Phil Spector. The name alone is likely to make some Beatles fans choke on their cornflakes or gnash their teeth in a fevered frenzy as they rail against his production of Let It Be. Indeed, when his death was announced recently some people on social media seemed to have more of an issue with his alleged blight on The Beatles’ recorded legacy than with the fact that he was a convicted murderer. But, putting value judgements to one side, is such antipathy really justified? After all, this was a musical magician whom all the Fab Four idolised. Who was invited to help salvage the Let It Be tapes when no-one else wanted to, and whose most contentious production job on it resulted in a US #1 single and a standard which remains one of the best-loved Beatles recordings. A man who co-produced three of the most acclaimed Fabs solo albums (two of which were also among the most commercially successful), and who was Lennon’s go-to guy for half his solo career. The brains behind the sound of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Imagine’. Before losing his marbles, did he really do such a terrible job?
Let me say, first of all, that I’m not here to discuss Spector’s criminal misdemeanors or defend them in any way. I understand how difficult it can be to distinguish the artist (and the art) from the human being (cf. Michael Jackson), and if you feel his offence and general behaviour cannot be separated from his musical achievements, then read no further. What I would say is that this post concentrates purely on his direct association with The Beatles from 1970-73, decades before his murder trial and subsequent imprisonment. It’s true his dangerous instability and declining mental health had already started to manifest themselves during this period (notably when he fired a gun into the ceiling during one of the recording sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and subsequently made off with all the tapes), but the terrible consequences of later years were still some way off. What I find hard to fathom, if you will forgive the analogy, is why Spector is so often put on trial for his work with the Fabs and usually found guilty. I guess, ultimately, it’s a matter of taste and changing fashions, but is it a fair judgement? Let’s consider the evidence.
Spector made a big impression on The Beatles right from the off. The debut single he wrote for his band The Teddy Bears in 1958, ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, became a mainstay of The Beatles setlist (albeit with a change to “her” in the title), performed at their 1962 Decca audition and appearing on both the Live at the Star Club and Live at the BBC albums. It was such a favourite of John’s, in particular, that he returned to it for his Rock ‘n’ Roll album in the 1970s. They were also fans of early ‘60s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Crystals, with whom Spector honed his famous ‘Wall of Sound’ production techniques, laying instruments upon instruments upon instruments to create a dense, monolithic sound. Or, as he put it, “little symphonies for the kids”. Though their paths crossed socially – Spector was on the flight to New York with them in February 1964 when they subsequently conquered America – they never worked together, though Macca did tell biographer Mark Lewisohn in 1988 that the band so admired his work on the magnificent Ike and Tina Turner single ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ that they did consider it. They never departed from George Martin, though, and I don’t think they ever would have. They trusted him, and – I think – instinctively recognised that he was fully committed to (and brilliantly adept at) helping them realise their vision in the studio, rather than imposing his own. Which might not have been the case with Spector.
Nonetheless, when 1970 rolled around, the group was virtually defunct, and John was first out of the blocks in exploring new directions. In January, apparently at George’s suggestion, he asked Spector to produce his solo single ‘Instant Karma’. And the American did such a fine job, updating the old rock ‘n’ roll sound to perfection without resorting to lots of overdubs, Lennon and Harrison subsequently invited him to work on The Beatles’ long-delayed Get Back/Let It Be recordings, made over a year earlier. Previous mixes had been rejected by the band but now, with the accompanying film scheduled to hit cinemas in the spring, time was pressing to get an LP ready for release. You probably know the rest – Spector overhauls the album; McCartney hits the roof over his unauthorised arrangement of ‘The Long and Winding Road’; the group breaks up amid a welter of claims, counter-claims and lawsuits, and the reputation of the album is tarnished forever after, with Spector invariably held responsible by commentators, critics and fans alike. Paul even approved a “de-mixed” version of the record in 2003, Let It Be…Naked, which stripped away Spector’s changes and also used a completely set of recordings into the bargain.
