In his entertaining and informative (if deeply flawed in its artist selection) book, Pioneers of Rock and Roll: 100 Artists Who Changed the Face of Rock, Harry Sumrall writes about the most influential artists in rock ‘n’ roll. The only producer he listed in his book was Phil Spector, who’s also the only producer with his own box set, the magnificent Back To Mono (correction: apparently there is another box set devoted to the works of another genius producer turned murderer, Joe Meek, titled Portrait Of A Genius). Of course, this is because Spector didn’t just produce; in many cases he wrote or co-wrote, played on, arranged, and was certainly the overall architect of the “Wall Of Sound,” whereby he stacked layer upon layer of instruments for a massive echoed sound that was Wagnerian in its epic scope. Most of these songs, dubbed “little symphonies for the kids” by Spector himself, are steeped in ‘50s r&b and doo-wop and are sung by some of the best pop voices of the era. There were plenty of behind-the-scenes heroes as well, from writers like Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Vincent Poncia Jr. and Pete Andreoli, who made sure that Phil had great songs, to the multitude of studio musicians, chief among them multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell, drummer Hal Blaine (most of these songs have great beats), bassist Carole Kaye, and arranger Jack Nitzsche.
Still, Spector, who started out as a barely 20-something wunderkind, was the star, of that there was no doubt; these were primarily the sounds in his head, and the artists - The Crystals, The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Darlene Love, and Ike & Tina Turner chief among them - were the vehicles whom he used to get his vision across. The instrumentation - pianos, strings, trombones, sax, castanetes, glockenspiels - was far from your standard fare, and though lyrically most of these songs express simple sentiments, they embody being young and in love perhaps better than any others. Indeed, above all else Spector was the king of teen romance, and as such these four cds are worth the hefty asking price, even though the fourth cd, his famous A Christmas Gift for You holiday album released in 1963, is also available separately elsewhere. Unlike most box sets, this one forsakes b-sides, rarities, live cuts and the like - Back To Mono is nothing but prime Phil Spector, and though perhaps many of these songs begin to blend together after awhile, there’s no doubting their high overall quality, and some of these songs, with their soaring strings, cavernous echo, booming beats, dramatic vocals (lead and background harmonies), and easily relatable lyrics about teen romance, are among the most monumentally perfect singles in rock history (many were smash hits, too).
Disc one is very ‘50s and loads of fun, starting with his first hit with The Teddy Bears, “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” which he famously took from his father’s tombstone in tribute. Ben E. King’s lush, lovely, exotic “Spanish Harlem” was co-written with Spector's mentor Jerry Lieber (famous for his legendary partnership with Mike Stoller), while on "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" and "Under The Moon Of Love" Curtis Lee delivers fun doo-woppy rock 'n' roll. It is underrated songs such as these and Gene Pitney's tremulous, dramatic "Every Breath I Take" that makes this box set so worthwhile even beyond the obvious classics. Of course, Spector was best known for his "girl groups," and disc one delivers a fair helping of Crystals classics, chief among them "Uptown," "He's A Rebel," "He's Sure The Boy I Love," and "Da Doo Ron Ron." "He's A Rebel" and "He's Sure The Boy I Love" were sung by an uncredited Darlene Love (causing lingering bad feelings all around), who also lends her spectacular voice to her own "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" and "Wait 'Till My Bobby Gets Home," among others (that's her singing with Bobbi Soxx & The Blue Jeans as well, for example). Not every song here is a bulls eye; "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" still can't overcome its troubling sexism and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" will always be a mere novelty, but there's a reason that these "mini-operas" later inspired the likes of Brian Wilson to attempt to use the "studio as an instrument" to an then-unprecedented degree. After all, a song like "Da Doo Ron Ron" may seem silly on the surface, but throw in a great beat, a creative arrangement, a classy vocal, and above all that massive wall of sound, and what you have is magical.
Disc two begins brilliantly with The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," arguably the greatest pure pop song ever. Hal Blaine's drum intro has been more imitated than any other, Ronnie Bennett (later Ronnie Spector, though the marriage was troubled to say the least; I'll say a little more about Phil Spector's personal "troubles" later) delivers a great yearning vocal, the backing vocals (also Ronnie and others including Darlene Love and Sonny and Cher) hit the spot, the overall rhythm is undeniable with the hand claps coming in at just the right junctures, the sound is massive and echoed, and the lyrics perfectly capture the youthful innocence of teen romance, all in a mere 2:41 - what more could anyone want? The Crystals exotic "Then He Kissed Me" is another all-time classic that perfectly encapsulates the excitement of a first time love, and I'm pretty sure that ABBA ripped off Darlene Love's "Fine, Fine Boy" for "Waterloo." "Baby, I Love You" is another undeniable Ronettes song, as Spector's vocal is charmingly vulnerable and the hook on the chorus is impossible not to sing along to. Afterwards, The Treasures briefly interrupt the girls for a fine r&b number, "Hold Me Tight," but mostly we get more first class Crystals ("Girls Can Tell," "Little Boy"), Love ("Strange Love," "Stumble And Fall"), and loads more Ronettes (p.s. Veronica is Ronnie Spector).
