When I say I'm in love you best believe I'm in love, L-U-V.
"What color are his eyes?"
"I don't know, he's always wearing shades."
"Is he tall?"
"Well I gotta look up."
"Yeah? Well, I hear he's bad."
"Hmm, he's good-bad but he's not evil."
("Give Him a Great Big Kiss")
Has anyone expressed joy and heartbreak, love and pain, more poetically than The Shangri-Las? Also any band who's influenced Blondie, New York Dolls, The Damned, The Ramones, TLC, Sugababes, En Vogue, and All Saints, plus the musical Grease, has to have something big going for them.
Like all the best girl groups, there were sisters involved. Lead singer Mary Weiss was accompanied by her sister Betty Weiss and twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. The girls were 15 and 16 when they were discovered in school in Queens, New York, by a typically dodgy music business figure, writer and producer George "Shadow" Morton, named for his habit of vanishing for days at a time.
They were helped by the likes of Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Jerry Lieber, young Brill Building songwriters who wrote them unparalleled tales of adolescent trauma and delight. No songs have ever expressed more clearly what it's like to go against your parents, to fall in love with a boy just because he's cool, or the easy way you can both break hearts and have your heart broken.
These tunes celebrate the simple fact that when you're young everything burns much more fiercely in your heart. (Or so I think, being a cynical adult of too many years.) And they're not just for teenage girls. Boys: everything you need to know to understand what girls want can be found in the lyrics. Parents are better off burying their head in the sand, keeping well away from the girls' footsteps; just don't tell your daughter to dump her biker boyfriend, please.
Their first hit, "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)" entered the US charts in September 1964, reaching number five. In the UK it got to 14 later that year. Their greatest success, the song everyone knows, was "Leader of the Pack", much parodied and abused but still full of life, haunting and fearsome. A US number 1 that year, it was to be a hit in Britain on four separate occasions. The tale of a girl who feels responsible for the death of her bad-boy boyfriend, followed in the tradition of such death songs as "Tell Laura I Love Her" and "Johnny Remember Me".
The band was hugely popular with teenagers at the time, and their exuberant yet sometimes macabre songs have gained fans in unlikely places: cross-dressing proto-punks the New York Dolls covered "Give Him A Great Big Kiss", and The Damned ripped off the opening of "Leader of the Pack" for "New Rose", the first British punk single. Pete Townshend of The Who has named "Past, Present and Future" as one of his favourite ever recordings.
Their influence also stands tall as the first of the bad-girl girl groups, the antithesis of the goodie-goodie Supremes. All the bad girls since then, acts like TLC and Sugababes, whether putting boys down and breaking they hearts, or blowing off photo-shoots, have something of The Shangri-Las spirit in them. It was reportedly so hard to get the four of them together for a photograph that pretty much every image existent of the band only shows three of them.
Songs like "Leader of the Pack", "Remember (Walking In The Sand)", "Right Now And Not Later", "He Cried", "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" are like the teen movies filmmakers never dared to make. "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" is pure melodrama: the tale of a girl who leaves home for the love of a boy she then forgets right away. Her pride keeps her from returning to her mother who "grew so lonely in the end / angels picked her for their friend."
Tragic then, and often laugh-out-loud funny. They came closer than any other act (even Phil Spector, who was working on his Wall of Sound around the same time) to turning a three-minute pop song into an epic. Mixing spoken words and singing, they also made good use of sound effects: seagull noises on "Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)" and a motorbike on "Leader Of The Pack", the latter recorded in the studio corridor.
Their career lasted four years, 1964 to 1968, when Betty Weiss got married to artist and writer Jeremy Storch. Mary Ann Ganser died in 1971 of encephalitis, and her sister Marge Ganser of breast cancer in 1996. But before Marge died, the remaining three of them appeared together one last time in 1989 at Palisades Park. They dressed in black leather and rode motorbikes. And they rocked New Jersey with "Leader of the Pack".
Neil Kellas's sleeve notes for The Best Of The Shangri-Las (Delta Music)
Tom Simon's web page at http://www.tsimon.com/shangri.htm
History of Rock web pages at http://www.history-of-rock.com/shangria-las.htm