‘Be My Baby’ forever: The eternal sunshine of pop’s peerless song

The Ronettes’ classic teenage anthem, produced by Phil Spector, is 50 years young. It’s still a thrill

Baby love: Ronnie Bennett (centre) with The Ronettes

Baby love: Ronnie Bennett (centre) with The Ronettes

 

Three beats of a bass drum followed by a snare and a tambourine signal the intro to the Song of the Century. It may just last a few seconds but that bass/bass/bass-snare/tambourine motif is now part of popular music’s DNA.

Be My Baby is 50 years old this week. The “symphony for dteenagers” is the perfect ode to impassioned adolescent love. It’s also a deeply ambiguous song, its sub-Transition Year lyrics (“So won’t you say you love me/I’ll make you so proud of me/For every kiss you give me/I’ll give you three”) sung from the perspective of either a young romantic or a dangerous stalker.

Be My Baby was a massive influence on both The Beatles and The Beach Boys in terms of its sonic dynamics. Producer Phil Spector (who still earns a fortune in royalties from it each year) multi-layered the instruments and threw in all manner of advanced echo to get the fabled Wall of Sound effect on the track.

It’s also the only Phil Spector song with Bono singing on it. Sonny Bono, that is, who was dragged in – among many others – to help out with the backing vocals because Spector was concerned that one of the backing vocalists, Cher, was upstaging the lead vocal.

Ronnie Bennett’s natural vibrato vocal is all the more dramatic because at the time she was in a dysfunctional relationship with Spector. She later claimed that Spector basically treated her as a prisoner and drilled her exhaustively for three weeks before she went into the studio to record the song. Even with all those rehearsals, it took 44 takes to get a vocal that Spector was happy with. The song – and the singer – remains so important to Spector, it is rumoured that, as part of his divorce settlement from Bennett, she is not allowed to sing the song on television.

If Be My Baby advanced a new sound in pop music that would later facilitate the studio techniques behind Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds, then it also precipitated a breakdown of sorts in Brian Wilson, who felt Spector had – with one song – blown The Beach Boys out of the water before they had really got up and running. For Wilson, Be My Baby is “the greatest pop record ever made”. He almost crashed his car when he first heard the song on the radio. “I flipped out when I first heard it, it was balls-out totally freaked out when I heard it . . . It was like having your mind revamped; once you’ve heard the record, you’re a fan forever.”

At the height of his mental instability Wilson would listen to the song up to 100 times a day – developing an obsession with the song that lasts to this day. Spector once noted: “I would like to have a nickel for every joint Brian Wilson smoked trying to figure out how I got the Be My Baby sound.”

When drummer Hal Blaine hit the bass drum three times followed by a snap on the snare in Los Angeles’s Gold Star Studios in the summer of 1963, he was providing the intro to a song that changed everything. It is perhaps the most important two minutes and 41 seconds in pop music.
bboyd@irishtimes.com

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