How does a record make us feel like we're in a vast space, one that we've never experienced, one that may not exist? In this episode, the last of the series, I look at the Phil Spector production, 'River Deep — Mountain High', performed in 1966 by Tina Turner, to explore how we hear space in music. It was a groundbreaking record in its time, costing an unprecedented amount of money to make, and it still sounds as if it's pushing at the outer limits of what can be captured on record. I'm interested in how we experience all that as listeners: how something so apparently small as a three-minute pop song can contain intimations of cavernous feeling and impossible depths.
All the songs discussed in this episode, including the original recording of 'River Deep - Mountain High' can be heard here. If you've enjoyed the episode please leave a review on Apple podcasts! Thank you :)
River Deep - Mountain High
Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on what happens in pop songs and why they mean so much to us, with me, Anthony, a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured. At times over the course of my engagement with songwriting, I’ve been led to reflect on how small a thing a pop song really is: a piece of music of around three minutes that even in the era of the 10-inch record could fit in a handbag and which now takes up the infinitesimal space of a few megabytes of digital memory. Contrast that with the outsized effect it can have on a moment, on a life, or with the preeminent position pop songs hold in our culture and in our inner lives. In this, the final episode of this series, I’m going to talk about the sense of space pop songs create by looking at a record which, in its time, seemed to push at the boundaries of what a record could be - the Phil Spector production, ‘River Deep - Mountain High’, performed by Tina Turner - and in doing so, to look again at the question of how songs mean things to us, how they create meaning, what we might be responding to when we listen to them.
[music - 'River Deep - Mountain High']
By 1966, Phil Spector had produced seventeen top 10 singles and, with tracks such as the Ronettes’ iconic ‘Be My Baby’, had defined a distinct sonic palette and studio method, known as the ‘Wall of Sound’. The novelist Tom Wolfe had dubbed Spector the ‘First Tycoon of Teen’ in a 1965 essay, as a nod to his commercial success, but Spector’s public personality was built at least as much on his reputation for being a forceful and uncompromising presence in the studio. He made, in his words, ‘symphonies for kids’, and it was in this recording that Spector’s totalising instincts - what he called his ‘Wagnerian approach to rock n roll’ - were given freest reign.
Everything about the record suggests overwhelming size and space, from the title to the arrangement to the core musical material, and it’s reflected in the dramatic lengths Spector went to in its production. In Dave Thompson’s Spector biography - Wall of Pain - he writes about the punishing rehearsal process Spector undertook with Turner: working for hours every day over a fortnight just on the melody, an experience Turner later compared to ‘carving furniture’. He had sixteen virtually indistinguishable mixes of the song prepared and was still unsatisfied: Larry Levine, the session’s recording engineer, later said that “Spector was always trying to create more and more, and I think it finally ate him up at the end, because technology was not able to keep up with him.” ‘River Deep - Mountain High’ was to represent an ending of sorts for Spector. The song was a commercial failure, reaching only #88 on the U.S. charts, which, having cost an unprecedented $22,000 to make, was a disaster for Spector personally and led to a two-year hiatus from the recording industry. He would never oversee the writing, recording and production of such an ambitious pop record ever again.
Plenty has been written about Spector’s unique recording method: the doubling and trebling of bass and guitar parts for sheer weight, the use of the echo chamber at Gold Star studio that tracks were run through to give everything a unique resonance, cramming the live room with as many musicians as possible simply for the particular softening effect human bodies have on sound. What I’m interested in here is what we perceive in the sound: how is it that music, a sonic medium, seems to establish an image of physical space, so naturally that to describe sound in terms of size seems completely intuitive? In short, in what sense is a ‘big sound’ big?
In 1980, the linguistic philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published Metaphors We Live By, which introduced the idea of ‘conceptual metaphor’. It radically expanded the notion of metaphor, from a particular literary device - the figure of speech we all learned about at school - to something understood as being inherent not only to all forms of language but to the very ideas we form about the world.
