The Era

That a new style of soul music, differentiated from other styles by a wall of sound, could emerge in the wake of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” should not be surprising. Phil Spector had already transformed the sound of girl group records, leading to many imitations of his productions for the Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. With these singers, he had also revolutionized another genre of popular music.

At the end of his album, A Christmas Gift For You, Spector speaks in his own voice of his “endeavor and desire to bring something new and different to the music of Christmas and to the recording industry.” In the liner notes he wrote for the album, Spector is part defensive and part celebratory about what he has done.

“Can Twelve Great Christmas Songs be treated with the same excitement as is the original pop material of today; sung by four of the greatest pop artists in the country; produced with the same feeling and sound that is found on the hit singles of these artists, without losing for a moment the feeling of Christmas, and without destroying or invading the sensitivity and the beauty that surrounds all of the great Christmas music? Until now, perhaps not! But I am quite sure that after you listen to this album you will agree that the answers to these questions are found in every groove of this album….Because Christmas is so American it is therefore time to take the great Christmas music and give it the sound of the American music of today….”

Because people now are used to hearing (and buying) Christmas chestnuts recorded in a pop music style, Spector’s defensiveness might be puzzling to the modern listener. Whether by his intent or a coincidence, it is noteworthy that A Christmas Gift For You leads off with Darlene Love’s high-octane performance of “White Christmas.” Only few years earlier, in 1957, Irving Berlin, the song’s composer, mounted a campaign to ban from the airwaves Elvis Presley’s version because, even as restrained as it was, it veered too far away from Bing Crosby’s button-down standard.

However, the times were a-changin’, and although it didn’t happen overnight, A Christmas Gift For You has become a classic album. Nowadays after Thanksgiving, every song can be heard at one time or another while one is shopping at a supermarket or in a mall. Spector’s radical re-interpretations of Christmas songs established a new standard for the generation that came after Berlin and Crosby.

Of course, what Spector meant by “the sound of the American music today” was not just rock n’ roll or soul music, but also wall of sound music, his music. In just a few years, from 1962-1966, he had upended that segment of the music industry that was oriented toward radio hits.

However, the kinds of songs he chose to produce with the wall of sound fundamentally changed during this time. Most of his girl group records and the Christmas album were made before Kennedy’s death. In fact, A Christmas Gift For You was released the day the president was killed. The album’s relatively weak sales were not so much due to the never-before-heard arrangements but because its unbridled upbeat tone was at odds with the public mood. (The exception was Darlene Love’s historic “Christmas [Baby, Please Come Home.”])

The Christmas album marked the end of Spector’s exclusive use of the wall of sound on girl groups. The following year, 1964, he wound down his work with the Ronettes and turned his attention to the Righteous Brothers. Now he was making the wall of sound work for soul music. Two years later he took his own creation, Spector soul, to an entirely higher level with his uber-productions on the Ike and Tina Turner album, River Deep Mountain High.

Although Spector soul songs sound different because of their heavy production, the recurrence in the lyrics of the pain of love is in keeping with countless songs in other pop music styles that came after “Lovin’ Feelin’.” These songs may be famous or obscure, dark or even light, such as Herman’s Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” (1965) or The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall” (1966). Songs about the pain of love markedly spike at this time, not just in Spector soul but also other kinds of pop music, such as Motown.

In his book, Motown (Collier Books, 1972, p. 104), David Morse charts the changes in the mid-60s in the main themes of songs by one of that label’s most successful groups. “The Four Tops began their recording career with songs that are relatively simple and cheerful and are concerned with the need for love, but gradually this modulates into a greater concern with isolation and loneliness.”

Morse identifies the following three themes and their respective years:

I. Need for Love — 1964-5 — “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” “Something About You,” “I Can’t Help Myself”

II. Loneliness — 1965-7 — “It’s The Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love”

III. Dream, Illusion — 1966-9 — “Seven Rooms Of Gloom,” “Shake Me, Wake Me,” “Yesterday’s Dreams”

This periodization shows that the transition in the songs by the Four Tops was from the happiness of love to the pain of love. Furthermore, the shift occurred when pop songs about the pain of love were not only more and more frequently recorded but also when they reached historic commercial and aesthetic success. For example, critics have chosen some of these songs as among the very best in modern pop music.

In 1999, the performing-rights organization Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) ranked Spector’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” as having had more radio and television play in the United States than any other song during the 20th century. It was ranked #9 among the Songs of the Century by RIAA and #34 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.

Based on a dream of a melody that he had in early 1964, Paul McCartney started working on a song that he would not complete until the middle of the following year. During those many months what kept McCartney from finishing the song was the lack of lyrics. Finally, in May 1965, he wrote melancholy verses about a girlfriend who had walked out on the singer.

McCartney’s pain-of-love masterpiece, “Yesterday,” has had thousands of cover versions, was ranked third in BMI’s list of most played songs, was voted in 1999 the best song of the 20th century in a BBC Radio 2 poll of music experts and listeners, and the following year was voted the #1 pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone.

In the long interim between McCartney’s dreaming the melody and finally recording “Yesterday,” heartbreak over failed romance had become a primary theme for songwriters on both sides of the pond. It is little wonder that McCartney ultimately penned a story that was being similarly told throughout the Anglo-American pop music world.

Furthermore, “Yesterday” is among the majority of songs on the soundtrack for the Beatles’ second film, Help, that are about romantic breakups, which have either already occurred or are threatening to happen. Help was released in July 1965, and the lyrical contrast with the songs in Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, released in July 1964, could not be more striking. In fact, the title song for each film represents the difference between the dominant themes in the two soundtracks. First, there is a lot of love, and then there is not.

In May 1966, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, which has been listed as the #1 album by The Times (London), New Musical Express and Mojo magazine. Rolling Stone ranked it #2 in the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Although the opening song, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” says, “Happy times we’ve been spending, I wish that every kiss was never ending,” Pet Sounds closes with one of the most despondent songs of the era, whose title includes the name of late president’s daughter.

Could I ever find in you again
Things that made me love you so much then
Could we ever bring ’em back once they have gone
Oh, Caroline no

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