December 8, 2015
History and pop culture have always intertwined in odd and ironic ways. Their shared lives have a habit of throwing up strange coincidences, wonderful or unsettling demarcation points after which, perhaps only in hindsight, we realise nothing would ever be quite the same. A mild, bright, late Autumn day in 1963, was such a moment.
Phil Spector, the grand conductor of teen pop, released his A Christmas Gift for You – intended to be the apotheosis of his sound and vision, featuring the brightest stars of the new pop groups he had helped create, the crown jewels of the Phillies Records label: The Ronettes, The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx, Darlene Love. He had been locked away in a Hollywood studio, adding more sleigh bells, glockenspiels, brass and orchestral sweeping movements, crafting and constructing the apex of his celebrated Wall of Sound. The result was the most complete thing he had ever released, a sugary sweet, sensational, giddy celebration of yuletide and the high tide of beautiful pop, forged in his own image.
It was released on the morning of November 22nd, 1963. That lunchtime, John F Kennedy’s motorcade turned onto Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and the President of the bright young USA was shot and killed, and the whole world blurred, turning inconsolably grey. Suddenly America didn’t feel very festive. The album flopped, and Spector began a slow descent, living in his mansion high in the Hollywood hills, as his crystal clear vision of teen pop unravelled in the hurricane of the post-Camelot 1960s.
Adolescents had existed in labour, in war, and finally, by the late forties, in liberation. Our concept of ‘teenager’, in its attitude, passions and postures was a rough sketch in the early fifties, but had exploded into a fully formed, screaming mass when Elvis first curled his lip and popped his hip at the beginning of 1956.
The turn of the decade came at an odd time for this first pop generation. Elvis was still stranded in the army, Buddy Holly had died. The charts were in their first slump. The first manic energy of rock and roll had started to grow a little stale. That first white heat of revolution had spawned a million devotees, but these original disciples had even grown up a touch, tastes were getting more fractured, individual and refined.
A new bunch of kids were yearning for something that spoke their language more fluently than the slick, paint-by-numbers greasers that were being churned off the production line. Sophisticates turned toward jazz or the wiry sound of young Robert Zimmerman making his way through Greenwich Village. But a small revolution was happening in the heart of New York which would transform pop – paving the road to the kaleidoscope sounds of the Sixties.
Coming to the realisation that nobody really understood kids better than themselves, major labels started hiring teenage A&R staff. In the Brill Building, a handsome white and gold office on Broadway, songwriters (including Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry) worked in tiny cubicles, with a desk and a piano. It was a conveyor-belt, but one that worked an astonishing rate, crafting incredible, enduring pop records. Po-faced folksters would dismiss its sound as “You love me, I love you, ooby dooby doo”. But it was elegant and sophisticated, using sweet swells of orchestration set to new Latin-influenced percussion from across the city. It was the sound of fire hydrants, young love, hot concrete, ice-cream, tamboras on Harlem stoops, New York City in a bottle.
A five-foot-zero New Yorker, with a gaunt face and large fuzzy hair would knock on these cubicles, looking for new melodies. Phil Spector had come to New York to work for the U.N – his mother had taught him French. The night before the interview he met with some musicians and that was that. His early efforts, (“I Love How You Love Me” by the Paris Sisters, “To Know Him is to Love Him” by the Teddy Bears) had an eerie, ethereal beauty, a sound grappling with the fragility, mortality and sincerity of teenage angst.
Under the tutelage of Leiber and Stoller, stalwarts of early rock’n’roll (they had written “Hound Dog”, “Searchin’”, “Jailhouse Rock” and had survived long enough to give Spector his first shot with Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem”), in a few short years his sound had grown and grown and grown, as fast and as bold as the teenage throng it celebrated. His songs were now drenched in a ‘Wall of Sound’, singles the size of cathedrals: vast, regal teenage symphonies. According to guitarist Barney Kessel, he used to arrange his orchestras like “he was going to invade Moscow”. First kisses set to Wagner. It made “Rock Around the Clock” sound like a soft ditty.
He knew the wallpaper and small dramas of young lives rarely seem dull – there’s nothing as fervent, pure or huge as the teenage imagination. It deserved a soundtrack to match. His songs were the sound of motorbikes, kisses, lipstick, beehives, puppy dogs, “bouffant beehives brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms eclair shanks elf boots and ballerinas” (Tom Wolfe, ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-flake Streamlined Baby’, 1965)
Soon, the entire pop world seemed bent to his will. Tom Wolfe’s portrait of Spector in 1965 portrayed him as “the first Tycoon of Teen”, the first Midas figure to tap the fickle world of teenage emotion for pure gold.
“Every baroque period has a flowering genius who rises up as the most glorious expression of its style of life- in latter day Rome, the Emperor Commodus; in Renaissance Italy, Cellini; in late Augustan England, the Earl of Chesterfield… and in Teen America Phil Spector is the bona-fide Genius of Teen.” (Tom Wolfe, ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-flake Streamlined Baby’, 1965)
His production credits throughout 62-63 include: “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)“, “He’s a Rebel“, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah“, “Da Doo Ron Ron“, “Then He Kissed Me“. In the high summer of ’63 The Ronettes released “Be My Baby”, Spector’s first, and perhaps greatest, masterpiece. The immense and innovative use of overdub, along with the sheer number of instruments, including multiple pianos, guitars, saxophones and horns, shook the pop world, a sound as sweet and rich as clotted cream. Brian Wilson would listen to the song over and over again, hundreds of times a day: without it we’d have no Pet Sounds. The warm buzz of its melodrama and beauty is still humming today.
