Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

Even if Phil Spector hadn’t given us the recent spectacle of an outlandish murder trial, Mick Brown’s Spector biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound would still make for a gripping read. Brown’s biography, simply put, is the definitive Spector book. At nearly 500 pages (including endnotes and an extensive bibliography), Tearing consistently treads the thin line between exhaustive and exhausting, but the source material–Spector’s insane life–is simply too compelling to ever earn a yawn. Just when it begins to feel that Brown has given us too much detail, we’re rewarded with yet another tale of Spector’s lunatic shenanigans. And whether he’s pulling a gun on the Ramones, drunkenly berating Michelle Phillips, praising Ike Turner and Yoko Ono, or fighting with the Beatles, Spectors’s crazy mischief is exactly the kind of stuff we love to read in a celebrity biography. However, lurid stories never trump the real reason to read this book: Spector as musical genius. There’s plenty here to please hardcore audiophiles, including long discussions of the evolution of Spector’s famous “wall of sound” and the producer’s tumultuous relationship with arranger/songwriter Jack Nitzsche. All the episodes of Spector’s life are here–his early teenybopper days with the Ronettes, his “making” of Tina Turner, his battles with the Beatles (both as a group and individuals), his “comeback” shot with the Ramones, and even his late disillusionment with, um, Celine Dion. These segments are bookended with a detailed consideration of Spector’s recent troubles, beginning with a secretive Spector secluded in his California mansion right before the alleged murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, and a lengthy, journalistic afterword explaining the events of Spector’s much-publicized trial, right up to the September 2007 mistrial ruling. Heady stuff.

Photograph by Brad Elterman

Ultimately, Brown crafts Spector’s strange life into a bizarre bildungsroman; he paints Spector respectfully but never reverentially, revealing a Promethean hubris in his subject that veers into self-annihilation. At the same time, Brown’s Spector is an utterly American story, a classic reinvention tale. Even when Spector is at his most petulant, paranoid, and downright awful, Brown never lets us lose sight of the man’s sheer force of will and his enormous contribution to American music and culture. Brown’s book reminds us of the myriad ways Spector transformed our notions of pop music, but he leaves us wondering if Spector will indeed be able to rise like the phoenix from his latest debacle or if his upcoming retrial will be the end of the music.

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