So, what was wrong with Spector’s version of Let It Be? Well, not a lot, in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, seek out one of the early mixes made by engineer Glyn Johns. The one I’ve heard is terrible – the band sounds sluggish, sloppy and lethargic. There are some great songs, but no sparkle, no energy. The back-to-basics, “let’s record live in the studio like we used to” ethos of the sessions was a good idea, but the end results weren’t always up to scratch, particularly in the fractious early sessions at Twickenham film studios. If this early incarnation of the album had been released, it would’ve unquestionably been the low point in their recording career. Yet the finished version has Beatles magic in abundance. Quite simply, Spector saved the album – he chose better takes, made some clever edits, polished up the sound and added some trademark orchestral overdubs (where the song lent itself to a grander sound – it’s not as if he ladled strings all over ‘Dig A Pony’ or One After 909’). Those overdubs are, of course, the real bone of contention, but are they really so out of kilter with the group’s oeuvre? I concede that they lack the subtlety George Martin would have brought to the table, but I think they’re great, nonetheless. The score for ‘I Me Mine’ is deliciously dramatic and if the song had been released on George’s All Things Must Pass later in the year, critics would’ve been hailing it a masterpiece. For my money, his additions give ‘Across The Universe’ a suitable celestial feel and improve on The Beatles’ earlier version of the track, and – whisper it– I also prefer his full-on, all-guns-blazing take on ‘Let It Be’ to the more restrained single version produced by George Martin.
Which leaves us with his most controversial reworking of all, ‘The Long and Winding Road’. Paul really resented the addition of harps and a female choir, in particular (the changes actually featured in the High Court proceedings about the legal dissolution of The Beatles, with Macca citing them as unauthorised interference with his work), and I completely get where he was coming from. It was his song, after all, and he should have had complete control over how it was presented. The irony was, of course, that Spector’s embellishments surely enhanced the song’s commercial appeal. It stormed to #1 when released as a single in the US, and has become a global standard, a staple of Paul’s concert setlists, and one of the most popular (and covered) Beatles songs of all. No less a personage than Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys says it is his favourite Fabs track. So for all the moaning by some fans and critics, millions of people love it exactly the way it is – and I’m one of them. In fact, it was one of the songs which first drew me to The Beatles, and remains the one I probably love the best. I can see why some feel it is over-produced (and, indeed, overblown), but for me it’s just majestic. The orchestration swells and soars in all the right places, cranking up the inherent emotion in the music and squeezing out every last drop of pathos from the lyric. While’s Paul’s exquisite live rendition on Wings Over America may just shade it as the best version, the Spector take is certainly a big step up from the original, unadorned performances later released on The Beatles Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked (the latter boasting a horrible, truly inappropriate organ solo by Billy Preston).
So I think Spector gets a seriously bum rap for his work on the final Beatles album. Yes, he seriously strayed from the original “live” intention for the album (on some tracks), but the band had already veered away from that by overlaying new parts to a few of the tunes at subsequent sessions. Let’s remember Spector was asked to get involved, that previous, more ‘raw’ mixes had been rejected, and that the band members were already focused on solo projects by this point and showed little interest in revisiting what were – for them – quite old recordings. It also wasn’t Spector’s fault that George had opted to withdraw some really strong songs (notably ‘All Things Must Pass’) midway through the original January 1969 sessions, and that John hadn’t really turned up with much in the way of new material in the first place. Had Spector been able to include the best Lennon number from that period, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (already released the b-side of ‘Get Back’ a year earlier), I think it would’ve pushed the album into top tier Beatles – certainly on a par with Abbey Road. Or, as John put it in less laudatory terms: “Phil did a great job….when I heard it, I didn’t puke.”
John and George must’ve been happy with the finished result, as they both placed themselves in Spector’s hands to launch their post-Beatles careers. In George’s case, it was effectively a straight continuation of the American’s work on Let It Be. Everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at some numbers, such as the thunderous ‘Wah Wah’ and the epic ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, imbuing with them with a sweeping, grandiose sound which Rolling Stone magazine aptly described as “music of mountain tops and vast horizons”. Other tunes had a more rootsy, low-key approach, such as the country-flavoured ‘Behind That Locked Door’, while the likes of ‘What Is Life’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ represented expertly-honed pop perfection. There’s more of a variety of styles here than many would have you believe, and it all sounds great to me. Yes, some of the individual musicianship is sacrificed in the blur of the overall sound on occasion – hence we’re being treated to the inevitable remix when the album is re-released later this year, as I discussed in a recent post. But I can’t get too excited about that; for me, the original more-is-more Harrison/Spector production is an intrinsic part of the album’s appeal. George did switch to a more scaled-down approach for the rest of his solo career, perhaps wisely not trying to outdo his own magnum opus, but it’s telling that the best track (for me) on his follow-up, 1973’s Living in the Material World, is ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ – the one produced, in typically lavish style, by Phil Spector.
