Every Christmas, there’s something I love more than anything, beyond the Mariah Careys, Michael Bublés and Motown classics that populate every holiday playlist. While driving across icy roads and struggling to maintain control over my car, while trying to walk through eight inches of snowfall in shoes that should only be worn in the summer, to listen to the Christmas sounds of a convicted murderer.

Let me explain.

Phil Spector is, unfortunately, a huge influence on the development of pop music. If you somehow don’t know him for his work on The Beatles’ Let It Be and John and George’s solo work, you know him for his production on ’60s girl-group classics like “Then He Kissed Me” and “Be My Baby.”

Spector’s technique is perhaps best exemplified by George Harrison’s “Wah-Wah,” from All Things Must Pass. By layering instrument upon instrument — many of which played the exact same notes — Spector produced his trademark “Wall of Sound,” a powerful aesthetic that carried songs by sheer force. On “Wah-Wah,” Harrison’s defiant, angry voice is surrounded on all sides by guitars, percussion and horns, creating a crashing wave of music that pummels and energizes the listeners. Similarly, over 20 musicians reportedly took part in the recording of “Be My Baby,” resulting in the simple, catchy melody turning into an all-time classic by a lush, complex orchestra whose percussion snaps along to the beat and whose strings glide underneath Ronnie Spector’s beautiful vocals.

Spector also helped record my favorite Christmas album of all time, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector. It’s a compilation of classic Christmas songs performed by Spector-affiliated groups like The Ronettes and The Crystals, backed by the Wall of Sound. A Christmas Gift For You is everything that holiday music should be — upbeat, fun and easy to sing along to. But , thanks mostly to Spector, it’s also extremely musically advanced. His arrangements combine classic girl-group tropes (the “ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding” backing vocals in “Sleigh Ride”) with intricate string and percussion parts, giving the songs layers of greatness.

A Christmas Gift For You also features one of the best Christmas songs ever cut. Darlene Love, the record’s best vocal asset, sings “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the album’s only original song. Theatrical and impassioned, Love’s incredible powerful voice soars above the bells and strings and backing vocals. It’s a shout of despair that somehow sounds triumphant, as Love through sheer force of will impresses and energizes listeners.

Although Spector influenced The Beach Boys and The Beatles (and, by extension, practically everyone involved in pop music from the ’60s on), he was also batshit crazy. He locked Leonard Cohen out of the studio while the two were working on Death of a Ladies’ Man and reportedly threatened the singer-songwriter with a crossbow. Rumor has it he held The Ramones hostage at gunpoint while he and the group worked on End of the Century. But the worst of Spector’s actions, obviously, is his 2003 murder of singer Lana Clarkson, a crime that he was convicted of in 2009 and for which he is still serving a sentence of 19 years to life.

And that’s why you should never listen to the A Christmas Gift For You’s last track, “Silent Night.” Spector talks over sugary, sappy strings playing the old Christmastime standard, thanking the listener and the groups on the record with really wordy, awkwardly phrased sentences, speaking in his delicate voice that just sounds slightly off, probably because you know this is the voice of insanity. It’s slow and quiet enough to put you to sleep, but I’d recommend keeping one eye open. The track will make your skin crawl every time.

When I’m listening to the joyous sounds of A Christmas Gift For You, I sometimes snap out of it. I realize how awful the person who created this great music is. I want to think about the context and eschew the R. Kellys and the Ariel Pinks and all the horrible people who make music. But somehow, the spirit of Christmas overwhelms everything else. The crazy thing about pop music is how it can simplify our lives, fill our minds with a rush of pleasure and allow us to forget everything else. I usually take issue with the phrase, “Turn off your brain,” but in the case of Phil Spector, maybe that’s not the worst thing. Maybe, in this case, it’s OK to sit around the fire and turn on classic holiday music, focusing on just the music and what it means to us personally.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.