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Girl Power

Review of the Best of the Shangri-Las; The Best of the Angels; Growin' Up Too Fast: The Girl Group Anthology (Mercury/Chronicles)


Early-60s girl groups like the Shirelles and the Chiffons conjure a bygone, more innocent time when female adolescent concerns ostensibly could be summed up in songs like "Chapel of Love" and "I Wish I Knew What Dress to Wear." Because of this perception, and because the girl groups merely sang--they almost never wrote their own material or played instruments--their records are often assumed to have little bearing on rock, which everybody knows is made by self-contained bands of bad boys who write their own songs. But as the recent release of three girl-group anthologies suggests, the form warrants our attention, especially for its recurring role in the evolution of rock.

One of the most influential girl-groups in that respect was launched in 1964 with a lie and a dare. When former street-gang member and doo-wop singer George "Shadow" Morton learned that his old acquaintance and fellow Long Islander Ellie Greenwich was making it as a songwriter in Manhattan, he dropped by her office to reintroduce himself. During the visit Morton's demeanor irritated Greenwich's husband and writing partner, Jeff Barry, enough to prompt Barry to scoff, "What do you do, anyway?" Morton answered he wrote songs. What kind of songs? Hit songs. "Oh yeah?" Barry challenged. "Why don't you bring me one?"

In a few days Morton, who afterward claimed he'd never written a song before, reappeared with a tape of a single tune. It didn't conform to any then-fashionable style for a pop song. High-spirited delivery of lyrics, regardless of content, was de rigueur. In their hit "My Boyfriend's Back" the Angels warned a male pest, "You're gonna get a beatin'!" with cheerleaderlike exuberance. The Supremes expressed heartbreak in "Where Did Our Love Go" over joyful hand claps and a catchy "baby baby" backup vocal hook. But Morton's song dared to be a real downer, exaggerating like an old radio melodrama--"Oh what will happen to / The life I gave to you? / What will I do with it now?"

Nevertheless, Barry played it for his boss, Jerry Leiber, who in the 50s with partner Mike Stoller had written and produced a string of comic playletlike hits (including "Young Blood" and "Along Came Jones") for the R & B vocal group the Coasters. Leiber thought Morton's song could be a hit, and agreed to release it on his and Stoller's Red-Bird label. Soon "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)," sung by Morton's recruits the Shangri-Las, was out and climbing the Beatle-dominated charts.

It made the top 20, as did three follow-up singles authored or coauthored by Morton: "Leader of the Pack," in which the girls glorified the death of a motorcycle-riding antihero; "Give Him a Great Big Kiss," in which they pledged eternal devotion to a guy with long hair and dirty fingernails; and "I Can Never Go Home Anymore," a runaway's sad tale. With a decidedly unwholesome image--unprecedented for a successful pop group--the Shangri-Las openly defied the conventions of polite society.

The mid-60s British Invasion spawned new trends in rock, and popular tastes soon shifted away from girl groups. Yet many British bands culled material and talent from the scene. The Beatles covered hits by the Shirelles and the Cookies on their debut album, and Crystals/Ronettes arranger Jack Nitzsche worked on nine early Rolling Stones albums, mostly as a keyboardist. (Nitzsche also arranged the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and produced Neil Young's solo debut.)

By the end of the 60s, however, rock had gotten heavier and more self-indulgent. The emotionally straightforward, two-minute approach epitomized by girl groups now seemed hopelessly naive and irrelevant. But when, in reaction to such ponderous rock monsters as Yes and Tommy-era Who and jazz fusionists like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the seminal New York punk bands sought to recapture rock 'n' roll's rebellious spirit, many turned to 60s girl-group music and its creators for inspiration.

New York Dolls singer David Johansen told journalist Robert Christgau in 1973 his favorite songwriters were Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and the Dolls tracked down Shadow Morton and asked him to produce their second album--having quoted from his Shangri-Las hit "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" ("When I say I'm in love you best believe I'm in love L-U-V!") on their first. Blondie's first single, "X Offender," opens with an affectionate parody of "My Boyfriend's Back," and the group hired Angels writer-producer Richard Gottehrer to produce its debut album, which also features Ellie Greenwich as a backup singer. The Ramones brought Phil Spector out of mothballs to produce their 1980 End of the Century album, for which they remade his Ronettes hit "Baby I Love You." And the allusions weren't lost on punk's voyage across the Atlantic: the first-ever British punk record, the Damned's "New Rose," starts with a quote from "Leader of the Pack" ("Is she really going out with him?").

Ex-Big Star songwriter and rock eccentric Alex Chilton has been known to pull off live a faithful rendition of "Past, Present, and Future," Shadow Morton's darkest creation for the Shangri-Las, and the most fascinating among nearly a hundred girl-group tracks included on the three new CD collections. The music's a Mantovani-esque adaptation of Beethoven's Moonlight sonata. Not a word of it is sung. The recitation is about the emotional aftermath of a rape: "Go out with you?--Why not? / Do I like to dance?--Of course! / Take a walk along the beach tonight?--I'd love to / But don't try to touch me / Don't try to touch me / 'Cause that will never happen again."

The legacy of the girl groups has taken on new dimensions in the work of this decade's most visible and controversial female rock stars. In the mid-80s Madonna re-created the style, albeit somewhat generically, for the title song of her True Blue album, which found her moving away from boy toy and material girl and toward a more mature, self-reliant persona. Courtney Love revived an obscure Crystals song for Hole's MTV Unplugged appearance. Though it seemed perfectly at home in Love's oeuvre, it's remarkable something as openly perverse as "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" was written (by Carole King and then-husband Gerry Goffin), recorded, and released (by Phil Spector) in the early 60s.

Other groups occasionally showed their dark sides in subtler ways. On the original b side to "My Boyfriend's Back," a perfunctory up-tempo ballad called "(Love Me) Now," someone tears up a room in the background, audibly knocking around furniture and breaking lamps in no rhythmic relation to the music. Unfortunately the noise track was removed from the digitalized version on the Angels compilation.

But "(Love Me) Now" was an anomaly for the Angels (and for that matter, 1963), who lacked a writer-producer with the dedication of Shadow Morton to help them develop an identifiable sound and distinctive image. Their best-of, then, is a mixed bag, with moments of doo-wop cotton candy ("Thank You and Goodnight"), high energy ("Wow Wow Wee (He's the Boy for Me)"), even a hot-rod song ("(You Can't Take) My Boyfriend's Woody"). The more consistent Shangri-Las collection reveals how under Morton's guidance the group found a voice to articulate the outlook of urban teens.

The two-disc Growin' Up Too Fast mixes the Shangri-Las and Angels with pop singers like Connie Francis ("My Best Friend Barbara") and Lesley Gore ("Sometimes I Wish I Were a Boy"), produced in the girl-group style but more concerned with suburban etiquette. There's also a host of obscurities like the Secrets, involved with a guy who lives on "The Other Side of Town": "Everybody says that he's no good / Why can't you go with someone from your own neighborhood?"

Especially interesting is the Whyte Boots' self-produced "Nightmare," whose motif (knocking another girl down and causing her death) is echoed in the Ramones' "You're Gonna Kill That Girl." It's even delivered in the same goofy New York accent one associates with Joey Ramone. In retrospect the Whyte Boots come off sounding just like what they turned out to be--the Ramones' big sisters, and Courtney Love's, too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pictured album covers..

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