Sean MacLeod: “Leaders of the Pack – Girl Groups of the 1960s and Their Influence on Popular Culture in Britain and America”
**** (4 stars out of 6)
If you’re going to write a book on the 60s girl group genre you have different ways of going about it.
You could focus mainly on the groups themselves and compile a sort of estrogen-dripping encyclopedia devoted to 60s femme pop like überfan John Clemente has done with the much cherished ‘Girl Groups: Fabulous Females that Rocked the World.’ You could also broaden the scope and reflect upon the wider social and cultural significance of the genre’s output – this has been done somewhat by Alan Betrock in his ‘Girl Groups: the Story of a Sound’ and more extensively by Jacqueline Warwick in ‘Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 60s’
There are of course also those who highlight the girl group phenomenon as just one of many examples of women making their voice felt in popular music through the decades; Lucy O’Brien’s ‘She Bop: the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music’ or Gillian Gaar’s ‘She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock’n’Roll’ come to mind.
Even though there are already plenty of books out there covering the various angles on girl group history, I recently became aware of yet another book about the subject that could be of interest to Cue Castanets readers. ‘Leaders of the Pack: Girl Groups of the 1960s and their Influence on Popular Culture in Britain and America’ by Sean MacLeod came out in 2015 and as the loooong subtitle indicates, it’s a book that tries to do a little bit of everything; offer detailed glimpses into the careers of a few of the most notable groups, discuss their relevance and significance in connection to the era and, finally, outline how these groups, and the girl group genre itself, has had a far-reaching influence since the genre’s heyday. It’s a commendable cause and MacLeod deserves praise for his good intentions and nearly getting there.
I found MacLeod’s style of writing to be very good and informative. – and thankfully not written in an overtly academic manner. The book has a lot of useful info for readers who have just discovered girl groups, wisely singling out a few groups that are dealt with in-depth rather than tiring or confusing readers with too much info on the large number of groups that left behind a myriad of often obscure singles.
Maybe this condensed approach to telling about the genre reflects MacLeod’s work as a lecturer teaching music and media history? Using his selected girl groups as examples he carefully describes the various stages in the development of the girl group phenomena so that no readers are left behind. The Shirelles are used to exemplify the birth of the girl group sound; the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, the Supremes and the Vandellas are all dealt with during discussions of the genre’s climax and finally the Shangri-Las are highlighted when MacLeod discusses how the genre’s impact slowly petered out.
Girl group connoisseurs will probably scratch their heads and wonder why the Cookies or the Chiffons didn’t merit inclusion in standalone chapters as well as soloists befitting the genre such as Lesley Gore or Darlene Love but that minor gripe aside, MacLeods choices and the way he uses them to reflect upon the ups and downs of the girl group sound makes sense while reading the book.
Honesly, this is a tough book to review because I knew a lot about the topic beforehand. Therefore, I quickly began to skim or skip some pages or whole chapters along the way because they state the basic facts that die-hard fans can recite in their sleep. For new fans though I’m sure this book will make for a very interesting and eye-opening read and I suspect it could be especially useful as reading material for a course in music history. A lot of songs are mentioned throughout which will surely send those just digging into the genre record-hunting or checking out sound samples online. The many fabulous girl-themed compilations put out by Ace Records through the years would be a good place to start for girl group newbies.
What I really like about the book is when MacLeod looks beyond the girl groups themselves and reflects upon their own influences or the way they influenced other music of their era.
He makes a really good case for how the girl group sound was not just one specific sound but more of a musical melting pot of diverse inspiration that happened to be carried by female voices. Consequently, some girl group records reflect more of a doo wop or rhythm’n’blues foundation whereas others are more to the poppier, ‘white’ side.
When MacLeod tries to pinpoint the influence of the girl group genre itself on later generations of girl singers and female musicians things get very interesting, though also at times a bit far fetched and subjective. Although I’m sure Madonna, the Spice Girls and Lady Gaga know a few girl group hits or more, I doubt the genre’s influence on their sound has been big enough to merit whole chapters devoted to the subject. But then again; Amy Winehouse certainly took her point of departure in the girl group sound so it’s definitely a topic worth discussing. I do like the fact that MacLeod doesn’t shy away from trying to connect the dots between then and now, even though some of his conclusions are debatable.
All in all, this is a fine and worthwhile book but one that’s more for casual fans than experts, hence my 4-star rating. Let me put it this way; if you know someone that you feel are ready to be introduced to this fascinating, yet criminally overlooked genre, then give ‘em a great big kiss and this book for Christmas to get them off and running!
Maybe I should put the spotlight on UK-based engineer / producer Phil Chapman for my next installment of the ‘Would-be Spectors’ series, because his current remixing project of both Spector releases and likeminded tracks will surely interest Cue Castanets readers.
Through the years Chapman has of course worked professionally on numerous recording projects of interest to Wall of Sound fans, but his latest endavour is merely for the fun of it and due to his recent acquisition of some new recording and mixing equipment. The results are sure to impress you. It’ll hit you and it’ll feel like a kiss, alright!
