ittle Eva got hit. James Harris, her husband, hit her. Carole King was a female songwriter at Manhattan’s Brill Building who employed Eva to take care of her and her husband Gerry Goffin’s child; King and Goffin wrote a song about James and Eva called “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss),” and it was recorded by three women called the Crystals in 1962 at the behest of one man, Phil Spector. Spector produced a lot of records, and a lot of them were famous. Be still the beating heart of Veronica Bennett—Ronnie Spector—whose years under Phil’s tiny hands (both in the Ronettes and as his wife) consisted of legendary constrictions so explosively insane that one shudders to think; by Ronnie’s account, she was forced to ride with an inflatable husband doll in the passenger seat of her car to ward off prowling men. “He Hit Me” flopped to little or no surprise; what was harder to decipher was why Spector had asked the Crystals to record the song in the first place.
The song is textbook Spector, like a cloth full of ether to the face. Still, if you huff enough you’re bound to pass out; its poison—domestic violence and sadomasochism—is the cloud of moral uncertainty that surrounds the girl group era. For a fairly complex time in pop music’s history, the era is traditionally offered two tidy approaches, the first from an essay on songwriters/producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and the second from Jon Pareles of the New York Times writing about Rhino’s recent box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found.
1. “Jeff and Ellie's music perfectly captures the spirit of teenage America. No, I don't mean the rather brutal current spirit of bizarre tattoos, body piercings, STDs, drug and alcohol addiction, and high school massacres. I'm talking about that fanciful mélange of 50s, 60s and 70s youth culture that has taken root in our collective memory: Drive-in movies, dance crazes, cheeseburgers and strawberry malts, pajama parties, top-down convertibles, prom nights, graduation days, and the flush of first love.”
2. “To hear all these long-suffering voices is to realize that feminism didn’t arrive an instant too soon.”
The former expresses what you might call the Superficial Idiot Bliss approach: the sedative of nostalgia for a simpler time before the party got crashed by gender politics, the sexual revolution, and—with all due respect—Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who accidentally introduced the idea that music ought to Mean Something Important (together or apart, these are still three of the most bewildering words to apply to pop).
The latter quote then might be called the Angry Oops reading, characterized by a hardline attitude of embarrassment mixed with progressivism and a dash of penance, a post woman’s lib “this is exactly what we’re talking about” frustration. It’s usually colored by the notion that the girl group era was just about a bunch of men writing songs portraying women as lovesick and irrational in order to manipulate teenage girls into blissful subservience, a kind of Tarzan and Jane approach to romance—an approach which proves to be just as hollow and regressive as the first.
Even if it was ultimately designed to sell records, the girl group sound wasn’t just a deluge of homogenous crap that got dumped on the American people when the record companies didn’t know how to deal with Elvis’ departure for the Army or Jerry Lee Lewis deciding to marry his cousin, but a period of stylistic diversity and emotional heft as rich as pop’s best times. It serves as an interesting pivot in music history: assembly-line song production giving way to—or at least beginning to compete with—the auteur, the accidental idealism of musical miscegenation carried out in a blend of rock, R&B;, gospel, and early soul, and (most importantly), the development of the complicated role women have played in pop music.
It’d be pointless and stupid to argue against certain facts about the era: this music didn’t exactly originate in the voices of teenage girls soaring forth from the confines of diaries and suburban drear; it was product. It was people like Goffin and King or Greenwich and Barry sitting around pianos in Manhattan trying to figure out what the kids would identify with so they could do things like “move units.” Now, if you foolishly hold on to the method acting approach to music, then the resonance that these records found in American youth will probably disgust you; Gerry Goffin in his sunglasses and sweater complaining “I had to think like a 14- or 15-year-old girl. Sometimes I was kidded about it. But we were young, and we were hungry.” The Shangri-Las’ producer George Morton, dazzled by Barry and Greenwich’s ability to craft heartbreak with such precision, reflected on his composition “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)”: “Inspiration? What inspiration? I'm sitting in my old Buick on Oyster Bay Road thinking I need a song and I just wrote it.” How fucking romantic, indeed.
