Sunday, January 24, 2021

Walkin' With The Beast

When I began following Pitchfork a few years ago the thing I noticed most was that famous musicians die all the time. Partly it's that there are a lot of famous musicians for a given value of "famous", that value being "anyone someone at Pitchfork has vaguely heard of". Partly it's that popular music has been popular for a really, really long time now, so a lot of popular musicians are getting really, really old. Partly it's that even more musicians don't get to be old at all because they have a tendency not to look after themselves very well. Or at all. In fact, the opposite.

After a while I stopped being surprised by the death toll and only really paid attention when someone I own records by or had seen perform or who were so famous I knew who they were without either of those things being true upped and died. Even then, it took the death of someone with truly epic cultural reach to make me consider mentioning it here. 

Mostly I didn't because, as I saw it, this blog only concerned itself with video games, specifically the massively multiple online role-playing kind. I think the only exception I made was for David Bowie and that only because he was such a polymath he actually had made a significant contribution to gaming.

That was in the before times. These days anything goes. At Inventory Full we're still more about the mmos than anything (also we talk about ourselves in the second person plural now, apparently...) but music is a regular strand along with movies, television, books...

So, when I read that Phil Spector had died I thought I might mention it. I definitely wouldn't say Spector was on Bowie's level, not even close, but his cultural reach was significant. He was also a convicted murderer, which is going some even by rock and roll standards of bad behavior. 

That's not really why I thought I might commemorate his passing. It was more that he, or more accurately his famous Wall of Sound production technique, was strangely important to me at an entirely inappropriate time and for a peculiar reason, one that I believe was and still is emblematic of the way certain cultural events end up being misconstrued and misrepresented by those who get to the tell their histories. 

I have no personal experience of how important Spector's musical innovations were when he was big news in the sixties. I was a small child and if I heard the Crystals or the Ronettes on the radio I wasn't listening.

Even when I bought the Beatles last album, Let It Be, aged twelve or thirteen, I had no idea what a record producer did, let alone the names of any. I had no clue Phil Spector had produced that record nor how controversial it must have been for Beatles fans to see his name on the sleeve instead of George Martin's. Then, I was no Beatles fan. I picked them as one of my first purchases precisely because I knew nothing about pop music.

But I wanted to learn. And I did. Fast. A few years later, in my mid-teens I could tell you the full line-up of any and every band I whose records I owned. I could tell you what instruments they played, who wrote the songs and, yes, who the producer was. Probably could have had a fair stab at naming the engineer, too.

By 1976 I for sure knew who Phil Spector was. I was backfilling my knowledge on the last twenty years of rock, pop, folk and even jazz just as fast as the print media of the day could get it to me. Which wasn't nearly fast enough. 

I'd exited my mercifully brief infatuation with hard rock, proto-metal and prog to immerse myself with increasing intensity in the darker, artier sounds of the anti-sixties - The Velvet Underground, the Social Deviants, the Stooges, the Fugs, Captain Beefheart - but I was a voracious and eclectic consumer. I gulped down everything from Joan Armatrading to the Doctors of Madness

I knew what I liked because what I liked was the good stuff. It had to be, because I liked it. I never lacked for confidence in my own tastes. Still don't, as may be apparent. I was pre-made for punk. I just had to wait for it to happen.

In the summer of '76, in a story I've told here before, I stumbled across my first punk band. I'd read about the concept. The movement had been mumbled about in the music press for maybe two or three years by then but it was something else entirely to see it happening in front of me. 

Like many teenagers who had similar experiences, my friends and I went home that very day and started a band. A punk band. We had to get hold of some instruments and amps first. Also write some songs. Maybe learn to play, although that never seemed very important, certainly not to our drummer.

It took a little longer than we'd have liked. And we'd started quite early. There weren't a lot of punk bands to go and watch or punk records to listen to while we waited for the scene to coalesce. So we improvised. 

We doubled down on our musicological excavation of the deep past, namely the 1960s, which seemed about as far away as the Dark Ages to us and about as real. Anything uptempo with a running time under three and a half minutes was fair game. I remember listening to a lot of early Who and Tamla Motown. Honestly, we might as well have been Jam fans. Which we weren't.

