Producer, Genius, Madman, Murderer – what will Phil Spector’s true legacy be?
For all his apparently endless faults, we have just witnessed the passing of one of music’s true geniuses
“To Know Him Is to Love Him”, the group The Teddy Bears sang in 1958. The song’s writer, producer and vocalist Phil Spector knew the macabre association behind the apparently innocuous title, as it was derived from the epitaph on his father’s gravestone, “To Know Him Was To Love Him”. It is extremely unlikely that his son’s resting place, wherever it is, will bear a similar legend.
Spector, who has died at the age of 80 after contracting Covid-19 while serving a life sentence for murder in prison, was simultaneously the most influential and brilliant of music producers and a deeply troubled, violent and mentally unstable man whose killing of the actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 was the most dreadful act in a life full of unpleasant and disturbing incidents. Yet he was also someone whose music has given countless hours of pleasure to millions, including me, and who has inspired numerous other artists. What should Spector’s legacy be regarded as?
Those who worked with Spector found it a trying and difficult experience
Anyone who has even the most cursory of interest in pop music will know the inimitable Phil Spector sound. Heard to its full effect on such pop classics as “River Deep – Mountain High”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Be My Baby”, the so-called “wall of sound” in which he specialised was a clanging, booming and joyful noise, heavy on reverb and combining the orchestral instrumentation of the legendary Wrecking Crew session musicians with the soaring and often anguished vocals of singers who included Tina Turner, Darlene Love and Spector’s wife Ronnie, who subsequently referred to him as “a great producer, but a lousy husband”. The reason why these women sounded anguished while recording some of the most extraordinary songs ever written was because the producer was threatening them, with various degrees of aggression and menace, in order to get the desired vocal performances out of them.
It was this tension between Spector’s undeniable genius and the deeply unpleasant methods that he used to achieve what he wanted that led to his being regarded in the industry with a mixture of suspicion and unease, despite the mighty commercial success of his songs. It is no exaggeration to say that, before he first retired from the music industry in 1966, at the grand old age of 26, he made as great an impact on popular listening as the Beatles, Elvis or just about anyone else that you could name, but he had done so in an uncompromising and darkly violent method that meant that only his peerless commercial success ensured that he still had a career.
He seemed to have been blessed with an almost Mozartian level of talent that meant that anything he turned his hand to was turned into Midas-esque pop gold. When he described his productions as “little symphonies for the kids”, it was without condescension or exaggeration. Like Brian Wilson, who considered the producer both a mentor and a rival and with whom he shared both an acute sense of melody and a deeply troubled psyche, Spector realised that there were hitherto untapped depths – or heights – in the potential that the three-minute pop song could offer.
And so the sheer genius of what he was capable of, in which he seemed to break new ground with every song that he produced, went hand in hand with a refusal to accept that his singers or musicians were fallible human beings who needed apparently trivial things like rest, encouragement or praise. Like Stanley Kubrick, he displayed a near-autistic attention to detail that was rewarded with songs that can only be described as heavenly. Unlike Kubrick, who inspired undying loyalty in most of his cast and crew, those who worked with Spector found it a trying and difficult experience, and one that they undertook with trepidation.
Spector and firearms went together rather like fish and chips
Had his retirement remained a permanent one, his reputation as a brilliant, if troubled, man might have remained intact. But Spector was too restless a spirit to remain in moneyed isolation, and so he returned to the music industry in earnest at the behest of John Lennon and his notoriously unscrupulous manager Allen Klein to salvage what would become the Beatles’ final album, Let It Be. For the first time, working with a band who were at least his equals in talent and creativity, Spector seemed somewhat lost. He ruined Paul McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” with a strangely uninspired and syrupy arrangement that led McCartney to send a terse, angry letter of complaint to Klein and Spector that ended “Don’t ever do it again”.
His more understated production on the title track and George Harrison’s “I Me Mine” was more successful, leading Harrison to recruit him for his first post-Beatles solo album All Things Must Pass and Lennon to ask him to co-produce Imagine. The results were variable. Spector was given his head with such songs as Harrison’s attempt to write his very own “Hey Jude”, the seven-minute epic “Isn’t It A Pity”, and came up with the extraordinary, towering result.