A slew of writers, producers, and singers took a stab at the girl group shtick; half of discovering the era is stumbling through the extended and often ridiculously tangled web of involved parties. New York City’s Brill Building, situated at 1650 Broadway, was the nexus of the girl group sound. Don Kirschner and Al Nevins founded the publishing company Aldon Music in 1958. Writers worked in cubicles piled one on top of the other with an upright piano and a pad of paper for $150 a week or less. Both the pairs of Carole King-Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weil-Barry Mann worked for Aldon. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller—whose towering C.V. includes “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Stand By Me”—had also moved into the building with Red Bird Records to try to squeeze the teen market. In 1960, Phil Spector came from Southern California to work under Leiber and Stoller; after a summer, the 20-year-old Spector was hired by Leiber and Stoller’s publishers Hill & Range as a multipurpose producer/writer/engineer, while also doing production for Atlantic Records. By 21, he was a millionaire. Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry also worked for Red Bird Records as songwriters. So on, so forth. And Motown in Detroit. Goldstar Studios in L.A. Even outside the bubbles of the girl group sound, countless nobodies, one-offs, and soon to be somebodies—including Dolly Parton and Cher—made records of bubbling excitement, morbid heartbreak, surrender.
From wild Spector stories, it’s pretty easy to imagine that the studio atmosphere was all ass-patting and axe wielding, but let’s try for just a minute to buy into a happier, more interesting story, i.e. the one that really happened. Four of the best and most successful songwriters of the time were women: Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, Carole King, and Jackie DeShannon. Admittedly, all but DeShannon collaborated with their husbands, but their hard work and success proved that the era wasn’t just a bunch of creeps in sunglasses pulling strings and dolling up dumb girls to do their pop bidding (funnily enough, DeShannon ended up bunking with young Jimmy Page in 1964 while on tour with the Beatles; together, they wrote Marianne Faithfull’s “Come Stay With Me”). In a semi-recent interview, the webzine Cha Cha Charming asked Greenwich if she experienced sexism in the studio: “When I would be in the studio and ask the guitarists to give me a ‘chk chk chk on the two and the four’ they’re kinda like ‘Whatever.’ Because at first I was Ellie in the miniskirt with the blond hair, and I don’t know how seriously they took me until they realized that I knew what I was doing.”
By Greenwich’s account, we get a sense that there actually was a kind of moderate evolution happening in the studio: session jerks learned, albeit slowly, to take orders from “people like” Ellie, in spite of the length of either her hair or her skirt. Furthermore, it’s crucial to remember that all pop music—not just girl groups—was made in the vertical integration hustle of the Brill Building. Recording equipment was still expensive and distribution was still almost totally a big-business affair, for better and worse. Jackie DeShannon later reflected that “I was always trying to record things for myself, but if Metric [Music, her publisher] got crazy about a song, they’d say ‘Well, let’s give it to someone who’s in the Top 5.’ It’s interesting, because today I would’ve just recorded those songs and put them out. There wasn’t the understanding of the singer-songwriter, especially women.” DeShannon actually did sing, in addition to writing and acting; Carole King’s earliest solo work and some of Ellie Greenwich’s records were, in some sense, “singer-songwriter records,” if still saturated with the standard pop ambitions that permeated all this work. (Incidentally, it’s funny to reflect on the fact that Carol King eventually made one of the most successful singer-songwriter records of all time, 1971’s gajillion-selling Tapestry.)