A while back I wrote about his fantastic mix of ‘I Can Hear Music’ by the Ronettes, – surely, you’ll agree that this new mix with added layers blows the original out of the water?
This time, Phil Chapman has worked his magic on that most extremely gargantuan production that is ‘I Wonder’ by the Crystals. In its original version a massive monophonic monster that I have previously written about in my ‘Odds & Ends’ feature where I sometimes highlight specific, overlooked Spector productions.
So I was pleased to hear Chapman’s elaborate mix with added layers and all sorts of details that keep the spirit of the original firmly in place but attempts “to give give it the same impact today as it had in ’64” as he writes on youtube. Enjoy this sensational remix.
As if this wasn’t enough, Chapman has also been working on an equally over-the-top mix of Jackie Trent’s Spectoresque ‘If You Love Me’ from the same year.
Produced by her husband Tony Hatch, probably the closest the UK came to having its own Bacharach, in its original version this very catchy song stands as a worthy attempt at recreating the magic sound of Spector and the Wrecking Crew.
Chapman builds on this foundation with some choice samples and added layers to emphasize the production’s dynamics. It works very, very well, even in this rough, unfinished mix.
I’ll leave you then with a nice slab of British wall of sound with all engines go!
I’m pleased to be able to share with you yet another interview, – this time with my old Spector buddy, US-based collector David A. Young.
David and I go back at least 12-13 years and have discussed the music in depth ever since establishing contact through the old Spectropop forum. Along the way, David has introduced me to some great tunes, like the two albums issued by Pete Anders and Vini Poncia under their Tradewinds and the Innocence guises.
David’s a hardcore fan and without a doubt one of the top Spector experts and collectors in his country – when a guy has ‘spectorcollector’ as a part of his e-mail address you know he’s serious about his Wall of Sound collection!
Suffice to say, David’s collection of all things Spector and related is extremely impressive and includes acetates, demos and assorted rarities. Although he has downsized it somewhat in recent years, there’s still a wealth of interesting collectibles to make the hearts of Spector fans worldwide race with the ‘Be my Baby’ beat.
Let’s hear what David has to say about his infatuation with the Wall of Sound.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
David, let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember when you became aware of Phil Spector’s music? Was there a specific song that won you over and turned you into a full-blown fan of the Wall of Sound?
My first reaction to that question is that I know for sure it was because of Phil Spector that I became a record collector as opposed to merely a record buyer.
When I was young, department stores sold records, and after 45s that hadn’t sold were returned to the distributor and turned into cutouts, they were bundled in plastic in packages of like ten singles for 39 cents or so and then sent back to the stores for sale as mystery value packs; you could only see the two labels that faced the outside of the package, so you were gambling on whether or not you’d like what was inside.
Through some combination of buying records on purpose and buying them blindly in this way, I noticed that many of my favorites were on the same label — Philles, of course — and had Phil Spector’s name on them.
As a result, I started buying any record I found that said ‘Phil Spector’ on it somewhere. I’m afraid I can’t honestly recall any particular song that put me over the top as you describe, though, whether before or after that realization.
I know that you’ve been active in the fan community through the decades. I remember you telling me about hosting a Spector-themed party at one point. And you of course also were a member of the Phil Spector Appreciation Society – in some of the old PSAS newsletters I’ve noticed that you offered custom t-shirts for sale?
Could you tell a bit about all of this? I’d love to hear about that party and similar fan activity. In our day and age where fans worldwide are just clicks away from the latest news, forums and contact with each other, I find this early sense of a tight-knit fan community very interesting.
I had ‘Phil Spector’s birthday’ parties two years in a row, 1975 and ’76 (cohosted by my roommate[s] at the time). I invited him both times, and once — the first time — his personal assistant, Devra Robitaille, whom you’ve also interviewed for your blog, sent me a note with his regrets.
I also called him every December 26 from about that time to just a few years ago, when the number was disconnected, to wish him a happy birthday. The parties were fun, well-attended events; to bypass having to entertain requests (and to better focus on my partying), I pre-recorded four hours of music, 100% Spector-produced or co-produced, on reel-to-reel tape each time. That way I only had to play DJ once during the festivities, when it was time to turn the tape over two hours in. The trick worked so well that I did it for all my parties for many years, putting together a different program each and every time.
Funny that you mention the t-shirts. If only I still fit into mine; I’ve grown from a size small to a large since then! I gave it to a Spector-obsessed friend years ago when he visited me. It has the famous picture of Phil holding his sunglasses in front of his mouth.
I don’t think I ever actually sold one of them, but something much better happened: people wrote from all over asking if I wanted to trade tapes of rare and unreleased Spector and girl-group recordings instead, and of course the answer was a mutually rewarding yes in each case. I wish I still had all the handwritten letters, track notes, and the reel-to-reel tapes (and, later, cassettes) from those days, but at least I still have the memories.
The Internet sure has streamlined networking, musical and otherwise! Back then, besides people I met in real life – working at record stores helped -, it was those shirts, and the Phil Spector Appreciation Society, that led to my most significant connections.
