Top Ten Girl Group Sounds – chosen by Duglas T Stewart (BMX Bandits)
One of my favourite contemporary Girl Groups TeenCanteen are curating a celebration of female pop in aid of Scottish Women’s Aid and BMX Bandits are delighted to be taking part.
Some people would describe BMX Bandits as sixties and seventies influenced guitar pop or even rock. I admit I kind of like The Byrds and Big Star but most of the time I’d rather listen to The Cookies or The Shangri-Las (I’m pretty sure my late friend Alex Chilton felt the same way).
I wouldn’t cry no tears if I never heard another Neil Young record but would feel a real sense of loss if I couldn’t listen to my favourite Tammys single again. These records are important to me and helped shape my music. So I decided to compile my personal top ten Girl Group sounds.
I want to point out that I love The Slits, they meant way more to me than The Sex Pistols ever could, but for this list I decided to keep it to what I would consider records that fit into the classic Girl Group mould.
Here goes, in no particular order:
I Never Dreamed – The Cookies
I’ve been asked to write a lot of all time top ten lists over the last 30 years. I reckon if you’d to look all of them this track would be the track that would have the number one spot in most of those lists. The song was written by Russ Titelman and Gerry Goffin and features a great arrangement by Goffin’s more regular writing partner, the mighty Carole King.
Like the majority of classic girl group records it’s about teenage romance. It might not have anything profound or radical to say but it captures something timeless and true in its words and music. The way the guitar is used, in particular the guitar solo after the oh so tender middle eight, isn’t typical of girl group records of that era. This record captures a simple and honest type of love that many of us long for but seems so hard to find and keep hold of.
Give Him a Great Big Kiss – The Shangri-Las
I’ve often said The Shangri-Las are my all time favourite group (them or Tenniscoats). That might seem surprising as their body of work is so small and narrow in comparison to say The Beach Boys, who I love dearly and whose music has had a profound influence on me. But there is something singular and extreme about The Shangri-Las, their look and the world created in not much more than an album’s worth of tracks that just seem perfect to me. Producer and chief Shangri-Las songwriter Shadow Morton had a unique vision for the Girl Group records he was creating. He wasn’t trying to emulate what The Shirelles had achieved with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ or what Phil Spector was doing with The Ronettes and his wall of sound. Mostly under 3 minutes long their tracks are often more than just songs, using sound effects and spoken dialogue along side melodic twists and turns, they are like mini movies for the ears and the heart. Often their tracks are filled with tragedy and sorrow but ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss’ is 100% sheer joy. From the instantly recognisable opening (later referenced later by The New York Dolls) “When I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love l-u-v” to the outro “How does he dance?” “Close, very very close” it’s playful, sensual and hope filled.
Past, Present and Future- The Shangri-Las
Based around Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ this spoken word piece is so heightened, so melodramatic in any other hands it could have been ridiculous, laughable. In fact I’ve witnessed listeners suffer from nervous laughter when first encountering this incredible and unique pop recording. This and so much of what The Shangri-Las did is truly radical art-pop music. Mary Weiss’ lead vocal performances, whether singing or talking, are key to the success of The Shangri-Las. Co-author of some Shangri-Las tracks Jeff Barry talked about how Mary would live the songs, inhabit and seem to fully believe in world they created while she was delivering the vocal. No matter how extreme the situation, yelling out in desperation to warn her motorcyclist boyfriend to “look out” or telling us how her mum died of a broken heart when she ran away from home, she made it real. In ‘Past, Present and Future’ we never get the full story but we know the girl Mary is inhabiting has been damaged and doesn’t want to be touched or loved and doesn’t think it will ever happen again. We are left not knowing if she will ever recover.
Egyptian Shumba – The Tammys
This sounds like girl group pop from an alternative universe where Sun Ra is Phil Spector and where the band of trusted pro session players The Wrecking Crew have been replaced by The Monks. In reality it is the creation of one of sixties American pop’s most underrated talents Lou Christie and his gypsy mystic writing partner Twylla Herbert. It contains one of my all time favourite opening lines “Last night I dreamed I was on the Nile dancing with you in Egyptian style”. I have often wondered if this record might have been the main inspiration and sonic template for the B52s. Mono was key to the Phil Spector sound but stereo is a key part of what this record offers. This record may seem to have a wild and untamed heart but it still hits me dead centre in my foolish heart when I hear the girls sing “I’m gonna make that dream come real, I’m gonna dance the way I feel”. Play it loud and dance around your living room in an Egyptian style.
Groovy Kind of Love – Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles
This is one of those songs that most people know but few people seem to know this glorious earlier version. On the surface it seems to be a celebration of a perfect love affair but there is something in the combined passion and vulnerability of Patti’s lead vocal and also in the music and arrangement that gives the whole thing a poignancy. There is a sense that this love is so intoxicating and overpowering that if it was ever taken away the singer’s whole world would fall apart, part of her would die. This notion of potential loss, although never raised explicitly in the lyric, gives the track extra emotional clout. The song seems to be saying “Please let me cling to this love and to you while I still can.”
