The day Starsailor fired Phil Spector: ‘He span around, frothing at the mouth’

'Charming and arrogant': Phil Spector in court, 2004
'Charming and arrogant': Phil Spector in court, 2004 - Getty

It was December 2001 when Starsailor first crossed paths with legendary producer Phil Spector, a pivotal moment for a fêted young band with a no2 debut album under their belt and hopes to break America. Spector, meanwhile, hadn’t worked in more than 20 years, and, two years later, in February 2003, he would shoot actress Lana Clarkson dead at his hilltop castle in Los Angeles.

As Starsailor get ready to release their sixth album, Where The Wild Things Grow, the band continue to think about the torturous album they worked on with Spector – Silence Is Easy – which turned 20 last year. Those recording sessions at Abbey Road eventually forced Starsailor to fire Spector – risking a prized collaboration that had been tipped to propel them to global success – and would ultimately shadow their entire career. Only two songs from their sessions ended up on the album, and Starsailor were left reeling from the fact that they were the last ever people to have worked with Spector. Though the band talked a little to press at the time, this is the first time their bassist, James ‘Stel’ Stelfox, has revealed his recollection of events.

Stelfox was several beers down when he was approached by a young woman named Nicole after the band’s show in New York. “She said, my dad really likes your band,” Stelfox remembers. “I thought that was a bit weird. She’d told me her name but I was half drunk and it didn’t register. Then she said her dad was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. When he came on and said ‘hey, it’s Phil’, it clicked. I thought, oh sh-t. But he was really complimentary, and just dead charming.”

Spector had produced all-time-great hits including Imagine by John Lennon, Be My Baby by the Ronettes, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ by the Righteous Brothers and Let It Be by The Beatles – the band’s only album not produced by George Martin.

Yet following his close friend Lennon’s death in 1980, he retreated from the world for good, further fuelling the endless rumours about his erratic behaviour by locking himself away in his castle. Starsailor, however, were just getting started. Stelfox, singer James Walsh, drummer Ben Byrne and keyboardist Barry Westhead had only formed in 2000 after meeting at college in Wigan. They’d been the subject of a major label bidding war before even releasing their first single, then their debut album Love Is Here had gone straight to number two in October 2001. By the time Spector called, buzz was building in America.

“He came to our gig in LA and we ended up with Phil Spector, [Queen’s] Brian May and Lisa Bonet from The Cosby Show in the dressing room which was completely surreal,” Walsh says. “Phil was wielding this football rattle and singing We Are The Champions to Brian May.”

“Then we were invited to his castle,” Stelfox adds. “We were just boys from Warrington and Chorley who lived in normal houses and it was just all so extravagant. He said to us, I’m going to produce your next record. We were like…” he shrugs. “Okay.”

Walsh laughs. “I remember Ben and Barry complaining about the spread. They expected that we were working with this eccentric multi-millionaire producer so it would be steak and caviar and roasted hog and it was literally ordered-in turkey bagels from a local deli.”

An initial recording session with Spector – his first in more than two decades – went well and produced two songs, Silence is Easy and White Dove. But when they reconvened in Abbey Road studios to record the rest of the album weeks later, everything had changed.

“When we first met him, we’d sit down and talk for hours about Lennon and George Harrison,” Stelfox says. “I kind of fell in love with him a little bit because he was Phil Spector and he was loving us. I found him quite charming and self-deprecating, but then at other times quite arrogant.”

Starsailor with Phil Spector
Starsailor with Phil Spector - Starsailor

“But in Abbey Road, we saw someone quite reclusive and fragile and hard to communicate with,” Walsh says. “We didn’t actually see a lot of him in person. The control room is quite far away from the main studio so he was just a voice in our ears. It was also quite an intense time for me because my daughter Niamh had just been born and he insisted on us working nights rather than days. I was getting home at 4am and trying to pull my weight with a newborn baby.”

In the eight weeks between the two sessions, Spector had fired his bodyguard and constant companion, Jay Romaine – “a dead nice guy who wouldn’t let him drink,” describes Stelfox. Michelle Blaine, daughter of legendary drummer Hal Blaine, replaced him. “I didn’t care for her one bit,” Stelfox says. “She ended up trying to steal money from Phil and he took her to court a few years later. She was a bad egg.”

Problems were compounded by the fact that Spector refused to play any of the album-in-progress to Starsailor’s record company, even when one top executive flew over from the US to hear it. “Phil called him a f---ing rat,” Stelfox remembers.

“The guy from the label took offence – as you would – to the fact that he’d come all this way to meet Phil and listen to the record and he wouldn’t play it,” Walsh adds. “It was quite isolating. The label was so excited to hear it but he was so guarded and kept them shut off, so we felt kind of on our own.”

“I think he had a plan,” Stelfox says. “He was meeting with Chris [Martin] from Coldplay who we were good friends with at the time and Chris told us he’d played him Silence Is Easy. We were like, he won’t play it to anyone else! I think we were his stepping stone because he wanted to get back into making records again.”

Onwards: Starsailor are now releasing their sixth album
Onwards: Starsailor are now releasing their sixth album

The final straw came when Spector suggested to Walsh and Stelfox that he should replace music recorded by Byrne and Westhead without their knowledge. “It got to the point where I was f------ tempted, isn’t that bad?” Stelfox asks. “We’re a band so we stuck with each other, but it was definitely getting divisive towards the end.”

Finally, Stelfox went to Abbey Road and told Spector that they would no longer be working with him. “I swear to God, it was the longest pause I’ve ever had in an interaction with anyone,” he says. “He stared at me for about 10 minutes. Then he span around in his chair, muttered something and went f---ing mad at me. He was absolutely frothing at the mouth, Nicole was crying. Ugh. I couldn’t wait to get a pint.”

The band met Spector one final time at The Dorchester Hotel, where he was accompanied by Allen Klein, the notoriously fearsome lawyer and former manager of both The Beatles and Rolling Stones.

“It was like a Mafia-style thing,” Stelfox says. “We were walked through the kitchens and up the staff elevator.”

“Klein just told us how disrespectful we were and how we were going to regret doing this to such a legend of the industry,” says Walsh. “It’s a lot to take in when you’re in your early 20s.”

“He felt so affronted that these young, Northern lads had the audacity to fire the legendary Phil Spector. I was getting angry because Klein was just rude and aggressive,” Stelfox adds. “We left and we never spoke to Phil again.”

It was the last time Spector would make music. Two months later, Starsailor were working in London’s Air Studios and turned on the TV to see a helicopter hovering over the castle in LA they’d visited the previous year. Spector had been arrested for shooting Clarkson in the mouth with a handgun after she allegedly rebuffed his advances, within hours of meeting her at LA’s House of Blues. It would take two trials and nearly six years before he was sent to prison for her murder, where he eventually died in 2021.

Starsailor went on to release Silence Is Easy in September 2003, featuring just two tracks they had recorded with Spector during their very first session together. The album went to no2 and the band celebrated its 20th anniversary with a UK tour last year. They will release their stirring, soulful sixth album Where The Wild Things Grow this week, having long moved on from – albeit forever changed by – their encounter with the world’s most infamous music producer.

Where The Wild Things Grow is released on March 22. Starsailor tour the UK in March and April;