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Bob Stanley: Saying goodbye to Murderer Number One

Monday 18 January 2021

The producer Phil Spector was rightly reviled for the murder of Lana Clarkson. But he also single-handedly created much of the modern musical landscape


When he heard the demo of a song called ‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’’ in 1964, Phil Spector knew exactly who he wanted to record the song – it wasn’t a girl group, an act like the Ronettes, and it wasn’t an act he had ever worked with before. 

The Righteous Brothers were a pair of white, R&B-based club singers – saturnine Bill Medley and kind-faced Bobby Hatfield – who had already scored a pair of minor hits with manic things like ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’ and ‘Justine’, records on which Medley and Hatfield both pretended to be Little Richard. What Spector did was to make them sing so slow and low, so unlike their usual style, that when the record was first played on the radio, many people assumed the DJ was playing it at the wrong speed. Nobody else would have thought of making a record like this.

Bill Medley went on to produce a couple of outstanding Spectoresque singles for Darlene Love and the Blossoms (‘Stand By’) and the obscure Jerry Ganey (‘Just A Fool’) which you need to hear. This wasn’t unusual. Most people who worked with Spector – from John Lennon to Sonny Bono – went on to produce records that were Spectoresque, and in turn influenced everyone from Jim Steinman to the Jesus & Mary Chain. 

In the 21st Century, Phil Spector became known as a murderer who used to make records. The horrific death of Lana Clarkson at Spector’s hands in 2004 – a crime of which he was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 19 years in prison – gave popular culture a problem. Maybe radio could stop playing his hits. But then what? You can’t remove a building block and expect a pyramid to stand. Without Phil Spector, naturally, there is no Spectoresque. There would be no ‘Born To Run’, no Pet Sounds, no ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’. 

Neither would there be Wizzard’s brace of 1973 number ones ‘See My Baby Jive’ and ‘Angel Fingers’ (the latter being the greatest love song to rock’n’roll ever written). You may have been thrilled for Mariah Carey that she finally scored a Christmas number one a few weeks ago, but ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ simply wouldn’t exist without Spector’s influence. 

And what would life be like without Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score? Julee Cruise’s ‘Falling’, the vocal version of the theme, was heavily inspired by the Paris Sisters’ ‘I Love How You Love Me’, one of Spector’s earliest hits in 1961, a single that rocked more gently and softly than anything that had gone before. 

Taking the Spector story back to the beginning, you have his father’s suicide (carbon monoxide poisoning, in the family car, parked outside their house in broad daylight), the family’s consequent move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and a song that Spector wrote called ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’. This was the epitaph on his father’s grave and he turned it into a melancholic love song. That’s quite an unusual thing for a teenage boy to do. 

Spector was part of a trio called the Teddy Bears who took ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ to number one in America and one place shy of the top in Britain in 1958. The sound was unlike anything else – a dark, ruminative post-rock’n’roll in 6/8 time that was simultaneously soft and heavy. The production was soupy, the instruments indistinct, the vocals in mourning. Teenagers had taken over pop culture in the mid-1950s. Now that they were running things, they got nervous; how else to explain the success of ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ which had an almost maternal blend of comfort and panic. 

Spector spent the next couple of years perfecting this sound and sealed the deal with ‘I Love How You Love Me’ by the Paris Sisters in 1961. Again, the backing sounded like it was recorded in a mausoleum, the backing rocked gently like a cradle, and Priscilla Paris’s suggestive whisper was deeply sexual. The dual promise of sex and a return to the security of childhood. 

His co-producer and father figure, Lester Sill, talked about how Spector would sit listening to rough mixes of ‘I Love How You Love Me’ for hours at a time on very low levels; Sill reckoned Spector remixed the strings more than 30 times until he was happy. Having perfected this sound, Spector moved on to its sonic opposite, the maximalist Wall Of Sound for which he is most celebrated: the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’, the Crystals’ ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and, ultimately Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’. 

We know now how Spector recorded dozens of guitars and hundreds of string players endlessly and employed such stellar musicians as Glen Campbell to achieve his groundbreaking sound. But living through it, first hand, these records must have sounded as if they were made out of some implausible magic. 

Phil Spector’s place in pop history cannot be erased, and belittling his musical achievements is a misguided way of keeping alive Lana Clarkson’s memory. Thankfully, pop musicians are rarely killers. Joe Meek, the only British producer comparable to Spector, shot his landlady dead in 1967 then turned the gun on himself. Famed session drummer Jim Gordon killed his mother in 1983 and has been in prison or hospital ever since, after – too late – he was diagnosed a schizophrenic.

Spector was convicted of murder – it’s cut and dried. For years, though, he had got away with locking his wife Ronnie up in their (intentionally) remote home; he had a glass coffin made for her and told her she would end up in it if she ever tried to leave him. Routinely, Spector pulled guns on people. He reduced the Ramones to tears after threatening them with a gun while he was producing their album. It was all seen as myth-building – rock and roll, man! – but the end of the story was horribly foreseeable. 

The stories were all out there in the public domain long before Clarkson’s murder, by which time Spector should at least have been in custodial psychiatric care. Maybe it took a court’s verdict to convince people that his psychosis had terrible consequences. To an unhealthy extent, we like our geniuses crazy – and it took a murder conviction to prove the world, beyond any doubt, that the “Crazy Phil” legend was all too real. 

Yes, he was indulged by adoring critics. But it shouldn’t only fall to music writers to hold such people to account. That’s a task for the culture as a whole: coming to terms with the co-existence in a single psyche of horror and genius. Phil Spector was a murderer, and he was also probably the single greatest record producer who ever lived. 

Bob Stanley is a music writer, film producer and author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Modern Pop.