London is calling! On the first day of Spring I
answered, and, as I walked through Hyde Park, all the history and
promise of that incredible city filled my heart. I don't know what
it is about England and the English people, but I have loved them
and been drawn by them all my life. Travelling alone, I had contacted
two dear friends, Artie Wayne and Shel Talmy, for recommendations
of people to contact. Mick Patrick and James Bellini were men definitely
worth meeting, and they were two men who graciously answered my
call. I received this intriguing email from Mick a week before I
Actually, a few pals and I will be attending an unusual event on the evening
of March 21st. It's a music-related thing at a bar in north(ish)
London. Interested? If so, I'll tell you more.
What red-blooded American girl could resist such an invitation?
So the gracious Mick Patrick with his Spectropop pal, Phil Chapman,
met me at my hotel on Hyde Park and escorted me to the Boogaloo
Club! It was a charming venue, wood and glass and lots of lager.
Not long after our arrival the performance began.
Mick Brown read excerpts from his amazing new book, "Tearing
Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector".
The charm of Mr. Brown's performance was peppered with the playing
of some of Phil Spector's greatest hits. I was in England; I was
in Texas in the '60s driving in my car singing to the radio. A bit
of jet lag and lager contributed a sense of surrealistic space to
the event. Transported by Mr. Brown's reading of this tragic tale
and listening to the music of my youth, I was in Heaven in London.
After the reading I bought some copies of the book, which Mr. Brown
graciously signed to various recipients and Mr. Patrick graciously
offered to mail home to me. If you want to find Mick Brown at an
event of this nature, simply look for the bevy of beautiful young
girls, he will be in the middle. Seeming slightly perplexed by the
attention being showered, Mr. Brown looked over to our table. I
grabbed my camera and intervened offering to take photos of the
women with him. As I jotted down their emails, the circle was broken
and we had a chance to talk. Both the Micks and Phil caught up,
and I continued my photography!
Two weeks in England, travelling in the Southwest, renting a car
and driving on the left (frightening all others on the road), seeing
and walking among breathtaking landscapes and historic places, sleeping
in haunted inns 500 years old, and meeting all ages of wonderful
people brought me back to London for my last three nights. The brave
Mick Patrick and Phil Chapman have once again offered an evening's
entertainment on my last night. Off we went to Indian food with
two other friends, great fans of Jobete writers, of which I was
one. Beer, tales of times gone by, chutneys and many laughs made
for a memorable last evening of a place and people I do not want
Once home I wistfully wished I were still there, and then the books
arrived! Mick Brown's book on Phil Spector is an amazing tapestry
of a time and a man and an industry in the making. He weaves the
history of America's music industry through the life of a young
Spector in the late '50s through the early '70s pulling him under
its influence. As with any large tapestry, the thread of Spector
soon begins to weave his influence into the scene of that music.
The subtle shifts and changes of both are well documented with interviews
and research bringing in a final thread of world events unfolding
that time into full expression.
To me the mark of a really good writer, regardless of genre, is
that one is taken in; one doesn't realize they are reading, they
are simply transported by the tale. You will forget you are reading
"Tearing Down the Wall of Sound", as it will carry you
along engrossed and then stop you in your tracks to wonder. It is
one of those "I can't put it down" books. For those who
grew up during this time or were old enough to remember the music,
it will haunt you; it will remind you of so many things in your
own life and how this all played out from your point of view. Then
it will sadden when you realize the genius and the lack of joy it
brought to the creator of that music.
Dysfunctional is a term that doesn't begin to describe the home
Phil Spector grew up in. Surrounded by suicide, mental illness,
and a lack of the basic human skills of love, trust and forgiveness,
it is a wonder he could accomplish as much as he did. Not being
given these, how could he give them? How could he recognize them
when given to him? And yet, there are stories throughout that he
was kind and generous, even if he could not sustain this in his
character. The fight to survive his home and family continued in
his relationships in the world at large. Self-indulgence and a lack
of repercussion for his actions led inevitably, through a trail
of his own mental problems, to his destination today, a courtroom
trial for murder.
Leonard Cohen in 1977 said the scene around Spector was inundated
with weapons, "You were slipping over bullets, and you were
biting into revolvers in hamburgers. There were guns everywhere."
