“Bom, bom-bom, BAP”
When Brian Wilson first heard Hal Blaine’s drumbeat coming out of his car radio, he was so awestruck that he had to pull over and listen. That drum part was apparently an accident — Blaine told an interviewer for the Wall Street Journal in 2011 “I was supposed to play more of a boom-chicky-boom beat, but my stick got stuck and it came out boom, boom-boom chick. I just made sure to make the same mistake every few bars” — if so, it may well have been the most serendipitous accident in popular music history.
Harvey Philip Spector, the producer of the single, had been one of America’s most important record producers for years. A New Yorker who moved to LA as a child, while at high school in the 50s he had been part of the music scene that also included Bruce Johnston, Sandy Nelson, and most of the rest of the people who made up the early-60s LA music community. But while they had stayed in California and made their own amateurish yet fascinating music, Spector had taken a different career path altogether.
After his first band, The Teddy Bears, split up shortly after their 1958 number one hit To Know Him Is To Love Him (a song written around the epitaph on the tombstone of Spector’s father, who had killed himself in 1949), Spector had moved back to New York to work with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. There, Spector’s approach to music changed forever.
Leiber and Stoller had originally started as blues songwriters, writing for people like Big Mama Thornton, and they had been one of the most reliable hitmaking teams of the 1950s, writing a huge number of hits for the Coasters, Elvis Presley, and others. But by the early 1960s, they were moving away from their R&B roots, into a new kind of music that combined the emotional power of the blues with the sweetness of traditional pop orchestration. This melodramatic soul music, sung by performers like Ben E King and The Drifters, was almost a kind of pop-Wagner; songs like Spanish Harlem, which Spector co-wrote with Leiber, or Stand By Me, which was recorded at the same session, attended by Spector, had an intensity and a thickness of sound that was unlike anything else around.
Spector had returned to LA and set up, with his business partner Lester Sill, Philles Records, which quickly became solely owned and run by the Phil half of its portmanteau name, and over the next few years he gathered around him a group of trusted lieutenants. Arranger Jack Nitzsche, production assistant Sonny Bono, engineer Larry Levine, and the group of musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew, all became regular collaborators, as Spector experimented on hit records by the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Blossoms and more, slowly building up his “Wall of Sound” while becoming known as the “Tycoon of Teen” for his hitmaking ability.
Much of the Spector sound is, in fact, attributable to these people, and to the studio, Gold Star, in which Spector worked. Gold Star had a reverb that tended to blend sounds together, while making them sound larger, and Nitzsche worked with that, crafting arrangements which had different instruments doubling parts, so in the finished record it would be almost impossible to pick out what was a guitar, a piano, a trumpet — it was just pure music, shorn of individuality, and as huge as the outsized teenage emotions the interchangeable vocalists on the records sang about.
The vocalist on Be My Baby, though, was the most distinctive of them, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, later to be Spector’s wife. Her huge, brassy, New York voice was a far cry from the more controlled vocals of Darlene Love, and there was a raw pleading to her vocals as she strained to be heard over what was the culmination of the Wall Of Sound in its final form.
It had all been leading to this. The song — written by the husband/wife songwriting duo Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, one of the Brill Building teams Spector had got to know in New York, with a contribution from Spector himself — is almost redundant. The bridge (“So won’t you say you love me…”) is wonderful, but the rest of the song is built around cliched patterns, and the lyrics (“for every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three”) are banal verging on the meaningless.
It doesn’t matter, though. It really doesn’t matter. It’s all about the sound. Spector, Nitzsche, the Wrecking Crew and the rest had managed to make a record that sounded like Wagner for thirteen-year-olds, the perfect sonic distillation of an aching adolescent longing. The words don’t make sense? Of course they don’t make sense. Life doesn’t make sense when you’re a teenage ball of hormonal longing, and when you’re in that state this record grabs onto you and never lets you go.
Brian Wilson was so inspired by that first hearing that he spent much of the next few years trying to replicate, and better, the sound he heard coming over that mono AM radio. But fifty years later, he admitted “I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one. ”
Be My Baby
Composers: Jeff Barry, Phil Spector, and Ellie Greenwich
Line-up: Ronnie Bennett, Nedra Talley, Estelle Bennett, (vocals — note that some sources claim that Talley and Estelle Bennett, despite being the other two members of the Ronettes along with Ronnie Bennett, were not on this track), plus backing vocals possibly including some or all of Ellie Greenwich, Nino Tempo, Bobby Sheen, Sonny Bono, Cher, Darlene Love, Fanita James, and Gracia Nitzsche. Instrumentalists included Don Randi (piano), Louis Blackburn (trombone), Steve Douglas (saxophone), Jay Migliori (saxophone), Leon Russell (keyboards), Hal Blaine (drums), Frank Capp (percussion), Al de Lory (keyboards), Bill Pitman (guitar), Ray Pohlman (bass), and Tommy Tedesco (guitar).
