The spectre of sound: Phil Spector with The Ronettes. Credit: GAB Archive / Redferns.

January 18, 2021   5 mins

What does it sound like, to be in love? I knew before I was old enough to have the feeling for myself: it sounded like swooping strings, it sounded like huge booming drums, it sounded like close harmonies, it sounded like a pure and pristine teenage girl’s voice catching at the edge of desperation, the innocent centre of a universe of wanting. It sounded, in fact, like producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. When I felt love for the first time, I was at least in some degree reciting from the songs I’d learned by heart, listening to the tapes my parents played in the car.

Spector — who died in prison at the weekend — was a king of rock ’n’ roll, beloved by all the men who mattered. He worked with the Beatles, on Let It Be, and on Lennon and Harrison’s solo projects; he worked with Leonard Cohen and the Ramones. A real-life Spector production was a badge of validation for any artist who bore his influence, and he influenced pop music more than most. Spector fitted the pattern of a genius. Eccentric. Erratic. A man, of course. He luxuriated in his myth: Tom Wolfe called him the “tycoon of teen”.

This masculine authority made it OK, even respectable, to applaud the music Spector made by and for girls. Throughout the sixties, Spector turned out a run of hits that defined teenagerdom, and the best of them were the ones by female acts — the Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love. The triumphant girlishness of songs like “Baby I Love You” and “Then He Kissed Me” isn’t just a male fabrication, either. Spector’s songwriting team leaned heavily on women, Elaine Greenwich and Carole King especially.

Part of the reason these songs sounded so intensely teenage was that the writers actually listened to girls when they were writing them. Which is the story behind the darkest, most disturbing production in Spector’s catalogue (not the darkest, most disturbing bit of his life, but we’ll get to that). Carole King and her partner and co-writer Jerry Goffin hired teenage singer Little Eva (they had written “The Locomotion” for her) as their babysitter. One day, Eva showed up covered in bruises; when they asked what had happened, she explained that her boyfriend had beaten her because he loved her.

That explanation became a song for the Crystals, released in 1962: “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”. If there was ever any irony in the lyric, it’s obliterated in Spector’s arrangement and production. There’s a martial determination in the song’s slow, stately build-up, as instruments accumulate around lead vocalist Barbara Alston. “He hit me,” she sings, precise, affectless, alone in all that noise, “and it felt like a kiss / He hit me, and I knew he loved me.”

The song allows no escape from this world of masochism. At the end, Alston declares: “And then he kissed me / He made me his.” The strings surge to a heavenly resolution, the backing singers chirrup angelically, and there is no doubt that all is right with a world where a girl takes a boy’s fists as proof of devotion. It is a grotesque piece of pop music, a hymn to domestic abuse.

The public was repulsed. Radio stations got complaints when they played it, and sales were poor. Spector pulled it after a few weeks. King later repudiated it. The Crystals described the recording as an unhappy one. “He Hit Me” was an embarrassment, something best forgotten. When a major boxset of Spector’s sixties work was released in 1991 — called Back to Mono, in recognition of its fidelity to his original recording intentions — I remember there was a bit of a thing in the music press about the inclusion of “He Hit Me”.

It wasn’t one of the songs I’d heard in the car, anyway. The first time I listened to “He Hit Me”, I was 11 or 12, squirreled away under headphones, drawn to play this horrible, fascinating song in the same way I was drawn to reading true crime features in the Sunday supplements. I played it again. I tried to understand it — the singer’s strangely purposeful delivery, the woman’s name on the writing credits — and I couldn’t. It was like a sliver of glass from the Snow Queen’s mirror in the fairy story: once it had got into me, it made everything else feel poisoned, twisted.

Still, the song had a cultish afterlife. Bands such as Saint Etienne and the Cardigans — bands that took pop music seriously — riffed on it. It showed you knew your music history, and that you were interested in the dangerous edges. Courtney Love recorded a scabrous, confrontational version of it with her band Hole in 1994. But I was a teenager and busy getting into Britpop and riot grrrl, and Phil Spector didn’t trouble me much until 2003, when news broke that he’d been arrested for the murder of Lana Clarkson. The first thing I thought was: “Well, I guess that makes sense.”

What do you do when your favourite music is made by somebody reprehensible? In a witless article for the NME, Mark Beaumont advises fans of “problematic” acts to “cut them cleanly out of your listening habits from the off” and “listen to the music they inspired instead”. But it seems a bit harsh if the person being punished for Morrisey’s terrible opinions is me, compelled to ditch the Smiths and listen to Gene (don’t worry, no one else knows who Gene are now either).

And anyway, that glib prescription is no good at all if it turns out that much of your idea of love has been authored by a monstrous, lethal misogynist. A year before Back to Mono, in 1990, a very different take on Spector’s legacy came out when his former protegee and ex-wife Ronnie (lead singer of the Ronettes) published her autobiography. Spector, she revealed, was violent and controlling. He threatened to have her murdered if she ever left. When she eventually fled, she was barefoot, because he forbade her to have shoes; and even when he couldn’t possess her, he still clung onto her music and royalties.

Clarkson’s murder wasn’t a tragic lapse in an otherwise acceptable life. It was entirely foreseeable that Spector would kill a woman. At his trial, five other women testified that he had threatened them with guns. If, at any point between the 1960s and 2003, female lives had been considered as valuable as male genius, Clarkson might never have died. At least we would have been spared the music press and industry swooning over the brilliance of an abuser, right up to the point at which he turned a woman into a corpse.

I can see the link now between the narrator of “Baby I Love You” crying out her devotion to a boy, and the one in “He Hit Me”. The girls of Spector’s music orbit men like dazed satellites, with the romantic relationship the only one that matters: the female voices sing together, but rarely seem to talk to each other. I can see that, and I still love the songs — still love the way Spector conjured cathedrals of longing in sound, still love hearing girls singing songs by women about being girls. They belonged to me before I ever knew who Spector was, and now he’s dead, they’re more mine than ever. Good riddance.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.