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Back to mono

I have been thinking about time recently. Rock’n’roll and time and how integral the feeling of things accelerating were to how people must have experienced the music and its ability to constantly replenish itself, often working through formulaic patterns or variations on a theme. Consider Phil Spector who, as much as anyone in his prime, defined a point in time through the application of a vision and the creation of an unmistakable signature sound. What were his records called – two-minute teenage operas, or something similar.

It was perhaps odd then that Spector ended up producing what was, at the time, the longest slab or recorded rock music ever made in the form of George Harrison’s sprawling triple-album All Things Must Pass. But it wasn’t really enough to allow Spector to transition into the cultural milieu of seventies rock too easily. In fact he had found himself cut adrift amidst the easy-going excess of LA’s rock culture.

Spector was anything but easy-going. When he reluctantly ventured out into this new alien world in the mid-70s, doing the rounds of the Sunset Strip clubs in search of new blood, as he half-heartedly scouted the scene while sporting custom t-shirts and lapel-badges exclaiming the words of his own unwritten manifesto: ‘BACK TO MONO’.

An ad for Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits. Warner / Spector Records 25P9104 (1977)

It was a slogan that his record company had adopted to market a re-release double LP of his hits. Observers were not convinced that Spector’s old work – catapulted into an age before the concept of the re-release had even seriously been thought of – merited much attention, such was the ever-shifting clock of rock and roll fashions. ‘Time works against the concept,’ Billboard magazine declared, almost baffled that anyone would try and market their past in such a way. ‘Spector has been out of the limelight for some time, so it is hard to imagine masses of record buyers surging into stores to gulp this LP up.’

‘Back to Mono’ may have failed as a marketing slogan, but it was a sentiment that might have rung true for many in the mid-seventies had they noticed; an implicit rebuke to those who had abandoned the direct simplicity of rock’n’roll. The out-of-fashion Spector found himself working with John Lennon on an album of fifties cover songs, titled simply Rock’n’roll. If it seemed a little early for Lennon to be looking back nostalgically to the past – a mere dozen or so years after the Beatles had rose to global fame – it was perhaps an indication that he now found himself in uncharted territory, outlasting the expectation that he’d be done with rock’n’roll by the time he reached his thirties.

The two fell out after Spector brought one session to a halt by firing gunshots into the ceiling, later disappearing with the master tapes, which would not be recovered until over a year later. When the album finally saw the light of day, in late 1975, it showed Lennon on the cover in his pre-fame Hamburg days, harking back to the fifties and sporting black leather and greased-back hair.

But it was only when the Ramones were brought to Spector’s attention that the famed producer believed he had found a way to get back to his own kind of rock’n’roll. They had been pushed into his arms by the combination of a record company desperate for hits, and lead singer Joey Ramone’s vision of himself as the reincarnation of one of Spector’s girl-group singers on the album’s excellent version of The Ronettes’ ‘Baby, I Love You.’

But the prolonged recording process turned into a trial for the impatient Ramones. Spector thought that the resulting album, End of the Century (1979), would revive his fortunes. But it failed to deliver the chart success that both parties had expected, a situation not helped by the fact that the band’s leader, Johnny Ramone – claiming Spector had forced him to repeat the opening chord of ‘Rock’n’roll High School’ over 200 times – disowned the album, and used every opportunity he could to claim that Spector had all but taken the band hostage in the studio, forcing them to perform at gunpoint.

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By John Scanlan

John Scanlan is the Series Editor of Reverb with Reaktion Books.