How The Other Half Lives: The Best of Girl Group Rock

GIRL GROUP ROCK flourished between 1958 and 1965, and though, with the passing of the Brill Building and the coming of the sophistication of the soul beat, the tradition thinned out, it’s still around.

I don’t mean Shirley Alston puffing her way through greatest hits medleys on late-nite TV, the Three Degrees flashing pubic hair inside their latest offering, or even an authentic throwback like Spring – I mean the songs are still in the air, and sometimes even on the air: they’re at the heart of the Dolls, all over any John Lennon vocal, and of course there’s Bette Midler, and Bonnie Raitt.

"Group" is merely a convention; the crucial word is "girl". Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep – Mountain High’ doesn’t fit, because that is a woman singing. Raitt and Midler sing as women too, not girls, but it seems to me they look for some of that crazy, blind innocence and simple joy when they take on the classic girl-group songs. Tina Turner explodes the genre.

The girls were usually black, always urban, and the groups featured one completely distinctive lead singer and more or less replaceable back-ups (they met in high school, posed in their prom dresses). If they weren’t teenage, they sang as if they were. They neither wrote songs nor played instruments; all needed a producer for the identifiable, striking sound that was the first necessity of any girl group record. The music wasn’t R&B or soul – it was straight rock, simple but embellished and ornamented, aimed right at Top 40, not the black charts. Against the basic sound the best singers came up with a style that took full advantage of the producer’s art, but still went beyond it – sailing over the rhythmic commotion or the elegant piano line that put the first hook in. The producer grabbed you, but it was up to the singer to win your heart. Almost none of them prospered outside of the care of the one producer who developed their talents in the first place – the relationship was that dependent. Even Arlene Smith, with the greatest voice and phrasing of all, failed after leaving George Goldner; she even bombed with Phil Spector, who on paper should have been perfect for her. So girl group records were very personal, very fragile – based in the relationship of a young girl and an older man (white, until Berry Gordy) who put her on a pedestal and more than likely kept her in thrall.

It sounds insufferably sexist, and the soul of the records bears out that it was. The oppression of the process has to be the source of much of the acute pain and desire these discs convey so powerfully. From one point of view, they’re all about one girl’s wish to be free, to break loose, and the impossibility of making it. But paradoxically, instead of smoothing out the emotions of the singers, as producers do so often, here they intensified them, because, well, that is rock’n’roll. Or was. So personality came through with real force, and the singers lived, for two minutes, with all the life they had.

The songs most often celebrated a shadowy male figure of wondrous attractiveness, but he took on reality only as a function of the vitality, commitment, and musical invention ‘of the girl singer (no coincidence that this same rock ‘n’roll era saw the decline of the male singer and his replacement by thin, asexual teen-types unworthy of the girl group fantasy – girls not only replaced male singers as the strongest figures in the music, the fantasies of their songs trivialized the current male personae. Except in a couple of vaguely social-protest lyrics on Crystals records, where the hero is poor and downtrodden (a type who reappears in ‘Leader Of The Pack’ and ‘Society’s Child’, is reversed in ‘Brother Louie’ (a boy group song), and stood on his head in ‘The Boy From New York City’ – where he has grown up to be a pimp), this male vision simply is. He is so mythical, in fact, that when the Crystals meet him in ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’ even though he makes her heart stand still somebody else has to tell her that his name was Bill – he’s too cool to talk. The only male parallel is the Safaris’ pretty but rather soppy ‘Image Of A Girl’. Hair colour, height, clothes, walk, such details are almost always missing – to the point where the following dialogue crops up in the Shangri-las’ ‘Give Him A Great Big Kiss’:

What colour are his eyes?
I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades

Silva Thins! I suppose it represents some kind of death of innocence in the genre that ‘The Boy From New York City’ is replete with the minutiae the other songs lack – we find out about everything off this one, down to the contents of his wallet – as if here, the archetypal girl has given up on the image of the boy and finally has to get down to business.

For the most part, as lyrics, these songs do no more than vary the Search-For-Perfect-Love and the Attempt-To-Bring-It-Home-To-Meet-Mom-And-Dad. What makes the songs matter, beyond this rather timeless theme, is their beautiful construction, their unbelievable desire, their lust, their staggering demand for life, all riding on the voice of a single girl pushed by her sisters in the chorus (that classic line from ‘Heatwave’, as the Vandellas shout to Martha, "Go ahead, girl!"). The chorus is interesting in its own right, growing from the transcendent oo-whas of the Chantels, to the side-comments of the later groups, to ‘Leader Of The Pack’ – where, questioning the leader and forcing her to tell her tale, the chorus was positively Greek.