Lakoff and Johnson showed how conceptualising one idea - say, time - in terms of another - say, money - is at the root of how we understand our experiences, and is found in our most everyday expressions: ‘she spent her days off in the garden’, ‘I invested all my time in training’, ‘this rice cooker has saved me many hours’. Conceptual metaphors help us grasp abstract nouns, like love, which, they speculate, is because human beings are bounded organisms, so it comes naturally to us to understand concepts in terms of bounded, concrete things. When we say, ‘I’m falling in love’, ‘love’ is being implicitly understood as a container, something we might fall into; using the expression evokes a concrete physical experience we can relate to, bringing with it all the sense of a sudden change of state and the more-or-less pleasurable loss of control that falling from a height into a body of water might prompt.
Almost from its incarnation, the idea of conceptual metaphor has been applied to music, none more so than in the observation that in our way of talking about music, from the most basic level, we draw inevitably on metaphors concerning movement and physical space. A number of writers have pointed out, for example, that melodies don’t really move - they consist of individual objects - notes - placed in succession, not a single object which moves around, a necessary condition for true movement. The notion that something is moving in a melody is in fact a metaphorical expression of what we perceive in our minds. Johnson, following a broader idea that our basic concepts about movement are rooted in the physical experience of our bodies in an environment, adds the observation that a key part of our understanding of movement is that it always happens in a space, a metaphorical 'landscape', as he calls it, and that consequently with music we very naturally conceptualise what we are hearing as existing within a particular space, a symbolic ‘space’ we move through as we listen. So - in the way we understand it - music both moves - we talk about melodies, for example, ‘running up and down’, the tempo ‘pushing ahead’, a piece ‘taking off’ before ‘coming to a stop’ - and is also a space the listener moves through - we ‘arrive at’ a particular bar, we ‘approach’ the chorus, we finally ‘reach’ the ending. In any given piece of music, then, we conceive of what’s happening as spatial, as constructing a ‘space’, but, because of the nature of music, what is happening is also happening within that space. We might say that - in the way we experience it as listeners - a piece of music both creates a world and embodies a set of movements within that world.
From the first moment we hear the reverberant world ‘River Deep Mountain High’ sets out: a low blast of horns on the tonic note, a high maraca shaker pattern, and a piano riff which scales from roughly the middle of the piano down to its lowest register, ending with a single hit on the kick drum, all very audibly washed in that familiar booming, echoing reverb that had become Spector’s trademark.
That moment of silence which follows the single kick drum hit is a dramatic way of drawing attention to the vastness of what is about to happen as the song develops. Into the space outlined in the very short introduction enters Tina Turner’s voice and, for the first five words (‘when I was a little’), it is a completely dominant presence in that still-reverberating musical space following the abrupt stop.
But from the moment she sings ‘girl’, her vocal existence in the record is encased in the musical world Spector builds up around it, and even at that point the sheer depth of his arrangement is incredible. Sometimes, when I’m editing a track and have done many takes of a similar part, say on a piano, I like to play all the takes at the same time, just to hear them playing simultaneously: the result isn’t just many multiplications of similar notes but also many multiplications of the space in which the notes were recorded. That sound is just like what you hear behind Turner’s voice: it’s not the first but is certainly one of the most dramatic early instances in record production where the impression of a completely impossible space is being created.
The only musical element that is not subjected to this special Spector combination of multiplying instruments playing the same thing and running it through an echo chamber is Turner’s voice, which is kept relatively dry and clear. The dynamic of a solo instrument contending with overwhelming background forces is similar to that found in the orchestral tradition of the concerto, where much of the drama is produced by this part-complementary, part-competitive relationship between soloist and orchestra.
