The other reason was that it was a more "finished" way of presenting a recording. The final balance is fixed, determined at the session by the all-powerful producer. In stereo, the listener chooses his or her own balance.
At this point I was going to append a list of Spector's most notable recordings, but there's no need. There is an admirable "Greatest Hits" and the high points are obvious enough. Ronnie Spector's favourite was "Walking In The Rain", and it won Phil his only Grammy award: for special effects!
Interestingly, Spector (unlike some I shall discuss later in Heroes) was completely unfazed by the arrival of multitrack. He simply incorporated it into his mono method. Given 24 tracks, he would use them, as he said, "Just to see that it's all plugged in." Everybody would still be playing together, in the same room at the same time, and then the whole lot would be mixed down on to one track of the 24. Leaving him 23 tracks on which to record several more bands, orchestras and choirs.
Lennon's "Imagine" is perhaps the finest example of the latter-day Spector's work. There can rarely have been a fuller, richer sounding album, and its concessions to stereo are minimal. At the end of "Oh Yoko" the harmonica moves from side to side, and the strings throughout are more left than right. But that's about it.
Spector was the master of a forgotten art. As Jerry Wexler said, "He is a person who presides over studio happenings. He confects it, he gets it together in the studio." And as he said himself, "The way we used to work, recording everything monaurally, you had to get it right first time. Today, they can't do that."
"Phil Spector's Greatest Hits" Impression PSLP1
"Phil Spector's Christmas Album" Impression PSLP2
Phil Spector "The Early Productions" Rhino RNDF 203
John Lennon "Imagine" Apple PAS 10004
Richard Williams "Out of His Head"
Alan Betrock "Girl Groups"
John Tobler, Stuart Grundy "The Producers"
Tom Wolfe "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby"
Feature by John Morrish
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