These songs make up the only authentically female genre in rock ‘n’roll – so far. In a sense, they all go right back to Shirley Goodman’s weird and unbelievably erotic 12-year-old vocal on ‘Let The Good Times Roll.’ Some people think that when Bette Midler sings these songs, she means them as camp, but she doesn’t (or didn’t a year ago): girl group rock is part of her soul music, and the mad energy and excitement she throws into her favourites are her way of getting to their love, and their heartbreak, her way of blending experience with their innocence. This is simple stuff, but as with most simple stuff, the complexity is just that much more powerful when it finally rises to the surface.

The Chantels: ‘I Love You So’ and ‘If You Try’ (1958 – ‘I Love You So’ reached No.42 on the Billboard charts; ‘If You Try’ was a cut from their LP on End).
There were five of them, young black girls from New York City; lead singer Arlene Smith was all of fourteen. Their producer was George Goldner, who began his career in rock ‘n’ roll with the Crows’ ‘Gee’ in 1954. Later he made a pile off Frankie Lymon, and every record Phil Spector cut goes straight back to him. "Without George Goldner," Spector said, "there would have been no rock ‘n’ roll." An exaggeration, but not by that much. He was the archetypal cigar-smoking Jewish businessman who took black singers off the street, hustled, bought, stole, pleaded and hyped to put their records across and then left them behind. He died only a few years after Frankie Lymon; he died poor, still looking for one more hit.

He was also a magnificent record producer. The sound he and arranger Richard Barret worked out for the Chantels was simple: one very steady drum beat; rolling piano triplets climbing up and falling away, over and over again; a little guitar; a virtually inaudible bass. In the nave, a pleading choir from four Chantels; at the pulpit, with everything surrounding her, Arlene. And somehow, the sound was huge, overpowering, like Judgement Day.

Goldner drove Arlene mercilessly. She would sing the songs he gave her, and he would curse; she would sing again, and he would scream and order her out of the studio. He kept at it until the tears were coming, until she was ready to do anything to get away from this terrible man, and then Goldner, fully aware that he had before him the greatest voice in rock ‘n’ roll, would turn his back, shrug his shoulders, and let her sing it one last time. And that was the take he was reaching for. Arlene, just a little girl really, scared, agonized, would sing for her life.

On ‘I love You So’ the massed voices of the girls speak the title softly, fading the sound into the entry of an unbelievably full voice that repeats those four words with a power that is beyond any expectation, no matter how many times you’ve heard it. Arlene dives headlong into the song, cries, weeps, struggles, and finds herself. As the song levels out – up there a couple of miles – Arlene half-sings, half-talks her way through one of the most erotic passages in rock ‘n’ roll, and she is sure of herself now: "Well, you know… How much I loveyou…" But the listener has never known anything like this. She envelops you, smothers you, hits an ending, drops down, and then flies all the way up again. The record fades and Arlene just has time to make her last class at junior high.

‘If You Try’ was her masterpiece. Again, an intro, this time with a piano really driving forward. Arlene catches the song when it’s already in flight and never lets go, calling out her message to all those lovers who might, if she can get through to them, avoid the mistake that has wrecked her life. By the time she reaches for and sails past the high note that forms the center of the song, her misery has changed into pure beauty, and she is singing her soul as she never will again. The Chantels are flowing, nothing can stop them, Arlene goes higher, and higher, she’s gone.

Rosie & The Originals: ‘Angel Baby’ (1960 – #5).
They came and they went. Formed in 1955, one freak hit (on paper no more than a remake of ‘Earth Angel’) took them to the top and that was enough to keep them going for five more years, when they finally gave up. And Rosie? Rumour had it that she was really P.J. Proby in drag, but she was real enough. She had an eerie little-girl voice: she sounded as if at the age of eight she really had seen all there was to see. If she was ridiculous, she was ghostly too. It worked – that pristine guitar intro, the famous offkey sax break that never really turns into a solo, Rosie pleading, Rosie loving, Rosie in a dream world all her own. Girls used to sing it at high school dances and everyone in the room instantly fell in love. ‘Angel Baby’ sounded like a visit from another planet, and it still does.

The Shirelles: ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (1960 – #39).
They were the real class of the girl groups. I once played ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ eight hours straight and the song just kept getting better, and this too is a more than perfect record, perhaps the sexiest ever made. All you need is the title and some vague memory of the rise and fall of Shirley Allston’s singing to know what happens here. "I don’t know…Well, I don’t know right now… Well, I love him so…" One big question mark. Strings up, strings down, a faintly latin rhythm led by a few cracks on the guitar, stops, pauses, and you linger, waiting for Shirley to give in. Does she? It doesn’t matter. Getting there was always half of it.