Original release: Be My Baby/Tedesco And Pitman , the Ronettes, Philles single 116
Currently available on: Be My Baby: The Very Best Of The Ronettes Sony Music CD
Paul Buff had a rather unusual job. He was an independent record producer at a time when that job essentially didn’t exist. There had been one or two in the 1950s (Sam Philips, for example, sold recordings to Chess Records before starting up Sun himself), but in general the job of record producer was a staff one — “producer” itself was barely a job title, with most production being done by A&R (artists and repertoire) men, who were also responsible for signing acts to the labels.
Buff was not only a record producer, he owned his own recording studio, PAL, where from 1957 on he recorded tracks by local bands, as well as his own material. The surf boom had made the studio, based in Cucamonga, one of the big hotspots for surf music, and many instrumental surf classics were recorded there with Buff, or his assistant Frank Zappa, enginering, most notably Wipe Out, a B-side recorded by the Surfaris in 1962 that would become a big hit in late 1963.
PAL was not only Buff’s own recording studio, but his own multi-track studio, one he’d built himself; at a time when the very best studios were making do with two or three tracks, he had five. This meant that Buff, who was a multi-instrumentalist, could make recordings by himself and lease them to record labels like Art Laboe’s Original Sound label.
One Buff recording, Tijuana Surf, would actually hit number one in Mexico in 1964. Buff played every instrument on that track, but the B-side was written and largely played by Buff’s assistant, Frank Zappa.
Zappa, an ex-door-to-door salesman who wanted to be a composer of avant garde music in the style of Edgard Varese, and was involved in his spare time with a free jazz collective, including Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, and Buzz Gardner, had started recording his own tracks, like Buff did, mostly surf instrumentals and doo-wop.
Buff’s method was to record his own tracks and then lease the masters to record companies. This meant he was not reliant on one company or distributor, and could work with whoever would be best for a given project while retaining his independence. But it also meant that his customers weren’t the record-buying public, but the record label owners. If the label owners bought it, it made money, even if it didn’t sell much to listeners. And in 1963 Zappa and his friend Ray Collins, an R&B singer and occasional collaborator with Zappa, hit on an idea which, if not necessarily one that would sell to the teenage singles-buying public, would at least sell to one record label owner.
Art Laboe, the owner of Original Sound, had been a DJ in the 1950s, running dances in El Monte where he would play doo-wop singles. In 1960, he’d released a compilation album, Memories of El Monte, featuring many of the singles that had been played at those dances.
Zappa and Collins realised that a song in that style, about those dances, would not only flatter Laboe personally, but would also promote the album. Collins sat at Zappa’s piano and banged out the I-vi-IV-V doo-wop chord sequence that had been the basis for many doo-wop hits and in particular for Earth Angel, and started singing “I’m all alone, feeling so blue…”
The two quickly wrote a nostalgic love song about memories of dancing with a lost love. As commercially motivated as it was, the song was still based on a genuine love for that music, as both Zappa and Collins were long-time doo-wop fans, with Zappa in particular having an encyclopaedic knowledge of minor West Coast vocal group records.
Laboe suggested, when the song was played for him, that a spoken mid-section be added, in which the singer would mention the names of many more bands than were named in the main song, and sing the hooks from their songs — an easy enough addition since most of those songs were based on the same chord sequence. The finished song referenced In the Still of the Night (The Five Satins), You Cheated (The Shields), A Thousand Miles Away (The Heartbeats) The Letter and Buick 59 (The Medallions), Cherry Pie (Marvin & Johnny), Night Owl (Tony Allen and the Champs) and Earth Angel.
To sing the song Laboe, who ended up producing the final record, chose Cleve Duncan, the lead singer of the Penguins. Backed by an ersatz Penguins (according to Zappa “a bunch of guys from the car wash”, although consensus seems to be that the backing vocals were the minor doo-wop group The Viceroys), Duncan turned in a perfect performance, conjuring up an instant nostalgia for an era that had only just passed.
The track was a minor local hit, and a perennial live favourite in Duncan’s performances with the Penguins, who reformed on the back of the song’s success, and it still makes modest royalties for Ray Collins to this day.
Over the next year, a loose group of musicians, based around Zappa, recorded more and more tracks in PAL (which Zappa bought and renamed Studio Z in 1964). These tracks would often feature Zappa’s friend Don Vliet, who could sound remarkably like Howlin’ Wolf, on vocals, but Zappa’s attempts to submit them to record labels proved unsuccessful — they were turned down for, among other things, having distorted guitars on them.
Zappa was planning bigger things, but in 1963 this little doo-wop track was the biggest real indication that he could turn his unique aesthetic to commercial ends.
