Walls of Sound

Pop this week, as Brit unleashes a quintet of songs in which everything is louder than everything else…

One recent Sunday morning I caught the above song by Ren Harvieu on Radio 2 (Aled Jones’ programme, I often listen to it on the way to my weekly 5-a-side matches, his mix of quasi-spiritual chat ‘n’ pop provides a nice counterpoint to the sweary violence of the football that follows (it’s Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs on the way back, and there, dear reader, I draw the line)) – and I instantly recognised Open Up Your Arms as one of those swooning showstoppers that Shirley Bassey would have bashed you to death with a stiletto for. It’s a one-listen job: halfway through the first chorus you’re wondering where you’ve heard it before, by the second you’re humming it, grip tightening on the steering wheel, and by the third you’re howling along as hot tears spurt.

Subsequent googling revealed this jackpot of a pop tune to have been penned by Dave McCabe, formerly of entertaining Scouse band The Zutons. He also wrote Valerie, smash hit for the late Amy Winehouse – she being at the raw end of a slew of British songstresses including Adele, Duffy and Florence, whose cross-generational success proves the enduring appeal of the gigantic soul song, of the swelling string section or the motown swing, of the vulnerable female vocal that can fill a concert hall. (Incidentally, Adele’s astonishing commercial success in particular surely blows out of the water the music industry’s complaint about the disappearing market for albums. It’s still there but it’s middle-aged, and the industry’s bone-headed tactics of aiming marketing efforts solely at penniless, pirating youths are the real problem.)

Doubtless Ms Harvieu and her producers were more than a little grateful when McCabe presented this composition, for songs like Open Up Your Arms don’t grow on trees and it must be said they’ve done it justice, with a proper Wall of Sound-style arrangement. The trick there is to do it straight: big, direct, unashamed drama with no chickening out and no irony. If the song’s right it will work every time. Consider the Ronettes

Be My Baby (1963) can be considered the template for the Wall of Sound technique as devised by convicted murderer Phil Spector at his Gold Star Studios in LA in the 1960s (he being living incarcerated proof that an aesthetic gift does not necessarily bespeak a beautiful soul). It was essentially a studio methodology, which involved using big electric and acoustic ensembles captured by microphones and transmitted into a specially equipped basement echo chamber, the resulting sound fed back into the studio and recorded. Spector’s records, all mono (he hated stereo) sounded awesome on AM radio frequencies.

Spector was notorious for burying the lead solo vocal very low in the mix (it was said that he wanted the songs to be “all about him” rather than the performer). This was not true of subsequent Wall of Sound-style producers such as Jimmy Franz. But then when you’ve got a voice like Scott Walker’s at your disposal, you won’t want to hide it. Here’s one of my favourites from The Walker Brothers. First Love Never Dies (1965) is not one of their big hits, but the sound is magnificent and, like the best big numbers, it delivers a direct punch to the emotional solar plexus….

Spector and Franz’s Walls of Sound were very much studio edifices. Recreating the everything-louder-than-everything-else sound live while maintaining coherence is not so easy but nonetheless plenty of acts have had a go. I suppose in the heady, profligate boom years of mid-1990s Britpop, people thought nothing of hiring and rehearsing an army of musicians just to play a couple of songs on Jools Holland. That anyway is what McAlmont and Butler did. Bernard Butler, ex of Suede, is a songwriter steeped in the Spector sound (and is the man behind the success of Duffy). David McAlmont is a vocalist with a three-octave range, and therefore one of the few capable of belting out Butler’s swooping compositions. Pity they hated each other, having only two hits together plus an album of filler, before splitting. But what hits! Here’s the splendid Yes..

From Jools Holland to David Letterman. Montreal collective Arcade Fire are an interesting band, with an offbeat take on the live Wall of Sound. The stage is like the music room of a weird German Schloss – cellos, French horns, accordians, violas, glockenspiels – all blasting away at once to thrilling effect. From 2004, Rebellion (Lies)  is a song about (I think) children staying awake all night…

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

3 thoughts on “Walls of Sound

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    May 20, 2012 at 10:26

    Manna from heaven dear boy. Picture if you will a balmy August night, the Purley way, crowds, the hostelries emptying and the male of the species heading to that magnet for the nineteen sixty four willy wavers, the dance hall. The jewel in Mecca’s crown, The Orchid Ballroom, Ray Mcvay and Orchestra, that evenings guests, Georgie Fame and the Blueflames. As we piled through the doors the hedonistic miasma washed over us like a tsunami. It was the era of the mini skirt, hundreds of them, all hormones correctly aligned, the ratio of three burds for every two blokes an absolutely sublime piece of math, as we joined the throng the strains of Yeh-Yeh ended, the orchestra, complete with backing chanteuse struck up…..Be My Baby, man, the symbolism was so heavy you could cut it with a knife.

    I ended the evening in a very pleasant apartment in Carshalton, somewhere close to the ponds…Banstead, over a travel agents…Epsom, next door to Kent Walton…I think? ah, the analogue era, long since gone and sorely missed

  2. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    May 20, 2012 at 11:07

    Ah Malty, Malty- that certainly took me back…
    And a great wall of walls of sound Brit – one of the towering achievements of pop music I’d say. Another fave is Ike and Tine and Phil’s Love Like Yours – know it? And what about the mighty rock wall of sound exemplified by Velvets’ Sister Ray? Didn’t get much of that down the Orchid…

  3. Brit
    May 20, 2012 at 20:49

    Great comments chaps. Who knew what a key role Carshalton would play in the Dabbler?

    I nearly stuck Ike and Tina’s River Deep in there as few songs have attained that gigantic size through the arrangement, but in the end wanted to go for some less obvious stuff.

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