Walls of Sound

“Wall of Sound” is one of those descriptors that’s been tossed around for years in discussions of pop music. The phrase, though, is genuinely serviceable, referring generally to the ‘60s pop production style of erratic Los Angeles studio wizard Phil Spector – and those who sought to emulate him – and conveying something crucial about any classic Spector production: its physicality.

Even if you’re not familiar with his name or story, you’ve heard Spector’s handiwork. The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” all have that peculiar sense of physical, cavernous space.  You can almost feel the ground shifting during Ike and Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Orchestrated and heavily engineered studio productions were nothing new to pop or rock ‘n’ roll or R&B in the early ‘60s. The history of commercial recording is often the history of producers wresting artistic control from the artists themselves.  The Wall of Sound aesthetic, however, set a new precedent for rock ‘n’ roll. Everything was subordinated to the producer’s art.

This week’s selections – while not Phil Spector productions themselves – were inspired by that ethos of grandeur. Singers were stripped of their backing bands, their voices becoming indistinct in a densely orchestrated mix. Guitar riffs were overwhelmed by echo. Bells rang out from distant rooms. For the Wall of Sound, the musician’s individuality and role in the creative process was deemphasized in a fundamental way. This, in the case of Phil Spector, is definitely not condemnation. He and his ‘60s protégés could be heavyhanded, overbearing megalomaniacs. But the Wall of Sound was conceived when use of technology like multi-tracking and studio echo was still innovative and full of experimental possibility. It was unashamed of its studio conception. It had no reason to be, either – it was a bold new form of pop.

1. The Date With Soul, Yes Sir That’s My Baby (York)
Jack Nitzsche was a quintessential West Coast studio man. He began his career in the Los Angeles of the late 1950s as an arranger and session musician, working his way into studio production and scoring a 1963 hit with the instrumental “The Lonely Surfer.” Having provided the arrangements for many of Phil Spector’s ‘60s sessions, Nitzsche also absorbed, at least initially, some of those grandiose Spectorian production sensibilities.

This group – the Date With Soul – was a studio project for Nitzsche, and it found him laboring in full Wall of Sound mode. His version of the enduring “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” is a distillate of the Los Angeles studio world: the voices buried in the chorus include, according to legend, Brian Wilson, Jackie DeShannon, and Sonny and Cher, amongst others. Soul vocalist Edna Wright sang lead, but this wasn’t soul, really – not even the polished Motown variety of soul. Slowness was used to great, dramatic effect here. Strings – another Nitzsche hallmark – descended in prismatic tones.

But no one else quite seemed to know how to handle this freakish new species of pop. “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” was passed along from record label to record label and released three different times between 1964 and 1967, with this version to be its last appearance.

2. Ruby and the Romantics, Your Baby Doesn’t Love You Anymore (Kapp)
Distinguished by Ruby Nash’s gorgeous lead vocals and – behind her – the sophisticated harmonies of the Romantics, Ohio’s Ruby and the Romantics were masters of smooth, romantic soul. 1963 hits like “Our Day Will Come” and “Hey There Lonely Boy” exemplified their style. Their lyrical fare was urbane, their productions jazzy and lush.

This 1965 jewel was produced and arranged by New York-based studio veterans Tom Catalano and Alan Lorber. Lorber was shortly to engineer one of rock’s most infamous cash-in campaigns, the “Bosstown Sound.”

3. The Flirtations, Nothing But a Heartache (Deram)
Eager for chart success and a more receptive audience, the Flirtations, an American female R&B vocal group, managed to find both in England in 1967 with the assistance of aspiring producer Wayne Bickerton. Bombastic in the best possible way, with crescendo after breathtaking crescendo of deep girl group harmony sound, their “Nothing But a Heartache” was a major UK hit and an instant sensation among the Motown-worshipping mods of 1960s Britain.  It would only later to be spoiled for these same souls after it appeared in a commercial for a popular fried chicken vendor.