Forget fame—so crass—the popularity of the girl group style gave women a chance to deliver themselves from the bland, boxed lives society had set up for them. Mary Wells, who also incidentally wrote and performed the raw soul cut “Bye Bye Baby” at age 17 before toning down for the classic “My Guy,” was actually able to make a life for herself that would’ve been totally unavailable before the girl group era: “Until Motown in Detroit, there were three big careers for a black girl: Babies, factories, or day work. Period.” And it does seem fairly significant that the era’s music and members were integrated; the background vocalists that flocked from New York’s glee clubs and gospel choirs to the Brill Building were equally black and white, and even Ronnie Spector, the era’s most famous pinup, was a mix of Cherokee, Irish, and African-American heritage. Jackie DeShannon, who had sung both in gospel and country contests since childhood, blended the earliest strains of folk rock with an unusually gutsy voice; songs like “When You Walk in the Room” are effortlessly and astoundingly hybrid, twisting early soul with the Byrds while both elements were still practically zygotic. I’m not saying it was all a crayon box celebration; promoters and record companies had difficulty and hesitation in selling black artists to white suburbia, as at least partially evidenced by some of the British invasion covers of these songs, which often fared better than their grittier originals. (The Beatles’ “Boys,” The Searchers’ “Needles and Pins,” and Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good” come immediately to mind, but there are more.) Still, the fact that they exist—were written, recorded, and committed to tape with the same hope as any other record—seems significant.
(Additionally, the blurring of “race records” with teen pop is the surface of the era’s richness and diversity; there’s plenty of cavernous orchestral pop and mopey, doe-eyed martyrs of romance, but also folk-rock, early psychedelia, and torch song solemnity. Moods are no more consistent, ranging from the Shangri-La’s gaudy, sublime melodrammer on “Leader of the Pack” to the bubble bath and cotton candy extravaganza of the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.”)
The central issue—again, whether the girl group era was more than just a crock of stamped out pap, an era of bygone innocence, or an ugly remnant of our caveman days—can’t really be answered with any pile of facts, no matter how well-contorted. You may have noticed with irritation and maybe some self-satisfaction that I haven’t done a lot of talking about the actual music up until this point—how it plays on these problems of the woman’s role in the songs, the veracity of the emotions, etc.
I had the impetus to write this because it seemed like the girl group era was in need of a nearly moral defense, if for nothing else than to make me feel like I wasn’t just an idiot for sincerely loving the music in the first place. Fellow Stylus writer Justin Cober-Lake and I had discussed girl groups after he wrote a piece on the subject for Pop Matters a handful of months back. In that article, he wrote that despite hopeful arguments that the performances of women during the girl group era helped them break free from across-the-board misogyny, they were ultimately victims of the system. “Merely because you sing like a liberated woman doesn't mean you are one… By singing ‘Be My Baby,’ Spector didn't announce a female sexual assertion; she simply portrayed the character that the male figures wanted to see portrayed.”
Firstly, the couple Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich wrote the song. And sure, Spector was an egomaniacal control freak and a deeply disturbed individual. But let’s toss out nitpicky mechanics of writing credits and black-and-white readings because they’re not really illuminating anything; the debate around the song only goes to show the lack of perspectives at the table. I don’t care how many times I read that Patti Smith wanted to “be Ronnie Spector,” “Be My Baby” didn’t break the inherent chains of mid-60s womanhood any more than it got my cat out of a tree, but it didn’t reaffirm Woman’s Endless Submission either. Justin rightly points out the context of the song: pre-sexual revolution, enormously popular, but fairly quaint. But gasp, there’s a dialectic at work here, or at least I’d like there to be one: society’s attitudes have changed with regards to these subjects, and even progressives fall in love, so why can’t we dignify the sentiment of the song without shoving the gender issue to the front, why can’t we build something better than an argument of either dismissal or a kind of neutered appreciation?
In a sense, it is to suggest a kind of “I don’t see in black and white, I only see people” utopianism, but not without reason. Most of these songs, more than about women or men—are about romance; about the ubiquity of it, about its propensity to overwhelm, about the ease of its dialect. To hear them 40 years later as so tightly gendered seems practically regressive. Think about a mid-60s film like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, which employed girl group tracks over footage of bikers strapping on leather for a big ride, subverting not only the masculinity of the biker image (and masculinity itself), but the idea that this girl group material should only be intelligently read as ultimately empty; Anger’s effectiveness was in reshaping the songs to allude to their greater power—the oddly profound effect of the performativity of romance.