You’re known as a hardcore collector and even though you’ve sold of parts of your collection by now, I’ll bet it must still be incredibly impressive. Do you have any anecdotes about record hunting? Turning up rare records in unlikely places or at ridiculously cheap prices?
Limiting my answer to Spector records, my two favorite anecdotes are these:
Almost all my original Philles albums, including the fake-stereo ‘Twist Uptown’ by The Crystals and the real-stereo ‘Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica’ were purchased in mint-minus condition from Village Oldies in New York for $100 apiece, reserved through a lucky phone call.
I sent them a payment once or twice a month until everything was paid for, and then the whole package arrived at once. What a day! The Ronettes album has subsequently been autographed by Ronnie Spector and Hal Blaine.
Also, I got unplayed copies of both the Jay and the Americans and the Supremes versions of ‘Things Are Changing’ in their mint title sleeves at a record show from the same guy, who worked at a record wholesale company, for $4 each!
Obviously, he had no idea what he had there, and I wasn’t about to tell him! By then, I already had the Blossoms version, which I got from Jack Fitzpatrick, who later co-wrote the ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ book and whom I’d met through the t-shirt ad.
What are some of your most prized Spector-related items in your personal collection?
I’ve sold lots of the most valuable things over the years, so that’s another conversation, but a number of pieces come to mind that I can’t imagine ever letting go of because of my personal attachment to them.
Along with the aforementioned Ronettes album, there’s the white-label DJ copy of ‘A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records’ with a promotional letter, the copy of ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ on the rare X-125 pressing that Darlene Love autographed to me, and especially the 1987 reissue on Rhino of the Christmas album that Phil signed for me.
By that time I’d placed my ‘happy birthday’ calls so many years in a row that Devra Robitaille called to ask for my address, saying that Phil wanted to thank me for my steadfast devotion. A few days later, the LP arrived in the mail.
Where has your Spector collecting led you beyond acquiring all the different records he produced?
Of course it started with looking at the Spector discographies that existed at the time and, one by one, checking off each release as I obtained it — and over time, the discographies became more and more complete.
Before long, let’s say the first available copy of a record was a DJ copy instead of a stock copy, so I’d have that and then think, “Cool, I’ll get the promo and issue copies of every Spector record.” Then it turns out there are all kinds of label variations: You can have a white, blue, orange, or yellow-and-red label, and the typesetting can be different from one to the next, the logo changes and now may have a thick line or a thin line under it. And that’s just the variations on Philles!
Then there’s having the same release from as many different countries as possible, maybe with a variety of picture sleeves, different B-sides, the EPs, the spelling errors (like the pressing of Phil Spector 2 by Veronica listing ‘Why Can’t They Let Us Fall in Love’ instead of ‘Why Don’t They…’), the reversed labels (as on my stock copy of Philles 123, where the side labeled ‘Stumble and Fall’ plays ‘[He’s a] Quiet Guy’ and vice versa), and on and on.
From there, it spun out of control. My thirst for the Wall of Sound proved unquenchable, so I started seeking out and buying what we now call soundalikes, and as you know, there are both credible and laughable examples of attempts to replicate the Spector sound dating from the ’60s on up through the present.
Before I knew it, I had to have anybody’s cover version of any Spector-related song, whether he had composer credit on it or not (as is the case with, say, ‘He’s a Rebel’ or ‘I Love How You Love Me’). It was bad enough when I’d learn about such covers one way or another and then seek them out, but then eBay came along and I could search by title, discovering literally hundreds of them that I doubt I’d ever have known about otherwise.
Lastly, I started seeking out other releases by artists, especially the more obscure ones,that Phil had produced. You wouldn’t believe how many 45s Kell Osborne or Obrey Wilson, to name just two examples, put out!
Beyond that, like most Spector fans, I’m also wild for the girl group sound in general and have an extensive collection in that genre as well.
Do you only collect records or do you also have old Spector-related fanclub newsletters, posters and similar collectibles? I’ve often wondered how much of this stuff was out there when Philles was active?
I have three boxes full of paper stuff such as you describe. I’ll send along scans of some of the things we’re talking about here in case you want to use them for illustrations.
There’s a bit of everything, though: newsletters, magazines, fanzines, full-page ads from Billboard and Cashbox, sheet music, publicity photos, random articles and pictures … even a typewritten letter from Phil’s sister Shirley to The Teddy Bears and bearing her signature, from when she was managing the group. I have quite a collection of pinback buttons, too, or badges, as our British friends call them.
As far as when Philles was active, there’s not much I can think of besides the promotional materials and ads that came along with new releases, other than that ‘Thanks for Giving Me the Right Time’ clock, which I don’t have, nor do I particularly care about having, given how much it sells for when it does show up.
The two ‘Rare Masters’ compilations that came out in the mid-70s contained a wealth of fully-realised, but up-until-then unreleased Spector productions. Do you think there are more recordings like these left in the Spector tape vault? Have you heard some that other fans have undoubtedly yet to hear?
