Phil Spector

I was just a little too young.

I was aware of Spector’s pre-Beatle hits, but they were somewhere in the back of my brain, they were not foreground in my life, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I used to grimace every time “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” came over the radio at the end of ’64 into ’65, I’d push the button in the dashboard of my father’s VistaCruiser, or turn the dial in my mother’s Falcon, or on my no-name transistor. The Beatles heralded a new sound, a new life, the Righteous Brothers were a return to the old.

Or maybe I was just too young.

But I’m not that young anymore. Phil died at 81. Polygram Canada sent me his boxed set “Back to Mono” in 1991…Phil was 51! That’s a distant memory in my life, and Phil was already a has-been. How very weird. The sands of time keep flowing and you wake up one day and it’s not even your world anymore. I read Brian Wheat’s book about Tesla, a band I’ve always loved, and then I realized their big hits were thirty years ago, long before today’s youngsters driving popular music were even born! Think about that, today’s college freshmen never knew a world without high speed internet, whereas me and my fellow boomers lived through a wrenching transition we still can’t completely fathom, just like our parents lived through the dawn of television! And the smartphone… Not only did it give access, it killed boredom. How many times were you alone, killing time, waiting, and you ended up reading the contents of your wallet? I certainly did, many times!

So if you go back to the beginning, “To Know Him Is to Love Him” was a standard, something everybody knew, just like “Try to Remember” from the “Fantasticks” two years later. Same deal with “Da Doo Ron Ron.” And I knew “Then He Kissed Me,” but I heard it most on the 1965 Beach Boys album “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), where it was entitled “Then I Kissed Her” and was sung by Al Jardine, on the side of the LP that ended with the hit version of “Help Me Rhonda,” also sung by Jardine, as opposed to the first iteration on “The Beach Boys Today!” Brian Wilson revered Phil Spector, but Brian was born in 1942, I was born in 1953, completely different eras when it comes to music.

As far as “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You”…I dabbled in pop music on the radio, in between listening to sports, before the Beatles arrived, but Phil Spector was never a big hero to me, I really didn’t know that much about him.

But then I started reading “Rolling Stone” and in its pages “River Deep – Mountain High” was constantly lauded as a masterpiece, but I’d never heard it, the 1966 track was never a hit, and it wasn’t until the Rolling Stones took Ike & Tina on tour in ’69 that they really started to get any traction in the minds of most white people.

But there was that Tom Wolfe article, “The Tycoon of Teen.”

Written in 1964 for the “International Herald Tribune”…needless to say I missed that initial printing. But, the essay was included in the 1965 Tom Wolfe compilation, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” My mother had that book. And one day I took it down from the shelf and read the article about Spector. But it had little effect on me, like I said, he was already in the rearview mirror, never mind ahead of my time, but the story of getting off the airplane…that always stuck with me.

Now my friend Andrew Loog Oldham posits the Tom Wolfe article killed Spector’s career, because Phil bought the hype, became full of himself and lost perspective, and ability. You’re only as good as your last hit, this is what drives people in the music business, but when you’re anointed a god, you’re atop the mountain, there’s nowhere else to go. Actually, this is the story of rock music…misfits believing success will cure their ills and when they make it and it doesn’t, they have no more hits.

But just like Brian Wilson, his contemporaries, the Beatles, also born in the early forties, worshiped Phil Spector too. And ultimately worked with him.


Am I the only person who hates “The Long and Winding Road”? The strings…execrable. Schmaltzy. I pushed the button, turned the dial on that one too.

As for the “Let It Be” album, which Spector also produced… There was a big push when it came out, but the focus was on the film, and in America we did not get the boxed set of the U.K., we got an LP that seemed thrown together, not fully-formed, and never forget that Paul McCartney released his first solo LP at the same time. But there are winners on the “Let It Be” album, yet no one ever talks about my favorite, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” never mind “For You Blue.”

As for Spector after the Beatles…

All the news was about his eccentricities. People would talk about him, you’d read he was going to produce some star’s album, but then it wouldn’t happen. He worked with the Ramones, but I never cottoned to “End of the Century,” I vastly preferred what came earlier, “Rocket to Russia” and “Road to Ruin.” As for Leonard Cohen’s “Death of a Ladies Man”…if you read the rock press, this was a story, you were aware of it, and I purchased the album, but it was a stiff, never mind the fact that Leonard Cohen’s recording success had really taken place in the sixties, with his first two albums, it was only when Cohen went back on tour in the twenty first century that he was universally lauded.

So, from the seventies on, most of the stories about Phil Spector were about his eccentricities. How he controlled his wife Ronnie, his guns, he was around, but he never seemed to work.

And then came the death of Lana Clarkson in 2003. Anybody who followed Spector was not surprised, they’d been fearing something like this would happen. But in a castle atop a mountain in Alhambra? That’s like hearing a hedge fund king lives in Yonkers. And then came the ridiculous wigs in court and Phil’s ultimate conviction and he faded away, you rarely read about him, and now he’s dead.

Covid-19. Everyone ignores it until it affects them. 81 is a full ride, but Phil still had runway, he was a human being, however insane. And he was insane. But if you’re rich you have enablers. You get a pass. Phil got so many passes that he ended up shooting Clarkson and going to jail for the rest of his life.

Now never underestimate the influence, the footprint of Phil’s wall of sound productions. They ruled. Sure, Phil had help from others, like Larry Levine and Lester Sill, but Phil had a vision, and he was able to lay it down on tape, and he influenced and started so many others, even Sonny Bono.

But Phil Spector worked with the Beatles.

