A commonly heard description of Phil Spector among music aficionados is "brilliant but crazy." It may be glib, it may even be callous, but after his conviction in the murder of Lana Clarkson last week, it's hard to disagree with.
This was Spector's second trial in as many years; the first ended in a hung jury, with 10 to 2 in favor of conviction. Throughout the trials, he maintained that Clarkson killed herself in his Pyrenees Castle mansion in Alhambra, California in February, 2003.
It is not this writer's responsibility to comment on whether the verdict delivered was correct. But given Spector's long history of erratic and violent behavior, it's hard to take his assertion of suicide seriously. The mainstream music press treated his trials as circuses, spending more ink commenting on the legendary producer's eccentric dress than the content of what was said in court. This is a real shame, because this entire ordeal should be serving as a wake-up call for the entire music business.
To be sure, Spector's contribution to music is nothing short of historic. The "Wall of Sound" is one of the most enduring recording techniques for artists and producers today. Songs recorded and written by Spector are some of the most recognized in all of popular culture. In 1999, the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'" was named the song with the most radio airplay in the 20th century by Broadcast Music Incorporated. That "Lovin' Feelin'" was written and recorded by Spector is not for nothing, as the man has no doubt helped sell millions of albums around the world.
The lengths that he went to in order to achieve this unprecedented success, however, go beyond the point where one can label him an "eccentric." A better term might be "tyrant." He is a producer known for putting his artists through absurd and grueling experiences in order to get the desired sound. Input from the actual artists has mattered little to him during sessions. And if anyone has dared to challenge him, it has been very likely that they will soon find themselves literally staring down the barrel of a gun.
Leonard Cohen reported having a crossbow leveled at him by Spector during the sessions for Death of a Ladies' Man. The producer also allegedly fired his gun at John Lennon while the two were in the studio. During the recording of the Ramones' classic End of the Century, Spector forced Johnny Ramone to play the opening chord for "Rock 'n' Roll High School" hundreds of times. In a June, 1982 interview with Trouser Press, bass-player Dee Dee recounted an absurd story of Spector sequestering Joey Ramone for a three-hour a private meeting while forcing the rest of the group to wait in his massive home. After tiring of waiting, Dee Dee went looking for the two, only to run head first into one of Spector's violent outbursts:
"The next thing I knew Phil appeared at the top of the staircase, shouting and waving a pistol... 'Phil,' I challenged him, 'I don't know what your fucking problem is, waving that pistol and all that stuff... I've had it. I'm going back to the [Hotel] Tropicana.'...
'You're not going anywhere, Dee Dee,' Phil said.
He leveled the gun at my heart and then motioned for me and the rest of the band to get back in the piano room. He only holstered his pistol when he felt secure that his bodyguards could take over. Then he sat down at his black concert piano and made us listen to him play and sing 'Baby I Love You' until well after 4:30 in the morning."
Nobody understands Spector's history of violent megalomania better than Ronnie Ronette, lead singer of the Ronettes and Spector's ex-wife. In her autobiography, Ronette recounts how her then-husband once showed her a gold coffin with a glass top in his basement, and claimed that if she ever tried to leave him he would kill her and put her body on display. When Spector drifted into recluse in the early '70s, he even hid her shoes to prevent her from walking outside. Ronette escaped in 1972. "I can only say," she said, "that when I left in the early 1970s, I knew that if I didn't leave at that time, I was going to die there."
None of this is to villify Phil Spector. If there is anything this man needs, it is serious psychological help. So why, despite being an obvious danger to himself and others, did nobody else from the music industry intervene? More importantly, why were record companies willing to subject artists to Spector's well-known extreme behavior for more than forty years?
Answers to these questions might lie in the very role played by Spector's Wall of Sound. Nobody can deny the technique has been groundbreaking and influential in music. His innovation was to bring in countless session musicians to play the same part in unison with the artist, letting the sound reverberate and echo into the microphones, and creating a sound that was as broad and sweeping as a tidal wave. The upshot of this, though, is that it gives producers like Spector a greater amount of power over the artist.
Perhaps this is why none of the executives or moguls who have hired and worked with Spector over the years have spoken up. He may have been a violent, unstable control freak. He may have treated artists like commodities to be exploited and discarded, but he got results, and made millions for himself and the entire music industry. In the name of profit, that same industry turned a blind eye to his abusive behavior for four decades. It was only a matter of time until it ended in tragedy. We are all bound to hear endless comments in the coming weeks regarding how "sick" Phil Spector is. What we won't hear is that he is only one symptom of a rotten and diseased system.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. A columnist for SleptOn.com and the Society of Cinema and Arts, he is also a regular contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.