Well, we’ve yet to see release of ‘Someday (Baby)’ or ‘Padre’ by The Ronettes, and I read a post on Cue Castanets! speculating that they may have recorded ‘I’ll Never Need More than This’ as well.
I haven’t heard ‘Padre’ but its existence has been confirmed by a very reliable source. It’s the same song made famous by Toni Arden and, later, Valerie Carr, and it’s fun to imagine it as a Philles-era Ronettes track.
Then there’s the very odd case of a Gold Star acetate dated 1967, supposedly after both Philles and The Ronettes had disbanded: a commercial for Rheingold Beer with vocals on one side credited to The Ronettes and on the other by Phil Spector.
From the late-Philles era, we also haven’t seen release of Phil’s ‘Pretty Girl’, ‘Lucy in London’ or ‘Down at TJ’s.’
I was thrilled when The Crystals’ version of ‘Woman in Love (with You)’ was finally released a few years back, but we still haven’t heard — officially, anyway — their ‘Chico’s Girl’ or ‘Mary Ann’ or Darlene Love’s ‘It’s My Party’ or ‘You Can’t Sit Still’ (the backing track for which became ‘Dr. Kaplan’s Office.’)
That’s probably not a complete list, but it’s what comes to mind as we chat. Then there’s all Phil’s unreleased Apple-era stuff, and at least one finished production from the 70s PSI period: Tina Turner doing the Irving Berlin song ‘Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.’
Add to that all the miscellaneous stuff through the years, the fabled Molly Ringwald and Celine Dion sessions, and the many, many demos, and there’s plenty left to be unearthed.
Mono or stereo? Or both? How do you feel about stereo mixes of Spector’s recordings?
Both, please! In some ways, it’s like listening to two different records, though this is more or less true depending on the particular cut. The background vocals are even different between the mono and stereo versions of The Ronettes’ ‘How Does It Feel’ for goodness’ sake!
I guess what I like is ‘dissecting’ mono recordings by listening to them in stereo to better make out all the individual components of the massed sound I hear in mono. To hear something more clearly may or may not mean to hear it ‘better’, but it helps put the puzzle together.
That said, I love the Christmas album in stereo. That blew my mind when it first came out in 1975, and it still does; I wish it would be released that way again. There’s an unbelievable amount of detail to discover there; the clattering percussion in ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’, for example, just doesn’t work as well in mono as far as I’m concerned.
I would imagine a fan and collector like you have been to LA several times, almost on a sort of pilgrimage. Did you ever get to visit Gold Star Studios?
Nope, never made it to Gold Star.
Actually, the only time I’ve ever been to Los Angeles was in 2013 to see Ronnie Spector’s ‘Beyond the Beehive’ show. I’d lusted after a Gold Star jacket for many years, so I was excited to score one as a premium for my Kickstarter support of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ documentary last year. Yes, it’s a replica, not an original, but it’ll do for now.
Spector’s last production job was Starsailor’s ‘Silence is Easy’ and ‘White Dove’ if you don’t take Hargo’s ‘Crying for John Lennon’ and Rachelle Spector’s solo album into consideration. I suspect he was involved only in name on those two projects.
But the Starsailor cuts,… how did you feel about those when they came out? Personally, I love ‘Silence is Easy’ but I understand those who had hoped for more of a trademark Wall of Sound on it?
Gee, it’s been a while since I listened to the Starsailor cuts, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem to me that anyone had produced ‘White Dove’, as opposed to merely recording it.
Now, ‘Silence Is Easy’ … that song is produced, and damn well. I’m not sure I would have guessed it to be a Spector production had you just played it for me cold, so in that sense I suppose I was mildly disappointed, but the brooding feel starts as a simmer and builds effectively to a boil, as befits the song, so Phil did right by it.
There’s been some much-deserved hype concerning Denny Tedesco’s documentary on the Wrecking Crew. Hal Blaine’s book has seen a reprint, Don Randi has a book coming out, there’s said to be a Jack Nitszche documentary in the works and we have also recently had two new books on the Wrecking Crew.
Is there anyone out there from that whole recording scene that you hope will feel inspired to share their stories like for instance Hal and Don has done?
I’d love to hear from David and Dan Kessel; in fact, I keep hoping that you’ll interview them (or at least Dan, who seems to be the more talkative of the twins). Have you asked them?
Between their Gold Star/Spector and showbiz connections, including having had their own Martian Records label, it would seem like there would be a book’s worth of material there. Besides being interesting, it’d bridge the gap between the original Wrecking Crew and the later sessions when, admittedly, plenty of the old gang was still around, but lots of new players and singers were used as well.
That’s certainly a good idea for an interview. I’ll look into that!
Finally, to round off, please share with us your all-time top 5 Spector productions?
I’m glad you asked that, because I know you’ve asked others the same thing, so I started thinking about it when you asked to interview me and I’m as ready as I can possibly be, though numbers three through five might change if you ask me next year:
‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ – Darlene Love
‘Is This What I Get for Loving You’ – The Ronettes
‘Little Boy’ – The Crystals
‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ – Ike and Tina Turner
‘Memories’ – Leonard Cohen
Wow, a Cohen track on your top 5? I’ve never paid that much attention to ‘Death of a Ladies Man.’ Your listing of ‘Memories’ will definitely prompt me to re-listen to the album again with open ears.
David, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. Much appreciated!
It’s been a while since this blog was really active but I hope you still check in from time to time to look for new posts. If you haven’t done so already, you could sign up for e-mail alerts whenever I post anything.
The reason why it’s been so quiet around here is that I’ve been extremely busy at work. Springtime and summer also generally means that I tend to listen more to the Beach Boys and harmony & sunshine pop than the Wall of Sound. For some reason I’m always more in the mood for the latter type of sound during fall and winter. And to top all this off – and here’s some blatant self-promotion – my band has been hard at work finishing our second album which you can check out here: https://surfschooldropouts.bandcamp.com/album/second-nature
So there you have it. I’ve been too busy to keep up the pace of the first couple of months blogging. Rest assured, I have lots of ideas for future posts that I’m sure will end up here over time. So please, stop by once in a while.
With that, I’m happy to publish a newly conducted interview with Kingsley Abbott, UK-based music journalist, reviewer, collector etc. I’ve been a fan of Kingsley’s work for many years and cherish his various books on, among other things, the Beach Boys, Motown and also Phil Spector. Besides issuing his own quality books, Kingsley also writes articles and reviews for music magazines like Record Collector, Uncut or Mojo. A very knowledgeable music fan -and expert I’m very glad to be able to publish his thoughts on various Spector topics.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Kingsley, let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember when you became aware of Phil Spector’s music and his specific approach to production? Was there a particular song that won you over? And why?
I think it was something of a cumulative effect rather than one particular moment. I had really enjoyed both sides of the He’s A Rebel 45. He’s a Rebel for its ‘rolling along’ sound with the pianos, and I Love You Eddie for its ethereal and cavernous sound.
Then along came Da Doo Ron Ron which was joyous and infectious and one everyone loved, and then Be My Baby with the fully formed Wall Of Sound. My enjoyment of this one was begun with Penny Valentine’s great review of it in Disc & Music Echo – a lead review alongside The Jaynettes’ Sally Go Round The Roses, which she also loved.
After these I began to track back a little and pick up on ones I had missed like The Crystals Rebel follow-up. From then on I was 100 % sold on the Wall Of Sound, even though at that stage I had no idea of how it was done or what made the ‘big rumble’. It just excited me in a deep and gutsy way.
As someone growing up during the 60s how did you experience the UK reception of Spector’s recording approach and his Philles roster?
As with the Beach Boys, the Four Tops and others, Spector’s music seemed to demand more praise and respect on UK soil than in the US, at least during the latter part of the 60s? A notable Spector example could be the chart success of River Deep in the UK in contrast to its relative failure in the US. What are your thoughts on the cause of this difference?
In the UK, even then, I think we were interested in who and what was making the sounds. So we read the small print credits much more than they appear to have ever done in the States. This led us to thinking about writers, producers and later to musicians even though they did not get the credit early on. Spector albums would start to add some of the key players on them – Tedesco, Blaine et al – so this took us a bit deeper.
There were also fan groups for not just artists, but genres of sound – Tamla Motown Appreciation Society being the best example. I joined TMAS and eventually ended up running Stevie Wonder’s fan club for some years. By contrast, the Beach Boys Club was very poor then.
UK fans were intelligent in their musical appreciation. We had good ears, and picked up on a wide variety of fine music: West Coast harmony, Spector, Motown, Four Seasons, other club soul, Southern Soul, girl groups etc. Some fans specialised, while others like me loved the whole variety – I still do.
We could hear that River Deep was an amazing record, so quite rightly it sold in our market. In the States it failed by comparison as some radio people wanted to take Phil down a peg or two. Many potential US buyers never got to hear it at the time.
Were you a member yourself? And if so, how would you describe the world of Spector fandom as you have experienced it?
I think I was a member for a short time, but I’m not totally sure. I tended then to go my own way with a small group of friends. Being part of TMAS was the exception. Some years later I did get very excited by Mick Patrick’s Philately magazine, which I thought was fabulous with its illumination of rare records and its articles.
I’m delighted to say that Mick is still a pal. We have just finished up a new CD for Ace Records where he now works, and where I am involved in a small way too. Since the sixties, I have met some of the hardcore group of fans you speak of – great people who love the music!
You’re a record collector yourself. Could you tell a bit about your most treasured items in the ‘Wall of Sound’ section of your personal collection?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to Spector productions. It could also be sound-alikes. If there are interesting anecdotes attached to some of your finds, please do tell.
This is hard! I treasure them all, but not for value. I’m just happy to have the great sounds in a variety of formats.
I was very happy to find Home Of The Brave – Bonnie & The Treasures – on Phi-Dan and the two Veronica singles, and I have enjoyed owning several original copies of the more obscure songs. But it is also fun to have things like the bootleg of Let’s Dance the Screw and Please Be My Boyfriend, hence the piece about the latter in my Spector book.
