May 052011

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Phil Spector collection Back to Mono (1958–1969), the landmark set that compiles all of the early productions by the one-in-a-million wunderkind. Phil Spector’s abhorrent personal life and criminal history notwithstanding, the man’s influence on American music is indisputable.

So much in music circles back to this now-infamous sociopath. Music seems to channel Spector now more than ever: She and Him spearhead a resurgence of doo-wop sounds; Best Coast rebuild the Wall of Sound in fuzzier, shoegaze form; and, while it is no longer 1999, there are still millions of teenage generations to come that will have to see Top Gun and download the song all over again. So let’s celebrate the music that defined a generation and changed the landscape of popular American music forever. Here are five of the most well-known and oft-cited covers of classic Phil Spector productions. Old and new, these tracks have contributed to the ongoing resurrection of the Wall of Sound.

1. John Lennon’s “Be My Baby”
This cover comes to us from an album called The Lost Weekend. Story goes that after John broke up with Yoko he moved out to Los Angeles to lick his wounds. While there, he met up with Phil Spector and created this brilliant rendition of “Be My Baby.” The track opens with rolling drums followed by a howling John Lennon who slurs, speaks, and screams his way through the rest of this epic and chaotic version. Lennon somehow manages to deconstruct this once tightly-packed 2:30 song and remake it into a five-minute ballad. Devoid of its girl-group charm, “Be My Baby” sounds more like a twisted break up and less like a 1960s teeny bopper prom.

2. Grizzly Bear’s “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”
“He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” is a difficult song to love no matter who the singer, but thankfully in the hands of Grizzly Bear “He Hit Me” can’t be taken as literally as it could when it belonged to Phil Spector. Originally written by Carole King, the song was a recount of the reality of singer Little Eva’s abusive relationship at the time. When asked by King why she stayed in the relationship, Little Eva responded with, “He hits me because he loves me.” Now why King decided to turn that sorrowful statement into song we’ll never know, but Spector seized the opportunity and surrounded the lyrics with hollow instrumentation and funeral march-like drumming. With their cover, Grizzly Bear sticks close to the original, but adds some distortion that manages to make the song sound even more ominous than it did back in 1963.

3. Hall & Oates’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and Hall and Oates. This is a coupling meant for romance. It’s no secret that when Hall and Oates croon, women swoon and this version gives all of us a double serving of euphoria.  With just as much indulgence in Blue-eyed soul and lush harmonies as the Righteous Brothers, Hall and Oates manage to distinguish their version from the original by oiling the song up and transforming it into a smoother and slicker version of itself.

4. Jeff Mangum’s “I Love How You Love Me”
Jeff Mangum, from Neutral Milk Hotel, pitches a perfect acoustic indie love song with his live version of “I Love How You Love Me.” Sounding a bit like Bright Eyes, he strips this song down, leaves the grittiness and the flaws on the recording, and applies tender vocals so to come across as genuine as possible when delivering the delicate lyrics that Spector composed. In my opinion it is a much more raw and appealing version than the pre-packaged version offered up by Spector way back when.

5. Harry Nilsson’s “River Deep-Mountain High”
There are a lot of things that Harry Nilsson did right throughout his career and this cover numbers among them. You can hear the famed tremble in his voice as he slows “River Deep-Mountain High” down and brings us something slightly more sensitive. Although still upbeat, this “River Deep” runs in a lower gear than Ike and Tina Turner’s amphetamine-induced original and consequently works well for Nilsson, whose peppiness knew its bounds.

Pick up a copy of Back to Mono (1958–1969) here.

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