That 70s Wall of Sound

Some time ago I posted photos of two Phil Spector International (PSI) press kits from 1975. Along with the Warner-Spector label, PSI was Spector’s planned outlet for a triumphant return to the charts, – back to reclaim the studio crown on his own terms as opposed to the work he had done with John Lennon and George Harrison. As successful as those projects were, Spector somewhat had to take a back-seat and subdue his approach. Both ex-Beatles did record great Wall of Sound tracks under his auspices but the former Tycoon of Teen wasn’t calling the shots as much as he would have liked and felt entitled to.

Was he a has-been? Could he still intuitively spot a hit song and dress it up so elaborately that everyone who heard it flowing through speakers would succumb to its otherworldly splendor? Spector probably feared the answers to those questions but nevertheless couldn’t resist making attempts at getting back on the scene, as half-hearted as they may have been. Setting up the PSI and Warner-Spector labels gave him the old freedom of the Philles days, only issuing material he felt was strong enough to live up to his legendary status. The question of course is this is how it actually played out or if his standards became lowered somewhat?

Insecurity behind the swagger? Phil Spector with the Kessel Brothers during the 70s.
Insecurity behind the swagger? Phil Spector with the Kessel Brothers during the 70s.

Spector’s erratic 70s output has been much discussed. Was it a dirge of sound? Plodding? Going nowhere? The old master finally revealed to be nothing more than an unimaginative one-trick pony? Or was it rather a more delicate, tasteful Wall of Sound? The Wall 2.0, to use a modern computer-age term? An impressive refinement of the golden formula, – and this time with clear stereo sound to boot, enabling listeners to enjoy the incredible nuances in the grooves?

Personally, I understand both viewpoints though I tend to lean towards the latter, more positive view of Spector’s 70s productions. Less cluttered and more introspective they may be but the very best of them never cease to amaze me in all their soul bearing earnestness. In hindsight, to me, they seem like the logical next step for an artist searching for a new direction and maturation, yet within the safe confines of the Wall of Sound approach.

Jerri+Bo+Keno
‘Here It Comes (And Here I Go)’ was one of the more lively 70s Spector productions. As close as he ever came to issuing a Disco beat.

It’s a shame these 70s productions met with indifference from the public. Some of the songs were indeed lackluster or remakes of past glories but had Spector been able to score a sizeable hit, one could have hoped he’d felt comfortable and vindicated enough to issue more product. For a producer of Spector’s stature and talent his output from the 70s and beyond is just ridiculously limited. Ultimately though, we only have himself to blame – his insecurities, his lack of ambition, his fear of being deemed a has-been.

It’s even more a shame when you think about how perfect a time the 70s would have been for a triumphant comeback hot on the heels of his more understated work with John Lennon and George Harrison. Think the whole retro-music phenomenon is of a fairly recent origin? Think again. It was already everywhere in the 70s, a decade ripe with nostalgia.

There was the group Sha-Na-Na who visually and musically mined the not-to-distant rock’n’roll past Spector helped develop – and even got their own TV show! On radio the Golden Oldies & Oldies but Goodies format grew strong, practically being turned into a hit record by the Carpenters in the form of ‘Yesterday Once More’. Not to mention the TV and cinema successes of Happy Days, American Graffiti and Grease, – all hailing the mid-50s to early 60s music, style and carefree teen lifestyle. Even rock’s mega-stars issued whole albums borne out of this particular surge of nostalgia, – i.e. the Beach Boys (’15 Big Ones’), Bruce Springsteen (‘Born to Run’) or John Lennon (‘Rock’n’Roll’ – aptly with Spector involvement.) Heck, in 1977 you even had a Phil Spector tribute album in the form of Bionic Gold featuring various re-workings of his classic hits!

American Grafitti movie poster. 'Where were you in 1962?' Well, Spector was in Gold Star inventing the Wall of Sound with the Wrecking Crew.
American Grafitti movie poster. ‘Where were you in 1962?’ Well, Spector was in Gold Star inventing the Wall of Sound with the Wrecking Crew.

