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The Devil (You Think) You Know

· THE DEAD

Anthony DeCurtis

I knew Phil Spector a bit from the years when he was on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with me. I also knew Allen Klein, who worked closely with Phil, for liner notes I had written for him for the The Rolling Stones Singles box set. (I also wrote the original liner notes for the Spector box set, which, according to Allen, Spector killed.) Because of knowing Allen and Phil, I was able to arrange a rare interview with Spector about his work with the Beatles when an anniversary edition of Imagine came out in, I believe, 2001.

Rolling Stone published an edited version of that interview. Here is the much longer version, tidied up a bit. The interview, eerily, was conducted in the same room where Lana Clarkson was later shot and died as a result of Spector's gun play. None of that had transpired, obviously, at the time of this interview. I hope her soul rests in peace. For all his terrible problems, I hope the same for Phil.

The Castle, Alhambra, California

The gates open and the long, black limousine I’ve been riding in moves along a driveway and deposits me in front of a stone staircase that ascends a tall hill. I get out, and a genial, well-dressed security guard informs me, “Mr. Spector would like you walk up these steps through the front door.” I eye the 88 steps and ask, “Is that the only way into the house?” “No,” the guard explains, “this driveway goes straight up to the back door. But Mr. Spector likes for people to enter through the front on their first visit.”

I knew that getting one of Phil Spector’s rare interviews would involve hurdles, but I didn’t expect them to be physical. With former Beatles manager Allen Klein serving as intermediary, Spector had agreed to speak about the making of Imagine when the remastered album came out earlier this year. In faxes printed in Gothic type, Spector insisted that the interview be done in person at his lavish home – which he typically refers to as “the castle” – in aptly named Alhambra, CA, northeast of Los Angeles.

Spector had agreed to talk because of his friendship and long working relationship with Lennon. An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame himself, Spector had, of course, essentially invented the idea of the producer as auteur, the musical equivalent of the director in film, in the late Fifties and early Sixties. His signature is the monolithic – with a very definite emphasis on the “mono” -- “Wall of Sound,” a grand architecture of guitars, strings, horns, keyboards and percussion that combines breathtaking lyricism with Wagnerian power.

Delivered by rapturously emotional singers like Ronnie Spector (with whom Phil would experience a tumultuous marriage and divorce), Darlene Love and Tina Turner, these “little symphonies for the kids” – like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” and Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” -- are, to say the absolute least, among the most magnificent singles ever made.

But while Spector’s groundbreaking early achievements are universally known, far fewer people are aware of his extensive work with Lennon and the Beatles, who numbered among Spector’s most ardent admirers. As Lennon searched for new creative partners in the waning days of the Beatles, he enlisted Spector to produce “Instant Karma,” a rhythmically driving single that shot to number three in America in 1970.

Spector also was on board for “Power to the People” a year later. More dramatically, between those two hits, Spector stepped in to assemble the Let It Be album, which had been left in utter disarray as the Beatles splintered and none of them could face the blood on the tracks.

For Spector and Lennon, however, the end of the Beatles signaled a vital new beginning. Spector co-produced Lennon’s ravaging solo debut, Plastic Ono Band (1970), with Lennon and Yoko Ono – it is a stark deconstruction of the Wall of Sound that rubs as frighteningly raw today as it did thirty years ago. The trio also co-produced the much lovelier Imagine, Lennon’s most successful solo album, in 1971.

John and Yoko teamed up with Spector again on Sometime in New York City (1972), and, during Lennon’s “lost weekend” separation from Yoko, Lennon and Spector collaborated on Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975), a raucous collection of cover versions of rock classics. (As all that was going on, Spector also worked with George Harrison on his solo debut, All Things Must Pass, as well as The Concert for Bangladesh.) And, in a touching echo of A Christmas Gift for You, the legendary album he made in 1963, Spector also co-produced “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with John and Yoko in 1972.