By contrast, John chose to rein in Spector’s extravagances on his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. In fact, it is almost the polar opposite of a typical Wall of Sound production, a raw, bare bones record with no more than three instruments on any one track and seemingly so little in the way of studio polish you wonder why Lennon employed the American at all. But then you listen to the way those instruments fill out the sonic landscape, and the co-producer’s fingerprints become more apparent. He really makes his mark on the sonorous ‘Mother’ and, in particular, on the spectacular ‘God’, which sounds as monumental as anything on All Things Must Pass, despite featuring only bass, drums and a couple of pianos. Thereafter, Lennon gradually began to release the brake on Spector’s natural inclinations. Their next collaboration, 1971’s Imagine, struck the perfect balance between Spector’s ornamentation and Lennon’s minimalist tendencies at that time. While still relatively sparse in make-up, the songs were fleshed out with more instrumentation, including strings and saxophones, and possess a generally richer, warmer feel. George Martin later said he would have loved to have worked on this album, but it’s hard to see how even he could have done a better job, particularly on tracks like ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which all sound faultless.
The shift towards the Spector way of doing things continued on the glorious ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ single, which had all the (sleigh) bells and whistles one would expect from the man who gave us the legendary Phil Spector Christmas Album. And it was also evident on John’s next collection, 1972’s Some Time in New York City – in fact, Spector’s work is one of the saving graces of a hugely disappointing album. He particularly shines in helping to conjure up the booming, impassioned agitpop of ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, the nightmarish, swampy sound of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and the yearning atmosphere of ‘Angela’ (though his sickly sweet arrangement for ‘Luck of the Irish’ is one of many missteps in an unbelievably dire creation).
It was on the ill-fated 1973 sessions for John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll oldies project, however, that Spector was given carte blanche to rebuild his famous Wall of Sound, and did so with total abandon, employing whole battalions of brass and string players to breath new life into the vintage material. Unfortunately, his own increasingly erratic behaviour and the licentiousness of the sessions (John was entering his infamous ‘Lost Weekend’ separation from Yoko at this point) saw the album run aground amid a fog of booze, drugs and soaring studio costs. Spector scarpered with the master tapes and, by the time they were retrieved the following year, a more sober, focused John decided to finish the record without him. The resulting album, which came out in 1975, is dominated by more simple Lennon-led productions, though a few of the original Spector tracks did make the final cut – notably a full-blooded take on Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. What is mystifying, however, is that the best numbers from the Spector sessions didn’t see the light of day until after Lennon’s death. Maybe John felt he wasn’t fully in control of his faculties when he sang them but, either way, there’s a heartfelt, naked emotion about his performances on ‘Angel Baby’ and two Spector co-compositions, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’. These tracks capture both artist and producer somewhere near their best.
For Spector, however, this was the end of his association with The Beatles and, with a couple of exceptions, pretty much his last major throw of the dice in the music business. He became an increasingly reclusive reclusive and bizarre figure, bedeviled by various health issues and crazed behaviour, culminating in the murder of actress Lana Clarkson in 2003 and his eventual imprisonment. It’s a tragic story which is hard to understand. But one thing I think he is categorically not guilty of is harming or spoiling The Beatles’ recorded work. On the contrary, I think he brought a huge amount to the table and has suffered from simply being the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time when it came to Let It Be, getting dragged into the mire of the band’s break-up through no fault of his own. His contributions to their work, as a band and as solo artists, were much more diverse than he’s given credit for; and while his “little symphonies for kids” may not be to everyone’s taste, they added yet another rich shade to The Beatles’ collective palette that I, for one, will always treasure.