Think back on the tracks we gushed about during 2005 at Stylus. The loneliness of Antony’s “Hope There’s Someone” could’ve been sung for teenagers in 1962 and would’ve been just as affecting. Robyn’s “Be Mine”—with an explicit reference to the sing-speak style of “Leader of the Pack” or “My Boyfriend’s Back”—was treated like a throwback, when really it was just dragging on the same sentiments. Meta-pop, really? The lyrics mean the same thing now as they would’ve then. Love lost. Love never had. Write a song about it. Never felt that way? Doesn’t matter. If someone listens and understands, it worked.
Not everything from the era is worth saving. There’s plenty of boring, unrefined slop. There’s plenty of songs that sound like they’re trying just too hard to suspend your disbelief that they’re just records (in the most tawdry, unflattering sense of the word). Idiot songs abound. It’s a given. But when I hear any of the music of the girl group era I adore, I don’t hear wild male fantasies of an eager, obedient girl blossoming out of magnetic tape, I hear a sentiment—in the yearning of the voice, the lack of solipsism and specificity in perspective, the sweeping grandiosity of the production, and the meaning of the words—that transcends gender, extols love in all its imbalances, and one that means as much to anyone that has ever felt like they cared enough to throw up and too much to get to sleep at night.
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
There’s plenty of good information to be found on the web about girl groups if you’re interested. Spectropop is astounding—broadly researched, well-linked, and thorough, if light on “essay” form writing (additionally, the site covers all forms of “classic” pop, girl groups and beyond). Cha Cha Charming, named after the Ellie Greenwich song, is a great webzine cataloging various things girls, including frequent looks back at girl group-era stuff. Girl Groups.com is also a pretty good place to find stuff, if a tad hard to navigate.
This is a completely non-definitive selection of 15 of my favorite songs from the girl group era, sucker cuts included, with some history and a little reflection. In the interest of being concise, I didn’t repeat artists, but suffice it to say that a lot of these groups have at least 3 or 4 absolute classics. Indulge me/don’t indulge me/follow your heart, etc. (Parenthetical information is writer, label, and year of release.)
01. Jackie DeShannon, “When You Walk in the Room” (Jackie DeShannon, Liberty, 1963)
Bewilderingly, the Searchers managed to hit in the US with their frumpy, ball-strangling version of this Jackie DeShannon song; a shame in large part because the dazzling original just barely cracked the Billboard 100 a year earlier. Though DeShannon’s sandpapery coffee & cream voice is totally enchanting, it’s Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement that makes the song glow: a fantastic buzz bass and drum intro, chiming 12-string guitar two years before The Byrds even existed, a flurry of castanets, and a background swaddled in aloof strings and a choir of vocals. Again, I’m not fond of the Searchers cover, but it does go to show the gender interchangeability of so many of these songs, many of which were covered by the up-and-coming beat combos of the British invasion.
02. The Chiffons, “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” (Brute Force, Laurie, 1965)
The Chiffons were really famous for “One Fine Day” and “He’s So Fine,” but this song waves the forward thinking flag and thus merits inclusion. Crazy in love, yes; crazy enough to plunge drums into echo, have a horn breakdown that sounds like your face is being splashed with warm oil before getting a rinse from razzle-dazzle harp arpeggios, and have a droning, vamped ending that beat garage psych to the same punch by about two years. Plus, this song was written by a guy who called himself “Brute Force.” Priceless.
03. The Jaynettes, “Sally Go Round the Roses” (Zell Sanders/Lona Stevens, Tuff, 1963)
“Sally Go Round the Roses” was a hit, reaching #2 in 1963, but at a ridiculous cost. Producer Abner Spector reportedly kept the girls in the studio for a full week until the track was finished, inviting gobs of studio musicians and other vocalists onto the track, ultimately spending $60,000 before finishing the song, which, for the time, was tantamount to a 12-hour Jerry Bruckheimer movie about exploding skyscrapers or people throwing up dinosaurs. The song doesn’t exactly reek of money; the obtuse nursery rhyme lyric, which some have actually read to be about lesbianism (rather stupidly), sounds distant, hazy, and especially weird over the simmering funkiness of the backing track. Coupled with the more overtly stoned “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind but Me),” this song alludes to a weirdly prescient form of proto-psychedelia from girl groups.
