Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Primer #1: girl groups

Yes, it's another new irregular feature we've no hope of maintaining properly. What's going to happen in each Primer selection is we'll isolate one genre or trend of music that's shaped pop and rock since its heyday and provide ten or so mp3 pieces of evidence to demonstrate its contemporary influence, kind of an Illustrated Guide (and those are continuing, one later this month) for musical categorisations.

And girl groups, or at least what we know as the classic girl group sound, is the little recognised drive behind quite a bit of the music we hear today. Although there were the Andrews Sisters well before and the Three Degrees afterwards, that era between 1961 and 1966 (the timespan of the Ronettes as performers, and also the Chiffons' formation to the Shangri-Las' label going under) saw an explosion in the harmonic structure allied to high-end production and teenage melodrama. As David Quantick has pointed out, girl groups are better than their male equivalents because, with few exceptions (go on, have the Temptations), the girls get the better writers and more forward-thinking producers, what with Spector, Gordy, Goffin & King, Ellie Greenwich and so forth - something that carries a direct route through to Xenomania and Richard X today. ABBA, Bruce Springsteen, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Smiths and Blondie all eagerly credited the era as direct inspirations, and the chain carries right on through new wave's harmonic soul appropriations, C86's naive sweetness (and then to your Camera Obscuras, Lucky Souls and Monkey Swallows The Universes of today), Stock Aitken & Waterman, R&B groups and now Amy Winehouse blathering about spending the best part of a year in bed listening to the Shangri-Las and several unconnected attempts in the UK and US to revive the basic structure of the girl groups (the Pipettes, the Revelations, The God Damn Doo Wop Band, the Dansettes, Tralala, the Shalitas). So clearly this movement, started as much in playgrounds and high school refrectories as Pentecostal choirs, has marked out its own territory over the years since it dissolved from the mainstream conscious, but what did it actually entail? Here's your primer.

The first female vocal harmony groups in this methodology, both charting for the first time in 1957, are agreed to be the Bobbettes, whose first single Mr Lee made the top ten but was their sole top 50 hit (they later appeared on the Dr strangelove soundtrack) and the Chantels, the first black group to be successful with two top 20 singles. Interestingly, both were five-pieces. The first to become real stars were the Shirelles, four New Jerseyites who defined the sound with R&B/pop crossover stylings, yearning innocence and a transformation of doo-wop's principles for the rock'n'roll age. In 1960 they became the first girl group to have a Billboard number one (number four in the UK) with Goffin & King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. Their next six records all went top ten in the US, including another number one in Soldier Boy, while the Beatles covered both Baby It's You and this one.

The Shirelles - Boys

If we take the Supremes as a straight-up soul act, the most celebrated of all the groups were the Ronettes, Veronica and Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley. Spotted in 1961, they were styled as the bad girls of the era and were the first to be pictured on their record sleeves, eventually hooking up with Phil Spector and hitting paydirt straight off with Be My Baby, a song which has long outlived its #2 US #4 UK chart placings just going on the number of songs that have copied its storming Hal Blaine drum intro. In actual fact the band were never as commercially successful as their reputation would suggest, Baby I Love You peaking at 24 on Billboard and 11 here, Walking In The Rain 23 in America and nowhere in Britain. By the time they opened for the Beatles on their last American tour just before splitting in 1966 Ronnie had been spirited away by Spector into six years of tortuous married life.

The Ronettes - He Did It

If the Ronettes were the emotionally direct big boot and bouffant wearers, the Shangri-Las were the projects' no less outwardly feisty but tear-stained with friends college diarists. Formed at school in Queens, NY in 1963, the identical Ganser twins and Weiss sisters (Betty rarely appeared in public with the other three), the signed a year later to Red Bird Records, Lieber & Stoller's label which had just taken the Dixie Cups, another two sisters and a cousin group, to number one with Chapel Of Love, initially written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich for the Ronettes. Greenwich and Barry contacted local songwriter George 'Shadow' Morton with a challenge to come up with a song for the new girls, and when the result Remember (Walking In The Sand) reached the Billboard top five (with a teenage Billy Joel on piano) he was given them as his personal fiefdom. What followed was the construction of a house sound every bit as far-thinking and extraordinary as the Wall Of Sound, laced with lyrics about loneliness and alienation, which sent death disc Leader Of The Pack to Billboard number one and UK 11 (number three on 1972 reissue) the same year. A couple more top ten singles followed, but Red Bird folded in 1966 and the band split in 1968, barely a penny to their name after many royalty disputes, although they attempted to reform in 1977 with Mary Weiss citing Patti Smith as an influence, foundering when label bosses preferred them to become a disco outfit.