Tales of mayhem trail Spector – the rumor persists, for example, that during the drug-and-drink-fueled L.A. sessions for Rock ‘n’ Roll he fired a gun in the studio. But today, once I have walked those 88 steps, he is gentle and friendly, surprisingly eager to talk not only about Imagine, but the rest of his work with Lennon and the Beatles. Dressed in black and playfully aware of his reputation for mystery, Spector takes a seat, looks at me through purple-tinted shades, and smiles. “What would you like to know?” he asks.

The Genesis of Imagine

We had already done Instant Karma. We had already done Plastic Ono Band, which I thought was an incredible statement. I just thought that was where John was at and what should have been said. It was quite apparent after that, it was time to make a commercial album. The album only took six days to make, and one day overdubbing in New York with the strings. So we finished the whole album in seven days. Where everybody was saying, “If Spector gets involved, it’s going to take six years to finish.” [laughs] And, “Spector will never work with less than 50 men.” But we did Plastic Ono Band with three people – that was it."

On Imagine, we knew what we were going to do. We knew that this was going to be a Beatle-like album. It was really something I was looking forward to doing. He played me the “Imagine” lick – he had a piano lick that was very good – and I said, “Just write it, because it’s right.” I always thought that song was like the national anthem, which it is now. And it should be. We just built it around that. I would mix all night, and then the next day they’d get up and listen to it and he’d tell me what he thought. He loved everything, and that’s why the album went so fast.

What John was like to work with

John was no problem whatsoever. We were like brothers. The only thing about which I was concerned was maybe he would be a little frightened because McCartney had had this tremendous success [with the McCartney album]. George had had this tremendous success [with All Things Must Pass]. And Plastic Ono Band really hadn’t done what we had expected it to do. It was banned in a lot of stores, because the word fuck was in it. So I was just afraid that John would get a little frightened, but he didn’t.

I was there to make his life easier, so he wouldn’t have to worry about producing. It was one thing with the Beatles . . . I don’t care, there’s no animosity between us, I don’t even know the guy, but George Martin is an arranger. All the Beatles know how to make records. And John knew how to make records. He just didn’t want to be bothered with it. John was like, “I don’t really want to produce records. I want to write them, I want to sing them.”

I remember when we did Plastic Ono Band, and I had to do the piano solo on “Love.” John would say, “You don’t like being on the other side of the goddamn, fookin’ glass, do ya?” And it was true. I made a million mistakes, it took 20 takes. And I had it down, I knew it perfectly. I memorized it. But as soon as I went behind the glass, and John and Yoko were [in the control room], I started hitting wrong notes. He said, “Now, you know what it’s like to be an artist.” You have to perform.

John as a songwriter

I don’t know if I ever really analyzed that. I was essentially looking for a story to the album – and hit songs. That’s why he had me. He wanted hits. You could tell John to change something. You could tell him to re-do something, and he was completely flexible. Writing was just part of what he did, but he would write even if there was no music to it. That’s why all that myth about the Beatles is a myth, about them writing together. I don’t think they wrote together after “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

In fact, one time, we went to Paris and it was John’s birthday. And in a Paris restaurant, one of the violin players, they heard John Lennon was there, so he sent for all the other violinists, and they came up to John’s table and as a tribute they played “Yesterday.”

And John was like, “I didn’t fucking write that fucking thing.” He was pissed off. “I hate that fucking song.”

You know, “The only thing you did was ‘Yesterday.’” But they didn’t know – Lennon-McCartney, that was the myth.

In fact, the most grueling sessions we ever had – of course, we were out of control at the time – was when we tried to do the Rock & Roll album with other people’s material. I’m at my best with my material and John’s material, and we didn’t really like doing Chuck Berry and Larry Williams. I mean, we wanted to make a tribute, “Bonie Maronie,” and all that, but there was no stamp of personality on it. It was someone else’s – Lloyd Price’s, or whoever. I mean, what could we do? We even did “Be My Baby.” It was all ridiculous, because we didn’t believe it.

The Rock n Roll album was really . . . it was good, but a lot of mishmash. It wasn’t the best of John Lennon. I think Imagine was the best of John Lennon. Plastic Ono Band was the best of John Lennon. If you had to pinpoint a certain place in John’s life -- where he was and how he stood and how he felt and how he thought -- Imagine really, really does it for me. I was really excited about that album. I knew it was going to be a huge success. It was going to be a definitive statement of John. And it was.

