Phil Spector defined the toxic music svengali – a figure that persists today

Spector, who has died aged 81, created a culture of cruelty that was seen by the music industry as a symptom of genius. It’s a scenario that has played out again and again

The list of abuses Phil Spector doled out to his ex-wife Ronnie Spector is horrifying. He threatened to display her dead body in a glass-lidded gold coffin if she ever left him; he wouldn’t let her wear shoes in the house in case she ran away, and he put barbed wire and guard dogs around his mansion to make sure that she couldn’t. On the rare occasion he allowed her out alone, she had to drive alongside a life-sized dummy of Spector, cigarette in its mouth. Thanks more to luck than mercy, she escaped barefoot through a broken window.

Lana Clarkson.
Lana Clarkson. Photograph: AP

Just as horrifying is the list of artists who continued to seek Spector’s studio magic despite common knowledge of his menacing behaviour: the Beatles, John Lennon, Dion, Leonard Cohen, the Ramones. After a period of estrangement, his brief turn-of-the-millennium revival was short-lived: Celine Dion and Starsailor both ended up firing him. In a Guardian interview from 2003, shortly after Spector was arrested for the murder of Lana Clarkson, the Wigan band’s frontman James Walsh expressed concern that, were Spector innocent, he might be traumatised by the arrest. “It wasn’t nice seeing him like that,” he said of a photograph of Spector being led away by police. You hope he never saw a picture of the murder scene, Clarkson’s broken teeth sprayed around the carpet after Spector shot her in the mouth. (In a statement released after Spector’s conviction, Walsh said “It is hard for me to pass judgment on whether he is guilty or innocent.”)

Spector is known as the innovator of the “wall of sound” recording technique and countless moments of pop sublimity. They are inextricable from his everyday barbarism, waving guns around and holding them to musicians’ heads to enforce his will. The combination created a pernicious infamy: if the songs are so majestic, then the behaviour must be justifiable. Where Spector’s famous “boom-cha-boom-cha” drum sound on Be My Baby (played by Hal Blaine) instantly summons a pristine moment in pop history, Spector’s living legacy is that of music industry abuse going unchecked because the art is perceived as worth it – or worse, considered “proof” of wild and untameable genius.

Ronnie Spector in 1977.
The svengali’s ex-wife Ronnie Spector, in 1977. Photograph: Tom Sheehan/Sony Music Archive via Getty Images

Spector created not just a sound but the enduring paradigm of the exploitative music svengali whose work is too lucrative for him to be held to account, his victims little more than unfortunate collateral. Kim Fowley, svengali for rock band the Runaways, flaunted his sexual exploitation of underage girls – he posted an advert in an LA zine calling for a “blond, blue-eye sex-dog” girlfriend aged 18 or under – and in 1975 allegedly raped 14-year-old inebriated Runaways member Jackie Fuchs, inviting other men to join in. Lou Pearlman, the impresario who created Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync, was known for being inappropriately tactile and invasive. Then CEO of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola said it was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” for him to get involved with his young signing Mariah Carey, but did so anyway. After they married, Carey said that he imprisoned her in their home and controlled every detail of her life. In his 2013 memoir, Mottola wrote: “If it seemed like I was controlling, let me apologise again. Was I obsessive? Yes. But that was also part of the reason for her success.”

Aaliyah in 1995, aged 16.
Aaliyah in 1995, aged 16. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Those stories emerged after the deaths or lapsed heydays of the accused. More recent examples play on fan and media complicity. It was well known that R Kelly married Aaliyah when she was underage – he produced her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number – and rumours of his predation on young Black girls in Chicago were rife. This was treated like comic trivia, an attitude the R&B star exploited with his brazenly absurd persona, until the persistence of reporter Jim DeRogatis made the appalling allegations impossible to disregard. (Kelly is in jail awaiting trial and has pleaded not guilty to more than 20 charges of sexual abuse.) Ryan Adams “dangled career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing female artists for sex”, according to a 2019 New York Times report. Still, the Telegraph wrote when the allegations first surfaced, if we “expect our artists to be paragons … we are not just going to be very disappointed, we are going to be stuck with a lot of mediocre art”. The ends justify the means.

Adams is one of the few music industry figures who have been publicly accused and experienced diminished standing post-#MeToo. Twenty women have accused Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons of sexual assault, which he denies. The Grammy-winning producer Detail, who co-wrote Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Drunk in Love, had to pay $15m to a model and aspiring singer who won her lawsuit accusing him of rape and sexual and emotional abuse in 2019. Last August he was arrested on 17 counts of sexual assault, and later pleaded not guilty.

The music industry has been paying lip service to diversifying the male-dominated world of production for years, albeit to little change. A study of the 700 biggest pop songs in the US between the years 2012 and 2018 found that just 2% of the songs’ producers were women. Perhaps greater gender representation would collapse the existing power dynamic that leaves especially young women vulnerable. “There would always be the suggestion of something,” Ellie Goulding recently told the Guardian of her early experiences with producers – whether intoxication or sexual manipulation. But enacting change would require overhauling the industry’s conception of pop mythos.

Mariah Carey and then-husband and label boss, Tommy Mottola.
Mariah Carey and then-husband and label boss, Tommy Mottola. Photograph: Rose Hartman/Getty Images

Not all producers are violent predators, but the role offers ample cover for anyone who chooses to exploit it. The scarcity myth – that bankable producers are like gold dust, and few are good enough to join their ranks – stokes the concept of unimpeachable genius and makes a supposedly risky commercial prospect of expanding the field; the first woman or non-binary producer to helm a major album that flopped would confirm their peer group as a liability. The male genius at the boards lends an aura of gravity and steadiness in contrast to the fickle fleet of young faces who front his songs. He seldom gives interviews to preserve the so-called mystery of his craft. He can cultivate a king-making sound across an array of artists, becoming a cost-effective and reliable source of revenue as artists fall in and out of fashion. Bad behaviour taking place behind the scenes isn’t as commercially toxic as public-facing infractions. He is a protected commodity.

Pop stars – especially female pop stars – are frequently maligned for making music that requires the involvement of a dozen or more people, as if it undermines their artistry. (Just read the comments beneath any positive Guardian pop review.) Producers are fetishised as auteurs, yet they are also nothing without a talented artist and songwriter (often the same person), without session musicians, engineers and mixers. The “lone genius” narrative masterminded by publicist Derek Taylor for Brian Wilson as he embraced the possibilities of production in the mid-60s was immediately destructive to Wilson’s psyche and creativity, yet it abides 55 years later.

A more collectivist view is necessary to deflate this worship and not put one person’s commercial potential ahead of another’s wellbeing. “We were seen as employees, not artists,” Ronnie Spector told the Telegraph in 2014. “I can’t speak for all the girls but I always saw myself as an artist. That’s why I think I’m still alive – to say we girls have to stick up for ourselves.” Until the industry sticks up for them, too, there will always be more men to assume Spector’s mantle.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Phil Spector brought joy to pop music – and misery to so many lives
Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ technique gave his artists’ music an infectious joie de vivre, but the man behind it was damaged, bitter and violent

Alexis Petridis

17, Jan, 2021 @8:55 PM