I do recall driving back through South East London and stopping off at a Deptford junk shop where I bought a huge box of 1000 US singles for just £10 I think. The best find there was Josephine Sunday’s You Don’t Even Know her Name on Tower, which I loved. Many of my best finds come from Charity shops of junk boxes. I’m still finding goodies to this day.
Your eagerly awaited ‘Little symphonies – a Phil Spector reader’ finally came out in 2011, – a very enjoyable collection of essays and interviews with insiders all revolving around Phil Spector’s music.
Why did you set out to compile this interesting collection of texts? Did you feel there was a specific void within the realm of Spector books that you wanted to cover?
Thank you for the kind words – I think it is quite a decent little book.
I saw doing it very much as completing my trilogy of books about the best of US sixties music – Back to the Beach (Beach Boys), Calling Out Around the World (Motown) and Spector. Ideally, it would have been the same size as the other two, but there were good reasons why it needed to be smaller. I took the same approach: a mix of old key articles and newly written perspectives and interviews that had worked well for the other two books, and that people told me they really liked.
With the Spector book I saw the Mark Wirtz and Phil Chapman interviews as taking readers deeper and wider into the technical understanding of how Phil worked. I was asking them questions that I genuinely wanted to know the answers to myself. I also added my appendices – I like lists, reference points etc at the back of books – I guess it is a bit nerdy. But hey, they were my books!
The UK had its fair share of Spector worshippers testing the meters behind recording consoles, some of whom gave Spector a run for his money. Anyone in particular you’d like to comment on? Or perhaps some overlooked figure who more celebrated UK would-be-Spectors like Andrew Loog Oldham or Mark Wirtz have overshadowed?
Many tried, but few really achieved. In my book 500 Lost Gems there is the story about Spector himself probably being in the control room when Adrienne Posta cut Shang a Doo Lang.
As I say in the Spector book, I think Phil Chapman was probably the best at replicating not just the sound, but the feel. Many of his recordings are fabulous, and even better are some that have never been released, like a cover of Paradise and a version of Here It Comes. They sound wonderful through his studio speakers!
I also somewhere have a great cut produced by Biddu – I don’t know if this was ever released, so I need to check that one out with Mick P. one day. As a brief aside comment, it is wonderful to listen to the bootleg CDs of Spector in the studio, and just how positive and good humoured it was between him and the musicians – there was obvious mutual respect between them all – great to hear, and of course fascinating to hear the tracks take shape. Spector had very, very good ears!
… and speaking of Spector sound-alikes in general; could you mention a couple of your favorites? I imagine some have ended up on Ace’s fab Phil’s Spectre compilations but others may still only be found on dusty old vinyl singles?
I think I tend more towards the Spector-influenced rather that the soundalikes, so I would want to talk about some of the great Goffin – Titelman songs like What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby) which is fab in any one of several versions; Chiffons, Lesley Gore or the Inspirations. – also Tammy Grimes, and I do like Jack Nitzsche’s production on Michelle Phillips’s album Victim Of Romance – why has there never been a Jack Nitzsche book? And please don’t tell me that there is, and I’ve missed it!
With any of these though, It is first and foremost the quality of the song that counts above everything, before any production job. Ace’s Phil’s Spectre series is wonderful, and I would recommend them to anyone. You should have them all, and the Jack Nitzsche series, especially the final one ….and the first…and the second of course!
How do you feel about the stereo versions of Spector’s 60s productions that have crept out? Personally, I really like to hear them but they tend to divide fans due to the simple stereo separation.
I’m happy either way. I’ve never been fussed about mono/stereo debates and the way some hardcore fans or some people get so hung up on that sort of minute detail. First the song, vocal performance, track and production are way way ahead for me. Having said though, if I wanted to play the Crystals’ I Wonder, one of my biggest faves, I would play the London 45 very very loud!
Spector’s 70s productions is another topic that can cause heated debate. Some really love most of them; others find his work like that on the Dion album prodding and dirge-like. How do you feel about this phase of his career?
It was always at least interesting. He was trying new feels to my ears. The Dion album was Ok in parts, a bit less so in others, but always interesting. I did interview Dion and speak to him about it, and it was obviously not one of his best experiences, and probably that affected the album as much as anything.
I think the reason that many fans don’t like it so much is that it wasn’t overtly poppy. We had become used to Spector making POP records, and loving them, and this was different. Perhaps that’s why the Ramones did get a hit with Baby I Love You. Although it had a different feel, it was still a pop song when many others weren’t. But for me I’ll take ’em all for the interest.
Is there any particular artist or album from the last 20-30 years or so you’d like to recommend for any Spector fan urging for a bombast fix?
We live in a time of retromania, as music journalist Simon Reynolds has titled an interesting book of his, but when new acts today harken back to the 60s in their approach they usually go the garage, Motown or psych route. Do you know of any recent artists with a sound that would warrant an approving nod from Spector or Jack Nitzsche?
Why not recommend that people go back to the original hits? No one has ever bettered them. Many of the so-called Spector influenced recent or less recent recordings have none of the feels that we would love. People think that if they add castanets and echo they are making a Spector record – NOT SO! This is much like many of the cod-Motown records that have always been around – nobody cut them like the guys in the Snakepit.
