Michael Turner: River Deep, Mountain High

In my last post I spoke of curation in relation to other disciplines. Something I did not address was the word’s recent entry into the lexicon, a point taken up by Jeet Heer in a newspaper article filed around the same time I submitted my post. Missing in Heer’s piece, however, was a discussion of the word’s potential in the consolidation of ideas common to all disciplines, an interdisciplinarity brought on as much by the emergence of new technologies as a reconfiguration of those earlier forms we are told we can live without.
For this post I would like to take up one of the equivalencies mentioned in the last post: music production. In the last post I used the example of record producers and their role in shaping the music that comes to us “on” the radio, the television and the web. Although the record label’s traditional curatorial job title was “A&R” (Artists and Repertoire), it was the record producer, particularly those operating at the level of George Martin and Phil Spector, who worked closest to the recording artists’ sound, but also their compositions.
One of my favorite stories of the producer-recording artist relationship involves Phil Spector, Ike & Tina Turner and the song “River Deep — Mountain High”, written by Trio Music songwriters Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and, because he believes recording is its own form of writing, Spector.
According to legend, Spector wanted Tina to sing the track but did not want Ike in the studio, owing to the latter’s “controlling attitude” (Pot, meet Kettle). With a budget of $22,000 ($20,000 of which was paid to Ike to stay away), along with 21 session musicians and 21 background singers, the single “River Deep – Mountain High” was released in the spring of 1966, where it was popular everywhere but in the United States.
Crushed by the song’s (initial) failure to crack the U.S. Top Ten, Spector withdrew from the music business and began to display the behaviours he has become known for today. Ike, for his part, loathed the Spector version, thinking it “pop or white,” and, with Tina, re-recorded the song, replacing the climbing vocal arpeggio that opens the track with a slack tide, out-of-the-gun melody line. Is Ike’s version “better”, more politic? Does Spector’s version (what he calls his “Wagnerian approach to rock n’ roll”) achieve the level of (high) art? Which version, if any, would you want on your portable media player?
Phil Spector version:
Ike Turner version:
Michael Turner is a Vancouver-based writer of fiction, criticism and song. He tends a blog of his own. If you’re still curious you can find more about him here.
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