Phil Spector, who died in prison aged 81 of coronavirus complications, was hailed as a musical genius for his “Wall of Sound” production, but his legacy is far more clouded.
The Wall of Sound music production formula was just that– a formula that homogenized pop music in the ’60s and ’70s and crushed its diversity.
Spector, himself, often said he wanted to exploit studio recording to create a sound that came across well through radios and jukeboxes of the era.
“I was looking for a sound, a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record. It was a case of augmenting, augmenting. It all fit together like a jigsaw,” he said once in an interview.
The legendary music producer worked with some of the world’s biggest artists including Tina Turner, The Beatles and The Ramones. He also influenced such groups as The Beach Boys.
Between 1960 and 1965, he scored 24 Top 40 records, many of them classics, according to The New York Times.
He produced a number of Righteous Brothers hit songs including “You Lost that Lovin” “Feeling,” “Unchained Melody” and “You’re My Soul and Inspiration.”
The Ronnettes “Be My Baby” (1963) and The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” (1962) are also two classic Spector songs.
He also worked with The Beatles to produce their final album, Let It Be.
The title track “The Long and Winding Road” as well as some of John Lennon’s solo work including “Instant Karma” and “Imagine” bear his signature influence.
Later, Spector would face a backlash.
In 2003, Let It Be… Naked, an alternative mix of The Beatles’ 1970 album Let It Be, was released, stripped of his Wall of Sound.
Paul McCartney pushed for the reissue because he thought the original Spector production did not capture the group’s intended stripped-down aesthetic.
Without Spector’s embellishments, the album is much more a paean to The Beatles artistry. McCartney said as much. He considered it closer to its original artistic vision.
Dhani Harrison, the son of Beatles guitarist George Harrison, also recently announced that his father’s album All Things Must Pass would be re-released this year without the Wall of Sound.
To appreciate Spector’s contribution, it needs to be considered in the context of the times.
While rock and roll is mainstream today, in the ’50s and early ’60s, it was widely scorned by the music establishment, still grooving on ’50s pop artists like Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and Fabian.
It was almost impossible to get a rock and roll record on the radio until Alan Freed, an early rock-and-roll supporter, started paying disc jockeys to play it.
Spector rose to prominence just as the so-called “payola scandal,” the pay for play to get records on the radio, rocked the music industry.
The music producer created arrangements with large ensembles and overdubbing of instruments to create an orchestral sound.
It was richer and fuller than other pop music. More importantly, it made the songs more palatable to an audience that was used to orchestras and big band music.
But the price was the loss of the raw, visceral edge of rock music until punk rock exploded in the late ’70s.
In the end, the problem with Spector’s production is the fact that it has been widely imitated and still permeates much of pop music today.
The end result, today, is the homogenization of radio-centric pop music.
If you frequently complain that all pop music, from Katy Perry to Christina Aguilera, sounds the same, you can thank Spector.
Spector often called his sound the “Wagnerian approach to rock ‘n’ roll.”
It served a purpose, but rock music, in the long run, would have been better off without it.
Still, he was widely lauded for the innovation and was eventually inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Spector was serving a 19-year sentence in prison for the 2007 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. He was jailed in 2009 after a jury trial.
He was diagnosed with the virus a month ago and had received treatment in hospital before being returned to the prison after recovering well.
However, he had reportedly been complaining of trouble breathing and was rushed back to hospital, where he passed away, gossip site TMZ reported.