Biographers and journalists have generally marked the end of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound era with the over-the-top production of “River Deep—Mountain High” for Ike and Tina Turner in 1966. A massive flop in the US, especially when compared to the enormous success of “You’ve Lost that Lovin‘ Feeling” from the Righteous Brothers, now acknowledged as the song with the most airplay in the 20th century, “River Deep” was the album that “just never found a home.”1 There is no straightforward explanation for the Wall of Sound’s decline. Despite all of its ingenuity, it may only be natural that things remain temporary in the world of pop music. Yet the Wall of Sound did not disappear so gently. In fact, one might argue that from the moment its popularity began to wane, it forged new ground as a trace of its former self.
This is the context for Spector’s foray into film,2 work with the soon-to-be crumbling Beatles3 and his collaboration with Leonard Cohen on Death of a Ladies Man (1977). Cohen, kept in the dark about the final mixes by Spector, was famously disappointed with these sessions. The songs themselves have always elicited mixed reactions. There is evidence of the Wall of Sound’s dissipation at the very beginning of the album in the aptly titled, “True Love Leaves No Traces.” Based on one of Cohen’s poems, the song itself is a series of repetitions (intro/ verse/ chorus/ intro/ verse/ chorus, etc), dramatized by Spector’s decision to use a protracted fadeout. Hang in there long enough and the song’s cyclical structure is revealed as you hear the faint start of a third chorus. It’s as if you’ve been invited to hear four minutes and twenty-five seconds of an endless loop.
The Wall of Sound here is a veritable shadow of its days backing the Ronettes. By 1977, Spector’s layered production evoked the aural equivalent of physical collapse. The flanged hiss in the chorus of Nino Temp’s open and closed hi-hat rhythm implies multiple takes out of synch with each other. Also, Spector’s usual lengthy decay of echo is pulled in closer to slab-back lengths. These effects are even more intense by the second track, “Iodine,” where drums flutter with delay, guitars are soaked with heavy phasing and Cohen’s voice actually warbles at times (“You let me love you till I was a failure / your beauty on my bruise like iodine”). These are, rather notoriously, Cohen’s raw, scratch vocal takes on the final versions. It seems worth asking whether Spector’s famed technique was ever that stable to begin with.
The name “Wall of Sound” was always intended as an architectural metaphor, though it’s really not as straightforward as it seems. The simplified interpretation is that a wall is built in a way that embodies structural integrity, as with masonry, where the repeated pattern and placement of the individual components form a compounded rigidity. A wall in this sense is the outcome of a precise logic whose endgame is often to divide. The common analogy for Spector’s work is that through the methodic layering of identically played parts he achieves a similar kind of structural integrity; a thick and solid foundation which forms the backbone of his pop arrangements. Yet Spector’s walls simply do not work this way.
Denny Bruce once said, “The Wall of Sound was structured the way an architect will build a house.”4 (author’s emphasis) The shift in grammatical tense is important because, whether it was intended this way or not, it highlights Spector’s inventiveness. His method is not modeled on ways of making something easily served by the analogy between big sound and solid wall. The far more compelling view is to consider the fact that he produced an actual sonic blur from the raw material at hand—in his case, pop music instrumentation multiplied several times over. As opposed to building towards solidity, Spector’s walls are ambiguous, and though he was notoriously methodical in his approach, the result was profoundly shapeless. These recordings tend to diffuse the space around more centralized lead vocals, an act which inverts our traditional sense of wall building since the more Spector built up, the less distinct his construction became. As Larry Levine put it, “Phil never wanted to hear horns as horns… you’d hear chords changing, but there weren’t any instruments to say ‘I’m changing’;”5 an insightful description that leads Spector’s biographer Mick Brown to assert that the Wall of Sound shares more in common with “a dense impasto, like a Rothko painting.”6 If one can imagine a translation of this into an architectural language, the results might reveal blueprints for buildings yet seen.
Spector’s use of repetition and modulation transformed the medium of popular music into a blurred wash of standard chord progressions. These experiments have had a significant impact on music culture ever since (Brian Wilson to Shoegaze to Chillwave all owe a debt). By now, however, the language of this sound is so well understood that it becomes nearly impossible to grasp its initial significance. Its meaning has atrophied, a fact with significant spatial consequences. The Wall of Sound’s legacy, redefined as an active trace, is an attempt to describe the decay of such phenomena over time. As a matter of historical coincidence, it was pop which exploded into the world of visual art in the 1950’s and 60’s with a heavy dose of pomp and irony. At the same time, art slid through the back door of pop music as a form of production. This was a direct result of Spector’s paradoxical longing “to be in the background… but… to be important in the background.”7
Unfortunately, the value of this transaction has been slowly erased by his personal decisions, which more often than not displayed the lack of moral conscience that eventually consumed his image. This has become more complicated still by the recent Lana Clarkson murder case. It begs an important question: Is it possible to separate the moral pigment of a story drawn with such a broad ethical stroke? After all, ethics begins with our actions. Morality introduces the categories of right and wrong. This divide, situated on the hazy edge between two highly intertwined and historically charged categories, might only be built with the understanding that it will eventually break down. Given what we know about the instability of such constructions, it may even resemble that infamous Wall of Sound.