Basically, Spector couldn’t have asked for a better time for a comeback with his sound – or at least, the sound of carefree teen energy and pumping hormones in the ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ or ‘Be my Baby’ vein he was remembered for. Instead, he chose to offer a darker but often also a more delicate serving of his Wall of Sound. Sadly, it didn’t register with the record-buying public.

Perhaps they had their attention elsewhere, enjoying the wealth of songs coming out during the 70s that borrowed liberally and lovingly from the Spector bag of tricks. You had the ‘Be my Baby’ beat alright. You had the swirling strings, the no-holds-barred ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ backing tracks. For every Spector 70s production, you have literally 5 from the same decade by other producers doing their darned best to emulate his Philles sound. Here are but some examples of the myriad Spector soundalikes from the 70s. Some you’ll definitely know, others may be new to you.

ABBA – Ring Ring (1973)

Benny & Björn of Swedish pop sensation ABBA really had the Spector sound down from the very beginning. The pair also produced some very credible, warm-sounding oldies but goodies material for Swedish duo Svenne & Lotta, including remakes of ‘Be my Baby’, ‘Chapel of Love’ and ‘When You Walk in the Room’. Even on some of the ABBA songs that obviously aren’t meant as a sort of tribute to his sound you can sometimes pick up small details or piano flourishes that wouldn’t have been out of place on a typical Spector session at Gold Star. I guess it just comes down to perfect pop craftsmanship.

Wizzard – See my Baby Jive (1973)

Roy Wood and his band knew how to clutter a track. Listen to that opening drum roll! This song actually made it to no. 1 in the UK charts and stayed there for a few weeks, – and no wonder. In the 60s the British record-buying public had always been very appreciative of the Wall of Sound and obviously recognized a good thing when they heard it. Wizzard recorded a string of other songs that I could just as well have featured, such as ‘Angel Finger’ or ‘Rock’n’Roll Winther.’

Beano – Candy Baby (1974)

Failing to register in their native UK with this obscure Spector-wannabe track, Beano had a sizeable hit with it in Italy in 1975. Too bad Hal Blaine didn’t trademark the ‘Be my Baby’ drum beat. As much as it’s been copied since 1963 he’d be a billionaire by now! In 1974 it was also featured prominently on ‘Foxy Foxy’ by Mott the Hoople.

Bay City Rollers – Angel Baby (1975)

The Scottish teen heart-throbs also tried their hand at the Spector-sound during their peak years, proving that the sound registered just as well among those who hadn’t even been born, or at least had been very young, when Spector and his Philles roster were on a roll in the early 60s. On the album issued after the one ‘Angel Baby’ was featured on, the tartan teen sensations even covered ‘Be my Baby’.

The Tubes – Don’t Touch me There (1976)

The smell of burning leather as we hold each other tight.’ Great isn’t it? Sleazy and with an over-the-top arrangement courtesy of Spector’s old chum and master arranger, Jack ‘Specs’ Nitszche. This is definitely one of my all-time favorite Spector soundalikes!

Meat Loaf – You Took the Words Right Out of my Mouth (1977)

No Wall of Sound? Probably no career for Meat Loaf! His successful 1977 album ‘Bat Out of Hell’ took Spector’s approach and milked it for every melodramatic drop. The songs were produced by Spector-aficionado Jim Steinman in a dramatic, opulent style that fit Meat Loaf’s vocal style perfectly. This great production is pure gold!

The Paranoids – Stupid Guy (1979)

As the 70s was about to give way to the 80s UK group the Paranoids issued this great single with a stomping beat, strings throughout and even a poor man’s Steve Douglas saxophone solo! Power pop meets the Wall of Sound!

I may post some more examples from the 70s at a later time. In this post I’ve stayed clear of some of the more obvious ones like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’, Billy Joel’s ‘Until the Night’ or Ronnie Spector’s ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood.’ Suffice to say, there is a lot to choose from from this decade.

I’m all ears if you’d like to chime in with some thoughts about the 70s and the Wall of Sound and some of your own favorites from the era, by Spector or others. If so, please leave a comment below.

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