Friday, August 08, 2008

Song to Download Now: "Then He Kissed Me"

(ten beers- terrabulllllll, kind of hungry again.)

The Crystals- "Then He Kissed Me"

To put it into modern terms, The Crystals were the 1963 version of Destiny's Child. They underwent several lineup changes prior to striking it big, and, only sticking around for five years and three cobbled-together albums, they burned out before reaching the foregone conclusion of the lead singer going solo.

What separates them is that while Matthew Knowles was an important force in the direction of Destiny's career, he never had the musical control that Phil Spector did over The Crystals. In fact, the story of The Crystals is inextricable from the story of Spector, undoubtedly the first superproducer and the man responsible for our idea of '60s girl-groups.

Spector is famous for (killing his wife and) having twenty-five top 40 hits in five years and creating the Wall of Sound, a production technique that involved layering tracks on top of each other meticulously. By playing tiny variations of instrumental lines and then stacking them to their breaking point, he was able to produce an unforgettably huge sound that made even the most simple two-minute pop song sound epic. (More on that further down.) While Spector had a lot of success before he met The Crystals in '61, they were one of the first signings to his new label Philles, so he had an element of personal pride associated with their success.

Better times for the Spec-man.

Spector's first order of business was promoting La La Brooks to lead, and her unconventionally meek and fragile voice fits "The He Kissed Me" perfectly. What ended up being the signature element of the song, the exaggerated reverb in her voice, was actually an engineering mistake that Spector decided not to correct. It ended up being a wise decision, because that echo catapulted the song to #2 on the US charts in 1963. (It's also in GoodFellas. That scene after the Lufthansa heist where everyone's coming in flossin' pink Caddies and fur coats, and Jimmy tells them to lay low and bring it all back. Pretty incredible.)

What's so interesting about Phil Spector's music is that he was such a product of his times. His records could only hold so many different tracks, (I wish I knew how many, but I don't.) so his boundless ambition was kept in check by his technology. Almost any song you hear on the radio today has tens and tens of ProTooled tracks laid underneath one another, but no matter how many harmonies there are, none of them sound as overwhelmingly beautiful as Spector's dense layering work. They have an almost boring sound of infinity, whereas the strength of Spector's production is its limits. You can actually hear the fullness of the instruments as they burst at the seams. There's a claustrophobic quality to the castanets and bass drums of "Then He Kissed Me" that could never be duplicated today. That's partly because Spector was arranging expressly for AM radio and jukebox, and the relatively low fidelity of those two mono outputs suited his purposes. Even the method by which his music is processed is stuck in his own time. Spector's later stereo efforts (including the terribly produced Let It Be) belie this strength/weakness.

That boundless quality of the music is a fitting contrast to the lyrics and delivery of the girls' verses. While we usually view the '50s and early '60s as a time of tradition, "Then He Kissed Me" spits in the face of such notions. The narrative of the song is fairly simple: boy asks girl to dance and is charming; he kisses her. They have some kind of relationship and go out; he kisses her. They meet his parents and he asks her to marry him; he kisses her. And they kissed and they kissed and they kissed. The kiss is emphasized as the most notable part of the relationship. Even as these two people are asking each other to "be his bride/and always be right by his side/felt so happy I almost cried," none of those monumental life decisions are as important as that kiss. The song places the ephemeral tiny moments of connection between two people above absolutely anything, which is the antithesis of what was expected at the time.

As much as Phil Spector and his music were a product of his era, he always managed to transcend it too.

1 comment:

Will said...

TANBR has officially jumped the shark