There have been "greatest hits" albums before, but never one quite like this. "Phil Spector's Greatest Hits" is a revolutionary record: It marks the first application of the auteur theory to rock 'n' roll, suggesting that it is not the songwriter, singer or musician who ultimately makes a record a hit, but the producer - the man who sits in the little glass booth just off the studio, shaping performer and performance alike.
The record producer's role is analagous to that of the film director, as Spector himself has painted out. "When you see a Kubrick movie," he recently told a British interviewer, "you tell me how many names you immediately remember in the cast . . . One? Two? It's the same thing with Fellini, and that's what I wanted to do when I directed a recording session . . . I used voices as just another instrument. Singers are instruments, they're tools to be worked with."
These are grand claims, but Spector has substantiated them with his work. The 24 songs on "Phil Spector's Greatest Hits" (Warner Bros/Spector 2SP 9104) are among the most famous recordings in rock 'n' roll history, and though they are performed by over a dozen different artists and span a 10-year period, all of them have one thing in common: The famous and vastly influential Phil Spector "wall of sound."
That technique was responsible for over a dozen top 10 singles during the years 1961-1966, but it surfaced most magnificently in a song that never became a hit in American, Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High." George Harrison has gone so far as to call it "a perfect record;" with its enormous string and horn section, its dense textures and overall Wagnerian tone, it is indeed an imposing recording.
In his essay on Spector for the "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll," Nik Cohn describes this "Spector sound" as "an apocalypse." "Through multitracking," he notes, Spector "made his rhythm sections sound like armies, turned the beat into a murderous, massed cannonade . . . Three pianos, half a dozen drummers, rattlers and assorted thumpers, whole battalions of brass and strings, all crashing and smashing away in deafening, murderous release."
There are hints of that style even in Spector's first hit, the maudlin "To Know Him is To Love Him," written and recorded in 1958, when Spector was only 17. By 1963, when The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Run" were recorded, Spector had refined and honed that sound, using, in a manner reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman, his own repertory company of responsive singers and studio musicians.
This perfectly operating piece of musical machinery produced hits almost at will, but with it came Spector himself - a prospect that many in the music business found less appetizing. Brash, arrogant, a millionaire before he was 21, Spector was tagged "The Tycoon of Teen" by Tom Wolfe. He did his best to live up to that title, setting up his own record label (Philles) and hanging out with The Beatles once their Spector-influenced sound became popular here.
It was the coming of The Beatles, ironically enough, that meant the end of the SPector era. The Fab Four wrote and played their own songs from the start, and eventually they moved into the production booth as well - encouraging other artists to do the same and making it harder for a single powerful figure, like Spector, to dominate in the studio.
Though he hasn't had a hit since producing John Lennon's "Imagine" and George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," the specter of Spector continues to haunt pop music in the '70s. The "wall of sound" is by now part of the working vocabulary of every producer; it can be heard both in Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" and in the disco tunes that now dominate radio airplay and the top 40 charts.
What's more, many of Spector's pupils and admirers have gone on to become producers themselves. If we are witnessing a resurgence of the producer's authority - and the highly personal stamp Richard Perry, Glyn Johns, Ken Scott, Peter Asher and others have put on records they've recently produced suggest that we are - then the time is obviously right for Phil Spector to make his comeback. After all, says no less an authority than John Lennon, he is "the greatest record producer ever."