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21 Responses to Walls of Sound

  1. Anonymous says:

    The backing track on “Date with Soul” is heavy! they stick to chords way too long giving it a great droney sound and the tempo fits it perfectly. It actually sounds like they could have recorded it at twice the tempo and then slowed it down for effect. And besides the strings, which are very un-Cale, the music sounds like it could have been a VU track. Even the guitar fills, which you can hear in the background when the male is singing lead for 5 seconds, sound Reed-esque. With the exception of a few fills, which reveal a full drum kit, the drummer even sounds like Maureen. but it’s kinda great that such a VU-ish track can sound completely un-VU with the addition of a chorus and a different singer. Imagine Edna Wright singing “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Ha!

    I’m really curious to hear this one at half speed. How does it sound Little Danny? You can’t tell me you haven’t already slowed this one down.

  2. Thanks for the Velvet Underground analogy; I love that other readers find drones in pop music (VU-ish or otherwise) to be fascinating, too. Funny that you mention VU, as I pulled my copy of Soundsville when I was working on this post. Soundsville was a mid-’60s budget label (Pickwick, I think) compilation of rock ‘n’ roll, surf, R&B;, and novelty cash-ins that was produced by Lou Reed in his pre-VU days as a session
    musician/songwriting hack. Reed (and possibly Cale) played and sang on the record; it has a few odd riffs and harmonies that would pop up memorably a year or 2 later on the “Velvet Underground and Nico” and “White Light White Heat.” “You’re Drivin’ Me Insane” – the “garage” number on Soundsville – basically *is* a Velvet Underground song masquerading as a frat party:

    Beachnuts, “You’re Drivin’ Me Insane”

    There’s also a very spare (sounds like a demo, and probably was) R&B; track on Soundsville called “I’m Gonna Fight” (not in the FMU archives, alas) which features a black R&B; singer on vocals – and Reed’s distinct guitar-playing (and I’m sure Reed wrote the song, too). Anyway, I was just listening to a lot of my “weird” droning ’60s R&B; and soul as I wrote this post; the VU comparison to Date With Soul hadn’t occured to me at the time but it makes perfect sense now. Some day I’ll get around to a post of Bo Diddley’s mid-’60s sides, too.

    I have in fact tried Date With Soul at a slower speed; it’s not as otherworldly as you’d hope at that pitch, though. I suppose the record *already* sounds slowed down.

    My Technics 1200s are in a perpetual slide towards -8% pitch.

  3. Atall says:

    I came across a track called “Road To Nowhere” by Judy Henske last week – you can hear just the Nitzche production style as Expecting To Fly and this first one here. All a bit murky for me – there’s more room to move among the furniture with Ruby & the Romantics. And you’re right, her voice is absolutely beautiful and a great song.

    I guess Sunday Morning by VU kind of is a “wall of sound” production, isn’t it?

  4. Gavatron says:

    Despite the chicken connotations that Flirtations’ tune is wicked.

    By the way, I’ve recently found this blog and its great – keep it up!

  5. Hey Emberglance, I was recently made aware of that Judy Henske track, too, from the Jack Nitzsche compilation “Hearing Is Believing.” Fab stuff! (Marianne Faithfull’s vers. of “Sister Morphine” is pretty heavy also.)

    It took me a while to come ’round to the idea of “Sunday Morning” (and maybe “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) as Wall of Sound-ish. But they all – inadvertantly or not – have that cavernous space quality to them – which I love…

  6. Larry Grogan says:

    If you get a chance check out ‘After the Lights Go Out’ by the Walker Brothers, imo the greatest of all Wall of Sound rip-offs.

  7. Thanks for the tip, Larry!

  8. Atall says:

    If it’s of any interest, I heard the Judy Henske on this Swedish comp (http://www.modernista.se/shop/shopexd.asp?id=2695) which is pretty good. And while you’re at it, the Folk and the Northern Soul comps by Andres Lokko on the same label are also pretty good.

  9. JeffW says:

    I second the idea of “Sunday Morning” (and maybe “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) as Wall of Sound-ish. Hell, VU & Nico was recorded, in part, at Spector’s Studio in NYC even. Also, I found this quote over at RollingStones.com by John Cale, “We were trying to do a Phil Spector thing with as few instruments as possible.” Is the “Phil Spector thing” just another word for “Wall of Sound”? And then, of course, Cale’s violin sounds like a jet engine. Apparently he sanded down the bridge on his violin so he could play 3 strings at once and then replaced them with guitar strings. “What’s that good awful sound?” Wall of Sound indeed.

