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Girls, Girls, Girls

And you thought "women in rock" had it rough.


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Various Artists

One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found (Rhino)

Evie Sands

Any Way That You Want Me (Rev-ola)

The first time I stole a record it was because I wanted to be in a girl group. It was easy. I went to the library, picked up a copy of 25 Years of Motown, cut out the magnetic alarm strip with a razor, slipped the five-album set into my large schoolbag with the spray-painted peace sign on it, and headed home to listen to "Reflections" by the Supremes a few dozen times in a row. I was obsessed with Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard and desperately wanted to be them all. That wasn't the norm amongst 11-year-old Minnesota girls in 1988, but my fandom was immutable. Much as their harmonies killed me, what I really loved was their aesthetic: Mary had the better voice and bouffier hair, but Diana was my favorite because she always seemed to be wearing twice as much eyeliner. They were the most majestic representation of young womanhood I knew, so princesslike, and I bought into the dream of it completely.

The four-disc genre retrospective One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found (Rhino) is a monument to that dream: the romantic fever dream of teenage-girl narratives written by adult songwriters. In the pre-Beatles days of the early 1960s girl groups came to dominate the charts, supposedly due to the vacuum left by the overseas deployment of Elvis and the deaths of Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly. Trios and quartets of high school- and college-age women, many of them black, supplanted slick-haired boys on the radio and got a chance to tell their side of the story--sort of. Crooning and cooing about the triumphs and travails of young love (and little else), wagging gloved fingers in time to their honey-sweet three-part no no nos, the girl groups proffered the inverse of the thrusty rebellion and innuendo that had been codified by men: the ultrachaste longings of a bunch of purported virgins in satiny evening gowns.

Looking back, girl groups seem the epitome of the gender prescription of the time: that women and girls should be guileless and pure, doting and servile, never fully women unless validated by the love of a man. In song after song, the promise of romance and the redemption it brings is strong: "Please find it in your heart / To make all my dreams come true / Let me get close to you," sings country star Skeeter Davis on her girl-pop turn "Let Me Get Close to You." Over a snare crack that sounds like a cannon shot and a bed of perfectly harmonized bum-she-bum-ooo-eee-ooo-aaa, the Chiffons' Judy Craig booms with pride, "I have a boyfriend / Met him a week ago / He's mine forever / Last night he told me so," on "I Have a Boyfriend." Then, so we don't think she's some good-night-kissing hussy, she adds, "Someday we'll walk down the aisle / So in love." Their physical desires can be safely expressed only through double entendre, and when they stray--as with "bad girl" groups like the Shangri-Las--things end in tragedy.

The girls are never true aggressors; rather, they are t-r-u l-u-v hopefuls, keeping the heart flames alive somewhere beneath their bullet bras. For these girls there's just one kind of boy--the One and Only--and their love, it's Forever and Always. As for their love objects, they're bad boys, other girls' boys, ex-boys, and next boys, and they're all elusive. Whether he's a commitmentphobic cad, a cheater, an abuser, or a dude with a drag-race death wish, she wants only to make him happy--and all he can do is disappear. She can shoop shoop shoop all night long, but he ain't coming back. In the end she's left with nothing but a tear-stained pillow and poetic metaphors: "All I can see on the beach / Is a piece of driftwood / And it somehow reminds me / Of the twisted memories / Left in my mind" goes the dramatic spoken interlude of the Bitter Sweets' "What a Lonely Way to Start the Summer."

But One Kiss Can Lead to Another is more than just an exhaustive tribute to broken hearts and high-tease hairdos: it's a chronicle of how the girl-group sound impacted rock 'n' roll. Many of the girls came from gospel backgrounds and brought along the soul-holler and hand claps. Phil Spector's production for the Ronettes not only created the template for the girl-group sound--forceful vocals cut with gunshot snares, pizzicato string stabs, and reverb by the metric ton--but upped the ante for other producers who sought to compete: Brian Wilson, Spector arranger Jack Nitzsche, future Bread founder David Gates, and Motown's resident genius team Holland-Dozier-Holland. They made symphonic pop and made it loud as hell, a cavernous cavalcade of harps, timpani, and orchestra-size string sections with occasional tracks of audible sobbing. The sound is as timeless as the sentiments of lovelorn teens and still holds up decades after the genre's final years, represented here by the Lovelites' 1969 teen-pregnancy classic, "How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad?"

Much as the sound of pop may have changed, the subject matter--love and how to suffer it--is still intrinsic to the soul-baring teen balladry on the radio today, and performers still rarely write their own material. But as the liner notes to One Kiss are careful to point out, some of these girls were more than singers, and the girl-group boom enabled them to establish careers as songwriters: among them were Stevie Wonder collaborator Syreeta Wright, a 17-year-old Mary Wells, and Dusty Springfield's biggest influence, Evie Sands, who has two early singles included in the set.

Sands's 1970 debut album for A&M, Any Way That You Want Me, reissued for the first time by UK label Rev-Ola in September, picks up where the girl-group box leaves off, tiptoeing into the post-Woodstock era. On the cover, clad in a dark brown pantsuit and tunic, she cruises a dirt road on her ten-speed, her long hair flowing, the very picture of the carefree and liberated new woman of the 70s. She's not even looking at the camera, as if to imply that she just happened to cruise into the frame in her special carefree way. While the album consists mostly of love songs, unlike on One Kiss not every phrase begins with the word baby, and the portrayals of romance are a bit more grown-up. The man and his love are still elusive, but the girl is asking for more than hand-holding: she also wants friendship. On the album opener, "Crazy Annie," she's even the one doing the leaving.

Any Way That You Want Me sold 500,000 copies, but the bigger deal for Sands was the inclusion of "It's This I Am," which she describes in her liner notes for the reissue as a "thrill and personal milestone . . . the first time I had gotten to record and release a song I had written." The rest of the record consists of songs that had already been made hits by everyone from the Troggs to Jackie Ross, but "It's This I Am" is the most memorable moment; the song has since been covered by Beck and Beth Orton, and Belle & Sebastian are such fans that they backed Sands on two dates on her European comeback tour in 2000.

A whisper-quiet, splendor-in-psych drift of faraway strings, electric piano, and indeterminate twinkling sounds, "It's This I Am" is Sands's haunting response to the firm prescriptions set for her and every other girl singer of the era. It's a liberation anthem, and she asserts her dynamism in a rich voice, sure and melancholy: "I'm that great divide / That never was at all / That's neither large nor heavy / That's neither light or small / It always was and will be / Forever through all time / It's here and there and nowhere / Always is / It's this I am I find." She's defining who she is rather than who she is in relation to some absentee heartbreaker boy. And she is beyond definition.

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