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Music

True Crime in Culture: Tearing down Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound

@TomTaylorFO

Music producers are often unheralded puppet-masters behind the mixing desk—faceless sound experts who push acts towards new heights then fade away when the spotlight comes beckoning. In other words, you can’t name all that many of them. Phil Spector, however, was such a pioneer of sound that he was destined to break that mould. His ‘Wall of Sound’ technique made him a hero of artists in need of a hit and his manic microphone-like hairdo ensured he was instantly recognisable beyond the innovative soundscapes he was crafting. He was also a certifiable monster.

The portents of his dark side were in place early and often overlooked. During his marriage to Ronnie Spector, the producer was abusive from the get-go. In fact, he turned their 23-room mansion into something akin to a maximum-security prison. The property boasted chain-link fences, barbed wire and intercoms in every room, making it nigh on impossible for Ronnie to leave.

His wildly controlling ways even extended to installing an inflatable effigy of himself in the passenger seat of Ronnie’s car to give the impression that she was never alone when she was out driving. He also made several threats to her life and even had a gold coffin installed in the basement of their family home and told her that if she tried to leave him she would end up inside of it. 

While Ronnie Spector would divorce her abusive husband in 1974, she had to hand over custody of their children because he had threatened to hire a hitman if she refused to cooperate. Sadly, his children also fell victim to his abuse. He would force them to simulate sex acts on his girlfriends as he watched on, and if he wasn’t satisfied with them, he would strike them.

Further warning signs were coming to the fore in the studio itself. When he was recording John Lennon’s cover album in 1973 he would arrive at the studio late and high on amyl nitrate wearing elaborate fancy dress costumes each night. His surgeon outfits or karate kit openly displayed his pistol. One night he discharged that pistol inches away from Lennon’s head. The laidback former Beatle merely remarked: “Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me. But don’t f**k with my ears. I need ’em.”

Leonard Cohen also encountered similar problems when he was working with that star producer. As he recalled, the studio was “armed to the teeth … you were slipping over bullets and biting into revolvers in your hamburger.” These worrying signs then manifested in a harrowing moment when Spector shoved a gun to Cohen’s neck and said, “Leonard, I love you.” Cohen slowly pushed the barrel away, replying, “I hope you do, Phil.”

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He also pulled a gun on Debbie Harry, The Ramones and no doubt countless other artists he came into contact with. His obsession with guns reportedly began back in 1958 when he was on tour with The Teddy Bears. He found himself alone in the bathroom of a rough and tumble bar and when four men entered, they picked on him for his slight stature and urinated on him. Thereafter, he vowed never to be without protection ever again.

In 2003, this story would come to its tragically forecasted conclusion. Spector was at the House of Blues one night when he met model and actress Lana Clarkson. Later that night, the pair left together and entered Spector’s limousine. A few hours later, Spector’s driver called the police and said that his boss had informed him that he had just shot someone.

When the cops arrived at his property, they found Lana Clarkson dead with a gunshot wound to her face. Spector protested his innocence. His story was that she was kissing the gun in a seductive act when she fired it. He asserted that it was an accidental suicide. While there is, in fact, evidence that suggests this might have been the case, a string of former sexual partners claimed that he had also pulled a gun on them, and his former behaviour proved damning.

Ultimately, the initial trial concluded in 2007 with a hung jury as 10 jurors voted to convict but two protested his innocence. At a retrial in 2008, Spector was eventually found guilty following a yearlong legal process and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison. In 2021, he died of natural causes, maintaining his plea of accidental suicide until the end. Now, his legacy is one that lies in ruin as his pioneering ways are wildly overshadowed by the demented actions that plagued many and ultimately resulted in catastrophe.