There were a few albums I played a lot. A two-disc Monkees retrospective was one. Another was a compilation of surf and doo-wop hits, some of them produced by Shadow Morton, I think. It must be somewhere in my unsorted piles of vinyl but I'm blowed if I'm going to go look for it. I remember it had New York's A Lonely Town by the Trade Winds. I played that one a lot. 

Way better even than a bunch of ironic surfers, the standout act on that startlingly random collection was the Shangri Las. I loved the Shangri Las in 1977. Almost as much as I love them now. I couldn't get enough of them.  

No, seriously, I couldn't. It was 1977. You didn't ask Alexa to "play the Shangri Las". You didn't Amazon Prime their Best Of so you could listen to it before ten the same evening. You didn't even get the bus into town, go to your favorite record shop and pull the Shangs' Greatest Hits off the rack. There were no Shangri Las albums for sale in 1977 unless you lucked out and found one in a second hand store.

Okay, there most likely was some kind of import you could have ordered but the only time I ever tried ordering imports from my supposedly friendly record store they lost the order and really weren't all that bothered about it. Customer service was another thing you couldn't easily find in the 1970s. And come to think of it, Leader of the Pack had been a hit all over again only a couple of years before so there probably had been a Greatest Hits out to go with it. Maybe I didn't try as hard as I could have.

And maybe that was because I'd already found something else that did the job almost as well. Not quite but close. A collection of Phil Spector hits, only not the really obvious ones. Again, it's downstairs somewhere. Haven't seen it in a quarter of a century. Doesn't matter because I remember the two tracks that really counted. 

The first was Darlene Love's Today I Met The Boy I'm Gonna Marry. I thought Darlene Love had one of the most distinctive voices I'd heard, so strong even Spector's battering-ram battalions had to take a back seat for once. I wasn't to know she'd just get better and better.

The track I really loved, though, the one I played again and again, singing along at top volume (thick walls and no immediate neighbors, luckily for them) was less celebrated yet than even Darlene's minor hit (#39 on the U.S. Hot 100 in 1963 ). Home of the Brave by Bonnie and the Treasures reached the less than dizzy heights of #77 two years later, part of a bizarre who-got-there-first battle with Jody Miller, which you can read about here. Spoiler: Jody wins.


I frickin' love Home of the Brave. I love the performance. It starts out angry, storms through outraged and climaxes at vengeful. I love the pacing, the loping, stalking menace and threat. I love the bombast and the sturm und drang of the arrangement. Most of all I love the lyric, quite possibly the purest case for the rebel without a cause ever put to vinyl.

It's a perfect pop song in every way that matters and it's perfectly punk, too. It's in your face, snotty and it doesn't give a fuck. Which is supposedly a lot like Phil Spector although no-one much seems to have found him endearing the way everyone did Charlotte O' Hara. Then, she probably never held anyone at gun point, locked them in the studio, made them sing the same line over and over for hours until they begged to be let go. And she certainly never shot anyone with that gun she wasn't always waving around. 

Yes, by pretty much all accounts Phil Spector really was a bad boy. The judge thought so, anyway, when he sentenced Spector to nineteen years in jail. Spector was seventy. He'd have been eligible for parole in 2024, by which time he'd have been eighty-five. He didn't make it.

Reading over his dealings with the many acts he produced, wrote for and recorded over a long career, he doesn't seem like he'd have been all that much fun to work with. Or any. But it wasn't his job to be nice. His job was to facilitate the making of great music, maybe even great art, and that he managed handily, even if now I read the full story he had precious little to do with Home of the Brave, having neither written nor produced it, nor even done the arrangements, merely picked it for release on one of his labels.

I'd say he'll be missed but I have no idea if that's true. His work remains and that will stand. It's enough. It's more than enough. It might even be too mcuh. 

Just like everything he put his name to.


  1. Hello! Yes, I am very behind in reading posts.Did you mean Scarlett (not Charlotte) O'Hara above?

    1. Not so far behind as I am with answering comments, apparently! No, the real name of "Bonnie" from Bonnie and the Treasures was Charlotte Ann Matheny. She recvorded under a bunch of names, one of which was the punny Charlotte O'Hara. It's explained in one of the links but I probably should have linked directly to it from her name.


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