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Review: Phil Spector, “The Philles Album Collection” and “The Essential Phil Spector”

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Whoa-oh, a-whoa-oh-oh-oh!

Think of The Ronettes’ wail, every bit as iconic a cry as a-whop-bop-a-loo-a-whop-bam-boom.  Doesn’t rock and roll have a way of elevating onomatopoeia to poetry?  And no label made sweeter poetry in the first half of the 1960s than Philles Records.  The voices of Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, La La Brooks, Barbara Alston and the rest spoke directly to America’s teenagers.  These women, alternately vulnerable and defiant, were little more than girls when they began putting their voices to the “little symphonies” being crafted by producer Phil Spector and his house arrangers, most notably Jack Nitzsche.  Tom Wolfe once famously deemed Spector “America’s first teen-age tycoon.”  Why?  Spector recognized the paradigm shift in the late 1950s, when teenagers began accruing disposable income and exercising newfound spending power.  He tapped into uncharted territory.  Cole Porter and Irving Berlin weren’t writing songs about teenagers.  Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were.  Like Spector, they were barely out of their teen years themselves.  The songs they created at Philles remain both of a distinct time, and timeless.  It’s those songs that are celebrated on Legacy Recordings’ 7-CD box set The Philles Album Collection (Phil Spector Records/Legacy 88697 92782-2).

So why an album collection, when the producer famously derided albums in favor of singles?  These albums do little to dissuade the notion that Spector was a great, perhaps the great, singles producer.  He reportedly paid little attention to the long-players bearing his imprint.  But if an album is viewed as a collection of great songs, it’s impossible to argue with the success of these platters.  There’s little doubt, too, that the producer’s ethos was on-the-money, viewed from the present music climate which has shifted back to an emphasis on singles.  The Philles Album Collection marks the very first time that any of its six albums have been released on CD in their original configurations, and for that alone, it would be noteworthy.  Each album is housed in an attractive, sturdy mini-LP jacket.  Its seventh disc is even more exotic, though: a bonus disc of offbeat, B-side instrumentals that accompanied some of these songs for single release.  Spector took the art of recycling tracks, album-to-album, to a new level; there’s frequent repetition among these discs that doesn’t make for ideal consecutive listening and may be frustrating for some.  But Spector and co. could have had little idea that, nearly fifty years later, listeners would be revisiting these long-players in one sitting.

Phil Spector was still producing outside artists when he launched Philles with Lester Sill; in 1962 he produced the hit “Second Hand Love” for Connie Francis at MGM after a string of hit recordings for Gene Pitney, Ray Peterson, Curtis Lee, the Paris Sisters and other notables.  The Philles Album Collection begins, appropriately enough, with the girl group that graced the label’s first album and single, The Crystals, led by Barbara Alston.

Hit the jump, and it’s 1962!   You’ve just put The Crystals Twist Uptown onto your new turntable!

From New York to Los Angeles: Building a Wall of Sound

The Crystals Twist Uptown (PHLP-4000, 1962) is distinguished mostly by the presence of unsung arranger Arnold Goland, Spector’s most consistent collaborator prior to Jack Nitzsche.  New York’s Mira Sound was the studio for these early recordings, with a sonic signature far less dramatic than Los Angeles’ Gold Star.  It’s clear on these tracks that the producer and arranger were still finding a “sound,” but one bona fide classic arrived right out of the gate: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Uptown,” a definitive mini-movie, or melodrama.  Their Brill Building comrade Doc Pomus co-wrote “Another Country, Another World” with Spector himself.  The song has remnants of the Atlantic uptown soul sound which Spector would have learned from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller: those shimmering, swirling strings, the Burt Bacharach-esque “La la la”s.  The Crystals split up lead vocal duties; Patsy Wright handled “Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby,” and it’s La La Brooks on “Frankenstein Twist,” which contrary to the lyrics, won’t make you fall into a trance.  It’s not particularly ghoulish, but it’s the track that nominally gave the LP its twisting title.  A cover of Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” also has La La on lead and “Twist” parenthetically appended to its name, but I defy you to attempt to dance to it!

Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Please Hurt Me” is musically a 1950s leftover, and lyrically of the masochistic variety (“If you’ve gotta hurt somebody/Please hurt me/And if I have to be your plaything/That’s what I’ll be”).  It predates “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)” which explores a variation on the same unsettling theme.  The most fascinating track on Twist Uptown is Mann and Weil’s “On Broadway” in its original version, before the songsmiths joined with Leiber and Stoller to give it a makeover, both in the lyric and arrangement departments.  “What a Nice Way to Turn Seventeen” explicitly addresses the album’s target audience, and “No One Ever Tells You” is another study in teenage angst and melancholy.  Despite the lack of a concept for the LP, its songs of a piece (“No one ever tells you of love/And how it can make you cry/No one ever tells you/How your heart can break/When someone that you love tells you goodbye”).

The seismic shift came with the title song of The Crystals’ next LP, He’s a Rebel (PHLP-4001, 1963).  New York gave way to Hollywood, and Arnold Goland to Jack Nitzsche.  “Rebel” crystallized the so-called Wall of Sound.  Ingredients at various times include thunderous echo, stacked layers of choral vocals, percussion, a soulful yet sophisticated rhythm section, a swath of strings and a honking saxophone, with multiples of instruments playing in unison.  La La Brooks recently recalled a comment made by Jack Nitzsche: “If it wasn’t for me, there’d be no Phil.”  One could say the same thing about the musicians of the Wrecking Crew.  There’s not enough room here to list them all, but let’s recognize Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, Steve Douglas, Carol Kaye, Barney Kessel, Larry Knechtel, Bill Pitman, Ray Pohlman, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco and Nino Tempo, consummate musicians all.

The LP itself is essentially a retread of The Crystals’ debut platter, with nine of the original eleven songs retained. “Please Hurt Me” has given way to an even harsher song in the same vein by the same Goffin/King team, the infamous “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).”  It was recorded at Mira Sound with a Spector/Goland chart just a couple months after “Please Hurt Me” in 1962.  Spector pulled the song as a single, realizing that the lyrics would prove controversial on AM radio.  Gerry Goffin agreed with the decision, admitting his lyrics were “a little too radical” for the time.  The song’s chilling depiction of abuse is a powerful one, but the singles audience of 1962 wasn’t ready for a song, sung in character, that could have emerged from a dark musical.  There’s nothing “pop” about it.

The Carla Thomas cover “Gee Whiz” has also disappeared.  “He’s a Rebel” and the ebullient “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” (both sung by Darlene Love and the Blossoms though credited to The Crystals) provide the album with crucial jolts of energy.  Though separated by mere months, the Gold Star tracks heralded a pivotal new sound.  Steve Douglas’ honking saxophone on “He’s a Rebel” could have signaled the change.

The Crystals ceded to Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans for Philles’ third LP release, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah (PHLP-4002).  Darlene Love took the spotlight from the lead singer of the group, Bobby Sheen (who supplies the out-front vocal on “Let the Good Times Roll”) as Spector continued to craft his perfect formula.  This album is one of the box set’s greatest revelations, with a number of new-to-CD tracks.  Jackie DeShannon is represented with two early songs, the groovy “Jimmy Baby” and “I Shook the World,” with its cool organ part.  The Sheen-led songs are particularly discoveries for those only familiar with the Bob B. Soxx recordings sung by the versatile Love. The exciting “Dear (Here Comes My Baby)” is a lost gem with Sheen in the lead, as is the atypical blues “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right” which he effectively drawls. (Another track from these sessions, “Do the Walk,” also featured Sheen on lead.  It, however, wasn’t released until 1981 on a Philles anthology.)  Bobby might have been usurped by Darlene on many of these tracks, but he in turn, replaced Billy Storm of the Alley Cats for their classic “Puddin n’ Tain” (heard on Today’s Hits, also in the box.)

It’s remarkable that Darlene Love never saw a solo LP on the Philles label, so volcanic are her contributions here.  The men back her up with the onomatopoeic sounds on “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts” while she’s slow-burning on “My Heart Beat a Little Faster.”  Spector clearly liked the title of a very different “Baby (I Love You),” a solo composition of his, and also must have had a fondness for “The White Cliffs of Dover” which he recorded here and later famously covered with the Righteous Brothers.  Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” with its light guitar strumming and piano tinkling, seems an odd inclusion, as if it wandered in from another album altogether.  The same goes for the song that rounds out the original LP, the instrumental “Dr. Kaplan’s Office,” with its “Sea Cruise” feel and some wild crowing!  (It’s repeated on the bonus disc here.)

