Guest Post – ‘Phil Spector and Brian Wilson’

Following my fourth installment of the ‘Would-be Spectors’ feature about Brian Wilson last week, I’ve discussed the topic further on a Beach Boys fan forum. During the discussions music teacher, former studio owner and music historian Craig Clemens weighed in with some interesting reflections on the differences between Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.

You may remember a former post here about Gold Star Studios where I linked to Craig’s blog

On his blog, Craig has, among other things, an interesting walk-through of a typical recordings session at Gold Star. Read more about it here:

Craig has graciously allowed me to feature his interesting reflections on Brian Wilson and Phil Spector as a guest post on Cue Castanets. Bear in mind that the following text was originally two forum posts that I have edited into one essay as I think you will enjoy Craig’s writing as much as I do.

Craig Clemens – “Phil Spector and Brian Wilson”

When comparing Phil Spector and Brian Wilson there are various differences between them to consider.

For one thing, Spector had a head start of the two, and unlike Brian, Phil served an apprenticeship of sorts under the mentorship of Leiber and Stoller.

If you listen to those more orchestral-leaning Leiber and Stoller tracks, like the Drifters, you’ll hear a lot of what would turn up later on Spector’s Wall Of Sound productions. Especially the auxiliary percussion like castanets, which really were not “rock and roll” or R&B as much as they were an orchestral/ethnic instrument sound. Spector used percussion like that extensively, and when Brian did copy Spector as in ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ or ‘Then I Kissed Her’, there were the same elements.

Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber
Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber

Besides the apprenticeship Spector had with those two giants of writing and production in the 50’s, he also had Jack Nitzsche to do the arrangements. Without Jack, there is no “Wall”. I’d like to elaborate on that:

The best arrangers are like the best individual musicians; when you hear a few bars of their stuff you know who it is. It gets deeper than a lot of listeners notice, but take for a parallel example the differences on Sinatra’s 1950’s Capitol releases – one of the finest bodies of work in all of popular music.

It is possible to hear the differences between a Nelson Riddle arrangement and a Billy May arrangement, but for a lot of listeners who don’t key into some specific details they can basically respond by saying “it sounds like Sinatra”. Yet, Riddle had a very unique and identifiable style…and overall mood/tone, which is more important to where I’m going with this regarding Jack Nitzsche… that you can pick his ‘tone’ out if you listen for it. Nelson was very unique, Billy May was an excellent arranger but when you got Sinatra singing a Riddle chart, there was a sympatico magic that happened in the performance captured on tape.

Ol' blue eyes and Nelson Riddle
Ol’ blue eyes and Nelson Riddle

Jack Nitzsche was a character, a really unique and quirky character who happened to be a terrific arranger, but to be honest having read about him beyond Spector, he had a different personality than some of his music suggests. The guy who did the ‘Christmas Gift for You’ album…Jack in person…not what you’d think.

Nevertheless, I think it was Jack who crystallized the actual sound of Spector’s Wall. Others could write charts to exploit it, or even to copy it, but it was Jack’s arrangements along with the other pieces of the puzzle that just nailed it. I don’t base this on anything but opinion, but I think the fact that Jack and Phil were both characters who marched to their own drummer made the “Wall” as edgy as it was.

It’s not a sensitive Wall, like Pet Sounds, it’s not an introspective Wall, like others. Rather, these teenage pop recordings are like a tidal wave and an earthquake which the lead singer has to either ride out or rise above, or risk getting swept up.

Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love & Phil Spector
Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love & Phil Spector

Jack’s charts demanded something unique from whoever was singing lead. That’s just what Spector needed, that’s just what a true belter like Darlene Love brought in and what a really unique and different voice like Ronnie Spector brought in. Not every Spector production worked, naturally, but the ones that put the template into place and set the standard beyond even the music seemed to be Jack’s charts powering the engine.

Seriously, try this, time permitting, as an experiment. Next time you can round up some volunteer listeners, grab some of Jack’s better known Spector arrangements and play them alongside the other arrangers Phil worked with on the Wall, Arnold Goland, Gene Page or Perry Botkin Jr. At the same time, get a handful of Nelson Riddle’s charts for Sinatra in the 50’s, and play them alongside Billy May’s charts, and even add a few Quincy Jones charts as well, or Gordon Jenkins. See which ones if any stand out above the rest, quality wise or just plain interest wise.

I think Jack’s charts are the cream of the crop, the others solid and good but lacking that extra “something” that Jack brought to the process.

Another parallel to consider: Both Brian and Phil had recording engineers at their side in the studio to bring their sounds to life, and more importantly capture them on tape. Phil had Larry Levine, Brian had Chuck Britz.

Chuck Britz at the board, Western Studio 1, ca. 1965
Chuck Britz at the board, Western Studio 1, ca. 1965

I’d argue if they did not have those highly skilled engineers, who were both from the “old school” yet willing to break the rules to get better sounds on tape, the productions would not have been the same. I’d say Brian learned so much from Chuck as far as the nuts-and-bolts of capturing sounds on tape that it colored everything he was able to do which culminated with the year 1966. Chuck was like Brian’s mentor for sounds, and fortunately, Chuck was working at an independent studio that would allow Brian to be hands-on with the board without needing a union card to work the board.

Chuck Britz and Brian in the studio during Smile recordings sessions
Chuck Britz and Brian in the studio during Smile recordings sessions

The untold stories are the hours that were spent with Chuck Britz as Brian watched and learned the technical aspects of studio recording and mixing. Chuck could be one of the most unsung heroes in the whole story. I’d guess that if he and Brian didn’t connect early on and were not so compatible working together, you would not have seen the level of work that Brian progressed into.

But consider this: Phil had Jack and Larry plus a mentorship with Leiber and Stoller under his belt, The Beatles had George Martin, Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick to get the sounds on their recordings, and Brian was basically a one-man show for arranging, orchestrating, and writing…plus production…with Chuck Britz, mostly, to record the sounds.

For a guy in his early 20’s to have learned basically on-the-job without an apprenticeship or a formally trained musician like Jack Nitzsche or George Martin at the helm, it’s quite an amazing accomplishment to have that body of work in the 1960’s competing with those peers.


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