The Shangri-Las - I Can Never Go Home Anymore

So, if all movements have a Big Four, a rule of thumb we've just invented but we think you'll find works out, who should be fourth up? There's the Chiffons, makers of another Billboard topper, He's So Fine, and still going with original leader Judy Craig; the Velvelettes, whose Needle In A Haystack is the only song to appear in Nick Hornby's 31 Songs that John Peel agreed with; the Marvelettes, Motown's first girl group whose top 20 career spanned 1961 to 1968 including the original Please Mr Postman; and the Cookies, the original line-up of whom were bequeathed to Ray Charles and recorded under at least three pseudonyms. But for our purposes we're running with the Crystals, Phil Spector's other girls and a band whose machinations need some concentration on your part. It was they who recorded the infamous He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss), written by Goffin & King about Little Eva's reaction to partner abuse. It wasn't a hit, and in desperation Spector recorded Darlene Love and the Blossoms' He's A Rebel, credited it to the Crystals and watched it top the Billboard chart, much to the original band's surprise. The follow-up Da Doo Ron Ron was the Blossoms with Crystal LaLa Brooks on lead, and it wasn't until the fourth one on Then He Kissed Me that the original Crystals got to record as themselves. Their last hit came in 1964, the end in 1967. This was the follow-up to He's A Rebel, and thus Blossoms-as-Crystals. It's also been credited as the song with which Spector first perfected the Wall Of Sound.

The Crystals - He's Sure The Boy I Love

Despite the decent careers of many of those namechecked above, the image of the girl group has become fixed as a svengali'd group of high school kids getting out one hit and then disappearing in a welter of minor singles and disputes. While it's not exactly a great reflection upon the movement's work, there were quite a few great one-shot then cast into obscurity bands, perhaps none greater than the Murmaids. A teenage LA trio including two sisters, they were picked up by maverick producer and impresario Kim Fowley who'd been behind B Bumble & The Stingers' UK number one Nut Rocker and David Gates, who went on to front soft rockers Bread, wrote for them this standout, which reached #3 in America in 1963.

The Murmaids - Popsicles & Icicles

Inevitably with such a producer and label-boss driven genre, the odd scam seeped through the cracks. The Whyte Boots were posited as even tougher street girls than the Shangri-Las, and their notorious at the time one single followed where Jimmy's inappropriate slick tyres went in telling of a fatal street girl fight started indirectly by a boyfriend. In fact, they didn't properly exist, being the work of Motown staff writers Lori Burton and Pam Sawyer.

The Whyte Boots - Nightmare

Not that the Brits didn't have a go when the girls started coming over and having hits in 1963-64, and while they weren't hits they had a certain otherness to them. The Breakaways were three prolific session singers, almost staples on Ready Steady Go, who were sent to a studio to record four singles between 1964 and 1968, mostly the work of Tony Hatch, Petula Clark's resident composer and leader in TV theme writing (Neighbours, Crossroads, Sportsnight).

The Breakaways - That's How It Goes

And if the idea of a Tony Hatch girl group is something to boggle at, what about a Joe Meek girl group? The Sharades only recorded two songs on one 1964 7" as far as we know - said vinyl has gone for three figures on eBay - but even by most of his out-there pop production standards this cover of American soulstress Ginny Arnell is extraordinary. Gwenno Pipette, talking to the Onion AV Club earlier this year, reckoned "I'd say we're closer, certainly in sentiment and vocal delivery, to (the Sharades) than we are to the slightly more professional '60s girl groups."

The Sharades - Dumb Head

More than anything else, it was the British Invasion that did for the down-home girls' run of chart success, which isn't to say that bands weren't producing excellent stuff in isolation from Beatlemania and so forth. The Cake formed in 1966 and a year later released Baby That's Me, co-written by Wall Of Sound co-conspirator Jack Nitzsche and prolific singer and songwriter Jackie DeShannon. In fact this became mildly misleading as the trio wrote much of their own material, something that hadn't been widely seen since the very early days of the trend, and their songs took many an impressive turn for the baroque and psychedelic, so much so that they contributed backing vocals to Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and the Soft Machine's first album.

The Cake - Baby That's Me

And so the music stopped, in technicality if by far not in spirit. Let's finish on a song keeping itself alive by being used to sell fried chicken, from a South Carolina quartet, three of whom were sisters, still active after 45 years despite this being their only US top 40 hit and a longstanding cult among Northern Soul aficionados.

The Flirtations - Nothing But A Heartache

BUYER'S GUIDE: The first place to start is with the release which includes six of these tracks, the extraordinary One Kiss Can Lead To Another, released in late 2005 in America and available here as Girl Group Sounds: One, a four CD, 120 track box set that did much to lead interest in the genre back from the margins. The Shangri-Las are best served by the superbly titled compilation Myrmidons Of Melodrama, while the Ronettes and Shirelles are also both served well in compilation. The 73 track Back To Mono (1958-1969) puts a hole through Spector's Wall Of Sound. Pretty much the only place to get Popsicles And Icicles on CD at the moment, bar cheap girl vocal compilations, is Impossible But True - The Kim Fowley Story, which also features Nut Rocker, Papa Oom Mow Mow, Cat Stevens, Gene Vincent, the Soft Machine and The N'Betweens (who became Slade). Let's Go With Joe Meek's Girls houses both Sharades tracks as well as Meek's other goes with female vocalists, most very rare prior to compilation. Both of The Cake's albums as well as outstanding singles and B-sides have just been collated and issued together for the first time as More Of Cake.


Colonel Knowledge said...

"So, if all movements have a Big Four..."


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