The sound was all. It filled up your heart. Answering sneering questions about the relative “banality” of the lyrics, Spector would say “people are always saying… why doesn’t anybody write lyrics like Cole Porter anymore? But we don’t have presidents like Lincoln anymore, either… I feel it’s very American. It’s very today.” Challenged to explain the meaning of “Do Doo Ron Ron” Spector exclaimed “it’s not what it means. It’s what it makes you feel! Can’t you hear that!” His sound was so full of opulence and bombast, it made coos of “I’ll make you happy baby, just wait and see…” sound like the first rush of love itself.
He set his sights on Christmas. It seemed a perfect fit. If Christmas is about huge displays of affection, love, joy, then the pop of Phil Spector is its soulmate. The grand vision was to shake the dust and snow from the seasonal classics like “Silent Night”, “White Christmas” and supercharge them.
It would be a secular vision, a Christmas of candy canes and Coca Cola rather than the Nativity. He gathered the finest musicians he could muster, and his personal protégés and playthings, the groups of Phillies Records. The mass of musicians would sit, crammed, clashing elbows in Gold Star Studios in the sweltering August heat: some stood shaking bells for hours on end.
The album that emerged was a sound as pure as the driven snow. A Christmas Gift for You remains an astonishing achievement. It exists as snowglobe exists, a perpetual perfect scene, an instant classic and surefire hit.
And yet, as Kennedy turned onto Elm Street, the initial dream seemed to vanish.
Almost as another hammer blow, another cruel twist of fate, another mop-topped pop group from across the Atlantic released an album that very day. With the Beatles, however, would be an earth-shattering success. Spector was on the very flight that left Heathrow in February, transporting John, Paul, George and Ringo first to the newly renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in NYC, and then into the stratosphere.
The Beatles’ 9th February appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is the cultural event of post war America – doing much to shake the country out of its post Kennedy gloom and disbelief. What the Beatles also carried with them was the first initial defeat of the 45, ushering in an age of complete, longer-form conceptual albums, where artist creativity would be given free reign.
After dabbling with Brill Building covers on the first albums, A Hard Day’s Night was entirely self-penned, almost unheard of in pop. The first, heralding, discordant chime of the title track was a very real death knell, for the cubicles of the Brill Building and the assembled pop of Spector. Now the Beatles noise, with all its exuberance, spontaneity, boyish charm and sexuality marked a new age. Just as girl-group teenage pop had flourished in the first struggle of post-rock-and-roll, it was now left behind in a post-Beatles world.
Spector would grow to resent this new strand of rock. To him, it was lurid, self-indulgent expressionism, ruining the pristine world of pop. In 1966, he set about writing the ultimate riposte. Just as he intended it to be, “River Deep Mountain High” is pretty much a perfect song. But it didn’t chime with the times, released in the very same month as Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds. The world had hurtled along with the Beatles, who had gone from covering “Baby It’s You” ditties in ’63, to the sonic majesty and invention of “Tomorrow Never Knows” in ’66. Spector, in his irritability and self-righteousness, got little support from radio, and his perfect single stopped abruptly at No.88 on the U.S Pop Charts.
Spector would yet again retreat, this time for two years. He sat in his locked mansion, watching Citizen Kane on repeat. He must have seen something of himself in Kane, a recluse cursing former glories, clutching his snowglobe that is A Christmas Gift for You.
It would be rock, and the Beatles, that would help to restore him. Lennon had always held him up as a hero, and he climbed down from the hills to help produce Let it Be. His maximalist style still enraged McCartney, in particular his overdubbed strings on “The Long and Winding Road”. But he would go on to co-produce All Things Must Pass from Harrison, and Lennon’s solo albums. Through this, and constant veneration from the likes of Brian Wilson, and then Bruce Springsteen, saw his musical reputation slowly restored.
Spector’s achievement in the pop sphere is perhaps this. Rock and Roll had bridged centuries old cultural gaps between the U.K and U.S, black and white, child and grown up. Spector was perhaps the first to vanish the gulf between art and commerce. Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, Phil Spector.
Popular culture and high art were in harmonious in the Sixties. In the middle of its decade, 1960s pop had been given the ultimate stamp of approval from the older, classical generation, as Leonard Bernstein hosted Inside Pop – The Rock Revolution, effusing on the modern bands and their strange new sounds. He was particular thrilled by the sound of Brian Wilson, perhaps Spector’s chief disciple, which was “serious and silly… sweet and grandiose”.
Phil Spector was amongst the first to treat pop, in all its fickleness, this seriously. A Christmas Gift for You is perhaps the best riposte to dogged criticism of Christmas’s irreligious over-commercialisation, Spector showed this was no barrier to astonishing moments of beauty, divinity and art.
People rediscovered A Christmas Gift for You, helped by a re-release in 1972. Now, The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride”, The Crystals’ “Frosty the Snowman” and, most beautiful and glacial of all, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” have become staples of Christmas, as large as the Norwegian Fir that sits in Trafalgar Square, as indefatigable as It’s a Wonderful Life, as joyous as the first December snow. It’s utterly perfect.
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