The songs open with drumbeats, big and bold, a Latin guitar figure, strings drifting in, and a voice more tremulous and vulnerable – or joyous and proud – than your heart has dared imagine. They burst to life churning bottomless pits of emotion in the service of nothing more – and nothing less – than young love. Then, when all the stars are shining bright, it fully hits you: Phil Spector has returned.
Latecomers can be forgiven for not thinking Back to Mono (1958-1969), the new Spector boxed set, is any big deal, since Spector is 20 years past his last hit and wasn’t necessarily a big star even when songs he produced, like the Ronettes’ ”Be My Baby,” the Righteous Brothers’ ”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the Crystals’ ”Da Doo Ron Ron,” and Curtis Lee’s ”Pretty Little Angel Eyes” dominated the charts. Spector is the ultimate backroom boy, and, worse luck, he had a genius (or mania) for singles that continued into the album age. But even in his obscurity Spector has been revered as the master of the Wall of Sound (a production approach as massive and shamelessly bombastic as its nickname – and one that he believed stereo destroyed, thus the slogan ”Back to Mono”), which he used in all his hits, in such gorgeous misses as Ike & Tina Turner’s ”River Deep-Mountain High,” and in his one great album, his 1963 ”A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector.” ”Back to Mono (1958-1969)” compiles all of the above, and more, into a four-disc apotheosis.
Spector contrived ”Back to Mono” (which he spent the past four years preparing) as an argument for greatness, presenting his work as a unified musical drama. On disc one, he fumbles to find the one true sound. He finally locates it — notably on ”Da Doo Ron Ron” — but perfection eludes him, until disc two, which begins with the most thrilling rock & roll intro of all time, Hal Blaine’s cataclysmic drumming on ”Be My Baby.” The 1963 ”A Christmas Gift for You” serves as a magnificent entr’acte before disc three, the climax, which opens with ”Lovin’ Feelin”’ and closes with the Checkmates’ ”Love Is All I Have to Give,” whose title is clearly the message Spector wants to leave you with. It is, in fact, the message of every important record he ever made.
Phil Spector didn’t invent the art of record production, but he set its standards and goals. The songs he provided his artists, once condemned and ridiculed as teenage fluff, have endured for three decades. As a result, although nothing he has done since John Lennon’s solo albums has had much merit, both his fortune and his reputation are secure. Still, it would be great to see Spector go back to work with the young hip-hoppers whose layered productions are the Wall’s true successors. But even if he never rolls tape again, Phil Spector is a giant of popular music, and ”Back to Mono” is one of the few boxed sets whose existence is justified by merit more than marketing. It practically walks up to you and asks you if you want to dance.