Vinyl Testaments: Hairpins and Handclaps

“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.

So whenever I’m down at the Agora and the young folk flock around me asking, Old Mr. Rod, what is your favorite forgotten musical genre, I start thinking—Doo Wop? Rockabilly? Jump Blues? That poor bastard Rhythm and Blues, not so much forgotten as so poorly defined as to be useless? Or what about really reaching, operetta or protest songs or murder ballads?

The answer may or may not be Girl Groups, but the sound that Phil Spector, the Brill Building, Motown and others carved out of simple pop, close harmonies, Spanish instrumentation and teen angst provided some spectacular music in that narrow window between the rise and fall of rock and roll’s golden age and the British invasion. Rather than try to find one album to carry the weight of this article, since most of the best efforts in the field were in the form of singles, I’m going to look around at some places you can find these jewels. (And yes, this is my way of recognizing Darlene Love’s induction to the RnR Hall of Fame.)

I’ve been lucky enough to pick up some awesome collections—the Shirelles’ World’s Greatest Girl Group, a greatest hits of the Shangri-Las, a kind-of vanilla set called Growin’ Up Too Fast: The Girl Group Anthology that still has some rare treasures, Annette: A Musical Reunion with America’s Girl Next Door, Back to Mono, the Phil Spector box set, and the ponderously-titled One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found. Every one of them is worth picking up, every one has great tracks I’d never heard, and every one has surprises among the performers, composers, instrumentation, production, lyrics and content. The genre is far richer than I imagined, much more than bad boys and fingernail polish.

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Where to begin? The least surprising may be the Shirelles, whose hits are of course present here: “Soldier Boy”, “Dedicated to the One I Love”, “Baby It’s You”, “Boys”, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The stereo mix can make you look over your shoulder to see if four beautiful black teenagers just walked in the door from 1961. But it’s the songs you never hear on the radio that will make you smile, dance, cry, and hit repeat—my favorite used to be “I Met Him on a Sunday”, with each singer taking different lines and pointing up the contrast in their voices that blend so well, but hearing the driving strings, backup vocals, and horns on “Twenty-One” changed my mind. Then there’s “Shh, I’m Watching the Movie”, as playful a song-story as the Coasters used to do. The studio chatter that precedes the cut always makes me smile too. Check out the teenage rhumba of “Stop the Music”, as the jealous partygoer prepares to bust up her boyfriend’s good time. This was the first success for a cat named Van McCoy, then a staff writer for Florence Greenberg. You know him from a record a few years later called “The Hustle.” “Foolish Little Girl” was co-written by Howard Greenfield, Neil Sedaka’s frequent collaborator, and the electric piano, “aah-ing” backgrounds, and snare show that heritage, as well as the improvised outro. All in all, the world’s greatest girl group may be a little strong, but there are moments that stack up pretty well.

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The difference between the Shirelles and Annette Funicello is the difference between Pink and Selena Gomez. Annette was Walt Disney’s real live princess; she could sing, dance, act, she had a sense of humor that carried the corniest material, and she was America’s girl next door. In an era where a career could be utterly dictated by a corporation like Disney, especially a teenager’s career, she was prevented from ever enduring a scandal (unlike Miley Cyrus, for whom scandal is the career). The two-disc retrospective of her musical career is frankly revelatory. She has a sweet yet assertive voice, and though she never sings about the bad boys found elsewhere in girl group tunes she does have her share of heartache.

Theme albums were the order of Annette’s career: dance styles, world tunes, soundtracks, nostalgia, surf music. Luckily, she was up to the challenge every time. Some of the surf material is remarkable, but then with composers like Roger Christian, Gary Usher, and Brian Wilson, it should be. Skeptics would say you can’t go wrong with that kind of pedigree; Annette sure doesn’t. She also sparkles with much of the soundtrack work, usually written by Disney’s Sherman brothers who are responsible for the best material from Disney for several decades. Their first work for the corporation was her hit, “Tall Paul.” They contributed the title track and many others for her first album, Danceannette. It’s a chicksploitation record, sure, but it’s fun and immensely danceable. My favorite track here? Before buying the set, it was “First Name Initial,” a driving Wanda Jackson-like number. There are too many great songs on the set to pick just one, now.

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“Back to Mono.” Wow. When this was released, I was overjoyed. I still am. To have all this magnificent music in one place, mastered and presented properly—it’s really a gift to music fans at any price. Phil Spector was absolutely one of America’s geniuses. Hearing what he did, like listening to Brian Wilson or Prince or the Beatles or Pink Floyd, I only wish I had a mind that could create such wonders from nothing. It’s an anthology, not a comprehensive set, so the hits are here along with a huge dose of tunes you may never have heard from the big, little, and unknown acts from the Spector stable. It starts where Phil did, with “To Know Him is To Love Him,” the song Phil wrote and performed with his group, the Teddy Bears, legendarily inspired by his father’s epitaph. From there, the girls’ hits gush forward: “I Love How You Love Me,” “He Hit Me,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” “Then He Kissed Me.” Those half-dozen songs are a mighty legacy, enough to seal Spector’s claim to a seat in rock’s pantheon, but there’s so much more to discover here. This set, incidentally, includes “A Christmas Gift from Phil Spector,” arguably rock’s best holiday set.

