“Phil Spector would whisper, ‘You better not f*** up’”: The story of the Ramones' recording of Baby I Love You

(Image credit: Peter Noble/Redferns)

As with most things surrounding infamous producer, the late Phil Spector, the sessions for the Ramones’ fifth album, End Of The Century, have been stoked with controversy over the years. 

While the punk rock pioneers’ 1980 long-player was disparaged by many of the group’s hardcore fans for its more sophisticated production values, the stories of violent, alcohol-fuelled rows culminating in Spector forcing the group to play at gunpoint at both his home and LA’s Gold Star studios have unsurprisingly taken on a whole life of their own. 

But, with the benefit of hindsight, End Of The Century is the musical marriage made in heaven it was originally touted to be: the '60s-girl-group-loving Ramones playing ball with the king of the ‘wall of sound’ and arguably the greatest of all '60s pop producers.

End Of The Century, which was Ramones’ highest charting career album, does have its fair share of trademark adrenaline-fuelled Ramones rock ’n’ roll, but it also features a couple of beautiful ballads. Baby, I Love You, originally co-written and produced by Spector for The Ronettes in 1963, is one of the album’s real highlights with Joey Ramone’s lilting heartworn vocal balancing perfectly with a bevvy of ‘wall of sound’ strings. 

The cover also gave the band their biggest hit in the UK, reaching a peak of number 8 on the singles chart, and exposing the cult skinny jean-clad rock ’n’ roll to a much wider audience in the process.

Up until this point, no-one had ever played on a Ramones record other than the Ramones themselves

Although guitarist Johnny Ramone later slammed the End Of The Century album, he certainly wasn’t doing so around the time of the record’s release. “[Phil Spector’s] really got a great sound from the instruments,” Johnny told Melody Maker in 1979. “He’s done things I’ve never heard done on record… things we’ve never thought about doing. He just hears all these little things you should be putting in. HE's looking for something new, as different as he was when he came out."

One novel aspect of the sessions for End Of The Century was the fact that Phil Spector drafted in a handful of trusted session men for a few of the tracks including Baby, I Love You. Up until this point, no-one had ever played on a Ramones record other than the Ramones themselves. Legendary pianist and organist Barry Goldberg – who had previously played with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Leonard Cohen and many others – was one of the chosen few.

At first the tension was unbelievable

“I got a call from [Phil Spector’s] assistant who said, ‘I can’t tell you what this project is because it’s top secret, but I’ll keep you informed and it’s probably going to happen in a couple of weeks so be available’,” Barry told Total Guitar in 2012 “And when I got a call, I came down to Gold Star Recording Studios, walked in and there was Phil with the Ramones! 

"I recognised them, of course, but at first the tension was unbelievable. Johnny was really cold, Dee Dee was OK but Joey was the first one to make conversation with me and sort of put me at ease. Joey was a sweetheart. I said, ‘You know, I played with Mitch Ryder and I recorded all of Mitch’s hits with him like Devil With A Blue Dress On [1966 No 4 US hit] and he goes to me, ‘Wow, man, this guy played on Devil With A Blue Dress, man – he’s one of us!’ and immediately Johnny looked up and said, ‘Hey, yeah, that’s pretty cool, man!’”

Tackling Baby, I Love You in the first place was wholly a Ramones idea. “We wanted to do that song,” Johnny Ramone told Zig Zag magazine’s Kris Needs in 1980. “We told Spector we wanted to do Baby, I Love You’, and he said, ‘How about doing (The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up [a 1964 Ronettes hit]?’ but we said we wanted to do Baby, I Love You.”

Back in the '80s, Ramones told Trouser Press magazine that Joey was the only Ramone who took part in the sessions for Baby, I Love You as Marky, Johnny and Dee Dee were not around. Barry Goldberg believes legendary session drummer Jim Keltner kept rhythm while Dan and/or David Kessel may have handled the acoustics. The sessions were characteristically fraught with the kind of tensions that Spector has become synonymous for.

“Phil would stand behind me when we were cutting Baby, I Love You and whisper, ‘You better not f*** up, man’, although I don’t know if he actually said ‘f*** up’,” said Barry Goldberg, who contributed all the piano and organ parts across End Of The Century. “But he said, ‘You’ve got a legend to live up to!’, just creating even more tension. I remember getting a real bad headache from all the pressure, almost like a migraine, which I’ve never had again. But it was just his way of making sure he got perfection… I also remember that [Spector] started to show me a part that he wanted me to play on Baby, I Love You and Joey said, ‘Hey, man, let him do what he wants!’ so Phil let me go!”

While Baby, I Love You would become Ramones’ biggest UK hit and End Of The Century would be the band’s most successful studio album, Barry Goldberg also felt he gained personally from the whole experience. “Actually meeting the Ramones and hanging out with them was just exciting and enlightening to me,” enthused Barry. “It really helped me in my career because their genius and energy rubbed off on me!”

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