Owning up to loving the creative output of someone whose personality has been revealed as distinctly unlovable shouldn’t require a disclaimer; after all, artists in any field should always be judged on that creative output above their flaws as human beings. But perhaps a consequence of the faux-intimate nature of modern celebrity and the way in which its stars insist on sharing every innermost thought with the public – a practice that makes the selling of the star as a person as important as their art – is that artist and art have become inseparable in recent times. Therefore, any revelation of character traits or activities that suggest the star isn’t as nice a guy as the public have been led to believe can trigger a backlash that ultimately ruins the reputation of the art; the public feel betrayed and the art is held as responsible as the artist. However, expecting the artist to live by the same standards as the consumer can often be an unfair demand; it is often the artist’s failure to adhere to these standards that has led to them turning to art as a means of self-expression in the first place.
Overnight blacklisting in the wake of a scandal is nothing new. It happened with Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, whereby his plays suddenly disappeared from the London stage following his trial and imprisonment, almost as though the audience risked being infected by homosexual urges if they attended a performance of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Of course, Wilde today is fully (and rightly) rehabilitated, but the practice of blacklisting has never gone away; and it undoubtedly has its hierarchy. Despite being one of the UK’s biggest chart stars of the 1970s, Gary Glitter has been written out of pop history, his hits removed from oldies station playlists and his name only permitted to be mentioned in the context of his convictions. At the same time, it’s still okay to play Michael Jackson without being outed as a ‘Paedo apologist’, maybe because Jacko continues to generate generous income for the music industry and therefore a universal expulsion of his recorded legacy would create a far more severe dent in streaming profits than the censure of ‘Leader of the Gang’.
And then there’s Phil Spector. How much has the art been damaged by the artist in his case? A controversial character more or less from the off, his deranged genius in the recording studio was carried over into his private life and escalated way beyond providing pop biographers with a string of memorably mad anecdotes. After dramatically quitting the business following the inexplicable US chart flop of his peerless production on Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ in 1966, it took being made an offer he couldn’t refuse to coax Spector out of retirement. That offer came in 1970, when he was persuaded to salvage The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ project; Paul McCartney may not have been overjoyed with the results, but Spector’s magic touch made what became ‘Let it Be’ sound considerably more than the scrappy demos he was presented with. John Lennon was impressed enough to hire Spector as the producer of his first post-Beatles solo recordings, and George Harrison followed suit. It’s probably fair to say that the best stuff either ex-Beatle did in the aftermath of the split was done with Spector at the helm.
John Lennon’s patience with Spector’s increasingly erratic eccentricities finally broke during the recording of the ‘Rock n Roll’ album in 1973, a project that was abandoned until Lennon eventually decided to finish it off on his own; the two never worked together again. Spector’s casual attitude towards firearms – even in a country where attitudes towards firearms can be alarmingly casual – appeared to have been the main cause for concern; but Spector’s appalling treatment of his ex-wife Ronnie during their marriage would be enough to condemn him with or without the recurring spectre (sorry) of guns. Again, however, what about the art? After another bout of inactivity, Spector returned as the unlikely producer of pioneering New York punk band, The Ramones; the band themselves may have found the experience something of a nightmare, but Spector’s magic touch did the trick once more by giving them their only proper hit single via their cover of ‘Baby I Love You’. Tackling one of Spector’s own early smashes was an inspired move by The Ramones to pacify the producer, but it is those early smashes upon which the creative reputation of Phil Spector still stands.
Spector’s first brush with fame came as a member of pop trio The Teddy Bears, whose 1958 No.1 ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ was written, arranged and produced by the then-19 year-old; the title was inspired by the inscription on his father’s headstone, ‘To Know Him Was To Love Him’. Spector Senior had committed suicide a decade earlier. His son was clearly something of a prodigious talent, setting up his own independent record label at 21 and rapidly bringing an epic Wagnerian scale to music that had previously been regarded as a disposable adolescent fad. Nobody had treated teen-based rock ‘n’ roll-fused pop as Art before Spector, but he imbued it with a heightened drama that expertly mirrored the heightened drama of how it feels to fall in love as a teenager. With his uniquely meticulous work ethic, innovative (and influential) ‘Wall of Sound’ production, and a dependable core of session musicians nicknamed The Wrecking Crew, Spector attracted the finest songwriters in the business to collaborate with and unleashed what he called his ‘little symphonies for the kids’.
Spector gradually found that the female voice best articulated the sensations the songs encapsulated, and session singer Darlene Love was the voice he favoured; she sang lead on the 1962 No.1 ‘He’s A Rebel’, though the record was credited to The Crystals. By contrast, The Ronettes were a girl group in possession of a strong lead singer in the dynamic shape of Veronica Bennett, whose voice dominated such cinematic classics as the original ‘Baby I Love You’ and ‘Be My Baby’, two of the definitive Wall of Sound recordings. Spector could seemingly do no wrong in the studio – his immortal production of The Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ was eventually certified as the most played song on American radio in the 20th century. But the shock flop of arguably the finest Wall of Sound production of all, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, provoked the retirement that left his temperamental behaviour without a fitting context. When he married Veronica Bennett and she took the name Ronnie Spector in 1968, this unchecked side of his personality was manifested as psychological abuse that left her under virtual house arrest for four years.
With his strange character defects tolerated and encouraged to an extent by virtue of the uninhibited, larger-than-life parallel universe he inhabited, Phil Spector’s inability to distinguish between the legendary evil genius of the recording studio and the man he was outside of it eventually proved to be his undoing. Producing a gun to prevent female visitors leaving his home was a favourite seduction routine, but it was viewed as an unnerving – if dangerous – bluff on his part; perhaps it was destined to end in tragedy one day, and that day came in 2003 when actress Lana Clarkson was shot dead in his home. Spector claimed her death was an accidental suicide; the resulting trial led to a hung jury, with the judge declaring a mistrial. With events in court televised, the sight of the reclusive Spector as a withered old man bearing a bizarre fright-wig leant a comic element to proceedings; but there was nothing comic about the crime that led to a retrial in 2008. Second time round, Spector was found guilty of murder in the second degree, sentenced to a minimum 19 years behind bars. He died in prison on Saturday at the age of 81, the artist permanently disgraced despite the eternal magnificence of the art.
© The Editor