Memories of El Monte
Composers: Frank Zappa and Ray Collins
Line-up: Cleve Duncan (vocals), Walter Saulsberry (vocals), James Conwell (vocals), Andrew ‘Jack’ White (vocals), Charles Jones (vocals), Oliver Williams (vocals), Herbert White (vocals), Frank Zappa (vibraphone), others unknown.
Original release: Memories of El Monte/Be Mine The Penguins featuring Cleve Duncan, Original Sound single OS-27
Currently available on: Paul Buff Presents Highlights From The Pal And Original Sound Studio Archives Crossfire Publications 5-CD set, plus innumerable budget compilations.
Lawrence Burton, my friend and author of various very good things, tagged me in a “meme” for writers. I’m meant to have tagged other people privately, but unfortunately my limited net access for the last couple of weeks has precluded that. If you’re a writer and read this, consider yourself tagged if you want to be. Millennium has also done an entry in this.
1 What are you working on at the moment?
I have a few projects at various states of completion. The Faction Paradox novel, Head of State, is currently with Stuart at Obverse Books, who will be editing it. I suspect there’ll be at least one more (quick) round of rewrites to do on that. Other than that, I have four main projects that I’ll be getting back to over the next few weeks — a book on 60s music from LA, which is my priority as it’s been Kickstarted, a series of essays on Cerebus, which I hope to finish before November, a book on Liberalism which I want to get out in enough time before the next election, and How To Build Your Own Time Machine, a “young adult” (children’s) book. There are other projects, some of which I’ve already started, that will be done once those are off my plate, but those are the main priorities right now.
I’m also working on an opera with Plok, David Allison and others, and have some other musical projects I’m planning to work on as and when I have time.
2 How does your work differ from others of its genre?
It depends on the work. I don’t know to what extent the novel is actually different from anything else in its genre, because its genre is basically just “Faction Paradox” and there are so few examples of that that it’s hard to find a coherent genre identity. I think, though, that a general strength of my fiction is the ability to write in the voices of protagonists who are very different to me, and Head of State has many different narratorial voices — at one point there is, if I remember right, a stack of six unreliable narrators, of different levels of fictionality, telling part of the story. I don’t think that’s something that’s been done in any other FP books.
As for my non-fiction about music, I suppose the big difference is my authorial voice, Certainly both the people who really hate my work and the people who really love it seem to point to the same things — the rather sarcastic humour, the willingness to be dismissive about work that is only worth dismissal, the intrusion of my political views, and so on.
My other non-fiction — the essays about comics and science fiction — is I think sui generis. A couple of the other members of the Mindless Ones collective do something similar, and Andrew Rilstone, Millennium, and Lawrence Miles have a little overlap, but I don’t know of anyone else who does precisely that kind of thing.
3 Why do you write what you do?
Ninety percent of what I write is because I have to — because there is stuff I have to say that I *need* to get out. A story idea will arrive, or I’ll be angry about some political event, or I’ll notice a connection between two pieces of music, and I’ll have to get it out. I’m not very good at writing to briefs — as an example, when Phil Purser-Hallard asked me to pitch for one of his Tales of the City anthologies, I immediately came up with what I think was the best story idea I’ve ever had (that will be in Tales of the Great Detectives, out very soon from Obverse Books). On the other hand, he also asked me to pitch for another anthology, which required the use of a specific character, and a specific setting. It took me months to think of anything, and when I did it was possibly the poorest idea I’ve ever had,
The other ten percent of what I write is for more commercial reasons. If I have something to say about almost every Beach Boys song, or a Doctor Who story from almost every year, or whatever, I’ll find something to say about the other ones so I can turn those opinions into a book and make some money from them. I hope I do a good enough job on that that no-one can tell which bits were less inspired.
4 How does your writing process work?
It varies depending on project. For the music books, which are mostly chronological looks at a predetermined set of songs, I just start at the beginning, listen to each song, and write about it. I usually don’t have to do much research as such, as I have a very good memory and have read pretty much everything on the bands I write about, but I fact-check as I go.
For fiction, I like to sit down and start at the beginning, without an outline, just an idea of where I’m going, and work through to the end, then do a very light rewrite. Usually my rewriting consists of little more than fixing very obvious mistakes and inconsistencies — I write fairly clean copy for the most part — but sometimes it will be more radical (I rewrote the whole ending of my story for Tales of the Great Detectives at quite a late stage, as I’d completely muffed it on the first draft, now it’s one of the better bits, I think).
For the Faction Paradox novel, because I was a first-time novelist working on someone else’s intellectual property, I had to write to a chapter-by-chapter outline I submitted. That was a fun challenge, but it felt like walking in shoes that were two sizes too tight and made it take much longer than it otherwise would.
For my essays on SF and comics I like not even to have an idea where I’m going. The improvisatory nature of those — and particularly trying to improvise a whole book structure on the fly — is the fun thing about them. They do, of course, require some revision before the books are done, but the whole point is to try to get as complex and interesting a structure as I can without planning.