I’ve been meaning to start up a new feature on the blog called ’Odds & Ends’ where I briefly highlight some of the more obscure or overlooked releases in Spector’s body of work.
I came up with the idea thinking about how I came across his Wall of Sound myself back in about 2000 or 2001. First, I bought a Righteous Brothers compilation and it didn’t take long for me to single out the Spector productions as highlights. As a major Beach Boys fan I had heard about him before of course, but I hadn’t really investigated further. That Righteous Brothers compilation though set me off on a hunt, and naturally, back then, my first stop was the Back to Mono box.
I guess you could say that that box, with its beautiful book and four CDs, became my rite of passage to full blown Spector nut.
Even though it was a great experience discovering all the goodies inside, I quickly learned that there were more productions out there. The missing pieces of the puzzle was something I slowly gathered during the following years, learning about obscure 60s cuts and a wealth of later 70s material that had been left off the box.
Had there been a blog like this back then, it would surely have been a god-send for the 20-year-old me! It would have meant that I had gotten a much quicker overview of what to track down. And even though recent tragic events has somewhat tarnished the beauty inherent in Spector’s art, I’m hoping that, at some point, somewhere out there, young music fans will want to google ‘Spector’ and ‘Wall of Sound’ out of curiosity to see what all the fuss was about. When that happens, I hope they’ll find that this blog and that this and later installments of ‘Odds & Ends’ will make them realize the extent and brilliance of Spector’s music.
The first song I’ve selected to fly the flag for overlooked Spector cuts is ‘I Wonder’ by the Crystals.
I still remember when I heard ‘I Wonder’ for the first time. I’d seen it described numerous times as one of the most crazy, gargantuan Spector productions – the one where he really went over the edge, Cecil B. DeMille-style, and perhaps even more so than with ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. It sounded fascinating and extreme and I was thrilled when, at a local record fair, I spotted the Marginal Records grey-area release of all the Crystals songs, ‘I Wonder’ included.
I hurried home and put the CD on with much anticipation and a pulse galloping like a pair of Castanets at a Spector session. Then the voice of a teenaged LaLa Brooks came on, enveloped in exotic Spanish guitar lines and then – BOOM! Thunderbolt drumming capable of blowing out speakers! Fat, honking saxophones cutting through clutter like machetes through a jungle! Percussion so explosive it sounded as if a thousand guys were playing shakers and tambourines!
For something that came out in 1964, the year of Beatlemania and the ‘back to basics’ sound of the British Invasion, this deafening, monophonic monster production was almost bordering on the insane, … as if Spector was somehow daring his listeners to follow him into a land with no limits to the amount of sounds you could squeeze into a tiny slab of vinyl. The result, even today, is like being hit with a sonic sledgehammer!
Even Spector seems to have realized that it was all too much. That he’d crossed a line, pushing any hint of restraint into the stratosphere. The Crystals take of ‘I Wonder’, one of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s best songs in opinion, was never released in the US, Spector’s home turf. In the UK it only hit # 36 in the charts.
For me, the definitive take of ‘I Wonder’ is the album-only take by the Ronettes with the Crystals single a close second. It’s a shame it was left off Back to Mono. There’s even a third version by girl group the Butterflys issued by Red Bird Records the same year as the two others, 1964.
Ironically, this great take of the song was produced by Jeff Barry, together with Steve Venet, and with none other than two ex-Crystals as group members! Let’s finish off with their slowed-down version.