The book is great because it slowly reveals this picture with the
history of a time, the story of a man and the beauty of his music
and how all that came about. If you have never been in a recording
studio, you will feel as if you have when you read it. If you have
never tried to get a song published, or make a record, or have a
hit, you will feel as if you have done those things too. The slow
road to his madness through his genius will leave you sure of certain
Worth is an inner product
Love can only be felt when it's given
Creativity flows through not from us
Gratitude makes room for more
Forgiveness is freedom
Love is all there is that lasts
It's a cautionary tale, a fascinating and haunting one. And it
displays a portrait of the human condition without judgment on the
author's part. Still I can't help but wonder what if: if only Spector
had forgiven his father; if only he'd valued others' needs as much
as his own, if only. Money can cushion us from the lessons of living
for a while. But perhaps we wouldn't have had the music if
he hadn't had the demons to fight. Makes me wonder, as any good
writing will do. Thanks, Mr. Brown.
A decade after the majority of Spector's LA sessions, I was blessed to work
with a number of these same musicians on my albums. They were all great
talents and good men. The most notable and kindest among these, who helped
me tremendously, was Larry Knechtel.
Still the thing I'm wondering most about these days is how to get
back to London. How does an American get to work and live there?
To Mick and Phil and James, thank you all so much for wonderful
and unforgettable nights in a city and country I love. Ready for
TEARING DOWN THE WALL OF SOUND: THE RISE AND FALL OF PHIL SPECTOR
Mick Brown (Bloomsbury, UK / Knopf, US)
More than half a century after Buddy Holly first recorded with
Norman Petty, the enigmatic producer-composer-manager remains controversial.
Some argue that he was responsible for Holly's tragic, gruesome
death in 1959. Some of his former groups and artists have (you'll
pardon the pun) Petty complaints. They report that they were manipulated,
misled, or unpaid - denied royalty monies and composer credits for
the pioneering rock and pop they brought to Petty's Clovis, New
Norman Petty was America's equivalent to the infamous UK producer
Joe Meek. Like Meek, Petty was a loner whose unusual techniques
sired a unique, unmistakable sound. As well, Petty claimed credit
for music he did not compose, and shared a "my way, or the
highway" attitude, especially towards the acts he managed.
Unlike Meek, Petty did not have a genuine fondness for this emerging
teenage music. The deeply religious producer nursed a certain contempt
for rock 'n' roll, and considered its performers sinful, mindless
young fools. He withheld royalty monies from his acts, explaining
that it was for their own good. They'd only squander it; they were
too young to handle big money.
Yet, Petty did connect with the energy and excitement of this new
sound. He consciously created a studio atmosphere that fostered
innovation. Petty charged by the song, not by the hour. If it took
six hours to get a tune right, so be it. Petty invested skill and
patience in these young performers. The results, at their best,
are magnificently fresh and alive. From the delicate, haunting strains
of Holly's "Well, All Right" to the majestic guitars of
the Fireballs' "Peg Leg", Petty's greatest achievements
are truly timeless pieces of music and production artistry.
It is difficult to reconcile Petty, the person, with Petty, the
producer. This disc showcases all of his strengths as a creative
rock-pop auteur. Its liner notes reveal unavoidable truths about
Petty's actions as a person. Petty could never hope to tame a Buddy
Holly - or any performer stubborn enough to assert their own will.
After his relationship with Holly came to a bitter end - Philip
Norman's Rave On details that story in riveting, heartbreaking
detail - Petty chose groups and performers who would not defy him,
or demand too much from him.
A decade-long association with the Fireballs reaped a large, handsome
catalogue of innovative, dynamic guitar instrumentals and Jimmy
Gilmer's pop vocals - including the 1963 chart-topper "Sugar
Shack". This song appears in its earliest form on this fascinating,
charming CD. That song was written by Keith McCormack, who is the
hero of this CD. The String-a-Longs were marketed as an instrumental
group. Their shuffling, quaint sound, on such hits as "Wheels",
"Brass Buttons" and "Should I", suggests a delicate
wind-up musical toy. Notes tinkle, tumble and dovetail with a gentle
precision. Their prior CD, Wheels, collects the majority
of their Petty-produced instrumentals. Five tracks from that disc
are reprised here, plus three other new-to-CD guitar pieces. It
is the 18 vocal selections, many of them unissued or terribly obscure,
that distinguishes this follow-up disc.
This music is tremendously good and compelling. That it has been
consigned to oblivion until now is a testament to the deathlock
of control Petty held over his performers. This quintet of Texas
teens first recorded as the Rock 'n' Rollers in 1958, for the tiny
Ven label, before hooking up with Petty. Both sides of that single
are included: "For You" c/w the lumbering beat-ballad,
"'Boy!' I Think It's Really Love". Both eerily recall
Buddy Holly's early recordings.
Petty placed the group on Imperial Records as a vocal rock combo,
the Leen Teens. The group's atmospheric, appealing "So Shy",
heard here, was one of 1959's many fine discs that died unknown.
