The Design Observer Group

Posted 08.06.07

Liz Brown

Phil Spector vs. The Wall of Sound

Phil Spector (center), with Larry Levine and Nino Tempo at Gold Star Studios, 1963. Photograph © by Ray Avery / Michael Ochs Archives.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it all went off the rails for producer Phil Spector, when the capes and wigs weren't eccentric quirks anymore, when the First Tycoon of Teen, now standing trial for murder, turned so dark. But if there's one song that captures Spector spinning out of control, over-reaching, it's "River Deep, Mountain High," and if there's one singer that couldn't be encased in a Wall of Sound, it's Tina Turner.

For Phil Spector, this is the song that got away.

"River Deep" doesn't waste time building to a crescendo. It begins on a crest. It's just a question of getting to the next peak and then next, which is most likely why it found a spot on Celine Dion's set list and launched the hundreds of summer camp performances available on YouTube. One of my favorite renditions comes from "The Most Loved Singing Duo In Malta," Julie and Ludwig, who spin out into a fascinating Eurovision-esque disco frenzy. But more compelling than all that is the way Tina Turner ultimately turned Girl Group style and the Wall of Sound inside out.

Until 1966, Phil Spector possessed perfect command of his material; he was an unstoppable machine, churning out "little symphonies for the kids." The early hits with the Crystals, Darlene Love and the Ronettes were designed through fanatical attention to detail—angling microphones, stuffing drums with bricks—then filling Gold Star Studios with musicians and instruments—pianos, guitars, brass, strings. Spector started the recording sessions late and worked his singers and musicians overtime, ordering members of the Wrecking Crew, many of them virtuoso jazz guitarists, to play eighth notes again and again, wearing them down until you couldn't tell any one sound from another. (Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records called this "gargantuan leakage." He hated the molten sound. "But," he tells Mick Brown in a new biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, "I recognized its incredible, incredible value. Phil was making hits.")

The clip below of the Ronettes singing "Be My Baby" exemplifies this lush, expansive style. The drums announce themselves, then come the handclaps, next Ronnie Spector's plaintive croon. Soon it all bleeds into one dense, overpowering swell of yearning. Ronnie Spector, Estelle Bennett, and Nedra Talley may have been tough girls from Spanish Harlem, but watch them smile and swivel with their matching hairdos, outfits, and moves, perfectly in sync, perfectly contained.

Spector had topped the charts for five years when he sought out the Ike and Tina Turner Revue for his most ambitious production, "River Deep, Mountain High," written with newly divorced Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. The song has a line that always stops me short: And I love you, baby, like a schoolboy loves his bag. There's something laughable and sweet about that, but it's also the signal that this is no ordinary declaration of love. And it's the line that marks the song as Phil Spector's, because in Spector's world, love is an act of fierce childlike possession. In Spector's world, the beloved is a thing — a bag, a rag doll, a puppy. Just as sound, too, is thing — a pillow, a wave, and, of course, a wall.

The studio sessions in Los Angeles were a spectacle — 21 musicians, 21 backup vocalists, and an audience that included Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, Brian Wilson, and Rodney Bingenheimer, "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" — but not Ike Turner. It's a testament to Phil Spector's force of personality that he out-Svengalied Ike, allowing him a producer credit but barring Tina's manager from the actual production. Tina, so overwhelmed by the scene, left after the first day and didn't return for a week.

The resulting combination of Tina Turner's raw, unbridled passion and Spector's orchestral swoon was a total disaster. Considered grandiose and incoherent, the song tanked at #88 on the U.S. charts (though it did peak at #3 in the U.K.). In the aftermath, Spector essentially went into seclusion for the rest of the Sixties, sinking into temporary obsolescence. He would re-emerge in 1970 for a massive comeback, the Beatles' Let It Be, followed by John Lennon's Imagine, Leonard Cohen's Death of A Ladies' Man, and the Ramones' End of the Century.

Before then, in 1969, Ike and Tina re-released the song with a new arrangement, stripping away the overdone orchestration, leaving Tina's sound and feeling unfettered, allowing what Spector could not: a voice to build upon itself. In the clip below, Tina even renames it, announcing, "It's now our version of — a new version of 'Rivers Deep — Mountains High.'" The backup singers may wear matching outfits, but there are no mincing Girl Group steps here, nothing contained about the way the women stalk the stage in long-limbed strides. Spector was bent on creating emotion in his listeners, but Tina is a performer who insists on transmitting emotion herself, with her own voice, reaching her hand out to the audience. "Cause it goes on and on," she tells them.

Ike knew Tina's style better than Spector and it is this version that is now so widely revered. It's surprising then that when the camera pans to the audience at the end, everyone is seated, clapping politely. What is wrong with those people? Is that a reverse shot from the wrong performance? (See Sandra Bernhard in Without You I'm Nothing emoting for a bored African-American audience for another reversal.)

Then reverse shot yet again: Watch Tina Turner watch her own song performed for her. At the 2005 Kennedy Center awards, Melissa Etheridge took the stage for a well-meaning, but wincingly over-charged rendition. At first, the high-octane quality of "River Deep" might seem well suited to Etheridge's style of belting, but she just simply doesn't have the range. It becomes an exercise in awkwardness, especially when the camera cuts to Tina, sandwiched between Robert Redford and Laura Bush. (For a fascinating sidebar, contrast President Bush's impassivity to Etheridge with his involuntary rocking in place when Beyoncé takes the stage for "Proud Mary.")

What might it have felt like to knock that Wall down? On YouTube, an enthusiast from Venezuela has posted a promo of radiant Tina backed by the effusive Ikettes. Shot in black and white, shadows stark against the wall, the video feels like surveillance footage of covert abandon. Plus, the white pants suit is dynamite.