Perfect Sound Forever


Sound of the Sixties
Sean MacLeod
(December 2017)

Madman, genius, visionary, obsessive, criminal, legend- all of this and more applies to producer Phil Spector, who created and refined his 'wall of sound' technique in the late '50's and early '60's. Singer/songwriter/education Sean MacLeod, who previous wrote Leaders of the Pack about girl groups, now covers the myth, madness and legacy of Spector in his new book Phil Spector: Sound of the Sixties, available from Roman and Littlefield. Here, MacLeod breaks down Spector's studio technique and how it amplified and reflected the teen dramas that were boiled down into his 'three minute symphonies for the kids.'

"Spector's beat," Binia Tymieniecka's documentary Phil Spector: He's a Rebel aptly stated, "is closely tuned to teen desire," and Phil Spector suggested as much about himself and his music, claiming, "I myself have a tremendous yearning, a yearning to be respected, a yearning to be accepted. I see this in the teenagers. A yearning to do things, to be someone, to be important and to be recognized... it is an emotional music for an emotional generation" (Phil Spector: He's a Rebel).

With his Wall of Sound, Spector created for the teenager a space to retreat to when they felt the world didn't understand them, and possibly his own Wagnerian-type fantasy world into which he himself would retreat when he too needed solace. Although he had been encouraged by Barney Kessel to follow a career in rock 'n' roll as a more viable means to earn a living, Spector seemed naturally to gravitate toward this new sound that spoke directly not just to him but also to all the teenagers of his generation.

Spector's early attempts at forming bands naturally included the more popular rock 'n' roll records of the day, while the sounds of the early girl groups, such as the Chantels, would also exert an influence on the young Spector. Both rock 'n' roll and the teen pop of the early girl groups formed a much stronger connection with teen audiences than did the bland adult-oriented music of the older generation. Jeff Barry put it well when he said, "Nobody was really creating music especially for teenagers, because they didn't have money. Then in the fifties they started to have disposable income... And then young adults like myself--I was nineteen and starting to write--started to create music for young people. And that is the beginning of pop rock" (Emerson, 148). Robert Shelton would echo these sentiments in his article on Bob Dylan. "Where," he enquired, "was pop music 20 years ago? With Dinah Shore singing 'Buttons and Bows' or Kay Kyser singing 'I've Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle' and 'Ole Buttermilk Sky?'" (Savage, viii).

Although Spector's earlier songs, such as "Don't Worry My Little Pet," had attempted to capture the teen sensibilities of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, his first successful record, "To Know Him Is to Love Him," was deliberately and directly tuned to teenage feelings. While the song's inspiration originated from a deep subconscious expression of his father's death, the fact that Spector and his band mates were only teenagers themselves meant that their treatment of his artistic idea would more than likely resonate with the feelings of their own social group. Spector realized that the song would best suit a female voice and would similarly benefit from a stylizing similar to the Chantels' "Maybe." Annette Kleinbard's untutored teenage soprano gave it the same appeal to a teen audience that Chantels' lead singer, Arlene Smith, had done, touching an emotional need in the teenagers of the time and, in this sense, tailoring it for such a market.

Ultimately, Spector had used this ballad-come-funeral dirge to both express the emotional loss of his father and simultaneously disguise it as a love song with a highly emotional teenage sensibility. The Chantelles had similarly expressed deep, almost religious, feelings inspired by their church upbringing, with an emotional perspective that directly related to the mood and feelings of teenagers at the time. Not only "Maybe" but also other songs, such as "The Plea," fused religious devotion with the feelings of confused adolescent emotions, which expressed a similar fervor that teenagers had begun to experience during the first stirrings of their inner emotional life.

Another song with the same sensibility, "I Love How You Love Me," followed the same pattern as "To Know Him. . . ," which again Spector deliberately fashioned to appeal to the same market. It seems though that Spector's decision here was more instinctive than calculated, as the original had intended to be faster than Spector's final production (M. Brown, 84). Spector once again tuned his artistic radar to that of teen desire, creating a world of romantic yearning that the youth of the day so desperately identified with.

These two songs, as well as other Paris Sisters' releases, such as "Be My Boy" and "He Knows I Love Him Too Much," established a voice for teenagers, who would begin to experience the world as separate entities from their parents, and for the first time teenagers had their newfound feelings and ideals expressed for them in a musical form. Spector's recording approach, though seemingly "chaotic and unplanned" (Ribowsky, 93), was an attempt to capture on record the feelings and ideals of a new generation. For some, such as Mark Ribowsky, Spector's music was, though "chaotic and unplanned," also delicately balanced and sensitively attuned to teen emotions, transcending the mundane and elevating his music (and his listeners' experience of it) to a place altogether otherworldly. Spector, Ribowsky claims:

"was working on a higher plane: it wasn't melody but the blend and balance of that image that consumed him. Thus even though the rhythm section would be barely discernible in "I Love How You Love Me," buried by eight violins and the sugar plum voices of the Paris Sisters, it would be that way precisely because drum, bass and guitar merged into a "feel" rather than separating into select instrumental noises. The balance of a Spector song was diaphanously sensitive; it could happen at any moment." (Ribowsky, 93)


Brown, Mick. Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Emerson, Ken. Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. London: Forth Estate, 2006.

Phil Spector: He's a Rebel (documentary). Directed by Binia Tymieniecka. London: BBC, 1983.

Ribowsky, Mark. He's a Rebel: Phil Spector, Rock and Roll's Legendary Producer. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2006.

Savage, Jon. 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded. London: Faber & Faber, 2016.

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