Spector is in rare company in pop music, his hits recognized for the sound of his productions as opposed to the individual artists. Ask most people on the street who recorded “He’s a Rebel” or “Baby I Love You”—even give them a choice among The Crystals, Ronettes, and Blossoms/Darlene Love, and I’ll bet you get blank stares. The point is, Spector brought a sound and vision to pop music and was able to work with such phenomenal talent (the Righteous Brothers, Gene Pitney, Ike and Tina, and Curtis Lee are some of the other artists represented here) that there may be no other single man so responsible for changing the nature of the music.

Hey, what about the music? Ronnie Spector is not my favorite, but her work here—“Walking in the Rain,” “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered,” “So Young”—is splendid. She had a strong, assertive voice with amazing range and a tough-girl delivery that was the anti-Dion. She wasn’t taking any crap from some wanderer; she knew what she had to offer. The Crystals—well, the real Crystals; I’m not getting into all that here—offered “Uptown,” which is a two-minute substitute for watching all of Little Shop of Horrors. The song is perfect; harmonies, percussion, strings, the scene-setting and storytelling, it’s the tale of early-adulthood love. That’s the point often in Spector’s catalog; it’s not teeny-bopper music. The young adults of his music are experiencing real emotions, making real decisions, and living with real consequences. Are they kids? Yes. We’re all someone’s kids. It doesn’t mean they’re not also adults. They’re “All Grown Up,” they’re “Not Too Young to Get Married,” they were “Born to Be Together.”  It may be a “Long Way to be Happy,” but like Tina says, “Love Like Yours Don’t Come Knocking Every Day.”

Did I mention the composers here? Goffin and King, Greenwich and Weil, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Gene Pitney, Tommy Boyce, Jeff Barry, Pomus/Shuman, Harry Nilsson…

Harry Nilsson? Yes, on “Paradise,” which also appears on the Shangri-Las set. There is a little overlap in material on the collections I’ve chosen here, but not so much as you might expect, not so much as in, for example, a half-dozen surf compilations. The fact is the girl groups had a wealth of great material available, and almost all was original; in fact, the best was always original, with the odd standard or showtune not usually holding up well to a girl-group treatment. Look at the Paris Sisters’ “Dream Lover.” It’s a great song, and they do a fine job on it, but it was never meant as a girl-group number and it doesn’t carry that particularly feminine sensibility, the implicit burden of sexuality, of maturing faster than their male peers, of being the one in trouble tomorrow.

America likes to think the girl groups were all “Sunshine and Lollipops,” that Lesley Gore had no dark side and that the Shangri-Las were caricatures, cartoons of good girls gone bad and bad boys gone dead, but the reality is that every self-aware girl asked “Will You Love Tomorrow” and too many had to insist “Saturday Night Never Happened” or wonder “How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad.” It wasn’t all “The Loco-Motion” and “Birthday Party.” It was also “He Hit Me” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” For the real tough girls, it wasn’t just the Shangri-Las, it was even Lesley Gore declaiming “You Don’t Own Me.” It was as tough a statement as “Don’t Make Me Over” from Dionne Warwicke, and some of those girls with Fabian and Frankie on their walls were hearing it, listening to the lyrics like they would with Bob Dylan in another year or two.

But the tough girls everyone knew were the Shangri-Las, and their talent and material made them strong contenders in my mind for the Greatest Girl Group title. George “Shadow” Morton (what a name!) is often dismissed for the three-minute melodramas he produced with these girls, with the all-time cheese champ, “Leader of the Pack,” earning a good part of that scorn. Teen tragedy songs had been chart hits for at least five years, but the spoken portions, funereal piano, whiny lead vocals, chopper sound effects—it was all too much and just enough. If it made these girls a joke, it’s not fair, because they offered so much more. “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (Mwah!)—dirty fingernails…well, I gotta look up…how does he dance? Close. Very, very close. These girls are not worried about what dress to wear to prom; they’re thinking about how quick they can get out of it. These girls are rock and roll, not pop; denim, not taffeta. If Connie Francis was Baby in “Dirty Dancing,” these girls were the ones in the dancers’ cabin. They show up in both compilations, Growin’ Up and One Kiss, and the variety of sound they produce is unparalleled. We haven’t even discussed “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand.)”