Tomorrow’s Sound Today: The Greatest Hits

Of its twelve songs, The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (PHLP-4003) was built around seven repeats and five new songs.  Four were cover versions, and one was the titanic “Da Doo Ron Ron.”  After the mercurial Spector deemed Darlene Love’s take unsatisfactory, he dispatched La La Brooks from New York out to Gold Star, where she made perfect sense of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s nonsensical lyric.  The Crystals fare well on The Chantels’ “Look in My Eyes,” enhanced with sweet vocals and a Spector/Goland arrangement somewhat reminiscent of Etta James’ “At Last.”  The other covers, however, were actually performed by the Ronettes, who had yet to release anything of their own on Philles!  These songs lack the flavor or distinction of the original songs being churned out by Spector’s stable of songwriters.  The all-but-unknown “Hot Pastrami” is vocal equivalent of a B-side as Ronnie Spector exclaims, “Hot Pastrami, yeah” and “Phil Spector, yeah” to an enthusiastic response of “yeah” by the boys in the background!

When it comes to Philles Records Presents Today’s Hits (PHLP-4004), the compilation LP reprised here in CD form, apologies must be extended to the long-running series of the same name.  Now this is what I call music!  For the first time, Philles released an LP that was “all killer, no filler.”  It featured the Crystals’ and Ronettes’ then-current A-sides, although as per Philles tradition, there are more repeats, such as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby,” ”Zip A Dee Doo Dah,” “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts” and “My Heart Beat a Little Faster,” now credited to Darlene Love solo.  But Today’s Hits marked the first album appearance of The Crystals’ classic “Then He Kissed Me” (again, a La La Brooks lead) and The Ronettes’ immortal “Be My Baby” which remains the often-imitated, never-topped high watermark of the Wall of Sound, not to mention Brian Wilson’s favorite song!

Be My Baby: Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes

Where to go from there?  The final album included in the box set, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica (PHLP-4006) is the most cohesive album in the collection, with the repeated cuts kept to a minimum.  It’s hard to top the opener of “Walking in the Rain” by Spector, Mann and Weil, but the producer’s latest favorite team of (Pete) Anders and (Vini) Poncia were able to follow in their big footsteps.  “Do I Love You” is as driving and danceable as anything that came out of the Motown hit factory; just try to keep those hands from clapping!  From the same duo came “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” again proving that the new team could compete with the other greats Spector poached from the Brill Building and its environs.  Greenwich and Barry’s “Baby I Love You” appears here, and epitomizes the joy that’s over practically every track of this album, even the melancholy ones.  Put simply, it’s the sound of young love as epitomized by Ronnie Spector (then Veronica Bennett), Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley.

“So Young” is a throwback, with one of Ronnie Spector’s most aching vocals.  Originally recorded by The Students, it was one of her favorite songs and also appeared on a quickly-deleted single bearing the Phil Spector Records imprint, not Philles.  The quirky “How Does It Feel” boasts a fast tempo, insistent percussion and some big-band style horn flourishes – and then there’s another familiar tune, like “On Broadway” from the earlier LP, in a largely unfamiliar version.  This time it’s the original, pre-Dixie Cups “Chapel of Love.”  This track shows that the First Tycoon of Teen didn’t hit it out of the ballpark every time!  It took Spector’s old mentors Leiber and Stoller, at their own Red Bird label, to give Greenwich, Barry and Spector’s song the success it deserved.

Joining these six LPs is a seventh CD entitled Phil’s Flipsides.  The seventeen instrumentals on this disc are hardly classics, but the collection fills in a gaping hole in the Spector discography.  These are the tracks recorded by Spector to outwit disc jockeys who might have been inclined to flip over his intended A-side.  His solution was, quite simply, to record tracks with little to no commercial appeal.  On these largely improvised short jams, Spector name-checked his first wife, his analyst, Sonny Bono, engineer supreme Larry Levine and the personnel of the Wrecking Crew, among others.  Spector didn’t exclusively use instrumentals as B-sides (see Darlene Love’s “Take It From Me” on the flip of Philles 114 or Ronnie Spector’s “Blues for Baby” on Philles 126) but the practice was quite frequent.  “Dr. Kaplan’s Office,” the only one of these tracks to make an LP appearance, is the only track that bears the true Wall of Sound style, not coincidentally because it bears Jack Nitzsche’s name as arranger.  It began life as the backing track to Goffin and King’s “You Can’t Sit Still,” which sits in the vaults with a Darlene Love vocal performance!