The boys, or more specifically The Righteous Brothers, take over at the beginning of disc 3. If “Be My Baby” isn’t Spector’s greatest accomplishment than “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” probably is. Of particular note are Bill Medley's immaculately deep voiced lead vocal and the “baby baby I’ll get down on my knees for you” buildup leading into the "bring it on back!" climax, which is simply among the most flawlessly executed and exciting in all of rock. “Unchained Melody” (my wedding song!) is another all-time classic, this one sung passionately by the higher-pitched Bobby Hatfield (Medley usually handled lead vocal chores); it became a smash hit all over again in the early '90s when it was prominently featured in the movie Ghost, while “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” was similarly spotlighted in Tom Cruise's blockbuster movie Top Gun. These songs were significant in that they dispelled the myth that white guys couldn't sing with soul; thus the term "blue eyed soul" was born, paving the way for acts such as The Rascals, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and Hall and Oates. “Just Once In My Life” is another incredible ballad with potentially life-altering power, even if like almost all of their songs it takes the “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” blueprint but isn’t quite that great (it is great, though; too bad the duo’s other really big hit, "(You're My Soul) And Inspiration," doesn't appear here since it was produced by Medley, though he followed the Phil Spector template to a tee).
After more Righteous Brothers ("(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," "Ebb Tide"), Ronettes, and Darlene Love comes the Modern Folk Quartet's charmingly different "This Could Be The Night" (methinks Brian Wilson was influencing Spector as well as vice versa) before we get to Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep Mountain High." Actually, they (though they isn't entirely accurate as Spector paid Ike to take a hike and the only thing he contributes to these songs is his name) have four songs here, all of which are quite good, but it is "River Deep Mountain High" that is the must-have, with its grandly bombastic sound and Tina's monumental vocal both seemingly at odds and perfectly complementing each other. Genius. (While we're at it, the Checkmates' "Love Is All I Have To Give" is a fantastic orchestral soul song with a great gritty lead male vocal; again, it is overlooked gems such as this that really makes this collection special).
Alas, although it was a big hit overseas, Spector never recovered from the lack of stateside success for "River Deep Mountain High," which he considered his masterpiece and whose failure the paranoid genius attributed to a spiteful industry jealous of his success. As such, this box set ends at just the right juncture, as he was to take a more normal producer role on classic albums such as The Beatles' Let It Be (where his production was so criticized that Paul McCartney would later release a "de-Spectorized" version of the album, Let It Be...Naked), John Lennon's surprisingly stripped-down Plastic Ono Band, and George's Harrison's massive-in-every-way All Things Must Pass. Aside from rare exceptions like The Ramones' End Of The Century, Spector has rarely reappeared since, though the reclusive multi-millionaire has occasionally made headlines for his bizarre behavior. Supposedly he beat and tormented Ronnie before she fled from his suffocating clutches, and his dangerous habit of brandishing firearms came to a tragic conclusion when model/actress Lana Clarkson was found dead in his mansion in February 2003 (Spector was found guilty of her murder in 2009).
As a result, it's hard to keep the focus solely on the music when considering Spector, but I'd advise you to have an open mind and splurge for this box set; it really is worth it, so much so that I'd go so far as to say that no rock collection is complete without many of these songs. Again, there's some filler and I would've liked to have seen a wider range of artists covered, especially lesser known ones as The Ronettes alone are represented by 15 songs! Also, the liner notes, specifically Tom Wolfe's annoying, fawning 1965 essay, are underwhelming, and let's face it, disc four, A Christmas Gift for You, isn't an album I'll listen to at any 'ol time. Still, I do plan on listening to this disc at least once every holiday season, as Spector's favorite artists tear through familiar holiday songs. It was a grand concept at the time that has aged well; many of these songs are the definitive interpretations, and the lone original, Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," rivals John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" (also produced by Spector but recorded after the time period covered by this box set) as the greatest Christmas song ever. Flawed though they may be, the other 3 discs can be listened to at any 'ol time. Plus, the sound quality (in mono of course) is excellent, and there are printed lyrics and brief notes about each song, plus some great photos, in what overall is a classy looking booklet. Again, what more could any fan of early rock 'n' roll, or rock 'n' roll in general, possibly want?
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