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But let’s look at the collections. Growin’ Up Too Fast is a little milder, with silly pieces like “Beatles, Please Come Back” and “Please Don’t Talk to the Lifeguard” and lightweight fun classics “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Only Want to Be with You,” but then there are brilliant jewels like the muscular “Hey, Big Boy,” Van McCoy’s swinging and sweet “I’m Back with My Baby,” and all-out dancers like “442 Glenwood Avenue,” “Summertime USA,” and the sublime “Wow Wow Wee.” But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns here, either. In fact, the saccharine is cut even more effectively by the sparing use of vinegar on this set, as the Spector-soundalike “Why Did You Go?” is joined by the Whyte Boots’ “Nightmare” and the often dismissed Diane Renay (of the Sailor songs “Kiss Me Sailor” and “Navy Blue”) contributes not only the title track for the compilation but also the truly disturbing “Watch Out Sally,” about a girl who goes to a party with a boy against her parents’ wishes and ends up stranded, at the mercy of a menacing stranger. After all this, the standout to me may be Ginny Arnell’s “I Wish I Knew What Dress to Wear,” from the gal who gave us the classic “Dumb Head.” On “Dress,” the Brenda Lee-like voice is fretting over appropriate fashion as she is going to see her ex and his new steady. It’s all self-misdirection, worrying over her clothes when she “(doesn’t) really want to go.” It’s a great pop confection with stinging strings, a shuffling drum beat, and cascading background vocals. It may sum up all of what we usually mean by girl group music: the emotional concerns of “girls,” expressed as they really are, even if, like emotional expression often is, it’s buried, disguised, downplayed, and dismissed.

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Did that sound like a conclusion? The best is still to come. One Kiss Can Lead to Another is a typical Rhino package: exhaustively researched, terrifically inclusive, amazingly informative, endlessly delightful, and out of print. (Wait until I talk about DIY.) Each of the four discs is packaged in a cardboard case resembling a compact (truly a compact disc.) The massive liner notes (really, a huge essay/small book on the genre) looks like a diary, and the entire set is packaged in a fake hatbox. It is superb, and that’s before you start listening to it.

Highlights? Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: I haven’t mentioned Diana Ross and the Supremes. To me, the Supremes are to girl groups what Bob Dylan is to folk singers: not so much the ultimate example as an act that started in the genre and outgrew it. I can’t argue that the Supremes didn’t do material that fits my definition above: “Love Child” pretty much defines the girl group sensibility. Finally, in this set Diana and the girls show up with the seldom-heard “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.” The punchy Vegas-like horns, handclaps, background “ooh-ooh”s, the trademark Motown growl at 1:50—it all says Supremes and it’s one of my favorites from the group. Speaking of the Supremes, how about the woman who should have replaced Diana Ross? Syreeta Wright shows up with “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You,” a Brian Holland/Ashford and Simpson composition that sounds just like a Diana solo—except better, without the syrup or overproduction. A terrific voice and wonderful material.

There are so many high points, I can start anywhere. How about Cilla Black’s “I’ve Been Wrong Before,” with the mournful piano and Kate Bush-clear vocals, sensuous strings, and general melancholia? Better than cheesecake after a breakup. “Condition Red,” the Goodees’ ersatz Shangri-Las that ends tragically, but not before tighter, sweeter harmonies, ambulance sound effects, and a California bubble-gum arrangement draw you in. While we’re in California, let’s go “Lookin’ for Boys” with the Pin-Ups, a guaranteed replay-pusher with straight-up Beach Boys backgrounds, bikini-and-beach imagery, handclaps (YES!), a build from the simplest to the happiest (“we get our bikinis, small as they come, forget all our troubles, get out in the sun”). Ah god, it’s perfect. It’s better, even, than the real thing, the Brian Wilson production of the Honeys’ “The One You Can’t Have.” Better than Brian Wilson in 1963? Yep.

Another surprise—Carole King singing “He’s a Bad Boy” with harmonica and a very folky guitar. I’d listen to this instead of Joan Baez for the rest of my life. But I’d rather take the dieting advice of the Fabulettes and “Try the Worryin’ Way” to lose weight, a clever blues-informed take on girl groups. Other influences that make their way into this set are r&b, with Mary Wells’ super “Bye Bye Baby,” psychedelia from the Luv’d Ones’ “Up Down Sue,” and the soul of P.P. Arnold’s exquisite recording of “The First Cut is the Deepest.”

Biggest surprise? Not Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love,” not composers like Neil Diamond, Leon Huff, Jan Berry, Bob Crewe and Lou Christie, not even the bizarre “Peanut Duck.” No, the big surprise is “Don’t Drop Out,” a girlfriend’s plea to her crush to stay in school so she’s not left alone, delivered in a strangely region-free tone with a slightly nasal refrain backing, echoing bass, bubblegum-pop redeemed by amazing stacked harmonies in the last thirty seconds, all from…Dolly Parton. Yes, that one. It is a great, great little record.

There are 120 tracks on this set. I won’t say if you get only one set, get this one, because no music fan should be without the Wall of Sound—after all, that box gives you the best of the Righteous Brothers and others as well as the girl groups. But One Kiss is overflowing with wonders, with a wider field covered in time and style. It was the best music purchase I made all year, as I come back to it time and again, shuffle the playback and find tracks that make me smile, dance, and enjoy life all over again. That’s pretty good.

2 Comments

Filed under Rod Miller

2 responses to “Vinyl Testaments: Hairpins and Handclaps

  1. I had forgotten the hat box. I came very close on that one.Glad I have that Spector set, though.

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