He had trouble afterwards, coming up with the uniqueness of the songs. He had just written his very best on Imagine. And the next one, Sometime in New York City, it became more tedious. It became more difficult to find subject matter. “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” – he’d try to make statements. Imagine was just the epitome of John and commerciality. I put everything I knew into hooks, into bass lines, into everything, and everybody was willing to cooperate and work, because everybody loved John.

Let It Be

When I went in on the Let It Be album, there was a lot of animosity. Nobody, other than George – and, for some reason our relationship has become a bit strained over the years – George and Ringo were extraordinarily helpful to me. But they did have motives. George had these 80 songs that were rejected by the Beatles. I asked him, “How many songs have you got, George?” [affects Liverpool accent] “About a hoondred.” “A hundred!”

That’s why [All Things Must Pass] is a triple album – there was no fucking end to it. We did every song, over and over. Every song, you could just hear John saying, “I don’t like that fucker at all.” And George going home and writing another one. They would allow him one or two, and that’s it. So he had a hundred.

Well, John gave me the stamp of approval with “Instant Karma,” and so everybody sort of was okay. But that was a very tumultuous time. McCartney leaving, his lawyers. Allen [Klein] coming in, those lawyers. It was a war zone. I was very popular in England, but I think they resented me coming in to take over their group – there was a lot of that, “We’re losing our group.” And it pretty much happened that way, except, no, they didn’t all move away and it wasn’t anything I did. That was as preposterous as what Yoko has taken for all those years – she had about as much to do with the breakup of the Beatles as Elvis Presley did. That’s nonsense. She was somebody to pick on. Somebody to blame. Those were the best years of John’s life, with Yoko, without question. They were buddies. I felt like the three musketeers with them.

Harrison’s playing on Imagine

I don’t want to make any disparaging remarks about anybody, but there was a lot of tension between George and John. George had now had “My Sweet Lord” and all that, and he was coming in sort of to help John and he didn’t have to take John’s bullshit anymore. And John didn’t have to take anything, either – “This is not a Beatle album – you’ll play what I want.” John did a lot of the solos on the album, too. He did it on “Soldier,” and he did it on another one. But George came in and played the slide.

The tension was just because of their history. George was very accommodating, and he was more secure now, because he had had the hit album. He played some beautiful stuff on “How Do You Sleep” and “Gimme Some Truth.” He was just wonderful. He didn’t play nearly as much or as well on his own album. Eric did a lot of the solos on George’s album. But George came in and just did wonderful stuff. He was great.

Characterize John and Yoko’s relationship

They were best friends. They loved each other’s friendship. They were like schoolkids. They really loved each other. I became best friends with John, but I always knew his best friend was Yoko. That was it. If you had told John, you’re giving all the Beatles up for Yoko, he would have said, I don’t care. It’s worth it. He was content. He was happy. They would try these things together. They’d gain weight, they’d lose weight. Macrobiotics. Gitane cigarettes. But, no, without question, these two people were the best friends in the world.

John and George, working habits

I want to be careful, because I don’t want George to read this and say, “Ah, he’s fucking putting me down.” But, to give you an idea, the Imagine album took seven days, a week, OK? Plastic Ono Band, not much longer that that, only because it was grueling to get John to perform, because there was a lot of screaming on the album and a lot of personal crying. That was very therapeutic, even for me. We were drenched when we finished those cuts. “Mother” – “You had me but I never had you” -- I started thinking about my dad, who took his life. It was “To Know Him Is to Love Him” all over again for me. It was very therapeutic, but very painful. And it was very painful for John, and that’s what took so long.

George, six, seven months. I mean, we did the solo on “My Sweet Lord” maybe fifty, sixty different ways. It was just an insecurity he had, and I think it came from being the third kid on the block -- not the hero, not the number one or two. The also ran. So it was his chance to show what he could do. He had an immense amount of material, but he wouldn’t move one step forward until he was absolutely sure it was safe and right and finished. So we remixed and remixed and remixed.

