Phil Spector’s journey through popular music history is one of the most storied and controversial of any artist. Both celebrated studio master and convicted murderer, Spector is a complex figure whose notorious in-studio behavior and habit of taking financial advantage of singers contrast with his major contributions to rock ’n’ roll songwriting, his development of the iconic Wall of Sound aesthetic and his enduring influence across pop.
Following his magical run in the ‘60s—recording seminal tracks with The Crystals, The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner and others—Spector became a producer-for-hire for an interesting mix of artists in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, most prominently John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison.
Spector’s work in the decade is also notable for a series of one-offs with prominent artists who, for various reasons, recorded only one album with him in their careers. Taken together, these one-offs sometimes bear more resemblance to each another than the rest of the artist’s own catalog. And although some of the one-off artists or their fans have expressed disappointment with the way the records turned out, from a Spector fan’s perspective these are all pure gold. Here are six of the best (and sometimes bizarre) one-off records Spector worked on.
Of all the songs on all the one-offs, the most ostentatiously Spectorized track is the magnificent “Memories” on Leonard Cohen’s fifth album, 1977’s Death of a Ladies Man. The song pops out of the record as much as it does from the rest of Cohen’s discography. When Cohen lets out a wailing vamp at the end it’s as if he’s overcome with emotion, or exhaustion. Given the fraught circumstances of the recording sessions, it may well have been both.
A few of the tracks don’t really work, like “Paper Thin Hotel,” in which Spector thins Cohen’s voice to a flat, reedy tone that obscures Cohen’s lyrics and makes you long for Bob Johnston’s spare, vocally-oriented production. But others are worth another try, especially the monstrously indulgent but beautiful title track that slowly devolves over nine minutes as if Spector’s mighty Wall is being methodically torn down.
We know we’re in Spectorland the moment we hear the “Be My Baby” beat—the definitive rhythmic trademark of the master—come pounding in again during the opening title track. It might not have provided Dion the big comeback he’d been hoping for, but 1975’s Born to Be With You is a rich and satisfying record that celebrates Dion the balladeer, a different creature than we remember from his doo-wop days with the Belmonts. Dion’s soulful vocal performances are enhanced by the grand scope of Spector’s production. The stand-out tracks are the ballads, especially the throbbing “Only You Know” and the charged re-imagining of “He’s Got the Whole World in Hands” that, in textbook Spector fashion, transforms a canned standard into pure pop.
Though Spector produced a few Plastic Ono Band records, this is the only Spector collaboration of Ono’s solo career. It’s worth revisiting for her stirring, uncompromising confrontation of loss and grief in the aftermath of Lennon’s assassination. Darkening melodic shifts recur through the album, mirroring an intriguing lyrical palette that alternates between point-blank emotional hits and searching poetry.
Spector’s influence is audible in “Mindweaver” via the vaguely Latin rhythmic textures and a dense, moody setting for troubling lyrics like, “he was a mind-beater, always on the phone, telling me all sorts of what I have done wrong.” The album includes both notably Spector-esque tracks like “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” as well as classic Ono vocal explorations like “Extension 33” and in both cases their styles are a great fit, they can both go to extremes with complex ideas. Haunting interludes—some spoken, some found and some staged—connect the songs into a cycle, enhancing the sense of intimacy and being drawn into a family drama.
Let It Be is not the best Beatles album, of course, but it’s still a classic and the mark of productive friendships beginning between Spector, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and George Harrison that would flourish in the 1970s. Spector’s hand isn’t nearly as heavy here as on some of the other one-offs but he makes his mark especially on “The Long and Winding Road,” with sumptuous string arrangements that some fans turned against after hearing Let It Be…Naked. Still, “Across the Universe” establishes a cosmic variation on the Wall of Sound that would be heard again, greatly expanded, on All Things Must Pass. And a rocking turn in “One After 909” is particularly fitting for the collaboration since the tune dates back to the late ‘50s and epitomizes the same golden rock ’n’ roll that Spector was himself writing and playing simultaneously across the sea with The Teddy Bears. They finally crossed paths for Let It Be, just as The Beatles called it quits.
The Ramones had always built their music on the most fundamental elements of the rock ’n’ roll; they grew up worshipping but it took the maestro himself to bring the band full-circle back to their roots. The most Spector-vision track is definitely ”Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?” The song reflects the album’s tendency to self-consciously hearken back to a golden teenage era while making it real all over again right there before your very ears. The Ramones even nail their own sweet-natured take on one of Spector’s signature numbers, “Baby, I Love You” by The Ronettes.
Sure, the record abandons the just-the-basics aesthetic of the Ramones’ first four albums, but Spector pushed them to double down on their catchy side through End of the Century and it has aged very well, sounding more like a classic for not only The Ramones’ catalog but for Spector’s production track record, as well. This is another one-off whose sessions, like Leonard Cohen’s, are reputed to have been marred by conflict. But that doesn’t come through in the record at all: it’s a marriage for the ages.
Maybe this is cheating a little since Spector also produced All Things Must Pass, but this is a Spector one-off for two reasons. First, the album is by George Harrison & Friends, a historic one-time-only mega-band including Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (as well as All Things players like Eric Clapton, Billy Preston and Ringo Starr). And secondly, Spector is a studio artist specifically, but this is the ultimate concert recording, the only one of his career (the live side of Sometime in New York was produced by Lennon himself) and it’s still one of the most inspiring live albums of all time.
In many ways, The Concert for Bangladesh has Spector written all over it. Multi-tracked guitars? Tons of ‘em. Gospel choir vocals? Of course. Wall of Sound? Let’s bring 44 microphones to record this. The Wrecking Crew? Yep, they were represented too by Leon Russell on the keys.
One of the more Spectorized moments on the record is a vibrant version of “My Sweet Lord” that puts a rousing American gospel touch on the refrain of “Hare Krishna.” That moment is a sonic embodiment of the global theme of the concert, an event that blends Indian traditions with country, folk and blues. Combined, Harrison’s vision and Spector’s stewardship of the recording and mixing allow for a string of effortless inter-religious moments that we could use a lot more of in the world today. Phil Spector is a bad guy, but he ushered an awful lot of beauty into the world.