Made for Mono: Phil Spector Vinyl Reissues Explored

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lp5411-vinyl-scanMany early rock and pop recordings were designed for listening on vinyl long-playing records in mono, especially those made by legendary producer and hit maker Phil Spector. Here we take a look at some of the great reissues from Sundazed Records, who have resurrected four previously hard-to-find classics in a form that arguably surpass the original pressings.

Unless you have access to the actual master takes, playing a pristine mono LP on a good turntable is the best way to enjoy certain recordings. The problem is, so many of these old mono recordings made in the ’50s and early ’60s are hard to obtain in good enough condition to truly appreciate the beauty of what went into their making.  Sure you can enjoy the songs, but much production nuance is often lost to surface noise inherent in the old, well-played pressings.

Such is the case with the seminal LPs produced by Phil Spector, recordings that were made with an impeccable level of loving care, primarily designed for the singles market. When it came to albums, however, they (perplexingly) often cut corners and used the cheapest of vinyl options available, resulting in pressings that were noisy even when in perfect condition. Albums were of lower priority thank the singles that made up the majority of sales (and thus a reason why the original LPs are so hard to find, especially in good condition).

He's a Rebel by The Crystals, produced by Phil SpectorOver the years, Spector — who owned all his recordings and is arguably one of the early rock indie label owners — put his catalog through numerous reissue permutations, none particularly satisfying for the collector because they didn’t fully recreate the original cover art and such.

There was a nice four-CD box set out in the 1990s that is still a great place to start for many people who want all the hits plus some additional perspective on Spector’s creations, if you can find it on discount (it’s worth it for the booklet alone).  However, the sound is typical of early CD releases (fine for the car, not so much for your hi-fi system).  I have not heard the newer Spector box set, which seems to be coming down in price and reportedly boasts better sound, so perhaps that may be a good place for some of you to start.

lp5409-vinyl-scanBut let’s fast forward to where Sundazed Records comes to the rescue for us vinyl fans, with a wonderful reissue series that finally puts the Spector legacy recordings in proper perspective on lovely 180-gram, with (pretty much) near perfect recreations of the original packaging.  The cover art (while on thick oaktag, not old school cardboard) is beautifully printed and colorful.  The discs are thick and perfectly centered. And the vinyl is dead quiet — pressed at Quality Record Pressings — enabling the music to easily jump out of the grooves and through your speakers.

As always, the tunes are what really matter, and these recordings are arguably some of the most important in pop music, bridging the gap between the first wave of 1950s Doo Wop and Rock ‘n Roll and the British Invasion beginning around 1963 and ’64.

LP5408-Crystals-TwistUptown-MiniThe first LP Spector produced was by The Crystals, called Twist Uptown, released in 1962. This record, host to now-classic songs by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (“Uptown” a #13 hit!) and Spector himself (“There’s No Other Like My Baby” #20), was groundbreaking as it is the first appearance of Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” production style — rich orchestration with strings and horns, hot percussion, reverb for days, and tight harmonies. This was the sound that influenced (and continues to influence) generations of musicians from The Beach Boys to Bruce Springsteen to Fleet Foxes (and you kids thought they invented that dense reverb production style).  The album is also notable in that it was among the first mainstream pop records to feature the actual group singers — all African-American women — on the cover.

These Sundazed LP pressings are amazing. For the first time I’m really hearing the depth of the reverb and echo effects Spector used, especially on tracks like “Gee Whiz” (which uses the reverb on percussive — probably treated — piano to drive the rhythm of the song).  On some songs you can really feel the bass and drums kicking, a rarity on early rock records, which were not often close mic’d at the time.

As often happened back then, albums were repackaged to capitalize on surprise hit singles. Thus, when “He’s A Rebel” became a hit, Twist Uptown was re-sequenced, given a new cover art treatment (dropping some songs along the way).  Perhaps one might view this as a rip-off, but given the scarcity of the original pressing I’m guessing that the repackaging at the time intended to reach a wider audience that hadn’t purchased the album first time around. The re-sequenced album did not feature any original group members on the front cover, but a drawing of a motorcycle dude.

LP5411-Ronettes-miniThen there comes the players on these discs.  On the back of the album by Bob-B-Soxx and The Blue Jeans, we see a who’s-who listing of studio royalty who went on to become known as The Wrecking Crew, including: Steve Douglas on Sax, Glenn Campbell and Carol Kaye on Guitars, Leon Russell, Nino Tempo and Don Randi on Piano, and Hal Blaine on drums.  For this alone, these recordings are essential listening. If you are simply a fan of vintage rock and roll, and/or an aspiring musician-songwriter looking for inspiration and understanding of what came before Pro Tools and Garageband, this is pretty much ground zero.

Heck, this is the stuff that inspired Brian Wilson!

LP5410-Bob-B-Sox-miniThese albums generally go for about $20 a piece and are worth every penny.  I first dipped my toes in these waters a year or so ago when I got the Ronettes album (which I reviewed for Sound & Vision). More recently, I found the Bob-B-Soxx album on sale on Record Store Day down in Ventura, CA at Salzer’s Music.  I completed the set yesterday, using up a bit more of the gift certificate I’d been given at Amoeba Records for the other two.

However you tackle the process, you owe it to yourself to listen to this music and if possible get these lovingly produced pieces of music history.  You can’t lose on these new LP reissues. Visit your favorite music store or get them at Sundazed.

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  • Bonnie

    This article is the best. I find the music sublime and as I am in my mid sixties, recall it when it came out originally. I loved it then and I love it even more now. Phil Spector, as odd as he is and being incarcerated as he is, really foresaw something and I appreciate his work and that of the singers. Thanks, Phil.