excerpt from Girl Group section of Fever: How Rock Transforms Gender, 2005
…That Spector shaped his empire by singing metaphorically through women is only the first level of irony at work in his career. When he found his dream voice in Ronnie Spector, he immediately went about building a sound around her. (The second level of irony would be that the Ronettes sought out Spector, not the other way around.) After months of merciless rehearsing, the Ronettes finally debuted with “Be My Baby” (another Spector, Barry, and Greenwich credit) in August 1963. But the record wasn’t a pop debut so much as an otherworldly visitation of sexual rapture—hyperbole cheats this music. “Be My Baby” is a pillar of rock excitement, as penetrating and ominous a moment in music as anything by Presley, the Beatles, Springsteen, the Clash, or Prince. This is sexual delight woven so clearly, so gapingly, that it became a symbol for the entire girl-group experience, answering in three minutes of eternal bliss what Presley had been begging to hear since 1955.
The defining beat, held aloft at the opening like a rhythmic magnet pulling the rest of the song along behind, is spacious and beatific—it maps out a cosmic space, and it’s one of the few imperious statements of rhythm alone (boom!… boom-boom BLAM!) in rock that cannot be copied without referencing the original (it rivals as strong a contender as the Bo Diddley beat, used by everybody). But although the beat alone is vast, suggesting realms of feeling for the song to explore, what the rhythm is holding back is what gives it its power. It’s the pauses between beats that give it its candid flirtatiousness, and when Ronnie Spector’s voice unfurls in the opening verse, its promise is fulfilled. Such a voice deserves to be ushered in by a beat that holds the essence of rock’s cocky assurance—which was suddenly trumpeting a woman’s desire just as confidently as any man ever had. Richard Goldstein once called “Be My Baby” “the baby boomers’ Liebestod,” but it also serves as feminism’s wake-up call, an early vision of parity between the sexes. After all, if women could suddenly define their own sexual sensibilities for themselves in rock, where else could they then define it?
That Ronnie Spector manages to turn this beat into her platform, and render the opulent backdrop into mere setting, is at least half of the record’s outlandish charm. It’s impossible to hear what this record does with the familiar I–vi–IV–V doo-wop progression without linking it up to the dreams and ingenuity of its generation. “Be My Baby” is the sound of the fifties graduating into the sixties, as romance and sexual energy flower into larger romantic metaphors: this is a new kind of pop love which extends beyond couples to an entire generation, beyond romance to agape, beyond pitching woo to making a larger promise to an audience—the kind of promise that could suggest the Beatles and everything that followed. It’s a love song addressed to all of rock ’n’ roll, the music’s short history thus far and the worlds it would yet conquer, the teenagers who loved it then and the middle-aged boomers they would become.
With less of a beat the lyric to “Be My Baby” would be one extended cliché. But the love it suggests outstrips teen romance of even the most fantastical kind. In part the love story is about Phil Spector’s awe and reverence for Ronnie’s half-breed voice, that huge, booming contralto that sprang like a geyser from her lithe, beehived frame. She didn’t create excitement by singing higher and higher, as do most singers; she built tension by swerving between her thick, sultry vibrato and her coy, playful pauses. The final “Whoa-oh-oh-oh_____”s at the end of each verse aren’t so much climactic as they are cathartic—an exhalation of carnal triumph.
“Be My Baby” has layers of meaning to match its feelings. It’s about Spector’s high-flying notions that his Wall of Sound could conquer the world, dominate the industry, and turn a reverence for women into a heady pop theme. That these passions were more than justified by the music is only part of his genius. That this nerdy dial-spinner’s reverence for female power made his sound at once girlish and manly only hints at its poetry.
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Live chats with Tim Riley
Next chat: Sun, Jan 9, 2022, 8pm EST
Live Twitter spaces chats with prominent critics and scholars. We start by discussing why Peter Jackson’s Get Back doesn’t work as a “documentary,” and why it opens up new threads of scholarship. Tensions emerge between seen and unseen, sloppy rehearsals and masterful performance. More in second part here.
On January 2, Producing the Beatles podcast host and author Jason Kruppa (All Things Must Pass: Harrison, Clapton, and Other Assorted Love Songs) spoke about technical matters, where Jackson “fudges” some of his audio syncs up with film, and some promising new developments for scholarship. He also mentioned the Steve Hoffman audio forum.
Jan 2, 2022: Jason Kruppa on Glyn Johns, syncing problems, and McCartney reaction shots (60m, mp3)
Dec 12, 2021: Riley on Springsteen’s No Nukes (13m, mp3)
Dec 5, 2021: more Riley on career context (45m, mp3)
Riley on Get Back
Nov 28, 2021: Tim Riley on Get Back (65m, mp3)