In December 2002, the British journalist Mick Brown was driven by Phil Spector's chauffeur in Phil Spector's white Rolls-Royce to Phil Spector's gloomy castle in Alhambra, California, for a spooky interview with Phil Spector, who wore black silk pajamas and made a grand entrance to the strains of Handel.
Two months later, Lana Clarkson, a tall blond actress who had starred in two Barbarian Queen movies and delivered the line "Hi" in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, died violently at the same house.
The opening chapter of Brown's Spector biography insinuates that the visiting interviewer might also have been in peril.
But it was Spector, the tiny, Napoleonic, gun-toting rock 'n' roll genius who was in jeopardy on that day. Brown was in the midst of compiling a seriously damning, though not even actively malevolent, set of stories about the Spector life and oeuvre. Grouped together in the bloodcurdling biography Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, they add up to a portrait of pure self-interest and cruelty, tempered only slightly by the great musical achievements of Spector's golden age in the early 1960s. This book would feel like a crime story even if its subject were not currently on trial for Clarkson's murder.
Brown is not a muckraker. Nor is he really discovering anything new, at least not in the first half of Spector's story. As many Spector acquaintances and scorched musical collaborators report, Spector's autocratic nature was thought to have obvious sources. There was his father's suicide (which led to the hit To Know Him Is to Love Him, with its title taken from Benjamin Spector's gravestone). There were an overbearing mother and sister, Bertha and Shirley. There was also the possibility of inbreeding, since this rock maestro had both paternal and maternal grandfathers named George Spector and Phil's parents were thought to be first cousins. There were the schoolyard bullies whose persecution supposedly explained the adult Spector's cadre of bodyguards.
This first part of Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, after sketchily defining Spector's pathology, is mostly devoted to explaining how the famous Wall of Sound was created. For those who know the musical history of this period, which has been expertly documented elsewhere, this part of the book holds little surprise beyond the elaborate skein of creative connections. Brown underscores the cause-and-effect links between certain recordings, like the Beach Boys' Don't Worry Baby with Spector's production for the Ronettes, Be My Baby, or the Four Tops' Baby, I Need Your Loving with the monster, Spector-produced Righteous Brothers hit, You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling.
He also explains the ubiquitousness of singers like Darlene Love, who might perform under different names at Spector's whim and then wind up with nothing to show for it. The consensus expressed in the book is that Spector habitually betrayed and discarded musicians after he was through with them. "Rather than develop his artists' careers," Brown quotes the Atlantic Records pioneer Jerry Wexler as saying, "Phil developed himself."
But just as the Spector mystique was being hyperbolically immortalized by Tom Wolfe's 1964 magazine article The First Tycoon of Teen (which, as Brown points out, compares Spector with Thomas Jefferson), the Spector career hit a ceiling. This book maintains that Spector, unlike some of the artists he disparages (notably the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson), began to stall as the world changed around him. "He was like a little boy who does something really cute and gets applauded for that," says Bruce Johnston, the former Beach Boy, "and so he starts figuring out how to get the applause back, but then it's not quite as cute again."