Back To Mono – The Phil Spector Christmas Album photo session with George Harrison and Graham Nash (1972)

Phil Spector The Christmas album session – photo Clive Arrowsmith

A joyful and familiar Liverpool drawl spoke to me down the phone saying “Clive, I need you to shoot the cover of Phil Spector’s Christmas album“. The familiar voice was that of George Harrison and I of course was happy to oblige. George wanted me to shoot a picture of Phil with Christmas trees in the back ground. George and Phil had become close during the era of Beatles hysteria when he was famous for his ‘Wall of Sound’ music production,

I was really grateful to be working with two very talented musical legends, we shot in studio in London, George and Phil arrived together. Phil looked a bit willowy and wobbly while George led him into the dressing room. where the stylist started dressing him in the Father Christmas outfit, while George sat in the corner chanting the Hare Krishna mantra quietly on his mala beads.

The set had all the Christmas trimmings, reindeers, Christmas trees, coloured lights and different deities and all kinds of mad  stuff (look closely at the image). I also used star light lens filters to make it look even more mad and kitsch. I took some other father Christmas portraits of Phil too. At that time I had a bottle of brandy handy, as I was quite nervous to be working with them both. George I knew and George I adored, but he was still George Harrison, a very famous ex Beatle. I was alright after the first twenty minutes, but I needed something to settle my nerves.

I busied myself with the set and getting the lighting just right. I was so engrossed I hadn’t fully realised how forlorn and slightly the worse for wear Mr Spector was. I didn’t realise how much he was struggling to get into his Father Christmas outfit. Obviously I wanted to capture the Christmas lighting so I needed to shoot in such a way that the flash didn’t obliterate the multi-coloured Christmas lights. This involved some interesting timing issues when it came to using the flash. As Phil was such a production master I didn’t think he’d have any problems with the technical aspects of photography. In fact I was hoping the technical side of the conversation would be something of an ice breaker for myself and Phil.

My assistants helped  Phil onto the set and stood him in front of the tree, at this time I was blissfully unaware of his condition that was more than a little laid back;  I said “ Phil there is going to be a flash from the main light, then (in the semi darkness) I will count for 10 seconds, so I can capture the fairy lights glow on the film.” I thought this was a fairly self explanatory scenario and Phil said ‘Yeah, Man” so I thought it was all good.a fairly self explanatory scenario and Phil said ‘Yeah, Man” so I thought it was all good.

The lights went down and then I started to count, one thousand, two thousand… I’d barely got the word three out of my mouth when there was an almighty crash. To my absolute horror Phil had fallen forward. The really strange thing about it was that he didn’t even put his arms out, he just fell flat on his face like a dummy. I ran to his side in the semi-darkness with George just behind me and put my face next to Phil’s on the studio floor to see how he was, In the meantime my assistants put up the main studio lights. The scene before me was beyond bizarre, “Phil,!!! Phil!! are you okay?” I exclaimed. After a a more than pregnant pause his eyes slowly opened and he said “I’m okay man” but it sounded more like the minute waltz to me from the slurred tone of voice.

Phil was determined to continue and George and I just started laughing, more from relief on my part, that was for sure. Clearly Phil was having trouble standing unaided so my assistants nailed a plank to the floor and then nailed a broom to it with the brush end supporting Phil’s back for him to lean on as a support. I managed to shoot the cover picture with some trial and error, pictures which they used on this very kitsch  album cover. 

I mentioned this shoot to my beautiful then wife Rosemary (who had helped style the trees  and set). She reminded me that I had spent much of the shoot in a while top hat that Mick Jagger had allegedly worn. It’s in the picture just behind Phil and the hat came and left with George. Apparently I also told off the legendary Graham Nash for chatting up my wife mid photo shoot too, although  I can’t remember that, amid the trauma of the Phil falling over which eclipsed everything.

I can only feel a sadness for the way Phil’s life has gone and sorrow for the family of the young woman who lost her life at his hands. The signs were there in 1972 that he wasn’t doing that well. Fame has a horrible way of distorting things. You can get caught up in the hubris of it all. I considered myself very lucky to have survived those years and to have given up drink and drugs, thanks in no small part to George Harrison. That day I noticed his chanting and I asked him if he thought it would help me ( I was getting pretty drunk and out of it, at that time) and he said, “I’m sure it would Clive”. The next day his assistant turned up on my doorstep with prayer beads and a jewel encrusted Bhagavad Gita and a hand written note explaining the phonetics and pronunciation of “Hare as in Harry” etc….this was the beginning of my turning to East for spiritual inspiration.

For that I am so indebted to George, for that path  led to my becoming a Tibetan Buddhist and meeting my teacher, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche. George was so generous, I could see he was trying to help me and Phil. That strange day with George and Phil in a Soho studio,  changed my life for the better. Bless you George and my eternal thanks to you.

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