Having said that, there are some sounds that capture some of the feels – once again I differentiate between feels and production – and create nice pieces. I have a new snippet of a local retro-influenced group here in Norwich called Rope Store with Never Too Late to Love. It’s only a ten second snippet, but it made me prick up my ears. I think you can find it on the net. I’ll look forward to hearing the full and finished version.
What would always get an approving nod from Phil or Jack would be quality in all departments!
Finally, a question I always conclude my interviews with; please share with us your all-time five Spector productions.
So difficult, but in no particular order: He’s A Rebel, I Wonder, Lovin’ Feelin’, Baby I Love You and Little Boy – with the latter I love the sheer excess and murkiness. Tomorrow, I will probably look at this and pick different ones.
Kingsley, it’s been very interesting to read your take on the Spector sound. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
We’re nearing the end of the year. A time suitable for looking back and thinking about what the past year has offered. In terms of vintage Spector sounds not much, I’m afraid. A quiet year then. No reissues from Sony Legacy in time for the all important Christmas sales.
It was probably a wise move not to be too specific at this early stage as Phil Spector has been notoriously difficult to deal with in the past. On top of that, being behind bars due to the outcome of the Lana Clarkson trial certainly can’t have helped matters. Here’s what we know – spread out over a couple of, admittedly, nicely done and good-sounding compilations, we’ve basically had reissues of the same stuff collectors have had for decades on either vinyl, the Back to Mono box or the old ABKCO single-artist releases. Do I even have to tell you we’ve had the gazillion reissue of the Christmas album?
The only ‘meat’ in this campaign so far has been the unreleased Crystals take of ‘Woman in Love’ on the Crystals compilation and the stylish Philles Album Collection mini-box set with replica-sleeves, both released in 2011. The latter was a great release for sure but also proved a bit of a disappointment because that set’s rarities disc only included the instrumental throwaway B-sides so typical for Philles singles. This disc is where Sony Legacy really had a golden opportunity to present some of the unheard goodies that must no doubt linger in the Spector tape vault. The question of course is this – has this even been an option for them?
Through other collectors I’ve heard rumors that Spector still controls his catalogue with an iron fist, even at this stage where he’s locked away. Apparently, Sony employees involved in the campaign have had meetings with him in prison, no doubt finding negotiations extremely difficult. Using the tapes for remixing iconic songs into first-time stereo releases? Forget it! Only mono! Unearthing all those half-baked or non-completed songs recorded during the Philles era and releasing them as an interesting ‘fly-on-the-wall’ listening experience? No way! You get the drift. As has been the case throughout Spector’s career he zealously guards his tapes, which are said to be well looked after with everything nicely catalogued by a few trusted people.
Spector of course has every right to do as he pleases. And to some extent he probably also has a point in terms of artistic integrity. Why should unfinished songs or completed productions deemed to weak for release in the 60s come out now and tarnish Philles’ reputation as a label with a fantastic hit rate and releases of utmost quality? Or take the possibility of new stereo remixes. Wouldn’t that be comparable to, say, taking a painting by Picasso and adding new layers of paint to give it a different feel? On the other hand, unlike Picasso, Spector’s art was the result of many people’s efforts. He had the grand vision but the final artistic statement rests upon the talent of not just him but assorted songwriters, singers and session musicians. Unfinished or unreleased songs or new stereo mixes could be said to honor and highlight their contributions even more. I’d certainly be first in line for any such releases, including stereo as I love the odd stereo versions that have come out (Ronettes, Righteous Brothers, the Christmas album etc.)
Indulge me then in a bit of an ‘what if’ scenario. Let’s dream up the perfect release Sony Legacy could issue in a parallel universe where Phil Spector gladly opened up his tape vault. The following is a Spector collector’s wet dream…
I see before me ‘Little Symphonies for the Kids’ – an eight disc box luxuriously packaged with replica session sheets, reproductions of Ray Avery Gold Star photo shoots suitable for framing and a coffee table book that would make the otherwise great Back to Mono book seem like a children’s picture book in comparison.
Disc 1 and 2:All new stereo mixes made with care and respect using the old tapes.
This is where you’ll finally get to hear ‘This Could Be the Night’, ‘Is this What I Get for Loving You’ or ‘I Wonder’ (Crystals’ version) in crystal-clear stereo bringing out all the intricacies of the backing tracks and string arrangements. What a revelation that would be!
Disc 3 and 4:Rare and unreleased Philles-era stuff galore.
Don’t worry. Not a single instrumental throwaway B-side in sight here! Instead you’ll get the obscure Philles-era releases as well as known unreleased tracks. We’re talking stuff like ‘Home of the Brave’ by Bonnie & the Treasures, ‘Ringo I Love You’ by Bonnie Jo Mason, ‘He’s my Eddie Baby’ by the Lovelites, ‘Please be my Boyfriend’ by the Crystals, ‘Everything Under the Sun’ by Ike & Tina Turner,… and of course Phil’s own ‘Down at TJ’s theme song’ and ‘Lucy in London’. All in warm-sounding excellent mono mixes.
