#422: The Ronettes, "Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes" (1964)

The Phil Spector Guide to Girl Groups
Part 1: "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)"

Boom. Boom Boom. Pow. Four precise beats and the narrative begins. Twenty-four years before igniting the opening credits of Dirty Dancing, the drum fill in “Be My Baby” redistributed the chemicals in Brian Wilson’s brain. In his own words, his mind was not just blown the first time he heard the song, it was “revamped.” It was 1963, the year of the Beach Boys’ first number one single, the year he first took LSD, and the year the chords constantly ringing in his head turned into voices. For the next decade Wilson played the record on repeat, reportedly one hundred times in one day, dissecting every “be” and “my” and “little” and “baby.”  His children recall a period of waking up to Boom. Boom Boom. Pow. every single morning.

So goes Pet Sounds lore. Ronettes producer Phil Spector spoke of Wilson’s obsession with the song in a 2008 interview with BBC: “I mean he's a little gaga over it... I'd like to have a nickel for every joint he smoked trying to figure out how I got the ‘Be My Baby’ sound, you know he is demented about it.”

“Demented,” “gaga,” as deemed by a man currently serving life in prison for murder. In a court documented narrative, Spector pulled a gun on Lana Clarkson in 2003, to stop her from leaving his house. In 1968, he didn’t need a gun; he had electrified gates and a herd of wild German Shepherds to keep his wife from leaving the premises. Ronnie Spector, the original bad girl of rock ‘n roll, the very voice that hypnotizes us in “Be My Baby,” spent more than a year locked inside of a California mansion. Phil hid her shoes. And he forced her to watch Citizen Kane over and over again.

Released in 1941, Citizen Kane depicts the life of a monolithic newspaper mogul named Charles Foster Kane. The film is framed by one journalist’s investigation to uncover the meaning of Kane’s mysterious last word: “Rosebud.” Presumably, Phil re-played the film as a reminder to Ronnie that like the opera singer Kane marries in the film, she would be nothing without him.

“Charles Kane turned his Xanadu into a walled fortress, and that’s just what Phil did to our house,” Ronnie writes in her autobiography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette.

A superlative among superlatives, “Be My Baby” might be the Citizen Kane of pop songs. Citizen Kane being an idiom for legacy, a benchmark familiar even to the generation who can’t find it streaming on Netflix. If Citizen Kane redefined how we tell stories, “Be My Baby” redefined how we sing them.

And yet, those lush layers of woodwinds and strings, protective background vocals and sweet cream lyrics were composed by a murderer, an abusive madman. Each time we press play, we forgive him all over again. Who cares who wrote it, who collects the royalties? The song just sounds too damn good. That’s the manipulative tragedy of popular music.

Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

Illustration by Annie Mountcastle

A recent poll determined that Dirty Dancing is the most re-watched film amongst women. For almost three decades, first wives and 12-year-old girls have rewound the night when spandexed lovers discovered they needed each other so. Psychologists often point to the “exposure effect,” how familiarity adds a layer to a narrative that transcends cheap suspense. When you turn on Citizen Kane for the first time, you keep watching to find out what “Rosebud” means to Kane. When you turn it on again, and again and again, you keep watching to find out what “Rosebud” means to you. We start to tell the story ourselves. Because who is a creator other than the person who knows what comes next?

In the final three minutes of Citizen Kane, our journalist surrenders his quest to find the meaning of Rosebud, positing, “I don’t think a word can explain a man’s life.” And maybe a song can’t either.

But nostalgia prevails, dropping quarters into a refurbished jukebox; the snow globe shatters, Johnny lifts Baby into the air, and we hear it once again: Boom. Boom Boom. Pow.

—Susannah Clark