Class begins with some history.
It is undeniable that Phil Spector is the greatest record producer to have ever lived. Everyone from George Martin to Babyface should bow before the majesty of his grandiose productions. He is not necessarily my favorite record producer but I still say he is the greatest, conceiving what I believe to be the finest-produced single of all time— Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”
I stumbled upon a documentary called The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector. It is streaming on the web. I’m not going to link it due to legalities but search for it. It’s there (you have to download a web player, but it’s super easy, and there are many more internet video goodies that come with it).
This film, initially made for TV, is a work of art (and as a matter of fact, is premiering at the New York Film Forum later this summer). The central focus is an interview with Spector just before his murder trial. These interviews, primarily tackling his most celebrated productions, are juxtaposed with courtroom sequences, among other pieces of Spector memorabilia, all set to the soundtrack of his greatest hits, including “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” and “Let It Be.”
What makes the film entertaining is Spector’s off-the-wall personality. It’s the type of documentary that makes your jaw drop when you realize you’re observing a real person (i.e. American Movie, You’re Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erikson, Grizzly Man). All the more shocking it’s Spector. From attributing his infamous “trial-afro” to NBA player Ben Wallace, to describing his masterpiece “Da Doo Ron Ron” as being “so down and dirty, it was like committing incest,” to constantly tearing Tony Bennett to shreds, The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a helluva trip into the current state of mind of a music legend.
And that is disconcerting. It’s sad to see Spector blabbering the way he does on the screen. There is even more pathetic footage of a self-conducted/drugged-out interview from the late 70s (porn-star moustache in tow), showing this once-famed record-producer on his path to self-destruction, a path that has led to criminal conviction and ultimately, the tainting of his legacy. This movie doesn’t even cover the half-of-it (and that ambiguity is what makes the film nearly brilliant). Read Mick Brown’s Tearing Down The Wall of Sound and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Understandably so, Spector is very troubled over the state of his legacy, stating “I am concerned that I have not been made a doctorate at any college and Bill Cosby has.” With his sentence of 19 years-to-life, Spector (age 70) will mostly certainly not be made a doctorate at any university in his lifetime. And as much as I hate to say it, I think this movie implicates him. I won’t give it away, but toward the end, Spector delivers a line regarding John Lennon’s assasination that will scare your pants off.
The redeeming factor of the film is the music (and Spector’s awful Lennon impersonation), amorphous recordings that rock your soul time after time without fail. I think Spector is justified in his self-comparisons to Da Vinci (and definitely to Galileo, a life of brilliance ended in imprisonment). If you don’t already own the Back to Mono box-set or George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, then consider this an assignment (please, please, don’t download).
But this film teaches us, as record producers, something very important: we are in the brain business and it is our duty to CHECK OUR HEADS! We as producers must catch firing synapses and maintain our balance as we do such. And not only our own synapses! You’re dealing with raging artists (who’s synapses fire in every which way), tired engineers, rogue mixers, nervous managers and label-folk…. AND YOU ARE THE ONE WHO MUST ALWAYS BE ON TOP OF EVERYTHING! From artful arrangements to playing therapist to putting the puppy out, it is your duty to be the guiding light throughout the recording process! Phil Spector could not keep it together (even though he produced some decent tracks for Starsailor in 2004), and his old age is not an excuse. Al Schmitt, Phil Ramone, Bruce Swedien, and Clive Davis (to name a few) have all had long fruitful careers and are as sharp as ever in their old age. Spector just couldn’t keep up…
Phil Spector was an artist. He had aural visions and carried them out to the best of his abilities. That should be a high-priority goal for all producers. However, Phil did not take care of his mental health, and that is his own fault. Sure, he had a troubled past, but the man blew one too many lines (if he couldn’t give himself more away, he plays a druglord in Easy Rider!) and may have been just as legendary for his gun-play as he was for producing, infamously pointing guns at Leonard Cohen and The Ramones…to only name a few…
As a self-inflicted music-historian, I am concerned for Spector’s legacy, but what I’m trying to tell you IS BE CONCERNED FOR YOU OWN! Don’t be that high-drama producer that doesn’t get the second gig (you want the second gig. Trust me). Don’t be your artist or band’s drug dealer. There is a way to walk through this business with class, dignity, and respect, and you and only you have the power to maintain it. Watch your step and think about your every move. You may have all the best gear in the world, but you’re dealing in the business of people and the commerce of ideas. You can spend all your money maintaining that Pultec, but maybe spend more time and energy on sustaining your mental health!
Spector actually teaches us an invaluable lesson in this film. Although he had creative control over his early artists such as Darlene Love or The Ronnettes, when it came to working with the legends such as John or George, he says he was on the level with them when working on their projects, able to work with Lennon on the atheistic “God” while working on Harrison’s devotional “My Sweet Lord.” Spector didn’t practice what he preached, and you can see in the film, the worlds adapts to him. Spector does not adapt to this world. It is probably why his career did not last much longer past The Ramones records of the late 70s.
Yes you, the producer, are an artist too (if you just want to engineer or mix, I’m talking to you as well). BUT, remember the first rule of production: The Artist is ALWAYS right. Once you can accept this truth, the floodgates of creative collaboration will open in ways you could not possibly imagine… Despite his conviction and kookiness, let’s not forget the spectacular recorded collaborations and works of art Phil Spector granted to human history…