The echo of an echo
It was during the sessions for John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” at New York’s Record Plant studio in October 1971 that Phil Spector showed me how he procured the characteristic string sound that hung like a silver mist over so many of his finest records. The secret, he said, was to send the signal to an echo chamber, and to use only the echo, not the primary signal, in the final mix. By robbing the strings of their attack, the trick lent his records, from the Paris Sisters onwards, an air of diaphanous romanticism. In some of them, too, it was used to counterpoint the ferocious pounding of a rhythm section that, by the mid-’60s, had grown to gargantuan proportions.
Nowhere was this more perfectly achieved than in the Ronettes’ “Born to Be Together”, to my mind the greatest of the recordings by the sisters Veronica and Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley, even though it became the first of their Philles singles to fail to make the US Top 50 on its release in the summer of 1965. (In her autobiography, Ronnie Spector accuses Phil of failing to promote the group’s career because he did not want his wife-to-be to become too famous, although it seems just as likely that, after “Be My Baby”, “Baby I Love You”, “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”, “Do I Love You” and “Walking in the Rain”, the public was growing a little weary of their distinctive sound.)
The song gives its name to the latest release in Ace Records’ invaluable Songwriter series: Born to Be Together: The Songs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Remastered here with greater warmth and richness than versions on the earlier ABKCO or Sony anthologies of Ronettes recordings (although not, of course, with the bite of the original US vinyl 45), it remains one of Spector’s unacknowledged masterpieces, particularly notable for the way the producer and his arranger, Jack Nitzsche, withhold the drums — probably Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer in tandem, by the sound of it — through the verses before bringing them crashing in for the chorus. Above their hammering, the strings sound simply celestial. Listen, too, for the way Ronnie applies her dramatic vibrato to the final syllable of each line — and, in the case of the climactic appearance of the word “together”, to the second and fourth syllables. That’s proper singing.
For this album, a second helping of Mann/Weil compositions to follow 2009’s Glitter and Gold, the compiler Mick Patrick also plunders the Spector archives for the Crystals’s “Uptown”, the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” and Dion’s “Make the Woman Love Me”. I’m particularly grateful for Doris Day’s “Love Him” (destined to become “Love Her” in the hands of the Walker Brothers), Ruby and the Romantics’ charming “We’ll Love Again”, Dusty Springfield’s “I Wanna Make You Happy” (although I marginally prefer Margaret Mandolph’s version of this lovely Titelman/Weil song) and Len Barry’s “You Baby”. And just as Glitter and Gold reintroduced me to the Vogues’s glorious “Magic Town”, so the second volume provides a reminder of how much I always liked Slade’s “Shape of Things to Come”, a dynamic slice of quasi-psychedelic youthquake proto-punk produced in 1970 by Chas Chandler before the Black Country quartet started writing their own material and getting famous.