The Ronettes: Be My Baby
oom. Da-Doom. Crash! Doom. Da-Doom. Crash!
The greatest pop song ever? Maybe. The greatest girl-group song ever? Definitely. Ronnie Spector’s (when she was still Veronica Bennett) perfectly imperfect wail over a drum like thunder…castanets(!) clicking away busily…luxuriant strings swooping…piano lurking in the background…it’s all here.
To tell the truth, I’m not a fan of Phil Spector. I wasn’t when I was a kid; there always seemed a horrible hollowness lurking under the bright surface of the Wall of Sound, and any man who gives such loving treatment to “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)” is to be approached warily. Upon later inspection, that song wasn’t as much of an aberration as originally thought in Spector’s works. This article is about “Be My Baby” and not Spector’s corpus as a whole, but to quote briefly Marcello Carlin’s excellent essay on the topic, “Spector’s work is about the mechanics of control, and does not necessarily presuppose the existence of something concrete to be controlled”.
But as unsavory as the man was and is, he did have talent. “Be My Baby” works so well because, as with all of Spector’s great productions, there is a living, heartbeat to the song. Anyone who has heard Ronnie Spector’s EP from a few years back, She Talks To Rainbows can attest that she has a charisma and power when singing that not even Phil Spector (to whom, of course, she was married; he kept her a virtual prisoner in their home for five years) could suppress it beneath a wall of bombast.
As good as the music in “Be My Baby” is, and it is excellent, the song belongs to Ronnie. It’s not the most technical performance ever, but it oozes with emotions: lust, longing, command, hints of petulance, even love. Spector is singing to an object of desire, a man she pursues with fervor, but her delivery makes clear who is actually in control. What man, in the 60s or now, would want to resist her offer that “for every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three”? Darker and more seductive than their competition, the Ronettes spoke to the listener directly instead of telling tales of the love of others, and the result was captivating.
But when you ask someone about “Be My Baby”, the first thing they’ll talk about is the drums. That opening, echoing thump and crash, setting up the entry of the castanets that give much of the song its musical urgency, reverberate down through the history of pop music. They are even now one of the great pop signifiers, re-positioned and re-configured endlessly. God knows how many times a song has used that opening, although the two I can think of off the top of my head (the Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” and Clinic’s “IPC Subeditors Dictate Our Youth”) use it with a similar mixture of reverence and cheek.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who, when “Be My Baby” starts, wishes the drums could continue unaccompanied for just a little longer than the mere four seconds at the start of the song. Of course, they get a moment to themselves before the climax as well, but it’s not the same. As soon as the first kick drum hits, you instantly know what you’re hearing. You begin to anticipate the song. And even once the Wall descends, its still there in the back, driving “Be My Baby” forward.
Doom. Da-Doom. Crash! Doom. Da-Doom. Crash!