But the real surprise here is the stuff we’ve only heard rumors about through the years. Some are finished productions, others are clearly works-in-progress with tentative vocal takes or missing string arrangements. This could include ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘Chico’s Girl’ by the Crystals, ‘It’s my Party’ and ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ by Darlene Love, ‘Someday (Baby)’ and ‘Things are Changing’ by the Ronettes, a Philles’era ‘Soul & Inspiration’ by the Righteous Brothers and ‘Baby, Don’t You Get Crazy’ by the Checkmates Ltd.
But among these songs which have long been rumored to exist you’ll also discover things completely from left field. Wait? Two new, finished songs with the Modern Folk Quartet proving that Spector could have pursued a Wall of Folk-Rock had he wanted to? And here’s a 2 minute and 15 seconds snippet of Brian Wilson and Phil running through ‘Don’t Hurt my Little Sister’ on the piano in Gold Star! And this next one – why, it’s a Philles-era ‘New York’s a Lonely Town’ credited to the Treasures with a much more intricate arrangement than the Red Bird release. And skip to track 14 on CD 4 – a fully fledged production with Harry Nillson singing a majestic ballad… There’s no telling how much gold the Spector tape vault includes but I’ll bet there’s a great deal – if nothing else, I’m sure his in-house producers Jerry Riopelle and Pete Anders & Vinnie Poncia must have committed quite a few interesting sessions and song ideas to tape.
Disc 5 and 6: The ‘All in all it’s just another Brick in the Wall’ session tapes
Presented in perfect sound here are excerpts from a wide range of sessions with studio chatter and various takes of the most beloved hits. Hear how Phil, Anders & Poncia and the Wrecking Crew work out the intro to Do I Love You along the way. Listen in when Sonny Bono cracks everyone up at the Girl’s Can Tell session. Hear Phil throw a tantrum when Bobby Hatfield keeps messing up the words on ‘Ebb Tide.’
Disc 7 and 8: The 70s and beyond
Finally, two discs comprising the Wall of Sound stuff Spector has worked on since shutting down Philles, including unreleased stuff. You’ll get a stereo ‘You Came, You Saw, You Conquered’ by the Ronettes, choice cuts from the George Harrison and John Lennon projects including nice-sounding stereo version of ‘Lovely Laddy Day’ and ‘You’ sung by Ronnie Spector, ‘A Woman’s Story’ and ‘Baby I Love You’ by Cher for the first time on CD. Check out the unreleased songs by Jerri Bo Keno and the Paley Brothers, – you’ll even find that horrible Kim Fowley track from the old ‘Spector 74/79’ LP!
Best of all, after an alternative take of Baby I Love You by the Ramones you’ll finally get to hear the three backing tracks recorded during the aborted Celine Dion sessions in the early 90s. Her vocals have been taken off due to contractual reasons but hearing ‘Is this what I Get for Loving You’ pulsating in shimmering stereo is pure bliss. Final track on the box? ‘Silence is Easy’ by Starsailor – the ‘unused Phil Spector mix.’ Much heavier on the echo, a dense wall of strummed acoustic guitars added, more glockenspiel tinkling in the background and even a string arrangement introduced half-way through.
Too good to be true, isn’t it? And of course, this is something that one can only fantasize about. But still, the fact that the Sony Legacy reissue campaign hasn’t resulted in just a tiny bit along these lines is heartbreakening. Time will tell if we ever get to see anything come out of this deal or the Spector tapes in general in the future. Cross your fingers!
Collecting Modern Spector soundalikes means listening to endless variations of the Wall of Sound that have a dark undertone of heartbreak and drama – see my recent post on Lykke Li for a good example.
It’s remarkable that the vast majority of these soundalikes go for a tense, even sinister feel in the grooves when you consider the fact that a lot of Spector’s big hits were jubilant and carefree. Think ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Not to Young to get Married’ or ‘A Fine Fine Boy.’
I suppose today’s young musicians steer away from this type of fun and playful Spector tradition because many consider such songs too banal or kliche? And that instead infusing your song and its production with melodrama and edginess will guarantee it’s coolness with the indie-crowd. I don’t have my nose in the air about this, mind you. Young musicians going down this path, no doubt inspired by Phil Spector’s public image as a gunblazing ‘Stalin of the Studio’, has brought great results. But when someone comes along today with a song that goes against this tradition it really does feel like a breath of fresh air.
…which leads me to ‘Hey Boy’, a fun little ditty that the Memphis-based indie-pop band Magic Kids issued as a single in 2009. It was included in slightly reworked form on their debut album the following year. What’s remarkable about this extremely catchy song is that unlike most these days they did go for the bonafide ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ feel, castanets and all! Heck, if the lyrics were revised to reflect a female point-of-view I could easily imagine LaLa Brooks fronting the Crystals on a Spector-version back in the day. It’s exciting, it’s bouncy, it’s snappy – what’s not to like?
I don’t know if this low-budget video is the official one but it’s the best one I could find…
Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…