Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 4

There is an excellent biography called Wall of Pain: The Biography of Phil Spector by Dave Thompson, currently out in bookstores on Sanctuary Publishing. People who want to learn more about an eccentric man carving his way through his chosen industry should pick it up. Sadly, there is very little discussion in the book about the actual wall-of-sound that is of more interest to us. That is why I am writing this essay.

The wall-of-sound was born somewhere between "To Know Him Is To Love Him," Phil Spector's first hit with his own band, The Teddy Bears, and "He's A Rebel" by the Crystals. The former came out in August 1958 and the latter in October 1962. "He's A Rebel" is the earliest example of the full-blown wall-of-sound still playing on oldies radio today: with a prominent lead vocal backed up by piano, saxophones, tambourines, drums, and lots of echo and reverb.

The next song we know is "Da Doo Ron Ron" (April 1963), also by the Crystals, also clocking in at around 2:20. This song has the same instrumentation as "He's A Rebel," but includes a saxophone solo and handclaps. One innovation of this song is the blending of the Crystals' "oohs" with the saxophone section.

During the second half of the year, Spector produced "Then He Kissed Me" by the Crystals, and two big hits for the Ronettes: "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You." "Be My Baby" was almost the same formula as "Da Doo Ron Ron" but uses castanets and has a string solo, although you can still hear the saxophone section in the background. "Baby I Love You" is another variation but with the piano louder in the mix. At 1:24, Spector has his greatest moment yet, when he has the Ronettes harmonies switch triumphantly, mid-verse, from "oohs" to "ahhs" before the harmonies actually take center stage for the chorus.

Now at the height of his powers at age 22, Spector produced the LP A Christmas Gift For You, featuring the wall-of-sound in all its glory. Unfortunately, its November 1963 release coincided with the assassination of President Kennedy. The nation mourned, the entertainment industry shut down, and Spector withdrew the album from stores. And just a few months later, the Beatles arrived in America and Spector decided not to compete with them and took a break, but not before attracting the attention of another child prodigy, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

In a 1999 interview with Index magazine, Wilson said, "I think of God as Phil Spector... I believe in him and his records. And I learned a lot from him too. Everybody knows I believe in Phil Spector... Pet Sounds was P.S. — that's Phil Spector's initials! It was like a way to express his music through me, my interpretation of his music. So it really was a great album."

(When asked if there was another god, Wilson replied, "Yeah, there is another God that I can't put into words. I call it feelings, or intuitions. I think of music as God too. Not only just Phil Spector, but music itself I think of as God too.")

Many of you probably think that Brian Wilson's comments show him to be insane or unhealthily obsessed with Spector. But I forgive him because I know that the moment you understand the wall-of-sound is the moment that you open up a whole new way of thinking about music. It is quite an epiphany. You start hearing your records differently, you listen to Spector's records and you realize exactly why he made his records sound the way they do. You may have merely enjoyed the music before, but now you get it. And there is nothing more exciting.

We will examine some of these recordings in detail, but first let us continue with young Brian Wilson's career.

Early in 1964, the Beach Boys released "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Don't Worry Baby," two songs that faced tremendous competition from the Beatles, who were about to tour the United States to promote their hit single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand." The Beatles, we should mention, were hardly wall-of-sound artists, and promoted a different kind of music: rock-and-roll music made by a self-contained unit of four personalities. Their image led them to success as much as their music did. Wall-of-sound, on the other hand, tends to diminish the role of the recording artists by drawing the listeners' attention to the production.

It is to our great inconvenience that the current reissue of the Beach Boys' Surfer Girl and Shut Down Vol. 2 contains only stereo mixes of classics like "Don't Worry Baby," "In My Room," "Fun Fun Fun," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Surfer Girl." I believe this is unfaithful to the intent of the artist. Brian Wilson always mixed in mono because he believed that the producer would have more control over the listening experience. Anyone who has an unbalanced set of speakers, or one broken speaker, knows how frustrating it is not to hear everything in the mix. Fortunately, Wilson's next two albums, Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) are presented in the original mono in the CD reissues.

By December 1964, Brian Wilson was spending all his time in the studio, having given up touring following a nervous breakdown. Today!, released in March 1965, is often regarded as the best Beach Boys album after Pet Sounds, and shows Wilson already in full command of the wall-of-sound: massive instrumentation, unconventional drumming patterns plus handclaps and tambourine on both uptempo and slower songs. His modifications to the Phil Spector formula include double-tracking the lead vocals and giving the harmonies a more interactive role with the lead vocal. The next album, Summer Days, is a step backwards, but includes several great songs like "California Girls," "Help Me Rhonda," and "Let Him Run Wild."

Pet Sounds was not so much a further development of wall-of-sound as it was the result of Wilson's desire to create an entire LP of the wall-of-sound. Remember, aside from the lost Christmas record, the wall-of-sound has only been issued on singles and singles compilations. Also, EPs were still the preferred format for pop music in the mid-1960s, so trying to compose and record an entire album was quite a radical idea. Wilson's recording technique was similar to the one he employed on the last two albums: get a good instrumental mix, bounce the mix onto one channel of the four-track, and use the remaining three tracks for vocals. (This is an important difference between Wilson and Spector: Spector preferred recording his singers and instruments together, live.)

Books have been written about Pet Sounds, so I will not dwell on it too much. The only thing I will add is the sad footnote that, with the exception of "Good Vibrations" (recorded in the summer of 1966), Brian Wilson never finished another wall-of-sound record again.

Phil Spector's career, too, would come to a halt in 1966, too. After spending a quiet year in 1965 sending several Righteous Brothers songs to the top the charts, Spector co-wrote "River Deep - Mountain High" for Ike and Tina Turner. This song was designed to be his greatest production to date, and featured the most massive wall-of-sound he ever committed to tape. Unfortunately, the song flopped in the United States, and Spector retired, not to re-emerge except for a few projects here and there throughout the 1970s.

From there, improvements in recording technology and the studio engineers' collective drive towards perfect sound quality all but buried the idea of the wall-of-sound. The term is sometimes thrown around to describe overproduced and noisy music, but that was never what Spector and Wilson had in mind.

Where are they now? Phil Spector is awaiting trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson. Brian Wilson recently finished Smile with his backup band and conquered his fear of performing, but it's too little too late, his voice having lost much of what made it great in the 1960s.

The history of wall-of-sound will hopefully continue with a new generation of artists like you and me. In the next section, we will start covering the technical aspects of the wall-of-sound.