Behind The Song: “If You Don’t Want My Love,” by John Prine & Phil Spector

John Prine at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston, Illinois, October 8, 1977 . (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Even in his songbook of singular songs, this one is an exception. Written by John Prine with Phil Spector, the only song the two legends created together, “If You Don’t Want My Love” was included on his fifth album, Bruised Orange, 1978. He’d just signed a new record deal with Asylum, after disappointment with Atlantic for lack of much support on his previous album, Common Sense.

The longtime Chicagoan had moved to Nashville, mostly to work with the man he called his mentor, Cowboy Jack Clement. Jack, who had produced landmark albums for Johnny Cash and others, agreed to produce Prine’s new album, which became Bruised Orange. But although John and Jack had a lot of fun in the studio over several months, they never finished the album. So Prine turned for help, as he had before, to his best pal Steve Goodman.

Though not a producer, Steve was a good friend; he took over the project and forced it to its finish. John discusses this in these following excerpts from our interview, as he does the birth of this unlikely collaboration with Phil Spector. He met Spector at his home, where Phil greeted him in a three-piece suit with shoulder holsters. He was flanked by two bodyguards, one little one and one who was immense, and reminded John of Chewbacca. Without warning, Spector started shooting at the ceiling.

This is the night they wrote this song.

“This chick came down to say good night, and he goes, ‘Who is the King of Rock & Roll?’ And she said, `You are, Daddy!’ I’ll never forget that.”         

JOHN PRINE: Cowboy Jack Clement was a huge mentor to me and the reason why I moved to Nashville. We worked for three to four months, solid. And through all kinds of outside forces and things that shouldn’t have been going on in the studio, we didn’t get the record that we were playing everyday. We really enjoyed making the record, but we didn’t get it on tape the way we were hearing it in the studio.

This was the first one I was doing for Asylum Records, and they kept spending money on it. And Jack was on Asylum as well, and his record was about two years late [Laughs]. So these were both of our first records on this label, and here we were working on mine. And we were having a great time. And listening to music, too. It was a very musical summer we spent. Then I got involved with somebody, and it got to be a very sticky affair.

What I’m saying is that I had a record that I put my heart and soul into with the songs, and gone ahead and made the record, and I didn’t have anything to show for it. I had to walk away from the whole thing.So I went out to L.A. and I talked to, Christ, twenty different producers, really great guys, great producers. Big-time producers. And I just didn’t want to do it. I just didn’t have the heart to do the record again. And Goodman said he would do it.

And I said, “Well, just don’t look to me to approve or disapprove. I’m just totally… numb.” I said I’d come in and do anything, you just tell me what songs to do today and I’ll do it, and if you say it’s done right, I’ll believe you.

I totally put it in his hands. And he handed me back a beautiful record. So that’s the way that that one went down. It was no fun for Steve, I’m sure. I was not a fun guy to be around.

That’s the name of that tune. [Laughter] Funny how things turn out. Steve, he was a tough producer to work with. Very stubborn. I think because he knew me so well. If someone doesn’t know me, they kind of keep at a distance. Which is fine with me. [Laughs]  But he knew me. So he would push me. Some nights at the studio I’d say, “Steve, get off my back, man.” But he knew what he was going for.

The writer for the L.A. Times, Robert Hilburn, was trying to get together a book on Spector. He was interviewing him at length over a period of time. I came to town, and Hilburn was a big fan [of mine], and he would mention my name at the drop of a hat. I mean, if he was doing a Led Zeppelin review, he’d somehow fit my name into it, you know? I was amazed at how much press he’d give me.

I ran into him when I was out (in L.A.) interviewing all those producers for Bruised Orange. Before I settled on Goodman. And I wasn’t talking to Spector about producing, but Hilburn told me he was going out to his house a lot, and said, “Would you like to come over? He likes your songs a lot, you know.”

He said, “He’s a big fan of ‘Donald & Lydia’,” and mentioned a couple of others.

I said, “Yeah, I’d love to meet him.”

Yeah, and so we went there. And Spector, wow! He is out there. He had the gun. He always had it. You’d always see it before the end of the evening.           

We were there for seven hours. Jokin’, drinkin’. He had two bodyguards on his shoulder. It was just craziness, you know. This chick came down to say good night, and he goes, “Who is the King of Rock and Roll?”

And she said, “You are, Daddy!” [Laughs] I’ll never forget that.          

So I was leaving around four in the morning, and all of a sudden Phil sits down at the piano as I was getting my jacket on, and he hands me an electric guitar unplugged. And I sit down on the bench next to him.

I played him “That’s The Way The World Goes Round,” and he really liked it.

He said, “Let’s do this,” and he played the beginning notes of “If You Don’t Want My Love.” And we came up with the first couple lines and he insisted that we repeat them. Over and over. “If you don’t want my love…”
He said it would be very effective.

Phil Spector

So we took the melody of “That’s The Way The World Goes Round,” turned it inside out, and used that as the basis of “If You Don’t Want My Love.” He played it on piano and I just strummed back on the guitar, and we wrote the thing in less than an hour. And that was on my way out the door.

As soon as Phil sat down and had a musical instrument, he was normal. That’s the way he was. He was just a plain old genius.

He’d just finished the Leonard Cohen album [Death of a Ladies Man]. And it hadn’t been released yet. He played it for me in his billiard room and turned the speakers up so high that the balls vibrated across the table. And this is the Leonard Cohen album! [Laughs]

And I went back playing the song. Didn’t know I would do it for the record, but I played it for Goodman, and he said, “You oughta do that for the record. That’s great.”

And I said, “But I don’t know if it’s done.”

He said, “It’s done. Believe me. I’d tell ya if it wasn’t.”

So I cut it for Bruised Orange. Went back to Phil’s house after I cut the record, to play it for him. He said he liked it. Said he would’ve produced it differently, but he liked it. [Laughs]

I said, “You can take that up with Goodman sometime.” [Laughs]

John Prine, “If You Won’t Want My Love.” Written by John Prine & Phil Spector

“If You Won’t Want My Love.”
By John Prine & Phil Spector

If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
I know who
I’ll give it to
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
Anymore.If you don’t want the thrill
If you don’t want the thrill
If you don’t want the thrill
I know who
I know who will
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
Anymore.If that’s the way that the world goes round
Then that’s the way
That it all comes down
And when you want me
I won’t be around
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
I know who
I’ll give it to
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
If you don’t want my love
Anymore.

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