Carla Thomas: ‘Gee Whiz (Look In His Eyes)’ (1961– #10).
"Geeee-heeee –"… She hangs you there for the longest time, holding that note, and then, with one astonishing sigh, she falls. Gee whiz. For two minutes she takes that phrase and caresses it, speaks to it, finds endless meaning in it, doing what great rock does, taking a throwaway line from everyday speech and endowing it with impossible emotional resonance. A very old-fashioned record even for its time, and infinitely better than anything else she ever did.

Claudine Clark: ‘Party Lights’ (1962 – #5).
There’s nothing at all to this record after the first five seconds or so, but those five seconds have enough emotion packed into them to last the average rock ‘n’ roller a whole career (which is what they did for Claudine – she never had another hit). That beginning is The Party – house busting wide open, music sailing out the window, bottles and bodies and Buicks on the lawn, the good times rollin’ like they never did, and our girl is stuck right next door, imprisoned by her evil mother. But mama, everybody in the Crowd is there! Peeking through her window she can see that "they’re doing the Twist… the Mashed Potatoes!" (Must be her favourite) Well, it doesn’t matter; she’s not getting out. But the way she wails in those first moments is all that counts: "I SEE THE PARTY LIGHTS!"

The Marvellettes: ‘Beachwood 4-5789’ (1962 – #17).
Unlike the Supremes, this group never made history, just a few wonderful records. This was my favourite, even counting ‘Playboy’ and ‘Please Mr. Postman’ (I always thought the Beatles did it better): "Beachwood (note the acute current surf craze reference – that sells songs) 4-5789, you can call me up and have a date, any old time." Which is to say that Berry Gordy made a record that told any lonely boy just what he dreamed of hearing – that there were girls out there who could be had for the asking. And all over the country boys and girls picked up their phones and dialed, just to see what would happen, and what happened was that a lot of people had to get their numbers changed. That’s my idea of a rock ‘n’ roll culture, if you can call it an idea.

The Crystals: ‘He’s Sure The Boy I Love’ (1963 – #11).
This was Phil Spector’s first breakthrough into ecstasy. A dramatic fanfare – just on long note on a horn’ and then a completely confident female voice announcing over the impatient rumble of too many drums: "I always dreamed the boy I loved would come along, and he’s be tall and handsome, rich and strong. Well, now that boy has come to me – but he sure ain’t the way I thought he’d be!" And so, the Spector saga begins. In one swoop, pianos, more drums, sax, the full assault, and – I think – Darlene Love, holding on to the explosion, so proud of herself and her boy she can’t hold back anything at all. No excuses, no regrets, all he’s got are unemployment checks, but she loves him, and you’d better believe it. The Crystals are tossing out lines and Darlene throws them back with a smile that stretched all over America the year this record became a hit.

The Crystals: ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ (1963 – #3).
Nothing like it anywhere. Spector’s sound was meant to obliterate everything in its path, to insure that nothing – not a headache, or bad breaks, or bad brakes – could compete with his record. This was not merely commercial, this was Spector’s aesthetic: he had created something beautiful and he wanted it to get the attention it deserved. All he demanded was two or three minutes of your time to show you the beauty of the world, and he’d change your soul, if not your life.

The hook line on ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ – more like a battering ram – has never been touched. A sax blares out a single note three times as the momentum builds, and then all is lost in an absolute cataclysm of sound and emotion. The record is three minutes of pure force; there is so much love in this record it sings all around you. Spector once said that some people – old rock ‘n’ roll singers – cut records; other people – like the Beatles – cut ideas. But ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, he said, was both. (he added that the artist that can make records and ideas will rule the world; making noise like this must have felt like exactly that.) Well, I’ve never understood what he meant, but with ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ to mediate on I’ve never cared either.

The Chiffons: ‘One Fine Day’ (1963 – #5).
A hit at the same time as ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, and they made the best twosome in rock ‘n’ roll if you were lucky enough to hear them one after another. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the tune; you can hear her phrasing all over it. I’ve never slipped the hook of the song: the stunning piano that kicks it off (King’s?), disappears, and surfaces once again to break the disc in half and carry it away. If someone asked me to show them life at its best I’d just tell them to listen to the piano on ‘One Fine Day’. And the vision is so simple, so unreal – one fine day, everything will come true, and the girl who’s singing might even believe it. My choice, along with a dozen others, for the greatest rock ‘n’ roll record ever made. And I could live without the others, if I had to.

