Understated + Underrated Vol. 3: 'Born To Be With You' by Dion

Understated + Underrated Vol. 3: 'Born To Be With You' by Dion

With the sheer amount of albums that have been released since the early 20th century, so many have slid underneath both the critics’ and fans’ radars, barely gaining the recognition they deserve.

In collaboration with Shoomny, this week’s Understated + Underrated reconsiders Born To Be With You by Dion, released in 1975.

 

Most iconic and memorable pop musicians tend to reach a point in their careers where they think “I want to be taken seriously now”, and the music reflects this period of one’s shifting mindset. Beloved (by a bygone era) doo-wop and blues singer Dion DiMucci finally thought that same thought in 1975, and Born to Be With You was born.

Just look at that glorious album cover. The crossed arms, the turtleneck, the solemn eyes poking above miniature glasses, the sepia tone – any everyday Sherlock would deduct to his dear Watson that this subject was a stern artiste. This bold image metamorphosis that divulged from the youthful, finger-clicking doo-wop days in the 1950’s Bronx, needed someone serious, yet able to elevate his dwindled star status.

So, none other than ‘the First Tycoon of Teen’, Phil Spector, was employed. Spector, too, was in a rut like Dion. He pumped out jukebox hits in the early 60’s for R&B and soul groups, and from 1970 had produced for ex-Beatles George Harrison and, more extensively, John Lennon. Lennon and Spector had built a working relationship (fuelled by a considerable amount of cocaine and alcohol) over 5 years of working together, but as Yoko Ono was expecting John’s child, he withdrew from public life to raise his son. Spector was now left in the wilderness, unsure of where to go or what to do now that his personal hit-factory had gone.

Dion was to be Phil’s new chosen protégé to be aided by his signature production style, known as the ‘wall of sound’. He used grand, swelling string-based orchestras as his bricks, and moulded the vast array of extravagant instrumentation into one blaring mix through excessive overdubbing, and utilising the acoustics and ambience of the recording studio as an instrument itself, capturing every ripple of sound bouncing off the studio’s walls that formulated into a distant echo.

 

‘Dion’s songwriting reaches utmost maturity, presenting the record as a retrospective reflection on his old life growing up in the Bronx’

 

He was, and still is, widely considered one of the most important pioneers in popular music production ever. Working with Spector, however, had a catch that Dion was unaware of: Phil was a notorious, gun-wielding, psychopath. Most geniuses in any discipline are understandably obsessives, toiling over every microscopic detail of their work. But Spector embodied this stereotype to the of crippling insecurity and paranoia. Running away with the recording tapes to hide them, employing round-the-clock bodyguards that never left his sight, and, most incredulously holding the very musicians he collaborated with at gunpoint, which John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Joey Ramone, and his wife Ronnie Spector could all testify to.

 

He treated guns as if they were toys, firing rounds into ceilings just to get a room’s attention, to get a laugh, or to get his own way. Except these toys are not toys, they’re killing machines, and Spector learnt this in 2003 when he (by his account, accidentally) shot Hollywood actress Lana Clarkson in his apartment. To this day, he remains in California State Prison serving his 19-year sentence.

 

As bloated as that context may seem, it illustrates the atmosphere the recording sessions that Born to Be With You produced: bodyguards, cocked pistols, every word spoken with vigilant precaution – the air must have felt like it was from Jupiter. Dion has barely opened up about it since. Yet despite this ill temperament created from Phil’s presence, both men’s talents are realised at their fullest at a time when both were washed out.

 

Dion’s songwriting reaches utmost maturity, presenting the record as a retrospective reflection on his old life growing up in the Bronx. As is with any deep reminiscence, there is a striking mixture of visceral nostalgia (‘New York City Song’) and admission of regret (‘Your Own Back Yard’). Confessions of alcoholism and mistakes from unrequited love are ever-present and reinforced with his lovelorn croons that howl over Spector’s maximal orchestral embellishments, the most stirring of which being on ‘Make the Woman Love Me’. His soulful vocal performance treads a narrow tightrope between singing and crying, yet executes it perfectly, always staying on top.

 

Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ comes into its own too, characterised by moments of experimentation where the overdubbing is so rampant, it sounds like it exists in its own space-time continuum. ‘(He’s) Got the Whole World in His Hands’ is so riddled with echo, each instrument hazily blurs into one another, giving a woozy, dishevelled, and psychedelic effect that is highly intoxicating. Inebriating a Christian hymn is somewhat of an iconoclasm, like Spector’s ego was boasting that God doesn’t have the whole world in his hands, he does. The ghostly string sections on the title track and ‘In and Out of the Shadows’ elevates every musical element to an astral plane, as if Spector built the wall as high as the stars – an unrelenting statement of grandeur that puts Dion back among the stars.It does baffle me as to why this record was shelved by Spector in 1973.Two years later, the Eagles had already stolen the soft rock limelight, and was maybe why Born to Be with You was such a commercial flop. Despite its cult following lauding the collaboration at any given opportunity, it still gets widely overlooked and has become a rarity in both artists’ catalogues.

It is understandable to see why leave Phil Spector-associated records alone, he was immensely messed up, and consequently took the life of an innocent with little remorse. But I would argue that sometimes brilliance must be highlighted, regardless of an author’s context. His production had such a profound and ever-lasting effect on how recorded music was developed, conveniently turning a blind eye would be naïve. Taking aesthetic pleasure from a difficult person’s work does not mean that you identify with or like them as personalities. It’s a pity that a lot of contemporary music criticism has lost sight of that.

Image: Ace Records/Dion

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