But in this case, as it’s a song, we also have a lyric unfolding in parallel with this relationship between solo voice and colossal backing, and it opens with the line, When I was a little girl I had a rag doll/Only doll I've ever owned. As was typical for the songs that Spector wrote with his collaborators Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the lyric begins by affecting a sort of childish naiveté. Spector seem to have had an intuitive love of that tension between sentimental expressions of innocent yearning and the sonic grandiosity he was increasingly able to achieve in the studio. That childish innocence is present at the beginning of 'River Deep, Mountain High' - in this case the ‘little girl’ holding her ‘rag doll’ - but it makes a clear movement towards transcending this cutesy opening image with the final line of the verse - But only now my love has grown - It then builds on this idea of growth by detailing the ways in which this love expands: And it gets stronger ... And it gets deeper ... And it gets higher
In this section - the pre-chorus - there’s an allusion at work to the three-part ‘so strong/so high/so deep’ formula familiar to songs in the gospel tradition. I used to sing a version of this song at Sunday School; in gospel, recorded by the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elvis Presley, it goes by the name ‘So High’:
[music - 'So High']
Spector and his collaborators transpose a trope from the gospel idiom to the secular pop song, allowing some of the notion of the infinite vastness of God into their conception of young love, but the grammatical shift from ‘it’s so high’ to ‘it gets higher’ I think is also significant. In its original form, it’s a description of a thing, massive but unchanging. By switching it to ‘it gets higher’ the songwriters insert the idea of ongoing expansion, describing not a thing but a process: the process of her love, growing ever ‘stronger’, ever ‘deeper’, ever ‘higher, day by day’
Lawrence Zbikowski, a musicologist who applies insights from cognitive science to music analysis, and who has built on Lakoff and Johnson’s work on metaphor, has written on the different ways meaning is constructed by language and music in the context of a song, and suggests that they have different basic tendencies: language is good at directing our attention to ‘objects’, while music is good at representing what he calls ‘dynamic processes’, particularly those relating to ‘the movements of bodies through space’. To illustrate this, he discusses various musical settings of the word ‘descend’ from the Latin mass: in each case the melody used for the word ‘descendit’ marks out a descent from high to low but there are suggestive differences in how the music traces that descent: in one case, the descent is slow and regular, in another the descent from high to low is jagged, falling then briefly rising again, before the final fall. As he puts it:
It is not simply the concept of descent through vertical space that [is created in these musical settings of ‘descend’] … but particular kinds of descent, each with its own texture and shape
In other words, when a songwriter sets a particular word to music, they’re able to tell us not only that something is happening but also to suggest how it’s happening through its musical setting, and to do this simultaneously. Music is able to embody process in a way that language can’t, and when words and music are heard simultaneously, these two forms of meaning construction occur all at once. So, in 'River Deep - Mountain High', the lyric gives us the simple fact that the singer is in love and that that love is growing each day but, all the while, the music is giving us suggestions as to how that process of growth, of expansion, is taking place. For instance, the fact that music takes place over time means that speed or pacing comes into play: 'River Deep - Mountain High' takes off at a strikingly fast tempo - around 170 beats per minute - and it’s significant I think to hear in out-takes from the recording session, Spector urging the band to push the tempo, to play faster and faster.
The feeling this produces is of the singer’s love growing almost faster than she’s able to understand and articulate it: it adds to the song’s remarkable breathless quality. The song's structure does the same: the verse takes place across an unusual 14-bar form, alternating between standard four-bar patterns of subdominant and tonic until the last line which cuts what we expect to hear as four bars of the tonic to two, so the pre-chorus (‘and it gets deeper…’) enters before we’re anticipating it. The backing singers perform the ‘doo-doos’ familiar to the girl group idiom but at a frantic pace. They sound like they’re urging everything in the music onwards, into the great torrent of sound that Spector is whipping up, which feels at points as if it might completely sweep Turner away.