In the end, we’d always go back to what we did originally. Because when I make a record and I bring musicians in, I don’t want to tell them, “Well, it’s eventually going to sound like this -- you’re going to be in more echo.” No, put it on now. You can’t take the echo off “Be My Baby.” You can’t take the echo off “River Deep, Mountain High” – it’s on Tina Turner forever. Because that’s my art. That’s what I do better than anyone, and that’s the way to make records. But George was very hesitant about it.

I mean, you could see the animosity, not the animosity, but the friction when George came in to do the solos on Imagine. I could hear what John was saying to me, while George was inside the studio. “He’s not going to fuck up this fucking album. This is my fucking album.” And George would say, “Let’s do it again.” George was never satisfied. Either he didn’t believe enough in himself, or he wasn’t sure, or whatever.

He brought Eric in [for All Things Must Pass and Bangladesh]. Eric, by the way, was a godsend at that time, because he played magnificently. And he had problems at the time, drug-related problems. I love Eric. I know he’s changed, but it would not be unlike Eric to fall asleep in a chair in the control room. We had that problem with Bangladesh, too.

But even the Bangladesh thing, George wanted protection. You see, that was really my job, to protect them. If it’s shitty, I’m going to get blamed for it. If it’s a success, it’s the Beatles. So I was in a no-win situation – and I like that. I’ll take the heat. But Bangladesh, John was going to be in the concert for Bangladesh. But there was a clash of personalities between John and George, about having Yoko do her thing, which is how the One to One concert eventually came to be. The show was tremendous anyway, but I think John would have made a big difference in the show. George needed confidence. He needed the Beatle. But when the Bangladesh concert took place, he stood adamant against John. I wanted John in the worst way on the show. But George had already had his big success. It was his charity. It was his gig, and there was no way George was going to give in to John at all. So after 1971-72, John was John, George was George, there was nothing interwoven. George didn’t play on the albums, the New York City album, or any of that.

But that album, All Things Must Pass, really made George a human being – artistically, politically and every other way. And it gave him the balls, in so many words, to tell John, go fuck yourself. It’s my show. And John the same thing with George. It’s my album. Play what we ask you to play. We’re not going to spend three days on this solo. This ain’t “Here Comes the Sun,” it ain’t any of your bullshit, it’s my album. And, of course, at the time with George’s album, problems were going on with his wife. Whereas with John, just the opposite -- everything was beautiful, harmonious. It was all over London about Patti seeing Eric. And it was just uncomfortable to hear this. So everything about the two guys was completely, diametrically opposite. As opposite as you can be. John was political, George wasn’t. Harmonious marriage – John was, George wasn’t. John was very sure of himself, George completely unsure. And so it was a real challenge.

Harrison at the Concert for Bengladesh, 1971

Vic Morrow

When John came to America, his greatest thrill of meeting anyone was Vic Morrow – Teach, in Blackboard Jungle. “Hey, Teach.” I was good friends with Vic, rest his soul, and we went up to his little house up on the hill and John was just enamored. It was like meeting Shakespeare.

“Teach,” “Hi, Teach,” “How ya doin’, Teach?” I mean, John used to dress like [he was in Blackboard Jungle]. We went up to his house, a little cabin up on the hill, and we played with him all night long. Vic played organ – not very well, but for John it was a kick just to be with Teach from The Blackboard Jungle all night. He didn’t care about Warren Beatty or any of those fucking people. He just loved Vic.

How Do You Sleep

I knew "How Do You Sleep" was [makes knife thrusting gesture] to Paul. There’s no question that How Do You Sleep was meant to be a shot, and John acknowledged it at the time. We used to talk about it, and joke about it. “Wait till the fucker hears it.”

 

Paul, having seen him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, he’s probably the most commercial person ever. He’s more like Irving Berlin than anyone. This stuff just oozes out of him, this commerciality, these “Yesterday”’s. When “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” was named Song of the Century, “Yesterday” was number two [makes knife-thrusting gesture] – I got in a little shot there at Paul. We made up, we’re friends right now.