  10. Atall says:

    Who actually produced the banana record? Obviously, I should know but I always imagined someone just, like, pressed record. Doesn’t it say Andy Warhol produced it? which can’t possibly be true…

  11. JeffW could probably tell you more, but Warhol is in fact credited as the producer for the banana record (except for “Sunday Morning,” which was produced by Tom Wilson, who in the ’60s was the rare African-American producer, and who produced all of White Light/White Heat). It *is* hard to believe that Warhol assumed anything more than a nominal role in the production; I could see Reed & Cale doing much of it themselves, along with uber-engineer Val Valentin.

    That Swedish comp. looks great, by the way – the songs that I did recognize from it are all fantastic.

  12. JeffW says:

    Andy Warhol did indeed produce the recording. But he didn’t play the traditional role as a producer. Although what is a “traditional” role for a producer? A good producer does what is necessary to allow the band to record their songs and capture the sound of the band. Every band is different and so the producer must act accordingly. Wikipedia give a good list of the most common roles of a producer, “…controlling the recording sessions, coaching and guiding the musicians, and supervising the recording, mixing and mastering processes.” Warhol definitely didn’t “coach” VU nor guide the musicians. If anyone was the coach it would have been Cale who did the arrangements. The recording itself was done by a few different people but Norman Dolph was the first one to record them although he had very little experience and was more or less just there to hit the record button. The mixing and mastering process was done by Tom Wilson. But Warhol did supervise the recordings and he did a great job of it. He organized the session and helped to bring people in to do what they needed to do to record VU “as is.” But this was a role that Warhol was already very familiar with. One of Warhol’s best skills as an artist was the ability to get people to do what he needed from them to realize his art. I don’t know if I’m being very articulate but I found this quote which hits on what I’m trying to say:

    “In many ways Warhol refined and expanded the idea of what it means to be an artist. Warhol frequently took on the position of a producer, rather than a creator – this is true not only of his work as a painter (he had assistants do much of the work of producing his paintings), it is true of his film-making and commercial enterprises as well. He liked to coin an idea and then oversee or delegate its execution. As he refined this element of his work The Factory evolved from an atelier into an office. He became (and still is) the public face of a company, and a brand.”

    And that’s pretty much exactly what he did as a producer for the first VU record. Although the music was VU’s idea and he did everything he could to capture that raw sound and emotion of the previous nights performance. With Warhol as the “public face” VU was able to concentrate on the music and no worry about everything else. And that’s exactly what they needed.

    Oh, and mainly I’m talking about the “Acetate” recordings although some of the songs where recorded later on in ’67 in LA. And then “Sunday Morning” was recorded even later since the album lacked a 45 “hit.” But with these first recording sessions they really set the bar for what they could do and from there it was just a matter of cleaning up the recording via re-mixing (Tom Wilson) and getting it acceptable for Verve to release.

  13. Thank you Jeffw for the illuminating response and analysis!

    Warhol’s reputation as the face/brand and creative director and manipulative egomaniac are all deserved; I still can’t figure out, though, what role, if any, he played in sculpting the sound of the VU’s first record. Maybe the producer title is still throwing me off. It sounds like – from your response – that Warhol as producer was Warhol in only a supervisory role. That, once all of the engineers were assembled and studio time was arranged to his satisfaction, his role was fulfilled. Or did he play a more hands-on director’s role at the sessions themselves, making specific suggestions on capturing “that raw sound and emotion”? It seems like Reed and Cale already were doing that – and they likewise had a pretty good sense of how to attain it in the studio. Did Warhol know what he wanted sonically from the Velvet Underground? Was it different from Reed and Cale’s vision?

    I didn’t know that “Sunday Morning” (possibly my favorite song from Velvet Underground & Nico) was recorded separately as a “hit.”