04. The Shangri Las, “Out in the Streets” (Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry, Mercury, 1964)
Sadly, this song was a comparative dud, stalling at #54 on the charts, but if I had to pick one song from my favorite girl group, it would be “Out in the Streets.” Producer George “Shadow” Morton wasn’t just aping Spector, he was on to something much more interesting, chilly, and dramatic—hear the unaccompanied opening vocal winding through back alleys, the drone of the last verse that opens into strange, sour French horn notes. Girl and guy fall in love, girl realizes she has changed guy irrevocably, girl realizes she was in fact love with the guy that couldn’t be tied down. But who gets cut loose? He’s a Bad Boy, but he’s turned in street cred for love—maybe he was ready to move on; we’ll never know: “I wish I didn’t care, I wish I never met him, they’re waiting out there, I know I gotta set him free.” Heartbreaking and then some.
05. The Chantels, “Maybe” (Richard Barrett, End, 1957)
The earliest song on this collection, “Maybe” is just as much doo-wop as it is early girl group. The Chantels actually played their own instruments, but really terribly; the rhythm section just fumbles around in the dark. It’s totally irrelevant though—Arlene Smith’s vocal steals the song, and it’s actually fairly strange, with a quality that almost sounds like a man singing in falsetto. Like an eerily beautiful reinterpretation of “Unchained Melody” by a group of possessed-sounding children.
06. The Cookies, “I Never Dreamed” (Gerry Goffin/Russ Titelman, Dimension, 1964)
More than even “Be My Baby,” which is almost too darkly atmospheric, “I Never Dreamed” could serve as the quintessential girl group record. The Cookies recorded under several names, including The Cinderellas, The Honey Bees and The Palisades; while almost every song they cut was worthy, “I Never Dreamed,” with its gorgeous, layered vocal harmony and shuffling mid-tempo beat, is probably the best of the lot. The lyrics are a little dud—love, isn’t it great, etc—but the blissful delivery makes it honest and the subtlety of Carol King’s arrangement, particularly the horns, lends the song a quality of sound simply blossoming off the groove.
07. Lesley Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” (John Madara/Dave White Tricker, Mercury, 1963)
It’s sort of hard to imagine that this is the same Lesley Gore that acted out the bratty pop princess routine on “It’s My Party.” Lyrically one of the most unusual songs of the era—defiantly asserting independence while in a relationship—“You Don’t Own Me” is only intensified by the distinctively girly sound of the 17-year-old Gore’s pained, resentful voice and Quincy Jones’ film noir production scheme.
08. The Crystals, “Uptown” (Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil, Philles, 1962)
“Uptown” is the story of a working stiff that feels like a goddamn dog all day in the pit, only to take the train to his girl—“Uptown” almost definitely referring to Harlem—who makes him feel something like a human being. The shades of flamenco guitar and castanet flourishes throughout the song are good examples of Spector’s flirtation with Latin styles, however pale. Class issues weren’t exactly at the top of the pop order, making “Uptown” one of the most bittersweet and thematically nuanced songs of the era.
09. Mary Wells, “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance” (Berry Gordy Jr./William Stevenson, Motown, 1961)
“I Don’t Want to Take a Chance” was Wells’ second single, following the strikingly unpolished “Bye Bye Baby,” but before she graduated to the breezy refinement of “My Guy.” The song is tense: uptight piano rides over a ragged sock hop beat highlighted by the zeal of an organ and string flourishes. Still, it’s Wells’ voice that really dazzles, sliding between concrete and cream through the knotted affections of the song: I love you, but I’m too afraid to get involved—no exceptions. Gordy and Stevenson’s faked cadence, while totally infuriating on some level, perfectly reflects the song’s sentiment: all conflict, no good resolution.
