In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: songs by unsavory people.
Whether you believe Phil Spector killed Lana Clarkson on the night of February 3, 2003—and it’s worth noting a majority of two separate juries think he did—there’s enough on public record to paint Spector as an ill-tempered man with a history of gunplay. One night of recording the Ramones’ End Of The Century ended with Spector pulling a pistol on Dee Dee or Johnny (accounts vary). Leonard Cohen talks of the sessions for Death Of A Ladies’ Man as if they took place within an armory. Also, this photo is the only image of Spector that got more play during the Clarkson trials than that snapshot of the songwriter and producer dressed as a member of the Hair Bear Bunch.
But it’s also undeniable that no one taps into the romantic swell of a pop song like Spector at his peak. That could very well be due to the emotional highs that prompt him to do terrible things. Spector clearly felt an empathy with the wide-eyed teenaged narrators of his biggest productions—and if you want to get really presumptuous about “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” he might have even recognized a part of himself in the song’s subject. Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and originally recorded by The Crystals, Spector casts the song’s conflicting sentiments in a fitting clash of musical ideas: The record is skeletal, but lush, mournful, and rapturous. It’s one of the most misguided recordings of the girl-group era and one of its best. Following his murder conviction, it’s difficult to reconcile the darkness within Spector with the beauty he cultivated in the recording studio. “Be My Baby” and “Then He Kissed Me” are documents of pure pop bliss, the all-consuming rush of first love pressed into 7 inches of vinyl. “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” represents the dark flip side of that feeling and the ugliness that Spector was uniquely capable of turning into something hauntingly listenable.