The unmasking of many powerful men in Hollywood as abusers and serial sexual harassers has been a long time coming. The music industry too has been rife with troubling behaviour for decades, from Ike Turner to Michael Jackson to Kesha’s recent case against Dr Luke. This year has proved what women have known all along: the voices of victims must be heard and respected no matter who is being accused.
This year of reckoning seems like an appropriate time to ask ourselves a difficult question: is it possible to still go on enjoying the work made by those who are exposed as abusers? Can we ever separate the art from the artist?
Theoretically you could just consume the culture and forget about the creator but that involves a level of ignorance impossible in the Internet age. It is a certainty that after the Saville inquires his television shows will never be broadcast again, and imagine the response if a radio station played music by Gary Glitter or Lost Prophets. And yet this Christmas music by another person with an arguably more serious criminal conviction – for murder – will be played in many homes and shops across the country.
Lana Clarkson was shot and killed on February 3rd 2003. Songwriter and producer Phil Spector was convicted of her murder in 2009 and was given a sentence of 19 years to life in prison. Four women testified that he had previously pulled a gun on them. Few who had worked with him appeared shocked, after all Spector had waged a war against women since he started in the music industry, notoriously locking up his wife Ronnie for years.
And yet we are still listening to ‘A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector’ every year, myself included. Take another read of that album title and think about how insensitive it is to the family of his victim. So why hasn’t Phil Spector’s work been shelved? Why do we allow this album to be celebrated, sold to new generations and played on radio?
The reason is simple: there’s undoubted magic in this music. Each band performs their songs with a festive joy and delight few have captured before or since. The Ronettes, The Crystals, Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans and Darlene Love give the performances of their lives. But scratch the surface of this album and horrors lie beneath. Wouldn’t any album sound perfect if the bands were forced to work on an album for three months straight at the mercy of a madman? As LaLa Brooks of The Crystals explained ‘I would be there from 1pm to 1am as a teenager. It was like child abuse.’ No one could argue with the ‘genius’ of this man and therefore he was allowed to exploit his stars in the name of art. And this is the music we hold up to be the epitome of Christmas cheer?
After this album was made these artists had much of their potential careers curtailed and destroyed by Spector’s megalomaniacal control. Ronnie Spector’s biography is a chilling account of emotional abuse that should have been an omen for what was to come. Most of these acts failed to release albums because Spector wouldn’t let them sing. He seemed to enjoy sabotaging the potential of anyone he worked with, unless he could use it for his own gain. And until retrospective legal action none of them were even paid what they were owed. Brooks said: ‘Yes he’s a genius but he’s also a thief.’ He stole more than just royalties from these artists and we should never forget that.
In a Guardian poll a few years ago 81% of people said we should still listen to Spector, as though none of this even mattered. Or maybe is it just easier to listen to his music because Spector is the songwriter and producer rather than the vocalist. Yet on ‘A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector’ he is there in the title, his extremely creepy picture is on the bloody CD and in the liner notes plus the final ‘song’ begins with him pronouncing how the album will ‘bring something new to the recording industry’ before thanking the artists and wishing us a merry Christmas. It’s enough to make your blood run cold.
Spector may have produced great art but at what cost? I just can’t listen to this album with the same joy anymore. And yet a boycott also silences the talented musicians who worked on the album and they deserve better than that. Perhaps there are other ways to condemn Spector without forgetting these songs entirely. One way to begin to right wrongs would be to reissue A Christmas Gift For You with Spector’s name and voice erased and all proceeds going to women’s charities.
Spector is obviously an extreme criminal case but he illustrates a wider point. We can’t excuse people’s behaviour if it is morally reprehensible just because we like their music. Of course not all crimes are as serious as Spector’s but he didn’t start out as a murderer – he was allowed to get away with abhorrent behaviour for years before he killed Lana Clarkson. Until ALL abusive behaviour, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is properly condemned and punished by society nothing will change.
Personally I believe there’s no art we shouldn’t be prepared to sacrifice to honour the victims of abuse. If you don’t agree then at least spare a thought for Lana Clarkson and her family when you listen to ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ – we owe her that at the very least.
This is a total conundrum. I don’t think we should erase history, think of the airbrushing out of Soviets who fell from Stalin’s favour as mentioned in Kundera’s Book Of Laughter & Forgetting or the BBC’s frantic whitewashing of Jimmy Saville from old TOTP clips. Spector was obviously troubled from the start and murder moves him to the front line of criminality. However we should acknowledge an accomplishment such as this disc. Don’t remove his name but readjust the royalties and put a sticker on it detailing and disavowing his acts. Just saying.
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I hope I did acknowledge the accomplishment of the album in my piece, I certainly meant to. However that perfection shouldn’t be celebrated at the expense of understanding the pain this man has caused. Perhaps a better way would be to focus on everyone involved except Spector in some kind of reissue. I for one think the BBC are correct to edit TOTP and believe this album, at least the title and the final song should be edited also.
The idea of Spector’s work generating money for appropriate organisations that protect and support those who need it is very appealing. Advertising that fact even more so. Because in the end it is education that will make a difference, not censorship. Ideally (and of course this is a complete fantasy) Phil himself would join the ranks of the sane and responsible and write the sticker dedication himself. Worth more than any unconvincing apology.
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Yeah I don’t know why it hasn’t already been done. Not sure how much control he still has from behind bars. It just doesn’t feel right to me that this album continues to be promoted as though it is a masterpiece without fault. Thanks for reading x
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A few years back I discovered a ‘tribute’ version of this album that eventually replaced my original. If you search for A Christmas Gift For You Tribute you will find it, but it has been released with a few different titles…my copy is A Girl Group Christmas for example. All the tracks are re-recorded by session singers, and while the quality isn’t as rich as the original, it’s not a bad replica. Two things worth mentioning are that the final track Silent Night omits the spoken message and for more than one reason I prefer it this way as an album closer. Also, three additional songs have been added to the playlist and are performed in the same style as the originals. (Let It Snow, Jingle Bell Rock and Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.) So if you are looking for an alternative, you may want to consider this version!
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