Leonard Cohen said producer Phil Spector’s music was post-Wagner. Robert Christgau said it was vulgar. Reflecting on his Spector collaboration from the mid-70s, Dion said it was funeral music. To me, Spector’s music fits all these descriptions.
There is something obvious, almost hubristic, about Spector’s infamous Wall of Sound approach. Its goal is to move mountains. It wants to sound like the biggest thing around. In short—and I’m not being entirely flippant when I say this—it is God’s music. (I think Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said something similar.) And, plied to sweet/sad teenage love songs sung sweetly/sadly, the Wall of Sound becomes more than just a big soup*. It carries the sound, the feeling, of young love—of heartbreak so bad it could crush the world. In this way, the Wall of Sound feels right. God’s music should, anyway.
Note, however, what Dion said. He called the Wall of Sound funeral music. Sure, he was opining (at least partly) about the record he’d made with the man; but you can extrapolate the comment to apply to virtually all of Spector’s productions from 1970 on.
At the turn of the 70s, recording technology had changed quite a bit. Monophonic reproduction, Spector’s preferred format, was passe. Already a notorious eccentric, Spector became a wigged and shaded, paranoid recluse, occasionally leaving his Hollywood cave to produce platters for folks who had, for the most part, been fab in the 60s and were now in serious heat for a hit. (Just like him.) When these records surfaced, they sounded Wall of Sound-lite, as though everyone involved had imbibed and indulged in nasal stimulants at the recording sessions. As though Spector, coasting on the fumes of his legend, had made the engineer twiddle slap-back onto every piece of tape—when, that is, Spector wasn’t carelessly waving a gun around the studio. I’m painting a scene here, yes; and some of these records are quite good (some, like Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, are marvelous. Dion’s “Born to Be With You,” in particular, weaves a shag-carpeted spell). But all too often the ache, the verve, of the previous decade is absent. Spector’s 70s work sounds almost too clean, a bit sluggish and slack. Like it’s a Wagnerian eulogy for, or a languid echo of, the man’s glory days.
Contrast “Born to Be With You” with Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High” (1966)—arguably the Wall of Sound’s peak. At no other time did Spector’s muddy mélange of orchestrated sessioners sound quite as thunderous as it does on “River.” At no other time did the Wall of Sound have a singer (here, Tina Turner) who could stand up to it.
She’s in charge of her instrument. Her voice is pure emotion, but gritty—controlled. On “River,” the Wall of Sound meets its match. It’s a duel; the backdrop and the vocalist slug it out, conveying together an overwhelmed sensation. Neither one breaks. They hang in there. The result is a magnificent tension, a kind of frisson. “River Deep Mountain High” is elemental.
*The Wall of Sound was, you could say, pretty simply defined; but, like nearly all the best things in life, it was alchemical too. As such, it’s impossible to replicate today. Why? Well… In the 60s at least, Spector’s touch was multi-pronged. He didn’t just ladle on heavy dollops of echo. He arranged the songs. Sometimes he co-wrote them. He hired the backing musicians (many of whom have gone down in history as members of the Wrecking Crew). He booked great studios—rooms with solid acoustics. He often recorded the musicians together, take after painstaking take. Then, having polished the master backing track, he’d direct the singers to give the performance of their lives (sometimes, or so I’ve heard, in far fewer takes than what the musicians endured). To top it off, Spector worked in mono (which, on records, remained the norm until about 1969), allowing the finished product to sound like it might burst at the seams—like that thin strip of vinyl was really just ore from some monolithic wave of cosmic cream.