I don’t know what John and Paul had in common, other than they liked each other, and were attracted to each other and all that Leopold and Loeb nonsense [laughter]. I never got him and Paul, not at all. John withstood being around people a lot longer than I would. He tolerated people longer than I did. At the Rock and Roll sessions, you really found out the people… like he couldn’t take to Leon Russell at all. He didn’t take to Dr. John -- oh, he hated him. “Get that fucking guy away from me, Phil – him and his gold tooth.” I’d say, “You know, John, he’s just trying to be friendly. He’s a great piano player.”

Added strings to Paul’s songs

Yeah, he sent me the nastiest telegram at that time, “How dare you fuck with my records” – and then he uses them in his own arrangements. It was a family squabble – it was a civil war. Any police officer will tell you, the worst kind of squabble you want to get involved in is a civil dispute, because the wife will call up against the husband and then hit you over the head with a frying pan for taking her husband off to jail, and vice versa. This was a civil war. The lawyers were in. The accountants were in. The creative people were in, and it was like a war zone. Everybody was shooting at everybody else. George was shooting at John. John was shooting at Paul. Paul was shooting at John. It was all that.

To me, though, I thought it was a terrific time. There was great fire in the air. A great amount of talent. Everybody was doing better and better and better. Even Ringo was doing a lot better. He was focusing on his music. He started to take himself seriously. And Ringo, as far as playing, he was like a metronome. No matter what you put in front of him, he’s consistent. It never changes. He’s the most amazing drummer in that sense that I’ve ever known. His ability to keep time is unparalleled. It never, ever changes. He’s never off. I don’t know what it is. It’s like perfect pitch, it’s something you have. He’s just got this thing that is just amazing.

Conversations with John and others about Spector’s own stuff

John was a little intimidated about that -- how I would react to his voice. When we went into the studio to do “Instant Karma,” John was afraid to sing. Then he came in [the control room], and I put the tape back on, and he said, “It’s just like Sun Records.” When I heard John say that, it relaxed me. He knew from that point on that I knew how to record his voice. That was very important.

George was very, what’s the word I’m looking for, intimidated, if you like, by “River Deep, Mountain High.” He called it the greatest record ever made, and George didn’t know how he fit into that kind of production. Yet, if you listen to [All Things Must Pass], George really wanted that big sound. “My Sweet Lord” is huge. It’s like eight rhythm guitars, three pianos, two basses. He loved that big sound. George had a very thin voice, but he figured with me and the production and the song, there would be so much going in his favor, he could do it.

Also, they would always ask, How did you do the Christmas album? The whole thing about “Happy Christmas” was “I wanted to make one Christmas record with you, Phil, because it would’ve fucking killed me not to.” And he wrote a great song, a terrific song. John was very aware of everything I did. And, of course, he loved Ronnie’s voice. He wanted the tremolo -- he wanted all that stuff. He wanted to be able to do that. He didn’t want to get caught in that Beatle rut. He didn’t want just another Beatles record. He wanted to make a statement by himself. That’s what intrigued me about working with them, they wanted to do something separate, not to be remembered as the Fab Four. That was a thing of the past.

What kind of impact did the Beatles have on you?

I met them in ’63. I was very impressed with their writing. I wasn’t impressed with their records, but I was very impressed with their writing. I heard a lot of Cole Porter, a lot of Gershwin, a lot of brilliant things. I would listen to everything that came out, Motown or whatever, just to hear what was doing, what was going on. So I listened to them the same way, objectively.

They had a major impact, because there would be ten top ten records, and they would have eight of them [laughs]. You couldn’t very well ignore that. You had to listen to it. Beatlemania was in force. But, and I told this to John, they were still second to Elvis to me. Elvis still was the King. My idea was to bring Elvis and John together – that would have been an incredible meeting. And then Elvis passes on. And then in 1980, John was gone. It never materialized, obviously, and we never got to work together again. But we would have. We would have.

When Imagine was done, did you know what you had?

I knew that it was a very definitive statement. I was determined to make a number one album with him because I believed he was that good and he deserved it. I made that album like each cut was a single. I was that adamant about it being perfect. Regardless of the content of the music– “Gimme Some Truth” or “Jealous Guy” -- I knew that this was right and this was where John should be.

