Tearing Down the Wall of Sound

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

It is strange to realize that much of Phil Spector’s life has been spent not making music. The last full-length album he produced was the Ramones’ End of the Century (1979). But the years he did spend obsessively arranging microphones in L.A.’s Gold Star Studios—especially the period between 1961 and 1966—revolutionized the sound and trajectory of American pop music. Biographer Mick Brown’s command of this terrain is excellent, and Tearing Down the Wall of Sound delivers astute studies of behind-the-scenes characters and a comprehensive look at the music industry itself.

While Brown was working on the bio, actress Lana Clarkson was found shot to death in Spector’s foyer, so the book has, at times, an inevitable true-crime element. But the author avoids the temptation to exploit the lurid details. Instead, he takes a broad scope, detailing the birth of the Wrecking Crew, the group of musicians that Spector assembled for his marathon recording sessions, and weaving in anecdotes that capture the producer’s escalating eccentricity.

Brown’s biography is a portrait of paradoxes: the music mogul who despises the industry, the Jew who loves Gentile schmaltz, the creator of that staggering Wall of Sound who hates loud noises. “I can’t stand to be looked at,” says the defendant, who wears a blond, picked-out Afro wig to his trial for Clarkson’s murder. By the end of the book, one thing is clear: It is always better to be a man in Spector’s world. The women he molded and then dropped, but the men were already established. No matter how much gun-waving he did, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and the Ramones managed to leave the premises with their careers—and lives—intact.

By Mick Brown. Knopf, $26.95.