Phil Spector’s Ghosts

The spooky world of the greatest producer in pop music.

For the love of Mutt: No more Citizen Kane!

For observers of Hollywood, it’s been irresistible: life imitating the movies once again. The death of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson in Phil Spector’s Alhambra chateau on Sunday night has begun to read like a rock ’n’ roll remake of Sunset Boulevard. You can almost hear the diminutive, bewigged maestro yelling at his servant: “It was the records that got small!”

At the risk of glibness, didn’t it seem bound to end this way? Spector, the greatest record producer in the history of pop, has spent his life enacting his own version of Hollywood psychosis, trapped in a fantasy of shadowy recluse-hood right out of Citizen Kane, a movie he watched obsessively.

More to the point, if it turns out that he did pull the trigger, such an appalling climax to Spector’s career would be all of a piece with his greatest music. As brilliant as his classic records—from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963) to Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” (1966)—are, they were all expressions of his giant ego, his delusions of Wagnerian grandeur. (Many producers and musicians have enormous egos. Spector’s outsizes them all.) Jeff Barry, a co-writer of “River Deep,” remarked in 1974, “To me, what he’s saying is, ‘It is not the song … it’s me.’ ”

When we listen to the great Spector records, from the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” (1962) to the Ramones’ End of the Century (1980), what we’re hearing is pop on the grand scale: egomania writ large. Assisted by a squadron of musicians that included Leon Russell (keyboards), Glen Campbell (guitar), and the great arranger Jack Nitzsche, Spector created what he called “little symphonies for the kids,” elevating teen anguish to the level of liebestod.

The session men, dubbed “The Wrecking Crew,” were driven mercilessly. “If I couldn’t get a drum sound, I’d go crazy,” Spector recalled later. “I’d go out of my mind, spend five or six hours trying to get a drum sound, and it’s really hard on the musicians because they’re playing the same thing over and over.”

As Evan Eisenberg wrote in his marvellous book The Recording Angel: “[I]n its urgent solipsism, its perfectionism, its mad bricolage, Spector’s work was perhaps the first fully self-conscious phonography in the popular field.” This was the essence of Spector’s fabled “Wall of Sound”: “He’s a Rebel” was a cavernous mesh of vibes and pianos, booming drum rolls and fuzzy saxophones; “Be My Baby” was a cacophonous pop army rampaging for three minutes. The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” (1964) was a hurricane of blue-eyed soul, built on swelling strings and a cathedral choir.

No other pop music of the time came close to the scale and intensity of the Spector sound. Its seismic reverberations can be heard in everything from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds through Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Spiritualized’s recent Let It Come Down.

And yet by early 1965 Spector had a problem: His sound was going out of fashion. Thanks to the British Invasion bands—not least his new best friends the Beatles and the Stones—self-contained acts penning their own songs were suddenly all the rage.

Spector decided to roll the dice. He signed Ike and Tina Turner to his Philles label and set to work constructing what for many is the greatest pop record of all time, the apex of the Wall of Sound: the storming, orgasmic “River Deep, Mountain High.” The record was cut in March 1966 with a vast orchestra and a vocal-cord-shredding howl by a sweat-soaked Tina Turner. It cost $22,000 to make (a fortune at the time), and was at once fantastically overblown and irresistibly funky.

Yet River Deep never even dented the Top 50, not least because some of America’s biggest radio stations wanted to punish Phil for not ponying up payola. “They didn’t reject ‘River Deep’ because it was a bad record,” Spector’s friend Marshall Lieb says in the 1989 biography He’s a Rebel. “They rejected it because they had a vendetta for Phil. I remember it was very tough for him to get it played because of the way he’d treated program directors.” The failure propelled him into a deep depression from which he never fully emerged—his later work with the Beatles notwithstanding.

By the mid-’70s Spector was a deeply disturbed control freak, pulling guns on studio engineers, incarcerating artists in various style mansions. At different times he has terrified the wits out of people as different as John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, the Ramones, and Michael Jackson’s sister LaToya. Not to mention Veronica “Ronnie” Spector, the singer he married and kept virtually imprisoned for years. “I put up with him for that long because I was fearful and I didn’t know any different,” Ronnie told me in 1991. “I didn’t know how to say, ‘I don’t want to watch Citizen Kane tonight.’ “

Friends attest that Phil Spector has been happier, healthier of late. Sober and relatively socialized, he’s been venturing out to awards shows, hanging with bands, easing back into production. But that can’t change his history of megalomaniac control and violence. The son of a father who killed himself and a volcanically rage-aholic mother, Spector has never resolved the loss and abuse he suffered as a child, only displaced it and misdirected it at others. It’s not so much that he lost that loving feeling. He never had it in the first place.

As Leonard Cohen, who unwisely employed Spector to produce the mordant Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), put it: “Phil couldn’t resist annihilating me. I don’t think he can tolerate any other shadows in his own darkness.”