Wednesday, April 27, 2016

River Redux: Phil Spector revisited

I am sure, sure-tee-sure I have posted this song before, but is this the kind of song you only listen to once? You listen to it until you fall right into the middle of it and drown.

Much is made of the famous or infamous Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound, a weird aural trick that no one had thought of before. Back in the early '60s, recordings were made in the most primitive circumstances, with one or two microphones and a couple of tracks. Bob Dylan just sang into the sucker on his first album, and that was that. I've seen video of all Four Seasons clustered around the same mike.

Spector was dealing with the supposed limitations of mono sound recording when he began to innovate and percolate and come up with something eerily new. I say eerie because that's how I feel about Spector recordings. I get the chills, even the willies, when I listen to them, particularly late at night.

There are tons of them on YouTube, fortunately - God, how did I LIVE without YouTube? - so I can listen, at a click, to Be My Baby by the Ronettes, And Then He Kissed Me and Da Doo Ron Ron by The Crystals, and the two big Righteous Brothers classics, Unchained Melody and You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling. But Tina's classic is still my favorite, and it gives me the shivers no matter how many times I hear it.

Why is that? Spector uses some pretty complex arrangements in these things, strings, brasses, lots of funky percussion (and for some reason he used a lot of castanets), and keyboards: piano and even harpsichord, as well as (usually) a female chorus. But all these things were not separate entities. They were layered on top of each other, even smeared and bleared together like pigment in an impressionist painting.

In another video, which I won't post here, a couple of session musicians of the era give away some of the secrets of the Wall. The two guys are sitting right there in the recording room at Gold Star Studios, a seedy-looking little place that looks like it turned out records that amateur singers would give their grandmas for birthday presents. But no. Miracles happened here. The musicians were cramped together so cruelly that going to the bathroom would necessitate clambering over the trombonist. This was done on purpose, so the individual sounds would meld and fuse together.

Another trick was the use of the echo chamber. I didn't know what one of those looked like - I assumed a glass tube like in a Star Trek movie or something, but no. It was just a room, an ugly little room in the basement made out of cement, and microphones were aimed at the walls. Yes. The walls. A cheap little speaker blasted the music into the echo chamber, and the sound waves from all those densely-clustered instruments bounced and zinged weirdly off the walls and into the mikes, which took the sound back to the control room where Spector did God knows what sort of Satanic thing to it.

Wikipedia explains it more clearly than I can:

"Microphones in the recording studio captured the musicians' performance, which was then transmitted to an echo chamber—a basement room fitted with speakers and microphones. The signal from the studio was played through the speakers and reverberated throughout the room before being picked up by the microphones. The echo-laden sound was then channeled back to the control room, where it was recorded on tape. The natural reverberation and echo from the hard walls of the echo chamber gave Spector's productions their distinctive quality and resulted in a rich, complex sound that, when played on AM radio, had a texture rarely heard in musical recordings."

One of those session musicians recalls:

"There was a lot of weight on each part.…The three pianos were different, one electric, one not, one harpsichord, and they would all play the same thing and it would all be swimming around like it was all down a well. Musically, it was terribly simple, but the way he recorded and miked it, they’d diffuse it so that you couldn't pick any one instrument out. Techniques like distortion and echo were not new, but Phil came along and took these to make sounds that had not been used in the past. I thought it was ingenious."

Not content with this kind of reverbatory sorcery, Spector was known to turn off a guitar track on a tape, relying on the "bleed"/spillage of the guitar's overtone-y sound into one of the other mikes to create the sense of a ghost guitar. It's there, except that it's not. And you can still hear it even when it isn't.

Whether all this supernatural stuff was folded in right then and there, or later, I don't know, but that smeary, bleary, echo-y, ghostly shade of the music was liberally used to give the song a sense of throbbing unreality. A chorus had the sound of fourteen glass globes vibrating to the point of near-explosion. A brass section was cooked down and down, reduced like a sauce that boiled away into a vapour of brassiness that almost had no individual flavour at all. Strings were sometimes doubled, then doubled again, and again, so that two string players could end up sounding like an entire string section, bizarrely cloned - not to save money or space, but to give the whole thing an unnatural, uniform, mutant quality.

So the lead singer would be laying down tracks on top of a vibrating prism of sound,  a rotating jellyfish at a depth of several thousand feet that would explode if it ever found its way up to the surface.

If you listen to this, and listen to it, it gets scary, because this is not real sound. Mind you, what you hear now isn't either, it has all been mucked with, but all this was done manually, no electronics, because there weren't any (and Spector despised the innovations that came later - he did not change with the times). When I listen to his productions, I get the same feeling as when I listen to those Tibetan monks chanting in overtones: yes, we ARE hearing the actual components of sound, but pulled apart, like white light being shattered by a prism into a rainbow. In this case it's almost the opposite. The sound waves are all pushed together, creating something we've never heard before and can't even quite comprehend.

There was another aspect of this twenty-thousand-leagues-under-reality effect: Spector made the musicians rehearse for at least three hours before rolling tape. At the end of this, everyone would be so sweaty and exhausted and beaten-down that they would lose their individuality and "meld", almost melt, the way he wanted them to. It was no doubt a form of brainwashing or torture, acceptable torture because he paid them. Spector is not a nice man, and is in fact batshit crazy and a sociopath, but damn! he came up with an interesting recording effect that people are still trying to duplicate today.

You can try it, you can record and re-record and re-re-RErecord musical reverberations and play them back and then record them again, but it's not the same. No one has quite the right demonic quality to put it all together. And singers are different, and music is different, it just has to be. And I am sure I am not using any of the right technical terms in writing about all this, but I'm writing what I hear, and I have a pretty darn-tootin' good ear, thank you very much; I came in with it, I inherited it from all the crazy musicians in my genetic pool.

Some are so crazy they aren't even here any more. But at least none of them are in jail for murder.

P. S. Listen at your own risk! I guarantee you, this is the weirdest thing you've ever heard: just the sound of one man chanting. 

. . . OK, there is always a P. S. to the P. S. Since I posted all this, including Tina Turner singing River Deep Mountain High, I found a version of this same song which sounds SOOOOO much better that I had to post it again. It sounds so much better because it's in glorious, clean-cut, diamond-hard MONO with no soup-ups or enhancements. (See follow-up post, where I get into a serious rant about this.) It may be the playback equipment that makes a difference, but I can hear so much more of the recording here, the deep well (not wall) of sound. In fact, Well of Sound might be a more accurate description of what the Mad Phillster was after.

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