Mapping Out the Wall of Sound Brick by Brick

Wall of Sound

Phil Spector may be a homicidal madman with a skyscraping afro, yet he also is responsible for creating one of pop’s most iconic production styles: the wall of sound. Simple in effect yet complex in process, it entails the deliciously gratuitous spilling and layering of instruments (forget doubling — think tripling) until no single one is distinguishable from any other. The results are titanic, textural, and stunningly atmospheric pop songs that feel as though they’ve been bestowed upon mere mortals by the angels. Critics tend to believe that Spector’s wall reached it highest point on (Ike and) Tina Turner’s 1966 masterwork River Deep — Mountain High, but don’t overlook Dion’s Born to Be With You from 1975; in my opinion, its majestic power is unrivalled. Spector inspired a slew of badasses throughout the ’60s and ’70s. In addition to Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson and a young Bruce Springsteen on Born to Run, soul visionaries Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield erected their own unique walls of sound from the lushest of strings.

Like Spector, these artists worked with large ensembles. The same cannot be said of The Byrds, Pink Floyd, and the minimalism-inspired Velvet Underground. Instead of leaning heavily on orchestral instrumentation, these mid-’60s pioneers built walls of sound, oftentimes spacey and reverb-drenched, from the distortion, fuzz, and feedback generally associated with rock-based instrumentation. Though it took several decades for their innovations to coalesce into an identifiable aesthetic, they certainly have influenced a great deal of the shoegaze, noise pop, and dream pop outfits to have emerged since the late ’80s. My Bloody Valentine’s absolutely hulking Loveless record, from 1991, has to be the modern era’s most startling expression of wall of sound tactics, though The Jesus and Mary Chain’s buzzing Psychocandy isn’t far behind. My personal favorite is The Flaming Lips’ Clouds Taste Metallic, which is like the perfect meeting point between Syd Barrett-era Floyd and The Beach Boys at their most psychedelic.