He was less successful with Lennon, then at the height of his own considerable egotism, and there was not a lot that he could do with “Imagine” other than give it some lush orchestral backing. It was little wonder that they needled each other to a point that, producing Lennon’s mediocre Rock ‘n’ Roll album, Spector fired a gun inches from the former Beatle’s head, leading his enraged client to shout, “Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me. But don’t fuck with my ears, because I need ‘em.”
Spector and firearms went together rather like fish and chips, which proved deeply unfortunate. But he seemed to lose what had always been a rather shaky grip on reality altogether in the mid-1970s, perhaps not helped by a near-fatal car accident in Hollywood in 1974, which caused major head industries and led to his wearing increasingly baroque hairpieces to cover the considerable scars.
He was still capable of summoning up the old magic when it came to his clients, as he did on Dion’s Born To Be With You album in 1975, but at a time when music was becoming rawer and angrier, his polished, expensive style was called for less and less. And as his commercial star waned, his collaborations became ever more fraught. He worked with the equally combustible Leonard Cohen on the very strange, underrated album Death of a Ladies’ Man, and guns were waved around again. At one point, after Spector levelled a loaded gun at Cohen and said, “I love you, Leonard”, the singer, with an impressive degree of equanimity, dryly replied “I hope you love me, Phil.”
When he wasn’t feuding with divas, Spector otherwise seemed content to remain in his mansion
After a commercially successful but frustrating collaboration with the Ramones on their 1980 End of the Century album, Spector once again retired, this time apparently for good. He briefly reappeared to work with Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono on her Season of Glass album and tried and failed to collaborate with Celine Dion on her vastly successful 1996 release Falling Into You, which led him to issue the grandiose statement that, “You don’t tell Shakespeare what plays to write, or how to write them. You don’t tell Mozart what operas to write, or how to write them. And you certainly don’t tell Phil Spector what songs to write, or how to write them; or what records to produce and how to produce them.”
When he wasn’t feuding with divas, Spector otherwise seemed content to remain in his mansion, living off his enormous royalties and enjoying listening to the artists from ABBA to Bruce Springsteen who all attempted, with varying degrees of success, to emulate the Wall of Sound on their own recordings. Strangely for a man who had enjoyed such a legendary reputation, he engaged in bizarre acts of mythologising and sometimes blatant lying, such as claiming that he had written numerous hits by other artists. And accounts of his absurd, often drug or alcohol-fuelled behaviour continued to proliferate, from his insisting that a flight be halted so that he could disembark the aircraft on the runway to his being accompanied at all times by enormous bodyguards, as if his pompadour wigs did not make him conspicuous enough.
He attempted a final comeback in 2002, when he produced a couple of songs by also-ran post-Britpop band Starsailor, of which one, “Silence Is Easy”, had some of the old Spector flair. But he was fired by the group for his increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and it came as little surprise to many that he was arrested the following year for the murder of the actress Lana Clarkson. He walked out of his mansion, saying “I think I just shot her”, before changing his story and saying that Clarkson committed “accidental suicide” and that, in what might have been a dark variant on a lyric of some of his best-known songs, “she kissed the gun”. He was arrested and, after six years and two mistrials, he was eventually convicted of Clarkson’s murder and sent to jail, where many believed that he should have rightly belonged years before.
Spector died an unhappy and disgraced man
Spector died an unhappy and disgraced man, rightly regarded with contempt for his part in Clarkson’s death, even if some, such as the writer David Mamet who made a sympathetic film about Spector’s trials with Al Pacino in 2013, have attempted to claim that he was wrongfully convicted. The obituaries have so far trod a delicate line between acknowledging his genius and his deeply problematic actions, not least his impulsive killing of a woman who he barely knew. It would be wrong to attempt to whitewash what Spector did, just as his behaviour throughout his career went beyond simple eccentricity into the realms of derangement.
Yet the records that he produced, at his best, were extraordinary, and remain some of the very best pop music that has ever been released. It might be harder to listen to the songs that Spector was involved with than it should be, and the knowledge that the man who produced them was, in many regards, a monster will sour their legacy for many. But I cannot be alone in listening to any number of his three-minute symphonies, and thinking that, for all his apparently endless faults, we have just witnessed the passing of one of music’s true geniuses, a man who remained defiantly both unknowable and unlovable to the end.
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