Besides the musical and vocal quality of so many of these songs, how might the historical context have suited public reception for the themes in Spector soul and, thereby, reinforced the commercial consideration to write and record the songs?
In the stories, the singer does not explain why the love has gone wrong by making explicit accusations against the person he or she loves, such as about promiscuity or infidelity. Instead, mere assertions are made: the love affair is over; the lover is lost; or an obsession with the lover cannot be overcome.
Furthermore, the anguish that is established by the lyrics is aurally raised to a higher level through vocal intensity and a wall of sound. The cri de coeur in Spector soul is not only grippingly traumatic but also massively dramatic. Could these stories about the pain of love be displacements of other feelings widely shared by people, especially youth, in the mid-60s?
I suggest that the U.S. historical context for Spector soul developed during 1964, in the aftermath of Dallas, which was followed by a veritable onslaught of social and political crises and conflicts across the full spectrum of America’s domestic and foreign policies. JFK’s assassination marked a rupture in people’s lives and in the nation’s history.
After November 22, 1963, U.S. politics and society fairly spun out of control. For example, there were headlines about race riots (Philadelphia, 1964, and Watts, 1965) and the Vietnam War (the Gulf of Tonkin, 1964, and the escalation of troop deployment and bombing, 1965).
Furthermore, in a US News & World Report series,”The Most Consequential Elections in US History,” Kenneth T. Walsh recalls another reason the times were not only changing but were also unnerving in “Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964″ (Sept. 8, 2008).
“The 1964 campaign was also noteworthy because Democrats pioneered the kind of negativity that has become a staple of American politics ever since. They succeeded in scaring the country into opposing Goldwater, a conservative senator from Arizona who was portrayed as extremely far right and warlike. In one famous TV ad, the Johnson campaign showed a little girl in a flower-filled meadow. In the commercial, the girl suddenly looked up and a mushroom cloud appeared on the screen. Johnson’s voice was then heard saying “These are the stakes”—an obvious suggestion that Goldwater would blunder into a nuclear war. The ad was so effective that it ran only once on network television. More than that seemed overkill to Johnson and his handlers.”
An article in USA Today by Dan Nowicki, “‘Daisy Girl political ad still haunting 50 years later,” includes the (in)famous video (Sept. 7, 2014).
Racial conflagration, escalating militarization, nuclear annihilation — no wonder in mid-1964, P. F. Sloan wrote the song, “The Eve of Destruction,” and a year later Barry McGuire’s recording went to #1 in the US and #3 in the UK.
Spector soul songs came about as a sea change in society occurred. The songs rose up in 1965, crested in 1966 and declined by 1967. During those years there were major changes throughout popular music, as elsewhere in politics and culture.
Phil Spector was, in his own way, typical in shifting, in sound and lyrics, from the more adolescent Ronettes to the more adult Righteous Brothers. Furthermore, Spector’s post- “Lovin’ Feelin’” productions of the Ronettes went from the earlier girl group sound to Spector soul, such as “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” and “Is This What I Get For Loving You.”
Two other examples of the great changes in song writing and recording that happened in the mid-60s parallel those in Spector’s work. The Beatles went from A Hard Day’s Night (1964), to Help and Rubber Soul (1965) to Revolver (1966). The Beach Boys went from Shut Down Volume 2 and All Summer Long (1964) to Today and Summer Days And Summer Nights (1965) to Pet Sounds (1966).
The experiences of these famous recording artists were not, however, unique in the music business. Furthermore, what was taking place inside that business reflected and was in tune with broader social changes outside it.
Spector soul songs, therefore, may be considered as displacements of public anguish about the times. The mature — that is, downbeat — themes in the songs were “relevant” to a political-cultural movement in the mid-60s. In the aftermath of the end of the New Frontier’s great expectations, the young generation shifted toward a seriousness, which was called “commitment.”
Phil Spector, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, were representative of that generation who had earlier produced and consumed songs of innocence, such as “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Surfer Girl.”
I think it stands to reason that the historical context for the artists’ production and the public’s reception of Spector soul would have been the same as the context for those political-cultural changes.
Frank Rich, the Writer-at-Large on politics and culture for New York Magazine, has an interesting article about what was going on in the U.S. in 1964 — and how nearly every major topic is still relevant today — in the issue dated October 20, 2014. Rich’s piece corroborates my view that 1964 marks a darkening in American history. The article is posted on the New York Magazine website:
Rich mentions Jon Margolis’s The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 – The Beginning of the “Sixties” (William Morrow, 1999). Although Margolis names some novels, Broadway productions and television shows, he ignores pop music and how it, too, changes during the history recounted in his book.
A corrective to Margolis is Mark Kurlansky’s Ready for a Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem of a Changing America (Riverhead Books, 2013). It is much more than another telling of the Motown story. For example, starting with the assassination of President Kennedy, Kurlansky provides a fine analysis of the political and economic context in the U.S., as well as locally in Detroit, for the public reception, by whites and blacks, of Martha and the Vandellas’ masterpiece. An appendix, “Timeline of the Summer of 1964,” complements events I have cited above as the historical context for the pain of love in records of the mid-60s, as well as Spector soul.
The most comprehensive explanation of the historical context is James T. Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America (Basic Books, 2012). In my Thank-you’s page I assess how Patterson’s interpretation of change in pop music in the mid-60s relates to my perspective on Spector soul. (See: http://www.spectorsoul.com/thank-yous/)