It’s Gonna Take a Miracle – The Royalettes
And here’s what happens when the kind of love that was sung about in the last song is taken away from you. For me this is one of pop’s most devastating and beautiful love songs. The lyric says “Now that you’ve set me free it’s gonna take a miracle to make me love someone new” and just when you think it can’t possibly hurt anymore the change of pace and dynamic in the song’s incredible middle eight portrays a loss of control where the singer declares to her lost lover that she’ll never be the same anymore. Then it’s like she takes a deep breath and regains some small control of her emotions for the final verse but we’re left in no doubt this isn’t just another break up. This girl is broken.
Be My Baby – The Ronettes
At the turn of the millennium when MOJO magazine had their poll of the 100 greatest pop songs as voted for by 100 hit songwriters past and present only one song writing team had two songs in the top ten. No it wasn’t Lennon & McCartney. It was Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry. Both of these were songs they’d written for Phil Spector, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ and this one. ‘Be My Baby’ has become so familiar and it seems to define the genre in many ways. We could almost take it for granted and forget just how brilliantly written and executed it really is. This song sells to the listener just how good true love can be. I wish I could have written something like this as a marriage proposal, who could resist or not believe in this song. The track was tailor made for Ronnie Spector’s unique voice. You can hear the smile in her eyes while she’s singing it. Many people recognise The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ as the pinnacle of pop perfection. For Brian Wilson ‘Be My Baby’ is the pinnacle. It’s a truly timeless and magical record.
Thinkin’ ‘Bout You Baby- American Spring
Before the Beach Boys super exuberant hit ‘Darlin’ came into being the same melody was used for another, more emotionally ambiguous, song. It was called ‘Thinkin’ ‘Bout You Baby’ and was originally produced in a Phil Spector influenced style by Brian Wilson for a singer called Sharon Marie. It was a pleasant recording of a good song but it didn’t really stand out from the crowd. In the early ’70s when legend would have it Brian had pretty much went into a self imposed retirement I reckon he was actually doing some of his best work and that wasn’t always with The Beach Boys but was with the duo of Brian’s wife Marilyn and her sister Diane Rovell a.k.a. Spring a.k.a. American Spring. There’s a whole bunch of great stuff to discover by them if you don’t already know these recordings but this is my favourite. This time round gave the track a new and unique sound, a development on what had gone before. It’s a sensual and sexy record, seductive and full of longing. BMX Bandits used to cover it regularly at live shows and it always got a great reaction from audiences. I’m pretty sure it had a big influence on BMX Bandits own first attempt at Girl Group pop ‘I Wanna Fall in Love’.
Stormy – The Third Wave
Again, like American Spring, this is from a little bit after what many would be considered the golden age of the classic Girl Group sound but I just couldn’t miss it out. This one is a bit different as it wasn’t originally written for a female voice and is the only European record in my top ten. The Third Wave were five teenaged Filipino sisters resident in Germany. Like The Beach Boys, The Everlys and The Carpenters the family connection brings an extra special magic to their harmony singing. The first time I heard it I instantly fell in love with the sound of the piano intro before the singing had even started. Then the singing starts and WOW. These girls who are clearly great singers but they seem to have a certain naivety and innocence that possibly comes with their youth. It’s very affecting hearing them sing this lyric full of hurt and regret to such a haunting melody. What a killer lyric it is“You were the sunshine baby whenever you smiled but I called you stormy today …I stand alone in the rain calling your name. Oh stormy, bring back that sun today.” Both the vocal and instrumental arrangements on the track by George Duke are so groovy yet poignant. This is a track to dance away your tears to.
He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss) – The Crystals
This is Girl Group pop’s darkest moment. It bravely and honestly deals with a dark side of love, that more so in the era when this record was made would often be excused and accepted. Little Eva, the teenage singer of Carole King & Gerry Goffin’s novelty dance hit ‘The Locomotion’ was also the couple’s babysitter. She turned up at their apartment with bruises and a black eye and when King and Goffin expressed concern about it Eva explained her boyfriend had hit her but excused it by saying it he showed he cared. They were shook to the core by this assertion. The track inspired by this real life event doesn’t hold back and has the listener’s heart screaming “No, get away from him” at the girl singing the song, trying to justify her boyfriend’s violent treatment of her. A brilliantly brooding and illustrative arrangement makes this terrible situation all the more real for the listener. It’s not an easy listen and I’m sure some listeners could find it upsetting but I’m glad that they decided to make such a powerful record about a very real and important issue that damages so many lives.
Many years ago I found myself a victim of repeated domestic violence in a relationship. I had my ribs cracked, was drugged, spat on and held at knife point. I believe that knowing this record and the story behind it was a factor in helping me find an understanding of the situation I was in. It aided me in coming to the realisation that no one should be treated violently particularly by someone claiming to love them. I decided that it couldn’t go on and took action. I was lucky that I managed to find the strength to take that step and walk away from the harm. My own personal experience is one of the reasons why I want to be part of an event supporting the work of Women’s Aid and all the support they offer to female victims of abuse. No matter who you are you don’t deserve to be abused. You deserve a better and safe life.
The Girl Effect 2 will be at Mono, Glasgow on November 26th. Doors at 6.30 p.m.
Tickets available here.