Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Shangri-Las

(New entry at Greatest Rock and Roll Since Moses)

My latest discovery at, where people post music and other media that's in the public domain (no longer under copyright) is a collection of 28 recordings by the Shangri-Las, two sets of sisters who made up the most iconic, unconventional, most talented if not the most successful of the 1960s Girl Groups.

Betty Weiss, MaryAnn and Angie Ganser, Mary Weiss

Included are monster hits like Leader of the Pack and Walking In The Sand, their great renditions of Maybe and Twist and Shout, the stirring Long Live Our Love, many others, and my favorite, The Dum Dum Ditty, which I'd never heard before but is a beautiful little song, very interesting in a musical sense, with one of the most beautiful cord progressions I've ever heard. (Incidentally, the lyrics are plainly, "He makes my heart go run run ditty," and why the title is different I don't know. Maybe it was copyrighted one way and they changed the lyrics in the studio.)

But this music makes my heart go run run ditty. Produced by George Morton, the only rival of the day to Phil Spector outside of Motown, the Shangri-Las were one of several top groups for whom Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, probably the greatest song writing  duo of the 1960s, wrote.

I could write a separate post about Mary Weiss' voice. She sang lead most of the time and her voice has a unique tonality. If a typical lead singer has a voice like a trumpet, where the vibration is caused by a round mouthpiece, hers is more like a reed instrument, a clarinet or a saxophone, where the mouthpiece is more flat. Air passes over her vocal chords differently. But while she contributed the most to the groups sound, no single Shangri-La had the talent of a Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love or La La Brooks (for whom Greenwich and Barry also wrote most of the great hits). It was the combination of voices. The group consisted of at least two superb and four definitely excellent singers. (Photographs of the group are often of three girls, as owing to various personal issues they appeared on stage and on album covers in different combinations at different times.)

Probably because they were such talented singers, Greenwich and Barry wrote some of their most challenging material for the Shangri-Las. Yes, it's pop music, but within that form, these Shangri-Las recordings stand apart, including as they do many songs with complicated harmonies and unexpected rhythmic changes, or that were written in minor keys or keys like A# major, or that change keys during the song, going back and forth between major and minor keys. That it was interesting music, coupled with the fact that the Shangri-Las were able to perform it so well, is why many musicians and singers would come along later, sometimes much later, and listen to their music and cover their songs. (See the biographical sketches linked to below to read about this.)

The Shangri-Las oeuvre owes, as much as it does to their music, to their reputations as bad girls, which neatly dovetailed with their songs' lyrical subject matter -- songs about bad boys who no one but they could see the good in, and about all the things that constitute teenage angst and fuel youthful rebellion. That, not just the music itself, is what gives this music its lasting appeal. It's good music, part of that great outburst of creativity that was Rock and Roll and helped create and facilitate what would become The 60s, but part of its appeal is that those things that constitute teenage angst and fuel youthful rebellion are still part of us. They never really go away. They may become tempered by their repression under subsequent layers of convention born of ambition and weakness, and experience born of pain, but they are always there, "deep inside," as a teenager might say, and songs like these, even as we think of them as simplistic or silly, can unexpectedly cause unconscious reverberations with that core self, where still reside all the dreams you ever dreamed, and the impulses once acted upon, and can get you up and bopping, sometimes physically, always spiritually.

About the girls' reputation and mystique, they really were four tough girls from the streets of Queens, NY, they really were headstrong and rude, and you can read all about it in a number of online biographical sketches, none of which ever entirely agree with each other, which is only as it should be. See:

Digital Dream Door
History of Rock
Tom Simon
Classic Bands 
Wilson and Alroy

(Note: This will eventually be listed in the Greatest Rock and Roll Since Moses page, but right now I have to go wash a truck and turn in an invoice and see if I can't find out why a diesel engine wants to cough while it's striving to climb Nine Mile Hill, as I continue to look for my own Shangri-la.)

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