December 9, 2008

Mini-review: "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound," by Mick Brown

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, by Mick Brown
Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector (book; 2007)
By Mick Brown
Borzoi/Alfred A Knopf / ISBN: 978-1-40004-219-7

You would think that a person could do no wrong by penning a biography of infamous record producer and gun-brandishing recluse Phil Spector -- after all, the man either wrote or engineered a huge amount of what we now consider the "classic rock" hits of the 1950s and '60s; then near the end of his practical career produced such one-off masterpieces as the Beatles' Let It Be and the first Ramones album; then apparently went batsh-t crazy starting in the '80s, eventually facing murder charges last year over the mysterious death of a starlet at one of his notorious private parties. But as evidenced in the much-hyped yet ultimately disappointing Tearing Down the Wall of Sound by Mick Brown, it turns out that tales about someone fiddling with studio knobs for days on end simply don't make for very compelling literature, even if they do end with the person becoming a batsh-t crazy gun-brandishing recluse.

In fact, if anything can be called most fascinating about the roots of the rock industry, the period when Spector had his greatest successes, it's of how much the entire thing used to be like any other corporate office back in the day; and by "corporate office," I mean literal skyscrapers in Manhattan full of nice young suit-wearing jazz-loving Jews, sitting around desks in cubicles all day writing songs, while yet other executives handled all the administrative work of matching those songs up with specific musicians, specific studio engineers and specific labels. So yes, in other words, the beginning history of rock 'n roll is a real snooze -- a time when singing and songwriting were two distinctly different jobs, when artists were treated no better than hired help, when the industry was literally like a factory, churning out hits for white teens by poor black musicians like other factories churned out toothbrushes.

The only way to get ahead in such an environment, then, was to become an executive and intellectual-property owner yourself; and that's what the vast majority of this book is about, is simply the masterful way Spector was able to play the weasely game of office politics back then, was able to superficially suck up to the exact right people who could help him the most at the exact right moments, the way he was able to sociopathically cut these people out of his life again when they had nothing else to offer. And frankly, unless you actually lived through these times, unless you're already familiar with Spector's hits and have always been curious about what was happening behind the scenes at the time, most people will simply not find this an engaging read; damnit, I picked up this book to read about a crazy rock idol, not a minor character from "Dilbert!" This is no fault of Brown himself, a seasoned journalist who turns in a fine account of the subject at hand yet again; no, it's the subject itself, which by its definition is heavy on unfair business contracts and scheming middle-managers, light on drug-abuse tales and trashed hotel rooms. It's a great book for seeing how the sausage was made in the 1950s and '60s music industry; but unless you're already a fan of that sausage, I recommend skipping the book altogether.

Out of 10: 7.4, or 8.4 for fans of classic rock

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:35 PM, December 9, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |