The girls were a very nice bunch of street urchins, I called them … At the beginning we did not get along – they were kind of crude and having to deal with them on a daily basis used to get me very uptight – with their gestures, and language, and chewing the gum, and the stockings ripped up their leg. We would say “Not nice, you must be ladies …”
-Ellie Greenwich (quoted in Alan Betrock’s Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound)
Their songs captured how many teenagers talked and felt or, more precisely, how they wished they talked and felt, mixing trash and tragedy.
–Ken Emerson, Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era
The girl groups emerged in an era of musical and sartorial conservatism, between the decline of rock and roll and the beginning of “the Sixties” as they’re now remembered. Even the groups that didn’t graduate from the Motown Finishing School nevertheless dressed in satin, sat up straight and avoided using any slang that might make them sound like actual teenagers. But around the same time that the men of the British Invasion were bringing back real rock music, a few girl groups began to break from the starched-and-pressed pack. The ethnically ambiguous Ronettes were the first to cross over to the dark side, wearing thick Cleopatra eyeliner and flouting the rules of what “proper singers” were supposed to sound like. But it was two pairs of white sisters, The Shangri-Las, that became the quintessential girl group gone bad. Instead of matching prom dresses and hair-dos, the girls dressed in black leather and go-go boots. Unlike the eternally angelic Darlene Love, lead singer Mary Weiss sounded like a girl who might actually date a rebel. And while The Shirelles may have wondered, “Will you still love me tomorrow?“, the Shangri-Las seemed to have no such qualms.
Even the name “The Shangri-Las” is heavily ironic, as nearly all their songs were about some form of teenage tragedy. The most tragic of them all was their second single and biggest hit. “Leader of the Pack” stretches and distorts Phil Spector’s teenage melodramas to grotesque extremes. Sure, a broken heart can feel like dying when you’re a teenager, but it has nothing on a grisly motorcycle crash – especially one reported moment by moment with accompanying sound effects. It’s so over-the-top that it verges on parody – and has been claimed to be such to some writers – but at the same time, it’s simply too melancholy, too pretty, too desperate to be just tongue-in-cheek.
There’s a sense of detachment in “Leader of the Pack” that rescues it from the soporific depths of “Teen Angel,” the record that kicked off the whole teenage death disc craze. The song’s conceit is that Betty, the girlfriend-widow of Jimmy the motorcycle rebel, is calmly recounting their relationship and his subsequent death to her classmates (whose lack of awareness is kind of puzzling, as Betty complains that “in school, they all stop and stare”). There’s no hysterical pleading to the deceased up in heaven. Instead, when Mary Weiss solemnly recites “The leader of the pack, now he’s gone” over and over in the coda, it’s the aural equivalent of one solitary tear rolling from a mascaraed eye.
But “Leader of the Pack” is also an exceptionally well-made record, almost more like a radio play than just another pop song. Along with their bad-girl image, The Shangri-Las’ trademark became this almost avant garde disregard for what pop radio considered acceptable. Their first hit, “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” is mashed together bits of melody without a chorus (but with seagull sound effects); a later single, “Past, Present and Future,” is a spoken word piece. Even their more conventional singles like “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and “Out in the Streets” display a heavily theatrical bent, thanks to Mary Weiss’s passionate delivery and impossibly girlish voice. In She’s So Fine: Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class, Laurie Stras writes that the group sang “as if they were speaking (or whining, or shrieking, or sobbing, or yelling) to approximate pitches, substituting ‘real’ emotive vocal disruption for the technical affectations of doo-wop.” It’s this rawness that makes Weiss sound simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than her girl group peers, and unquestionably like a real teenager.
“Leader of the Pack” is the apotheosis of The Shangri-Las’ blend of the dramatic with the pop. The way the soaring verses deflate into a sudden, accompaniment-free line “the leader of the pack” may not make for the catchiest of choruses. However, it’s an instantly memorable effect because it’s the ultimate representation of how an epic love is cut short by a violent death. Where a guitar solo or a dance break should be, there’s the graphic sounds of the fatal crash. Did we really need to hear the tires skidding, the sickening crunch of metal hitting metal, the girlfriend crying “Lookout! Lookout!” in vain? Yes, we do. In an era where cultural repression was the norm, the Shangri-Las’ lurid take on death was a refreshing bit of candor.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that The Shangri-Las became a touchstone for punk rock. The opening line of “Leader of the Pack” (“Is she really going out with him?”) was recycled for the first-ever British punk record, The Damned’s “New Rose” (as well as for the title of Joe Jackson’s debut single); the intro from “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V”) turns up in the New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss.” (And this is just the iceberg’s tip – for a mind-boggling extensive list of other quotes and references, check out The Shangri-Las’ Wikipedia page.) By being one of the first groups to disregard the rules about what was appropriate for girls to sing about, how they were supposed to dress and what constituted good singing, The Shangri-Las helped usher in an era of frankness and realism in pop music, one that’s reverberations still shake the charts today. 9
Hit #1 on November 28, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
121 of 994 #1’s reviewed; 12.17% through the Hot 100