And we would not have been there had we not made Plastic Ono Band first. That album was not only his life and Yoko’s, it was mine. “Isolation” – I still live that way. It still tears me up every time – “We’re afraid of everyone/Afraid of the sun/Isolation.” That tore me to pieces.

What John needed was an editor. That’s what they would do with the Beatles. They’d edit each other. And they didn’t have anybody any more, so I filled that gap. He couldn’t turn to Paul and say, “What do you think here?” And George couldn’t turn to John. They didn’t have that family any more. It was like a divorce. All the cooking, all the things you used to do together, you don’t do any more. So who’s the new cook? Who’s taking care of the kids? It was all new. My job was to take that off them, so they always had somebody to bounce things off. And John did do that. “What do you think of this?” “What do you think of that?” Which meant to me that he was used to asking, that he liked feedback. He figured I was the best at what I did and I could tell him. We worked well that way.

Strip down on Plastic Ono Band

It was a psychoanalysis. It was an analyst’s view of what John was going through. I identified so much with the album, I couldn’t help but get absorbed in it. I didn’t go to the doctor with them, which Yoko asked occasionally for me to do, but I picked them up outside the building. I lived right up the street at the time in Beverly Hills, and the doctor was around the corner from me, so I picked them up a couple of times from there. I knew that was going to be a hard album to digest. But John, when he came up with Imagine, he said, “Well, it’s time to make something commercial.”

Go back to a more elaborate production on Imagine

That’s the catharsis that never took place with George. That’s why in my opinion he never had a great deal of success thereafter – or not until 15 years later. Because George was still George, while John had made a tremendous change. He had gone through a catharsis. He had shed the old skin. He got it out of his system. While that doctor may have been a “ripoff,” I don’t know, Landy – not Landy, that was Brian Wilson [laughter]. Janov. Landy was Brian Wilson’s therapist – another one.

 

Landy brought Brian Wilson to the house once. Brian would say something, and Landy would tell me what Brian was saying. I said, Does Brian speak English? Why do you interpret for him?

Then the next time I saw Landy, which was like six months later, I said, “A lot of people could accuse you of being a rip-off.” And he said to me, You know, without me, Brian would never have lost 175 pounds.

I said, He was that big?

He said, He was over 300 pounds. He was eating and he was on drugs -- the food took the place of the drugs. He said, “Without me, he never would have lost 175 pounds.”

I said, “Weight Watchers would have charged him $39.95. Why are you getting half of his income?” [laughs] And the next time I saw him was at Hal Blaine’s book party. There was Dr. Landy with purple hair. Purple hair with a streak down it – he got carried away.

Janov might have been that, I don’t know. I don’t know how Yoko feels about him now. At the time, I thought he was a con man. I thought he was taking advantage of John and Yoko. But, again, the songs.

Where was he when he heard John had been killed

I was at home. I got a call. That was something that never should have happened. It never should have happened. John didn’t believe in any kind of security. He became much more trusting. Much more carefree. I don’t know whether it was New York, or just not being a Beatle and not being under scrutiny anymore, I don’t know. I guess in his last years, he became very forgiving and accepting.

You know, we were on Hinckley’s list. He rewrote the song “Oh Yoko” to Jodi Foster. He called it “Oh, Jodi.” He had my name, Yoko’s name, John’s name on a list of people. Now, what he intended to do with that list of people, I don’t know. The FBI found it.

I was shocked, but I was not totally surprised [about John’s death]. He’d stop and talk and listen to people. And a lot of these people were like the nut who killed him – “You wrote the song about me.” They’re like crazy fan letters. Who wants to talk to those people? You don’t want to sit and have a conversation with them. But it kind of shows you, while they hated being the Beatles, they also missed it. They missed the adoration. John missed that rapport. John did miss the hoopla and the crowds and the concerts.

It’s partly that he lived so much of his life since ‘57-’58 doing it. When we were running around out here [in LA], we could have gotten into a lot of serious trouble. The late Harry Nilsson, I loved hi