We also hear its flipside, "Dream Around You", and the
unreleased "Mary Mary", penned by Holly's buddy, Bob Montgomery.
Petty then forced the String-a-Longs name on the group, against
their will. Said group member Aubrey deCordova, "We didn't
much like the name
but we didn't have any say." Petty
had power of attorney over the group. They did as he said. He re-invented
them as an instro combo. He even revived the group name, in 1969,
for a one-off LP for Atco Records. None of the actual group, which
had broken up by then, played on the record - it was taped by the
Dave Burke and Alan Taylor's dense booklet notes benefit from interviews
with all group members. It fleshes out the Petty story while capturing
the String-a-Longs' curious history. They reveal that Petty's "Wheels"
was originally titled "Tell The World". At the pressing
plant, the song names were confused. The band's moody, exciting
"Wheels" became "Tell The World". All of which
explains why the toddling, sedate "Wheels" sounds nothing
like what its title suggests!
Keith McCormack's voice is one of the unheralded pleasures of the
Norman Petty catalogue. While sharing the humility and warmth of
Buddy Holly, his approach is fresh and original. His sincerity,
soulfulness and intelligence shine through these tracks like a beacon.
McCormack deserved a kinder fate. His voice was all but silenced
on the String-a-Longs' releases. Confined to overlooked B-sides,
or hidden behind assorted stage names, McCormack was best-known
as a nearly anonymous guitarist in a faceless band. Small wonder
these recordings have languished in obscurity.
McCormack's songwriting is strikingly good. Musically and lyrically
innovative, it echoes Holly's skill and appeal without owing a debt,
or revealing any blatant influences. His songs encompass an exciting
range of styles and moods. Consider his "Mean Woman",
released in 1962 under the alias Bryan Keith. The track instantly
creates a slightly sinister mood that is riveting. Every sound,
word and note of this recording is truly compelling. How can a record
this good be so damned obscure?
The unissued, mis-titled "Sister Little Shoes" offers
a clever, thoughtful approach to the well-trod ground of teen heartbreak.
Compelling guitar work blends with McCormack's yearning, reflective
vocal to create one of the most appealing songs I've heard in years.
"Cute Little Frown", with its vocal chorus of thickly-accented
Texas belles, is a swinging delight from 1963. It details the ups
and downs of a teen relationship with surprising, witty detail.
Its bubbling bass line, terrific drumming and rollicking guitar,
all vibrantly recorded, showcase the Petty sound at its absolute
A 1965 single as Keith & Kay is quirky, haunting and maddeningly
catchy. "Spring Has Sprung" offers a nonsensical vocal
riff that suggests Roy Orbison's "Only The Lonely" on
happy pills. Once heard, it does not easily exit the listener's
head. Its flip, "Stumbling Stone", is an oddball beat-ballad.
Here, Petty pulls out all his stops as a producer. The result is
kooky but effective. Another nutty artefact from McCormack's chequered
career is the novelty disc "The Bloomin' Bird", credited
to the Bugmen. Fans of Rodd Keith's work (and song-poem music in
general) will dig this off-kilter dance-craze ditty, with its odd
chord changes, vaguely menacing feel, and tipsy-sounding McCormack
The listener also receives an intimate version of McCormack's best-known
song. His brief, guitar-and-voice demo of "Sugar Shack"
summons up a surprising poignancy. Petty's hit version, by Jimmy
Gilmer & the Fireballs, featured the strident, synthetic sound
of the Solovox organ. That piping, perky riff gave Petty his biggest
success as a pop record producer. It also removed the charm and
soul from a delightful little song. It's a treasure to hear McCormack's
The group's tidy, polite instrumentals sit uncomfortably amidst
their commanding, atmospheric vocals. Even a potentially dull cover
version of Leiber and Stoller's done-to-death "Hound Dog"
is tricked out in goofy, squeaky-toy dog SFX, and given a percolating,
slinky arrangement that brings new life and charm to an obvious
This disc - and its encyclopaedic booklet - tells the real story
of the String-a-Longs, who have reunited in recent years to play
the occasional live gig. It also shows that, for all his shortcomings
as an individual, Norman Petty was one of the most gifted and innovative
producers of the Spectropop era. It's encouraging to see such great
music rescued from oblivion. Bursting with exuberance, innocence,
wit, charm and style, Tex-Mex Teen Magic is a major rediscovery.
THE TEX-MEX TEEN MAGIC OF THE STRING-A-LONGS
(ACE CDCHD 1144)
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