Of all of Phil Spector’s productions in his halycon period (1960 – 65), this one probably symbolises his contradictions best. Gorgeous melodies and seductive vocals are played off against dark unsettling lyrics to produce a record not of its time or really of any other. Unlike most ‘controversial’ records of the 1960s which now seem tame by today’s standards, this still makes for uncomfortable listening. It stood out from its contemporaries not only lyrically but also musically. While most other records of the day were upbeat and made for teenagers to dance to, Spector was already developing a penchent for slower, funereal numbers. Quite apart from the wall of sound that has been well-documented, Spector was beginning to stand out as a producer who did things his way and was not one to pander to the requirements of the music establishment.
The song was not written by Spector, although, as with many of his productions, he added his name to the writing credits at the end, thus ensuring for himself another slice of publishing royalties. It was written by the prolific song-writing duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who were then husband and wife. The inspiration for the lyrics came from their babysitter, Eva Boyd (who later carved out her own pop career performing under the name Little Eva) who arrived at the couple’s home sporting bruises that had been administered by her boyfriend. When quizzed about it, she said that he had only done it because he loved her. For the writers, this was not a song that glorified domestic violence but one that illustrated the terrible deceptive nature of abuse in which the perpetrator justifies his actions as an unavoidable extension of his passion, for which the victim should somehow be grateful. This may have been their take on it, but it was hard to see most of middle America interpreting it in such a way, and the danger was that thousands of teenage girls, the unmistakable market for these records, would accept the implicit association of violence and romance. Unsurprisingly DJs refused to play it while music publications refused to advertise it and in June 1962, Spector’s label Philles were forced to pull the plug on it. The Crystals themselves disowned the recording, lead singer Barbara Alston stating it was “absolutely, positively, the one record that none of us liked”. Spector’s biographer, Mick Brown, writes that “with its over-heated production and melodramatic string arrangement, it sounds almost comically kitsch by today’s standards” but in this he is wrong. He Hit Me is one of Spector’s finest productions, starting with a hypnotic bass line accented by delicate singular percussive hits, the song builds and builds, adding walls of percussion, gorgeous rising strings and haunting vocal harmonies. It may be melodramatic, but only as all great pop songs should be, and easy listening it certainly ain’t.
‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector’ is a meticulously researched biography. Whilst it pulls no punches in revealing Spector’s warped persona and the sociopathic tendencies that hastened his downfall, it also reminds the reader just why Spector became the most in-demand record producer of his generation in the early 1960s. At the time the music industry viewed the production of pop records as a conveyer belt, churning out as many as possible in the shortest possible space of time, in the knowledge that most would flop but some would make them a huge amount of money, the ‘see what sticks’ mentality. Pop music, or rock n roll as it it was more widely known then, was largely seen as a fad that would disappear as quickly as it emerged, and therefore one that should be capitalised on as much as possible before it was wiped from the mainstream radar. Spector saw it differently. He knew a rock n roll record could be a thing of enduring beauty, as timeless and important as a Beethoven sonata, and he built them to last. When he had finished his work with the Righteous Brothers on You’ve Lost that lovin’ Feelin’, his label agents had to literally pin DJs to the wall and force them to listen to the record properly; most had already dismissed it as too long and unconventional. As a promoter of that time told Brown, “Phil’s music required undivided attention, and not everybody could understand that”. In the UK, the Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, understood what it was Spector was trying to do and took out an advert in the British music papers, announcing You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ as “Spector’s greatest production, the Last Word in Tomorrow’s Sound Today, exposing the overall mediocrity of the music industry”, a sentiment which, almost 50 years on, might still be expressed today.