Little Eva, she of The Locomotion and other bubblegum pop hits used to babysit for master songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King. One night she turned up covered in brusies and disclosed that she received regular beatings from her boyfriend. When Goffin and King asked why on earth she stayed with him, Eva told them in total sincerity that her boyfriend’s beatings were done out of *love for her. Shocked, they sat down and penned an uncomfortable classic.
He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) was like nothing else the songwriting team had written. Goffin and King’s subject matter tended to focus on the highs and lows of teenage relationships; make-up songs (The Best Part Of Breaking Up Is When We’re Making Up), break-up songs (Take Good Care Of My Baby) and ‘what if’ songs (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?) but never the delicate matter of domestic abuse. To take that subject and stick it in a pop song for Phil Spector to throw the kitchen sink at was very….well, what, exactly?
Can you imagine 80s hit makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman following up Kylie’s version of The Locomotion with a production line hit record cataloguing domestic abuse? Or one of Simon Cowell’s pop charges power ballading their way through similar themes, key changes, sweeping strings ‘n all? It’s unthinkable, but that’s the modern day equivalent, which is why Goffin & King’s decision to write the song and Phil Spector’s decision to record the song was nothing short of revolutionary. And a little bit stupid.
He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) was given to The Crystals to record. Presumably, Phil felt he couldn’t give it to The Ronettes or he’d have had all sorts of accusatory fingers pointing at him. Quite ironic really, given how he treated Ronnie (or where he currently resides).
The Crystals – He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)
Spector treated this song with (for him) a rare understatement. There are still reverberating walls of shimmering strings (when they see-saw their way in at the start of the second verse it’s unnervingly fantastic) and there’s multitracked female choirs in the background every other line, but (only after Spector had her do take after take to get the requisite downtrodden vocal) Barbara Alston’s main vocal line is stark and nervy. The creeping bassline only adds to the sense of unease. By the time the key change has arrived most listeners are well aware they’re listening to something that shouldn’t really be in a pop song, least of all a Spector production, which was until this point the audible equivalent of the American Dream in under 3 minutes.
Almost immediately Spector’s Wall Of Sound was met with a wall of outrage and the record was banned. Radio stations refused to play it, the record was quickly withdrawn and the only way to hear it, if you were brave enough, was on The Crystals’ He’s A Rebel LP.
Time hasn’t been kind to the song. The golden oldies stations that pump out wall-to-wall 60s hits will never play it, yet it’s there like the bad apple that can’t be thrown away. It’s an undeniable part of Spector’s terrific back catalogue but doesn’t appear on (m)any of the hit compilations, although it does find its chronological way onto the Back To Mono box set, the black yin to the sun-kissed golden yang of Spector’s output.
In 2012 Carole King expressed her regret at having a part in it. “I wrote the music to He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss). Obviously, I’m complicit in having written that song. I kind of wish I hadn’t written any part of that song, but Gerry wrote that lyric. … And I think in some ways – I’m only speculating – that for some women that may be the only manifestation of what they perceive as love. And that’s certainly true for the woman in that song. And you know, that’s all wrong. So, again, that’s one song I kind of wish I hadn’t had any part of writing.”
The song hasn’t quite been swept under the carpet though. Courtney Love and Hole did a particularly caustic version at many live shows for a while, Love ironically introducing it as a feminist anthem. Amy Winehouse, no stranger to disfunction and domestic abuse has often cited He Hit Me… as her favourite-ever song. And Spiritualized, never ones to miss a 60’s-influenced druggy reference point recorded She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit) on their 2003 album Amazing Grace. It’s far more Iggy than Phil though, but you probably knew that already.
Spiritualized – She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit)
*As an aside, Little Eva married that same boyfriend.