Most notably, Phil produced George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” That boxed set was the biggest of the Beatle solo debuts. And it came out for Christmas, it was everywhere. George never had such big success again. And listening to subsequent albums, you can hear what Phil added, the new records were stripped of so much steel wool, and then time went by and George and his solo work were relegated to secondary status, at least amongst Beatles. Unfortunately, George died. And those who lived through his heyday remember him, but the music does not permeate the airwaves of today like that of McCartney.

And Ringo is still alive and recording.

As for John Lennon…

He did his greatest work with Phil Spector.

Only in retrospect has John Lennon’s true first solo album, “Plastic Ono Band,” ascended into the pantheon. A ripping up of the soul, a dissection of his insides, stark and immediate, there were no obvious hit singles, so there was no AM airplay in an era where that radio band still dominated. Not that the tracks on “Plastic Ono Band” were radio-friendly, but “Working Class Hero” is still as relevant today. Never mind “Mother” and “God.” Lennon didn’t care about his past, his career, he was unafraid of risking, and Spector helped get his feelings and sound down on wax. Mostly unfettered. Phil didn’t dominate John’s sound, didn’t turn him into another act that could have been signed to Philles Records.

By time he got to “Mind Games,” Lennon had jettisoned Spector, just as George Harrison had done previously. But, Spector did produce John’s second solo album, containing Lennon’s signature song, “Imagine.” In addition to the title track, there was the indelible “Jealous Guy,” which I believe was made better by Spector, and “Gimme Some Truth” and “How Do You Sleep?” Spector shined on “Imagine,” even though I think he overdid it with the single, it veered on the schmaltziness of “The Long and Winding Road,” it always seemed too obvious to me.

But for me, the apotheosis, the peak of Spector’s work with Lennon, came with the initial single, Spector’s debut with John, “Instant Karma.”

Now “Give Peace a Chance” was Lennon’s first solo single, and a radio success, the song became ubiquitous, we need an anthem like that in today’s troubled times. But the follow-up was a true killer, “Cold Turkey,” with Eric Clapton’s stinging guitar, but it failed on the charts in the U.S., only making it to number 30.

But then came the aforementioned “Instant Karma.”

Unlike with Spector’s initial hits, now I was the right age. I was a senior in high school. The focus was now on the blues-based bands of the U.K. The first two Zeppelin albums had been released, and Cream before them. But these albums were mostly FM products, there was occasional crossover to AM, usually way later, but they were not made for amplitude modulation. “Instant Karma” was.

It was the drums. No matter how small your speaker, they jumped out, they anchored the record, they penetrated your body.

And then there was John’s urgent vocal, he was singing like he truly meant it, he was holding nothing back.

And the singalong chorus.

And the message.

“Instant karma’s gonna get you

Gonna knock you right on the head”

Lennon popularized the term, prior to this single most people had no idea what “karma” was.

“How in the world you gonna see”

The drum fill right after this line is positively magical. The drums are as important to the success of “Instant Karma” as Lennon’s vocal, this is what Phil Spector could provide, no one else could capture this sound.

And Phil made the chorus an anthem, gave it impact.

“Well we all shine on

Like the moon and the stars and the sun

Yeah we all shine on

Come on and on and on, on, on”

Spector was a co-conspirator, someone from Lennon’s same generation, not an oldster, a parent like George Martin. Spector did not look at the track from afar, he embedded himself right in it, he was creating an indelible single, THAT WAS HIS SKILL!

Phil Spector was not about albums. He was all about the track, one single cut that would blow people’s minds, that they could not get out of their head. There are tons of hit singles, number ones, but most fade away, and they definitely do not radiate. And when you listen to tracks from the past, many seem so quaint, whereas Phil’s hits jump out of the radio, with as much impact as when they were first released, they may not sound like today, but they sound just as good.

Like today’s rappers, who know their tracks are played through headphones and car stereos, sometimes with overemphasized bass, Phil knew his tracks were heard streaming out of tiny single speakers in cars and transistor radios. Stereo didn’t become big until the late sixties, Phil cut in mono, his tracks were impenetrable, that was part of his genius, his records were an assault, on all levels, a tsunami of sound, and he infected the populace just like Elvis and the original rockers before him.

And the problem with music history is time always marches on, there’s always a number one, which people equate with former number ones when in truth there may be no comparison. Some records are better than others, much better.

I don’t know what happens to Phil Spector’s legacy, how he’s viewed in the future. Probably as a madman. Someone who might be medicated today, but might lose his talent in the process. That’s Kanye’s dilemma.

It will probably take decades, centuries for Phil Spector’s records to be separated from his personal life. But the records will live on, that’s what’s great about the modern age, you can keep what is precious, seemingly forever.

But was Phil really heads and shoulders above the rest of the producers?

Tom Wolfe never wrote a story about George Martin, never mind Roy Thomas Baker, who crafted Queen’s sound and more. And then there’s Mutt Lange.

But let’s never forget that Phil wrote too. He had an investment in his records, he wasn’t just a gun for hire. He started out as a teen, who chucked convention to do it his way, paving the way for so many after him.

The truth is if you’re well-adjusted, if you’ve lived a life without hardship, you’re probably not a successful artist. You might even have hits, you might play in the band, but you don’t change people’s lives, you don’t have a lasting impact.

Phil Spector was crazy. But his records were not. Or maybe they were, it takes chutzpah to do it your way, to break all the rules, to have confidence in yourself that you know what is right, especially in a business rampant with me-tooism…have a hit and everybody tries to imitate it.

But people could never truly copy Phil Spector’s wall of sound. And with “Instant Karma” he was able to adjust to the present, he didn’t fill up all the holes, but he knew how to make the sound big, how to create an aural pile driver that scorched ears and crashed bodies.

But karma ultimately got Phil. It didn’t happen early, and it wasn’t instant, but he got paid back for his bad behavior. Phil’s gone now, but his work shines on, like the moon, the stars and the sun.

Comments are closed