There is a dividing line for me when it comes to pop music of the 1960s, and it is clean and sharp. The Beatles and the rest of those shaggy Brits are what grabbed my tiny ears and heart, not the Beach Boys, or the single-nomenclatured squeaky-clean boy singers, or rodent bands like the Chipmunks or the Four Seasons. I also did not care for the Girl Groups or anything “Wall Of Sound.” This got me to thinking about legendary producer and convicted life-failure Phil Spector, and why what he did is of such note, and why all those songs he produced leave me cold. Not as cold as Lana Clarkson, thankfully.

Phil Spector’s production techniques – vehemently monaural, drenched in echo, densely layered with doubled and tripled and quadrupled instrumentation – seemed more an opportunity for him to direct an army, rather than deliver the best possible sound to the listener, or support the message of the lyrics. I completely disagree that the “Wall Of Sound” added depth – to my ears, all that instrumentation is drowned by the echo, compacted so tightly as to lose most of its definition, and ends up sounding like the orchestra is being dragged down a far-distant street by a garbage truck. There is no warmth, and no feel, and for me this is a dealbreaker for a rock n’ roll record. I want immediacy and heart, no matter the genre. I never hear it from anything Phil did.

There is the argument that these productions were composed for the 2” AM radio speaker, and there is some validity in that. But I have heard other songs succeed far better in the same goal. I have those AM-radio ears; I understand that completely. But even back then, Phil’s records made me strain to hear what was in them, and the vocals always seemed muffled and remote as well. For me, it was old and dated sounding, more like the records my parents listened to or Steve & Eydie, a last-gasp remnant of the big band era.

Phil was handed hit song after hit song, from the top writers of the day, primarily odes to young – really young – love, with lots of bad bad boys and lovestruck young ladies who ended up talking marriage and baby carriage and forever. They were perfect for the big new teen market and a world that was not yet quite jaded by war and drugs and the inevitable sad discoveries you make as you enter your 20s. Would these songs have been hits without Phil Spector’s production? Yes, I think so. A good song is a good song, and those particular ones had stories that were compelling for their young listeners. I would go so far as to spectorulate that a different producer could have given the songs a longer shelf-life. Even though they are still beloved today, I think they are so mainly by the people who are old enough to have bought them when they came out. I don’t see new generation after new generation taking the girl groups to heart as I see them do with the Beatles.

Spector’s last grand effort in the genre came in 1966, with Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High.” It is a great, grand song – hell, even little me bought it on 45 then. But it was not at all the smash hit Spector needed so badly, and he withdrew from the record business for awhile over it. Why didn’t it succeed as he wished? Perhaps for a few reasons. Again, the massive orchestra sound was getting old; this was mid-66 and stereo was coming in strong, as was the psychedelic era, and more personal kinds of pop. This record was a throwback to 1963, and no one was feeling nostalgic in those days. The production also sounds weak in comparison to the power and immediacy of Tina Turner’s huge soulful voice, and gives the feeling of her standing on top of the song, rather than being in it.

I also don’t care for Spector’s work with the Beatles on “Let It Be” or later work on John Lennon’s records in particular. Lennon didn’t like the sound of his own voice, sadly enough, and Spector slammed enough echo on songs like “Instant Karma!” “Power To The People,” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over) to please John. Again, the listener really would rather hear someone with Lennon’s talent than be subjected to a cacophony that masks him and the song. I wonder if the combination of industry hype, Spector’s bizarre and forceful personality, and a longing for a simpler time wasn’t behind Lennon’s attraction here. Ah, well. The Spector/Lennon partnership ended rather abruptly, it is said, when during the recording of Lennon’s “Rock n’ Roll Music” album, Spector brandished a gun and took the master tapes. Lennon, no saint of behavior in 1973 either, eventually got the tapes back, but Spector obviously continued on with his questionable firearm usage. Some kind of thing, huh – Lennon is long-dead from a gunshot wound from a “fan,” and Spector rots in jail for the rest of his life after shooting a “fan.”

Well, however and whatever you think about Phil Spector, he certainly holds a big spot in rock n’ roll history. The records he helped make defined a time between the rough R&B pop of the pioneers like Elvis and Chuck and Eddie and Little Richard and the explosion of the DIY movement from the Brits and folkies and just about everyone else to follow. The dictator-producer type remains, mainly relegated to Top Ten teen acts who don’t write their own music, or do, and I would then sarcastically go, “write” their own music. The rebel boys and girls in those girl group songs are now senior citizens, having lived their lives for better or worse, staying together or splitting apart, some already dead, and some who might as well be.