The music speaks to the ‘how’ of the song’s expanding love in other ways. The melody starts by running up seven notes in a step-wise motion from the tonic note (Bb) up to the flattened seventh note (Ab) - i.e. a note not found in the home key - which forms a suspension (a fourth) over the harmony at that point, which changes to the subdominant chord (Eb major). We hear that Ab repeated a number of times in the melody, and on stressed beats: it’s this element of that I think Turner referred to when she later said she never felt comfortable with the melody, despite rehearsing it so much - it’s a dissonance, albeit a mild one. In combination with that long run-up that starts from the ‘home’ note, running almost all the way through the scale, it creates a perfect melodic representation of something irresistibly expanding, of going beyond preordained limits.
A similar combination of a melody spread across an upwards surge and that dissonant flattened seventh note is heard in the chorus, except in that case, the Ab is in the bass, consequently defining the whole harmony at that point: at the start of each chorus we abruptly shift into the chord of Ab - a chord outside of the home key - although each time it resolves with unerring regularity back into the home chord of Bb. As you might have worked out, because the seventh note of the scale is also the note just below the tonic, each time this happens, there is a combined feeling of new harmonic territory being encountered (with that rogue Ab) followed by a rise up back to the home chord. Again we see music modulating the meaning of the lyric of a love growing ‘deeper’. By repeatedly going into an unrelated key (Ab major) before surging back ‘up’ to Bb major, the home key, we sense this love, as it grows, feeling as if it is constantly opening up exciting new possibilities, all while achieving a deeper and deeper sense of certainty. The music helps us feel as if we are breaking new ground, only to realise we are where we were all along, and isn’t that also part of what falling in love feels like: a vertiginous sense of possibility that, immersed in the love of another, we might become more truly ourselves?
A number of times, when preparing this series, I've been caught up in thinking about a song from the point-of-view of the songwriter, thinking through their chord or word choices, or decisions relating to arrangement or song structure, and have had to come back to the fact that none of it occurs outside of what the singer is doing with their voice. One of the true paradigm-altering differences sound recording has made to the history of human culture is that musical performance, previously temporary by nature, has become an inscribed thing, something that endures past the moment of its creation. With the invention of sound recording, the way a singer sings a song becomes a permanent feature of the work; and our understanding of a song becomes rooted in a particular vocal performance. The interplay of language and music, as we engage with it, flows through the presence of the singer's voice, and so, in a quite different way, we come back to the central role the human body plays in the construction of meaning in song. In his 1977 essay, 'The Grain of the Voice', Roland Barthes describes, with unparalleled insight and eloquence, what we hear in a singing voice:
Listen to a Russian church bass ... something is there, manifest and stubborn ... beyond (or before) the meaning of the words ... something which is directly the cantor’s body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages, and from deep down in the Slavonic language, as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings ... The ‘grain’ [of the voice] is that: the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue
At the climax of each chorus in 'River Deep - Mountain High', when we hear linguistic coherence breaking down, the sheer materiality of Turner’s voice comes to the fore. 'Do I love you' Turner asks, before invoking the title image, ‘river deep, mountain high', a pop formula familiar from old jazz standards like 'Come Rain or Come Shine', which mentions love 'high as a mountain and deep as a river'. The song then seems simply to run out of images: ‘How I love you’ is just a near-repetition and affirmation of the chorus's first line, then finally Turner sings ‘oh I love you baby, baby, baby, baby’, a repetition which expresses nothing so much as the sense that words are insufficient, that the sheer momentum generated by the preceding music cannot be contained in language. In that climactic moment of linguistic redundance we can see something like the basic meaning of the song; that the singer's feeling is so great it overwhelms the limits of language itself. In the buildup into the final chorus, Turner is literally screaming, but the music is still powering on; she is audibly giving everything, and it still is not enough.
This is the moment where the sonic space the record has plotted out and carried us through reaches its point of greatest expansion. The emotion embodied in Turner’s voice achieves the dimensions of the title image: as high as a mountain and as torrential and overpowering as a deep river. We are with her in the conceptual space of the record, in a moment where grammatical coherence has broken down, hearing clearly the bristling edge of voice, language and music, the zone where song supplies its unique form of meaning, an entire human subjectivity presented to us in a dance of words and sounds.