Wall of Rebound: Writing an Obituary for a Problematic Genius

The death of Phil Spector has pushed the media to condemn the artist, but when did we stop respecting the art?

Wall of Rebound: Writing an Obituary for a Problematic Genius


Aaron Chan

1/19/2021 11:35 AM

Alright look. I get the new way of doing things is to be honest about what people were like during their life after they pass away. If they were unethical, fake, controversial, or evil enough for us to notice as a society this is becoming more fair game to mention when they pass away. In the same way we love the painting and not the painter, we can’t talk about the painter when he dies unless we mention the atrocities he committed during their process.

Navigating the obituary of the problematic figure has increasingly become a journalistic challenge. We all have differing opinions on Michael Jackson’s legacy which continues to be challenged every few years, deservedly or not. We remember Gayle King getting roasted for asking Lisa Leslie about Kobe’s sexual assault charges days after his death. Phil Spector’s passing has proved to be no exception. Yesterday, the BBC retracted a news headline that referred to him as “talented, but flawed” and apologized for the substandard shortly after.

It seems to me that most of the coverage, especially from the publications aimed at the younger generation who probably only know Spector by his haircut, make a point of emphasizing infamy over any praise. The media over anything in their reporting has been pre-focused on his dangerous gun obsession, his abusive behaviours as a husband, businessman, and artist, and how he overall was a pretty bad guy. Now, I get it. It’s important that we remember Spector for what he really was, which apparently through our generation’s eyes was a monster and not a legend. I am in no way saying that Spector deserves a pass because he fucking killed somebody and showed no remorse. Yet, i would be remised to say as a lover and student of music that Spector was nothing more than a gun nut murderer.

I am not willing to erase history. People didn’t know what a producer was before Phil Spector; it is as simple as that. The lineage of Spector’s produced recordings to our cultural DNA and to what we listen to as a pop-oriented society is undeniable. Spector’s bustling grooves performed by ensembles of ensembles provided the basis for high concept pop music years before The Beatles fled to India. It was a seismic shift, though natural - taking the organic force of big bands and applying it to rock and roll and rhythm. Tape did not get rolled until about three hours into sessions, with Spector spending the first stage just listening and tweaking the performers. Then he would find the sound; that is a producer. Before Spector, cutting records was a business, after Spector producing records was an art. An art that was inventive and accessible, and that was above anything signature. 

The echo chambers in Studio A at Gold Star allowed for audible saturation since Spector packed the relatively small room with dozens of session musicians causing players to basically bleed into each other on record. He coined the recording technique “The Wall of Sound.” Inarguably, without “The Wall of Sound” there would be no Pet Sounds, there would be no Born to Run. There would be no “Dancing Queen,” no “I’m Waiting For the Man,” no “Just Like Honey.” The influence still permeates to modern times and you can hear it in the style of Back to Black, the crescendo of Funeral, and the wonder of Illinoise. All eight of which are incredibly important records.

I myself grew up in the 2000s. Phil Spector’s music to me is nostalgic, maybe old fashioned, dated even when discounting the classics. Still, even the big ones like “He’s a Rebel,” “Chapel of Love,” “Unchained Melody,” “Be My Baby,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me” seem to hold a position as the greatest songs before rock and roll evolved in the late 60s; in other words, not in the higher tier of the greatest songs of all time. And maybe it’s because I grew up on Angus Young and not Buddy Holly, that I’ll never be able to appreciate Spector’s music in the same way the rock and roll generation did. To them, nothing could be so fresh, so catchy, and so grandiose. 

So Phil Spector’s music isn’t really the favourite music of my generation, it’s more of an indicator of a generational gap. Is that why everyone from the mainstream music press can’t mention his influence once without referencing his murder conviction six times? How can we possibly expect kids who can’t name four Prince songs to appreciate Spector’s legacy and look at him as nothing but a beach ball haired mental case? If young readership can’t relate to the subject matter, why then do magazines have to stroke the chin of the S.J.W.s instead of open their eyes?

Now there is an obvious exception to where Spector’s works pop up constantly and are nearly always presented honourably: film.

Spector’s music becoming the basis for countless classic scenes throughout the 80’s and 90’s was expected; they are some of the most famous songs ever and some of the oldest pop not intended for adult audiences. With records that have received needle drops in over 200 films and shows, his music has been used to convey everything from exhilaration, to marriage, to liberation, to passionate love. Moreover, the Phil Spector catalogue brings its own feel that can immediately place viewers in its era or establish a character’s obsession with American music. Even to the people who can’t name a Phil Spector song, when that music is cued in any notable film, it’s something that anyone any age can translate.

It all starts with Scorsese. With a finger on the button of American pop music, Martin Scorsese carried a deep understanding Phil Spector’s records. Just four years after Easy Rider revolutionized the movie soundtrack, he effectively became the first person to use Spector’s music in an original film, opening his seminal Mean Streets with “Be My Baby." Later in Goodfellas, Spector’s music would appear five times to not only convey era, but theme and is used to establish a Christmas sequence, introduce Billy Batts, and present the liberating back of the Copa long tracking shot.

The Back to Mono… boxset featuring all of Spector’s singles from 1958-1969 (translation: no Beatles) plus his essential Christmas Gift For You… received a surge after Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore made love and pottery to “Unchained Melody” in Ghost, a sensation in theatres and home video. Phil Spector was effectively catapulted back into the public consciousness.

Three summers before, Tom Cruise’s Maverick immortalized The Righteous Brothers’ other Spector penned classic, belting “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” in a ploy to impress Kelly McGillis’ in Tony Scott’s quintessential Top Gun. Later in the film, when a patron selects the song on a jukebox he’s reminded of her. Spector’s songs always get picked for shit like this because that’s what his music was for those people in real life; so omnipresent, so larger than life that they become part of the narrative. The Spector catalogue is sort of preserved by how it was licensed for many a filmmaker’s visions, but perhaps not for long. 

Nobody is talking about Spector’s true legacy in any of their news pieces that are much more predicated on his impatience, his mental problems, how he ruined Let it Be and All Things Must Pass, and obviously his convicted murder of Lana Clarkson. The op-eds will surely be scarce. This is by all means pretty fair, but why then do we care? It’s important to acknowledge how Spector paved the way for American pop music production just as it is important to acknowledge what an asshole he most certainly was.

So without further adieu, let’s pay tribute to the artist by celebrating how he was immortalized by the movies. And then we can get back to reading about how pointing a gun at Dee Dee’s head somehow yielded the least exciting Ramones’ album.