Spector: The untouchable – until it was too late

Phil Spector's willingness to brandish guns was an open secret decades before he killed Lana Clarkson. But the music business continued to indulge him. The industry has blood on its hands, argues Andy Gill
Click to follow
The Independent US

It was, of course, a tragedy waiting to happen. As the saying goes, a gun brandished in the first act always goes off in the third, and Phil Spector had brandished far too many guns in his strange and colourful career for one of them not to eventually go off in the wrong place – which turned out to be the inside of unfortunate actress Lana Clarkson's mouth. As soon as the first news reports started to seep through from Los Angeles, music industry insiders around the globe – not to mention those only conversant with its feverishly cultivated mulch of myth and legend – sighed and thought to themselves, "well, it was only a matter of time".

Many had imagined that the story would run differently, that it would be Spector's mouth around the gun-barrel; obituaries had surely been written preparing for this eventuality, depicting the one-time "tycoon of teen" as a tortured genius driven to self-destruction by a cruel industry. In the event, it was an innocent, largely unknown, victim whose obituary was triggered by Spector's paranoid gunplay. Stock obituaries of the man himself, by contrast, have doubtless been dusted off and given a rather different slant.

Even cod psychologists with only the flimsiest grasp of the human psyche can tell that Spector suffers from some kind of Napoleon complex. A small, sickly boy suffering from both asthma and diabetes, Spector's childhood was marked by the competing effects of maternal mollycoddling and playground bullying at the hands of fellow pupils; but it was his father's sudden, incomprehensible suicide when young Phil was aged 10 that effectively blighted not just his youth but his entire life.

When the family moved to California shortly afterwards, he became a loner, listening obsessively to R&B and the new strains of rock 'n' roll broadcast on late-night radio. When, a few years later, he formed his own group, The Teddy Bears, the first single he wrote and recorded with them was "To Know Him Is To Love Him", a title derived from the epitaph on his father's tombstone. Recorded for $40 at Gold Star Studio in Los Angeles, it was an instant chart-topping hit, confirming Spector's bullish belief in his own genius, and furnishing him with the leverage to pursue a career in the music industry. He was just 18 years old, but like some orphaned child soldier in an African civil war, he soon acquired the status and power of a four-star general, despite appearing to have developed little or no sense of human empathy.

In the studio he called the shots, controlling huge armies of session-players like a musical Napoleon waging war through superior force rather than strategic subtlety. He would routinely employ phalanxes of the same instrument – five guitars, three pianos, two drums, four or five horns, and Sonny Bono battering away at various percussion – to create the congealed musical mass that became known as his Wall Of Sound.

He was undoubtedly a musical genius: both Brian Wilson and The Beatles believed that to be the case, and between them they probably knew as much about pop genius as any in their era. But it was a genius only of a specific sort, with a formula which proved spectacularly effective when wielded in the right way, at the right time, with the right artist and material. But if your requirement was not the bludgeoning, Wagnerian steamroller of Phil's Wall Of Sound, it was pointless expecting his particular genius to be able to adapt to your demands.

Not that anyone "demanded" anything of Phil Spector, of course. Such was his Midas-like string of hits through the early Sixties that nobody in the industry would gainsay either his methods or his increasingly aberrant behaviour. Guns became a common fixture at Spector sessions, often ill-advisedly mixed with alcohol and his natural, dark temper as he sought to emphasise his complete control over matters.

He was no less a control-freak in his personal life. He married Ronnie Bennett, lead singer on hits by The Ronettes and others, but treated her like a possession, locking her away in his mansion, and even hiding her shoes so she couldn't walk out on him. The same applied to his children, who, ferried to and from school by bodyguards, were denied the basic warmth of childhood friendship, locked away in their individual rooms and not allowed to play, even with each other. The resulting mental scars were evident in a recent, damning documentary in which one, when asked why he hadn't subsequently sued his adoptive father, replied that he was simply no match for Spector in terms of money, ruthlessness or spite. What was the point?

According to Ronnie Spector, her husband once showed her a gold, glass-topped coffin in his basement, promising that he would kill her and display her corpse in it if she ever left him. When Ronnie did eventually manage to leave him, he made sure she knew he would do all in his power to crush her career, a threat he made to any of his singers that wanted to move on. Ultimately, they were only able to escape his control when, chastened by the failure of his masterwork "River Deep, Mountain High" to make any impression in the American charts, Spector retreated into reclusion in 1966, aged just 26. It was a prescient move for one whose aesthetic was fast becoming outmoded. Besides which, the industry was changing rapidly in other ways: Spector's particular genius was always best realised through the vinyl single format, which thanks to the combined impact of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, was becoming supplanted by the long-playing album.

When Spector made his occasional sorties from retirement to produce again, the inevitable gunplay tantrums would draw not frowns of admonishment but chuckles of indulgence: it was just Mad Phil, off his head again. He forced Dee Dee Ramone to play a particular bassline at gunpoint; famously discharged a weapon while John Lennon was in the studio; and displayed "megalomania and insanity and a devotion to armaments that was really intolerable" while working with Leonard Cohen.

"At a certain point, Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved the revolver into my neck and said, Leonard, I love you'," recalled the zen poet of the bedsit. "I said, 'I hope you do, Phil'." Another common element of Spector's behaviour seems to have been the refusal to let go: time and again one heard tales of people invited to Spector's mansion who, when they wished to leave, found themselves locked in and threatened at gunpoint. This bitter, lonely man so yearned for human company that he couldn't bear to lose it.

However, while it may have been brutal, bullying, paranoid and borderline criminal, it was also the kind of "colourful" behaviour which the entertainment industry had long since come to accept. In California, especially, virtually anything was permissible so long as you had the profile, the money or the position to escape any untoward consequences. When film director Thomas Ince died in mysterious circumstances while partying with friends (including Charlie Chaplin) on William Randolph Hearst's yacht in 1924, the media mogul ensured that the affair was swept quietly under the carpet. And the most cursory flick through Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon reveals a multitude of unsavoury events and sexual peccadilloes which were hushed up by the studios' shadowy fixers, from the (then illegal) homosexual tendencies of action heroes to the kind of recreational drug use that would make Aerosmith's eyes water.

Spector wielded such frightening power that, until his re-trial, many former "girlfriends" were too terrified to testify. But when they did, what was revealed was a man who thought he was too powerful to touch, and whose fascination with guns and power could only reach one ghastly conclusion.