Martha & The Vandellas: ‘Heatwave’ (1963 – #4).
My friend Mike Goodwin once drove across the country with a camera strapped on top of his car, then he edited the film down to twenty minutes, cut it to the beat of ‘Heatwave’, and put the song on the soundtrack. That was his American dream.

The Ronettes: ‘Be My Baby’ & ‘The Best Part Of Breaking’ Up’ (1963 – #2 & #39).
The thing about ‘Be My Baby’ is the momentum; the thing about the momentum is the violence of Spector’s timing. You can see where Dylan got the basic feel of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘One Of Us Must Know’. Ronnie wasn’t the singer Darlene was (who is?), so the production is dominant, finally making her need all but superhuman. Brian Wilson’s favorite 45, for all you who might think he sprang full blown from his own head. And anyway, the real title of this incomparable record is ‘Message From Olympus’.

‘Best Part Of Breakin’ Up’ is all Ronnie: she’s saucy, teasing, and tough. No heartbroken need-nymph this time, she knows how good she is; this girl is in complete control, because the best part of breakin’ up is – what else – makin’ up. No tears this time, but a rare girl-group winner.

Lesley Gore: ‘You Don’t Own Me’ (1963 – #2).
The opening: very dramatic, summoning up The Last Fight Between Boy And Girl. No compromising. Lesley lost her boy in ‘It’s My Party’ and got him back with ‘Judy’s Turn To Cry’, but now, the final question: is he worth it? Lesley did this number in Gather No Moss, the great rock movie that brought all the strands of Rock ’64 together (Motown, English lightweights, Chuck Berry, Surf, American English limitations, James Brown, the Stones); and these days, when on-screen Lesley is about to begin this song, just a hint of the melody, not a word, is enough to set the audience screaming, not just because it’s a feminist manifesto years before its time, but also because the crowd recognizes it as truly great song. It’s not certain Lesley does – she sings it with an uncertain little smirk – don’t take this too seriously, boys, of course I’m yours – but she doesn’t drag it down. All those fine lines ("Don’t put me on display…"), her last surge for youth and freedom as she speeds off into the night, tough enough to break her date if that’s what it takes, make it a harbinger of things to come, but no one has matched it yet.

Dusty Springfield: ‘Wishin’ & Hopin’’ (1964 – #6).
Complete submission – one side of the girl group persona taken to its inevitable extreme. Wear your hair just for him, change your walktalkclothesetc, become a slave, you’ll love it. What saves it is that Dusty can really sing. So, like Arlene, she’a girl who’s loved and lost, and just wants to save us from her mistakes. She’ll never get another chance.

The Ronettes: ‘Walking In The Rain’ (1964 – #23).
Their best. Here we learn a little more about the Boy – he has to be sentimental, open, strong enough not to be embarrassed by the romantic. A blow against macho! And the lyrics give us one of the great rock subversions of grammar: "Johnny? No, he’ll never do/Bobby? No, it isn’t him too." Perhaps Spector’s most beautiful total sound, and the summation of why, in his view, life is worth living. Also, it won him his only Grammy nomination – for the sound effects. It’ll play forever.

Darlene Love: ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ (1964 – from Phil Spector’s Christmas album – on a single, but not on the charts).
This is the greatest record he ever made. As with ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’ Phil gives us not a moment’s peace – he uses everything he has from the very first notes, crashing an entire orchestra into the very first groove, then stepping back for three so-stately bass patterns. The orchestra begins its charge back to the fore, and Darlene grabs the mike and screams, "CHRISTMAS!" like she’s announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The intensity of her need, her desire, is overwhelming – she’ll die if her Bobby doesn’t make it home. She does everything she can do to make you believe her; there’s a sax break, and you need it to catch your breath; and then she’s back, pleading with even greater urgency, demanding, begging, with help from the Crystals: "PLEASE! (please) PLEASE! (please) PLEEEEEEEZE – BABY PLEASE COME HOME!" And he never does and the record is over.

Well, there’s plenty more: Diana Ross and her masterpieces, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’; the later Supremes’ ‘Stone Love’ (Jean Terrell on lead – here they’re celebrating the powerful masculine figure as usual, but this time he turns out to be the President and the song is a plea for his support. But it sounds like a love song, and if when Jean sings, "Ain’t got no other," you think she means no other lover, when in fact she means no other ideology – "stone love ‘tween my brothers and sisters" – it could matter less). There’s the Shangri-las, great but overrated by critics because their concepts are so perfect for criticism. A dozen other groups; even old Sue Thompson. And how could anyone leave out ‘The Loco-Motion’, ‘Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry’, or your favourite?

© Greil Marcus, 1974

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