If not the Wall of Sound, then what?  You’ll hear boogie-woogie piano and some very loose vocal wailing on “Annette” (Spector’s first wife) and dinner party jazz on “Tedesco and Pitman,” a.k.a. Tommy and Bill.  The jazzy “Nino and Sonny (Big Trouble)” also features vocal interjections alongside its sax, guitar and piano. Its bebop sound nothing like anything else Spector ever recorded, but the level of the playing by the versatile Wrecking Crew on this track and “Miss Joan and Mister Sam” is unassailable.  Miss Joan was Spector’s secretary, while Mister Sam might be Nino Tempo’s father or Spector’s own uncle.  “Harry and Milt Meet Hal B” name-checks Hal Blaine, the anchor of the group, and “Chubby Danny D” (Philles’ promotion man) is set apart by a frenetic drum solo.  “Torpedo Rock (Surfing Corrido)” employs brass from somewhere around Tijuana, but not much surf or rock.  It actually wasn’t a B-side but rather an instrumental that didn’t see release until 1976.

Playing for Keeps: Truly Essential

Expertly produced by Rob Santos and copiously annotated by Mick Patrick, The Philles Album Collection belongs on the shelf of anyone with more than a passing interest in American pop music.  (Patrick’s notes consist of a terrific essay plus track-by-track commentary on the bonus disc.)  The only remaining commercial LPs released on the Philles label are A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector (representing catalogue number 4005 and already reissued on CD by Legacy), three Righteous Brothers collections now controlled by Universal (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, Just Once in My Life and Back to Back, numbers 4007, 4008 and 4009, respectively), a Lenny Bruce LP (4010) and Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High (4011) which never saw U.S. release in this format. (Some mono records were pressed, but this release never made it to the cover printing stage. The track listing was released in the U.K. on the London label and later in America on A&M with one alteration.) River Deep Mountain High has already been reissued earlier this year courtesy Hip-o Select. (For label completists, a 1972 radio promo compilation entitled The Phil Spector Spectacular apparently exists as Philles 100, compiling old material.)

Vic Anesini has remastered the entire collection, and the songs sound better than ever.  Anesini did the same for the other Philles release which has just arrived from Legacy, The Essential Phil Spector (Phil Spector Records/Legacy 88697 86422-2).  This 2-CD, 35-track anthology features all of the hits you know and love from every group mentioned above.  It begins with Spector’s pre-Philles period, and continues through 1969’s “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, Ltd.  All that’s missing, to nobody’s surprise, are the tracks Spector produced for The Beatles (individually and collectively) and late-period productions for artists like Leonard Cohen and the Ramones.  Each track on The Essential Phil Spector has already been released on ABKCO’s now out-of-print Back to Mono box set (7118-2, 1991), but those familiar with that box will note the superior sound on The Essential brings more clarity to these mono singles.  (Back to Mono contains 60 tracks on its first three compact discs, with the fourth dedicated to Christmas Gift.)

What could still be forthcoming from Legacy and Phil Spector Records?  A rarities collection (rounding up both unreleased material and the odds and ends that trickled out on the Phil Spector International LPs of the 1970s) must be high on every wish list, as well as a collection of this famously mono material in stereo.  Most of all, a Complete Singles collection would be a truly definitive document of the Philles and Spector legacies, including all of the sides helmed by other producers like Lester Sill, Lou Adler, Jeff Barry, and Bob Crewe.

In the meantime, though, The Philles Album Collection is a striking reminder of when all was right in the world, even for just three minutes at a time.

Written by Joe Marchese

October 25, 2011 at 12:58

2 Responses

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  1. just ordered this!

    Robert Lett

    October 25, 2011 at 14:09

  2. thanks for the great review. Here’s hoping for future releases!


    October 26, 2011 at 14:09

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