One of the most important developments in the last hundred-plus years of popular music has been the transformation of the recording studio from being a site for documenting music to a site for actively making it—in other words, the growing realization that the activity of recording music could aspire to more than just capturing and reproducing performance, and could instead expand the possibilities of musical expression itself. Phil Spector, the brilliant and destructive pop producer who died at age 81 on Saturday from complications from COVID-19, was by no means the first person to explore this potential—Les Paul was doing this when Spector was still in elementary school—but arguably no figure mined its ramifications more influentially than Spector in the rock ’n’ roll era.
From a musical standpoint, Spector’s name is synonymous with his famed “wall of sound,” the maximalist production aesthetic that defined his ’60s work with artists like the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Righteous Brothers, and Ike and Tina Turner. In the early-to-middle part of that decade, Spector used Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles to bring impossible sounds to life, weaving shimmering battalions of pianos, guitars, drums, strings, and of course voices into three-minute masterworks for Philles Records, the label that he owned. He was fond of comparing his recordings to Wagnerian opera, his arrangements and mixes painstakingly crafted to explode out of transistor radios and monaural 45s with astonishing dramatic impact. Listening to recordings like the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”—all of which were released in 1963—next to other contemporaneous hits can make you feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, opening a monochrome door unto a new world of color.
Long before his arrest and conviction for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson, Spector was a troubling, dangerous, and contradictory man: He was one of the most important musical figures of his age, yet never as important as he himself believed he was; he was an abusive and violent misogynist who recorded female singers in ways that were nothing short of magical; he was a producer held in almost godlike reverence by other musicians, entirely on the basis of roughly 5 years’ worth of work. In 1966 Spector abruptly quit music after Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High”—which Spector considered his masterpiece—flopped in the United States. A few years later he returned, contributing production to the Beatles’ Let It Be and producing solo albums by John Lennon and George Harrison. Even by this point, barely into his 30s, Spector had become a sort of throwback luxury vehicle. Disillusioned by the collapse of the Beatles, both John and George sought rejuvenation from the guy who’d made “Be My Baby.”
Spector was tyrannical and controlling both in and out of the studio, prone to rages and, as he got older, increasingly gun-obsessed. There was something broken about him, and probably had been for a long time. When Spector was 8 years old, his father committed suicide. Ten years later, a still-teenaged Spector scored his first No. 1 hit as a songwriter, the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” the title of which was nicked from the epitaph on his father’s grave (“To know him was to love him”). It takes a particular sort of pop genius and particular sort of damaged psyche to look at his father’s tombstone and hear a hook, and from an early age, Spector’s musical obsessions often seemed like attempts to outrun something much darker.
Spector died while incarcerated for murder, and his capacity for monstrousness will always be part of his legacy. It’s a fact of his life that must sit alongside the fact that, from roughly 1962 through 1966, he helped make some of the most incredible music the world has ever heard. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson declared “Be My Baby” the greatest record ever produced, a description that might actually undersell it. I’m not sure there is a more heart-pounding distillation of romantic desperation in all of pop than the final, call-and-response verse of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The 1991 four-disc collection Phil Spector: Back to Mono (1958-1969) remains one of the most indispensable rock ’n’ roll boxed sets ever released.
Any consideration of Spector’s production work will emphasize the wall of sound as his defining musical contribution, which certainly isn’t wrong. But to my mind the wall is really just the most prominent symptom of a more important legacy: that Spector was the first producer to so strongly and consequentially believe that music made for teenagers was something that ought to be taken seriously. It’s that conviction that built the wall of sound, a conviction that, prior to Spector’s rise, most people in the record industry would have found laughable.
My own favorite Spector record is the very first one I ever heard, the Crystals’ 1963 classic “Then He Kissed Me,” written by Spector, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Barry. One of the great attributes of Spector’s girl-group recordings are how masterfully they convey carnal desire in a time when such things still couldn’t be explicitly stated on the radio, and certainly not by female singers. The songs rely on demure suggestion and evocation—kissing, dancing, hugging, fantasies of engagement and marriage. What smolders is what’s left unsaid: “And when he walked me home/ Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron.”
If “Then He Kissed Me” had been made even 10 years later it probably would have just been a song about fucking, which would have been a shame, because “Then He Kissed Me” already is a song about fucking. It opens with an instantly unforgettable guitar hook, then plunges headlong into the first verse, the first lines—“well he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance”—sung with coy swagger by the incomparable LaLa Brooks, who’d turned 16 just a few weeks prior to this recording. From the start the record is enormous: guitars, horns, strings, a galloping stampede of percussion. When the second verse arrives, the impossible happens and the recording somehow gets even bigger. More instruments are layered on to the track, a string section holding a quivering fifth over Brooks’ vocal. The song’s bridge is concise and unmistakably suggestive: “he kissed me in a way that I’ve never been kissed before/ He kissed me in a way that I want to be kissed forevermore.” Then we’re on the final verse, in which her male suitor “asks [her] to be his bride,” a dénouement that feels like the world’s most exaggerated wink at chastity.
I didn’t consciously recognize any of this the first time I heard “Then He Kissed Me.” The song scores the opening sequence of the 1987 comedy Adventures in Babysitting, which was my favorite movie for a brief period when I was in elementary school; I demanded my parents rent it for me pretty much any time the opportunity came up. I don’t remember much about the movie—what I do recall is incredibly problematic—but I remember the song vividly, Elisabeth Shue lip-synching along to it in her bedroom mirror. At the time I had no idea who the song was by or when it had been recorded, but even as a child I found it so thrilling and alive. It was also, not incidentally, the first time I’d ever experienced the sensation of having a crush on a movie star, and it wasn’t until much later that I understood that was every bit as much about LaLa Brooks as Elisabeth Shue. Phil Spector once described his records as “little symphonies for the kids,” but they were really symphonies for growing up. They’ll endure, as must our confrontation with the poisonousness of the man who made them.