Reviewed by Kevin O'Donnell
Sunday, July 8, 2007
TEARING DOWN THE WALL OF SOUND
The Rise and Fall Of Phil Spector
By Mick Brown
Knopf. 452 pp. $26.95
With his gaudy white suits, high-heeled boots and huge mess of hair, Phil Spector is making headlines for his bizarre courtroom appearances as he stands trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, found dead from a gunshot to the face in Spector's home in 2003. While Spector makes for scandalous tabloid fodder, the legendary record producer's greatest contribution to popular culture will forever remain his trademark "Wall of Sound," characterized by dozens of guitars, pianos, drums, strings and vocal harmonies all condensed through mono production. Employed on classic songs such as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," the "Wall of Sound" remains one of the most important breakthroughs in recorded music, and, with that accomplishment, Spector cemented his reputation as a genius.
But with his genius came erratic behavior. British journalist Mick Brown's exhaustively reported biography -- which includes an interview Brown conducted with Spector mere weeks before Clarkson's body was found -- traces the producer's rise and fall: from his tumultuous childhood with his overbearing mother and sister to his adulthood as a scrappy songwriter and producer to his present-day hermitage high in the hills of Alhambra, Calif.
Brown packs his book with gripping anecdotes. While some may be apocryphal, they paint Spector as an egomaniacal, insecure and duplicitous sociopath. For instance, to get out of a business contract with two of his partners and avoid sharing recording royalties, Spector "devised a plan that would fulfill his obligations while costing him next to nothing." Brown continues: "[Spector] recorded a mindless . . . dance song he had written himself called 'Let's Dance (The Screw)'. . . . But whatever the reasons behind the record, the implied meaning of the title -- screw you -- was not lost." Even ghastlier are tales of Spector's gun-wielding antics while recording with John Lennon and his boozy exploits while working with Leonard Cohen.
Like Spector's pop songs, Brown's biography is by no means intellectual. At times his tone becomes somewhat hysterical and gossipy, like an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music." And regrettably, considering that Brown had access to interview Spector, he rarely offers direct quotes from the man he attempts to unmask. (One chapter, in which Spector talks eloquently about his life, is the exception.) Still, Brown succeeds in providing a well-rounded portrait of someone the public never understood. And it comes at just the right time, too -- when they're asking more questions about him than ever before. ·
Kevin O'Donnell is on the editorial staff of Rolling Stone and contributes pop music reviews to The Post.