10. Ellie Gaye (Greenwich), “Cha Cha Charming” (Ellie Greenwich, RCA Records, 1958)
Ellie Greenwich released this song—which flopped—on RCA two years before she even met Jeff Barry, and while it’s on the gushy side of things, it’s verifiably impossible to deny. Right out of the gates, unhinged backing vocals chirp over a mildly bonkers cha-cha beat (think Micky and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange”), then Greenwich battles it out with a kind of clumsy bawdiness, playing big girl over coke-bottle percussion and a ridiculous flute flitting around the whole mix. Probably the biggest admission I’ll make for the really light-hearted stuff; still, damned if it doesn’t succeed without making Greenwich play the victim, instead painting two teens silly drunk on the syrup of new love shooting heart-darts back and forth, “no, I LUV U more!”
11. Diane Renay, “Watch Out, Sally!” (Bob Crewe/Sandy Linzer/Denny Randell, MGM, 1964)
Renay was actually a Navy base queen in the mid-60s, properly arousing the claustrophobic libidos of sailors stateside and wide, but “Watch Out, Sally!” was something totally different, a mock Shangri-Las slice of pissed-offedness that at times actually outshines its influence. Over a Bo Diddley beat, Renay mouths off about going to meet her forbidden boyfriend; the tough girl thing is a little forced, but the neat whispers-and-claps chorus is great, especially when it opens up onto a legitimately raw fuzz guitar solo. Sort of arresting given the sheer squeakiness of Renay’s reputation.
12. The Marvellettes, “Please, Mr. Postman” (Robert Bateman/Georgia Dobbins/William Garrett/Fred Gorman/Brian Holland, Motown, 1961)
It’s a total duh selection, but it’s a fantastic song. It was Motown’s first #1 hit, and in light of that, a great opening salvo for the pop-soul hybrids that flooded out of the label during the rest of the decade. Drums by a young Marvin Gaye, too. A bit hilarious for acknowledging the bitter indifference of some of our most maligned civil servants.
13. The Toys, “A Lover’s Concerto” (Sandy Linzer/Denny Randell, Dynavoice, 1965)
By late 1965, the popularity of girl groups was basically dying out, making “A Lover’s Concerto” even more triumphant. Blah blah and Bach aside, the real joy of the song is how it unfolds; each section of the song growing more complex in texture and harmony so that by the end it’s just a huge mess of wetness that you wish would last longer—“You’ll find me in your arms and say once again you love me, and if that love is true, everything will be just as wonderful.” The closest thing to riding a Pegasus over a rainbow I figure I’ll get in my bedroom.
14. The Paris Sisters, “I Love How You Love Me” (Larry Kolber/Barry Mann, Philles, 1961)
Wuzza wuzza bubb luv this song is like a down pillow the size of Texas or the lilt of narcotics without the nausea or being carried away by about a thousand angels, but you know, totally willingly and all. Makes me go silent and watch dust drift through the air. One of Spector’s earlier productions: a lot less sonic muscle, a lot more shadow. Golden, untouchable.
15. The Ronettes, “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” (Iwrin Levine/Phil Spector/Toni Wine, A&M;, 1969)
In the interest of being totally non-definitive, I’m just going to ignore “Be My Baby,” because I’ve always liked “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” a whole lot more. The last Spector-produced side for the Ronettes, “You Came…” is a quietly tragic masterpiece, the portrait of someone by love so many times that they swear off it; still, they succumb to delirium tremens and fall again. Thing is, it feels so good to love; you get the rush of the fat sax bellowing underneath, a giant swinging beat anchoring strings sliding in and out of orbit, and the cosmic snowglobe feel of Spector’s best productions. By the time Ronnie Spector swoons in defeat—“Goodbye, heart of mine, hello sweet tides of love that bind, I’ll try love just one more time”—I’ve usually been reduced to a blubbering ass, so ready a kerchief, please.