Tag Archives: jeff barry and ellie greenwich

121) The Shangri-Las – “Leader of the Pack”

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

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Filed under 09, 1964

119) Manfred Mann – “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”

Manfred Mann was a Serious Jazz Combo.  Manfred Mann, however, was also a working band trying to make a living in the music business.  With the onset of the British Invasion, former blues, jazz and R&B purists were reaping the benefits of “selling out” with dignity. The Animals had managed to parlay their Geordie bluesmen personas into a stream of hit Brill Building singles without embarrassing themselves. The Rolling Stones were beginning to experiment with adding pop and folk influences to their Willie Dixon covers, inventing in the process a new generation of electric white-boy blues.

Manfred Mann, no less eager to score a hit, chose a somewhat different tack.  Rather than adapt their beloved jazz and blues for a pop audience in a thoughtful and creatively-fulfilling manner, they pandered to the lowest common denominator.  You wanted a pop record? Then they’d give you the most simplistic, patronizing pop record imaginable.  In doing so, they could indulge in the spoils of mainstream success while still maintaining an ironic distance. (If only they weren’t so subtle with those Trojan horse references in “5-4-3-2-1″!)

To top their #11 UK single “Hubble Bubble” and break into the American market, the band selected a fine but undistinguished near-hit by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, originally recorded by girl group The Exciters (“Tell Him”).  “Do Wah Diddy” is essentially a half-baked loaf cobbled together from the crumbs of other, better Barry-Greenwich compositions: a nonsense refrain (“Da Do Ron Ron”); a reference to imminent wedding bells (“Chapel of Love”); lyrics about love at first sight (“Be My Baby” et al.).   But when you’re expected to deliver a new song five days a week, they won’t all be winners.  So it was up to The Exciters to do all the heavy lifting on the original record, in particular lead singer Brenda Reid and her enthrallingly raw vocals.

But as covered by Manfred Mann, under the title “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (the extra “diddy” stands for “condescension”), all the song’s weaknesses are laid bare.  Where “da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron” was as bright and emphatic as a trumpet’s blare, “do wah diddy diddy, dum diddy do” is just clumsy and puerile.  Meanwhile, Manfred Mann seems to be parodying the very concept of a pop-rock song, from the chintzy organ and plodding tempo to the overdone “whoa-oh-oh-oh” and forced dialect (“I knew we was falling in love”). The Exciters rescued the song through energy and commitment (and, incidentally, used proper grammar).  Manfred Mann’s version just drags.

What makes the record work, as much as it works at all, is its baseline of competence.  Manfred Mann was a band of accomplished musicians.  Barry and Greenwich wrote some of the most transcendent pop songs of the 20th Century.  The bridge, for all its lyrical crimes, is actually a pleasant bit of melody and a much-needed reprieve from the rest of the song’s abrasive schoolyard bounce. Still, “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” is a cynical record made by people who should’ve known better.  Worse, its success confirms the most overused argument against the validity of pop music: it’s manufactured with no originality or genuine feeling.  It’s simply music written and performed to cash a paycheck and net a hit. 4

Hit #1 on October 17, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
119 of 991 #1’s reviewed; 12.01% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 04, 1964

110) The Dixie Cups – “Chapel of Love”

“Chapel of Love” wasn’t supposed to be a hit for The Dixie Cups.  Phil Spector had claimed the Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich composition for The Ronettes, who did record the original as album filler.   Indeed, the song’s single-minded declaration of girlish devotion is of a piece with hits like “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You”.  The Ronettes record also benefits from Ronnie Spector’s distinctive voice, which makes up for any lyrical slightness (the entire song can be summed up by “Gee, I really love you, and we’re going to get married”) through the power of her delivery.

Barry and Greenwich, sensing the song’s hit potential, shopped “Chapel of Love” around before producing it themselves. (Leiber and Stoller are officially credited, but general agreement is that their contributions were nominal.)  They settled on The Dixie Cups, a mostly unknown group from New Orleans.  While The Dixie Cups were certainly fine singers, there was no standout in the group a la Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love, whose own version of “Chapel of Love” adds a more confident, adult edge.   As a result, their version isn’t quite as compelling as either of the Spector-prodced recordings.  Still, the pleasantly catchy melody and The Dixie Cups’ agreeable vocals are enough to carry the day.  The lyrics, though narrow in focus, are also direct enough to develop a kind of universality, as demonstrated by the song’s continued ubiquity in films and at wedding receptions.  And while The Dixie Cups never became stars on the level of The Ronettes, they did manage a few more hits, including one that better played to their strengths: the much-covered New Orleans anthem “Iko Iko.” 7

Hit #1 on June 6, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
110 of 983 #1’s reviewed; 11.19% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1964