AF Book Review: The Rise & Fall Of Phil Spector

Mick Brown’s Tearing Down The Wall Of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector is another contribution to the list of tragic lives that bear out the old saying what does it merit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul.  Whether it’s Marvin Gaye or Peter Sellers or a list of other celebrities and ambitious people it is so sad to see talented people whilst leaving footprints of brilliance also leave legacies of travesties.

Brown’s biography is all the more riveting because of the very live nature of the story.  Spector was tried for the murder of Lana Clarkson in 2003.  This happened only weeks after Spector had given one a rare interview to Brown himself.  The book takes us to the point of the initial trial that was ruled as a mistrial in 2007.  (For the benefit of completion Spector was convicted in 2009 and recently his layers begun proceedings to appeal the conviction – you can expect the thing to keep going round for a few more years yet.)

For the majority of the book Brown lets the Spector’s story, tell the story.  That is to say there is little in the way of Brown’s own editorial opinion imposing its voice in the piece.  Of course the presentation of the material is there to be set in a certain way by Brown to portray something in particular, but there is no blatant effort for the reader to think this is more about the writer than the subject of the book.  That makes it easier to delve into the life of the man named as a genius but evidently had issues from childhood that would haunt him.

Were it not for the issues of 2003 and beyond the legacy of Spector would still have been somewhat tarnished.  Despite having producing the most played pop hit of the 20th Century in You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and being lauded as a great producer was even bigger than most of the artists he produced, the way he left the industry and petered out pointed to significant issues.  Brown’s telling of the tale pictures a man you can never quite feel sympathy for and any compassion you get is just for what life does to someone to make them so gifted and yet so flawed.

The journey goes in depth about Spector’s family background and usually this part of the story can drag on and bore, but Brown invests it patiently with the important ingredients into what will shape Spector’s life.  Pivotal to the whole scheme of things is the suicide of Spector’s father at a relatively early age and the impact that has on a family dynamic that sees the young Spector. Being dominated by mother for whom he could never be good enough and a sister whose mental health deterioration would also affect the development of a man who’s relationship with women would be notorious for the controlling element.

With the incidents and the journey through the life of Spector that Brown unravels it is pretty clear that Spector after a few years of music glory in the 1960’s used it as the basis for living off it for the rest of his career.  Yet as ever with the talented, what a remarkable few years it was.  There is not doubt that for those few years in the early 1960’s the only name that mattered was that of Phil Spector.  The fact that the name was his and not his artists is a theme that Brown investigates well having built it up superbly with the way Spector worked his way through New York and then back to Los Angeles to learn the ropes and burn bridges in his pursuit of excellence.  That ego-centric quest wasn’t just at the cost of the artists, the whole concept of the Wall of Sound would render gifted musicians as just blending in with the others to produce that end product that would have people remembering the sound itself rather than individual excellence in particular.

A character so fragile and so evidently in need of something more than he could ever gain was set up for the slide and the tale of his artistic demise in the mid 1970’s onwards and his battle with alcohol makes for very sad reading.  The death of his son was also a poignant episode at a time when some level of redemption was possible for the man who had laid waste most of the important relationships in his life.

Up to this point there is sufficient to believe that there was more to find at best tragic about Phil Spector and at worst making him a rather nasty piece of work.  Also to this point Brown is not pushing things.  The turn of the tale happens in the trial of Phil Spector.  Here for all the analytical data presented in support of what went on, there is the unmistakeable sense that the guilt of the bad character of Spector and his history of gun use is enough to mark Spector out as guilty in Brown’s eyes.  This is understandable from what has built to this point, but whereas before there was a sense of personal detachment, in this last section of the book there is the feel of more engagement with it from the writer’s perspective as again the wheels of justice move inexorably to the tune of the different plays that the legal teams can play in disregard to what Brown presents as almost irrefutable – that is that Spector killed Clarkson.

Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily, but the shift was a bit disconcerting for me and made the end of the book slightly jarring from the flow of the rest of it.

The book is very well written and the use of interviews and historical anecdotes paints the vivid picture of the character.  Brown (pictured right) has not written a book to be read lightly at all.  Not only is there the whole trial fiasco to consider, but even before then, the mood is so sad and negative – mostly because of the subject matter – that the merit of reading a book like this is about learning valuable lessons of what happens when people are allowed to let their ego get in the way of actually pursuing the things that matter in life.




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