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Spector's ghost

Music | Record producer's recent crime haunts the anniversary reissue of his recordings

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

In what's either a most audacious oldies-marketing strategy or an instance of a music company's shooting itself in the foot, Sony's Legacy label has teamed with Phil Spector Records to reissue the vintage recordings of-who else?-Phil Spector, the legendary record producer currently doing time for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson.

On one level, such a campaign was inevitable. The monophonic Wall of Sound that Spector perfected was, after all, pop music's single most identifiable and influential audio phenomenon between the years that Elvis Presley entered the army and the Beatles launched the British Invasion, and 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of his first No. 1 hit, the Crystals' "He's a Rebel."

The campaign is also welcome. Although the 19 cuts on Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector 1961-1966 and the 18 cuts on Be My Baby: The Very Best of the Ronettes offer little if anything new to owners of 1991's Back to Mono: 1958-1969 box set, the other two discs in Legacy's roll out-Da Doo Ron Ron: The Very Best of the Crystals, and The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love-blow the sands of time off plenty of unjustly neglected girl-group treasures.

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But, on another level, the campaign is macabre, the musical equivalent, say, of ESPN's deciding to market an O.J. Simpson highlights reel on the 50th anniversary of the Juice's winning the Heisman in 2018.

Granted, the situations are not identical. Unlike Simpson, Spector made his mark behind the scenes, more like a "coach," as it were. So it's possible, if not always easy, to enjoy his music without thinking about him. "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "River Deep, Mountain High" are as much celebrations of the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner, respectively, as they are of Spector's hit-sensitive ears.

And, no matter what dark thoughts may have been forming in Spector's mind at the time (stories of his obsession with guns go way back), there's no denying that "Be My Baby," "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry," and nearly everything else that Spector released remain songs of innocence beside which today's songs of experience (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, et al.) sound depressingly meretricious.

Eventually, though, the Ghost of Spector Present comes a-haunting. If Legacy deserves credit for defying 21st-century over-sensitivity and including 1962's "He Hit Me (It Felt like a Kiss)" on the Crystals' best-of, it also deserves the reduced sales that may result from the queasiness induced by the song's inadvertent connotations.

Perhaps the most famous, and obvious, legatee of Spector's approach is the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, whose lost masterpiece, Smile, is, 44 years after its initial due date, finally slated for release later this year. Until it comes out, however, tracers of Spector's influence can satisfy themselves with Dancing Backward in High Heels (429 Records), the latest album by the New York Dolls.

Unlike the other music the Dolls have released since David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain reformed the group seven years ago, Dancing Backward downplays the trash-punk aesthetic for which the band became notorious in favor of what can only be called Johansen's street-tough singing and the absence of any female vocals, a '60s girl-group vibe. Only on their version of the 1962 Bluebelles/Starlets hit "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" do the Dolls evoke the tradition overtly, but it's easy to imagine all the tracks being covered by the Crystals, Ronettes, or Darlene Love.

Well, all but the 25-second "Fabulous Rant," in which Johansen besmirches an otherwise delightful album with language that's fit for a junkman indeed.

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