    Okay, finally: six selections from the Soundsville album (mentioned above). Pointing to any of these and declaring them precedents for any particular VU song is probably going too far. (Except “You’re Driving Me Insane,” maybe – is that Cale on bass?) Still, they’re good for demonstrating the sort of background Reed came from before the Velvet Underground – how the pop aesthetic here influenced his recordings later in the ‘60s, albeit subtly.

    Reed wrote and played guitar on these songs, I think. They were recorded around 1965:

    The Hi-Lifes, First Impression
    The Hi-Lifes, I’m Gonna Fight
    The Hi-Lifes, Soul City
    The Hollywoods, Teardrop in the Sand
    The Roughnecks, You’re Driving Me Insane
    Jeannie Larimore, Johnny Won’t Surf No More

  14. JeffW says:

    But Little Danny, what about The Primitives’ “The Ostrich”? That’s gotta be my favorite and is the most VU. Complete with a killer one note guitar solo. And although Cale was not on any of the above tracks, he certainly played as part of The Primitives.

    So, to quickly address the comments regarding what Warhol wanted sonically from VU, he surprisingly had a fair amount of influence on them. As part of there performances at The Factory, Warhol is cited for encouraging VU to approach their performances more as “rehearsals” on stage. Having someone of Warhol’s stature telling a young band this could have a considerable impact. A lot of pressure is removed by approaching gigs simply as rehearsals. This, of course, could led to more improvisation and less polished, “raw” sound. And since the goal of the Norm Dolph’s recording session can be overly simplified as “recording the previous nights performance”, which most undoubtedly consisted of some rehearsing on stage, then you must give Warhol at least a little credit for sound recorded at those sessions. Warhol was also their manager and employer though so it’s not like his influence was localized to that of the producer. Warhol’s input to VU would have been addressed long before they went into the studio. That’s not the role of your typical producer. He was much more.

    Also, the earliest recordings of VU had them playing straight up folk music. Bob Dylan crap. Certainly Cale and Reed rethought their sound between then and the banana record but they where also influenced by others. LaMonteYoung, and Cale’s involvement with The Dream Syndicate, influenced VU’s sound a lot more than Andy Warhol.

    This is completely off topic with Wall of Sound, but the “Noise” shows that VU did with Nico playing guitar are great. Complete improvisation. The sound like they’re just rehearsing. Perhaps they are.

  15. I guess this all sort of confirms that, insofar as Warhol was producer, he was a supervisor/mentor more than an engineer. Yes, I’m still stuck on the “producer” appellation. Either way, thanks Jeff!

    So, where can the “noise” shows be heard? Do “Falling In Love With Falling Spikes” or “A Symphony in Sound” count?

    And, yes, I love the “The Ostrich” by the Primitives. Also “Why Don’t You Smile” by the All Night Workers.

  16. Atall says:

    So… Gee… I guess you guys should just, like, rehearse or something, I dunno… Make it really “bad”. Oh, that sounds good. I think. Does that sound good, do you think, Lou?

  17. Atall says:

    But that’s an amazing lot of information, all new to me, thanks from me also Jeff. I’d love to hear the “noise” too.

  18. I can’t attest to Nico’s guitar playing (!), I can imagine, though, that Cale’s considerable musical/technical skills possibly kept things from getting too indulgent. Or bad.

    Plus, the lot of them seemed to thrill at droning away – rather just noodling around. Droning – loud or soft – is the only type of unstructured improvisation that I can really deal with.

  19. JeffW says:

    I don’t know how easy it is to find the “noise” LP I speak of but its from a bootleg of a show from Nov. 4, 1966 in Columbus, Ohio. It’s titled “1966” and contains 2 side long tracks: Melody Laughter (27:23), The Nothing Song (29:34). I don’t know if it has ever been issued elsewhere.

    I’m not sure if “Falling In Love With Falling Spikes” or “A Symphony in Sound” count because I haven’t heard them yet.

  20. JeffW says:

    duh… You can just listen to East Village Other LP on ESP-disk to hear some VU Noise. There’s always “Loop” but I’m waiting for it to be released in it’s original state. A locked groove.

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