Based on faint signals from the endless stream of subliminal chatter that makes up most of the 21st-century information deluge, I discerned that something was going on with The Go-Go’s.
First, a musical featuring their songs (Head Over Heels) opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. A “farewell tour” (yeah, right) followed quickly thereafter in 2016. This was followed by a performance in 2018 in support of the announcement that Head Over Heels had made the great leap and would soon appear on Broadway. A documentary about the band appeared on the screens of Sundance right before the pandemic hit earlier this year (now available on Showtime and quoted extensively in this review). Though COVID-19 scuttled any plans for an oxymoronic farewell tour sequel, the band has optimistically rescheduled the concerts for 2021. Then, completely out of the blue, The Go-Go’s released their first new single in nineteen years on July 31, 2020 (lifted from the documentary).
The marketing side of me couldn’t figure what all this activity was about. It looked like your classic partially-planned, partially-serendipitous publicity campaign, but to what end? If the master plan was to build some buzz for a future on the casino circuit, it seemed like overkill. What were these girls up to?
The fog cleared through a piece that appeared on Spin just a few days before I started writing this review: “Dear Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Induct the Go-Go’s Already.” I then traveled back in time and found an article on LGBTQ Nation (written by one James Duke Mason, who happens to be Belinda Carlisle’s son) that celebrated the documentary and bemoaned the Go-Go’s exclusion from the Hall: “The glaring omission of the Go-Go’s in the 2020 list of inductees to the RRHOF is a testament to the institution’s irrelevancy.” There seems to be a burgeoning groundswell of support on behalf of The Go-Go’s—there’s a Facebook page promoting their candidacy, while Gold Derby, a site that publishes odds on the major American entertainment awards, identified the group as favorites for the honor in 2021.
Having long believed that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was as irrelevant as irrelevant gets, I found it hard to believe that anyone would invest the slightest bit of energy into a campaign to gain entrance to such a thoroughly corrupt institution. I hope the Go-Go’s get the call and tell the Hall they can shove the award where the sun don’t shine.
That won’t happen because The Go-Go’s are a group of Second Wave feminists who fought for inclusion within the current system and not Third Wave feminists who advocated revolution against the patriarchy (Belinda Carlisle made this very clear in the documentary). Second Wave feminists (like Hillary) wanted to prove that “anything men can do we can do.” The Go-Go’s did that with Beauty and the Beat: the first album by an all-girl band who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs to top the charts (for six weeks, no less).
Let me be clear: that was a big deal. There wouldn’t have been a Third Wave if it weren’t for the women who had the courage and patience to break the endless maze of glass ceilings that constitute the patriarchal structure. The Go-Go’s proved that girls could do it, inspiring an entire generation of women to fulfill their potential in the field of music. Kathleen Hanna said it best: “As a young girl, going into a space where women own the stage, and own it unapologetically, like they were born to be there — to me it represented a moment of possibility.” There is no question that the female rockers who followed the Go-Go’s owe them a debt of gratitude; ergo, they qualify for induction under the loosey-goosey standards set by the Hall itself: “Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” I happen to think that clearing the way for more than half the human population was pretty damned significant.
The argument against their induction is the simple truth that they didn’t last that long—after three studio albums marked by declining sales, the group splintered. Part of it was the usual stuff—drugs, alcohol, internal conflicts, the usual downsides of fame—but they also facilitated their own destruction by buying into “common industry wisdom” and refusing to move on from the formula that led to their breakthrough. Replacing the intensely dedicated Ginger Canzoneri with an “executive management team” was certainly a no-win deal with the devil; even worse was the rigidity of the other band members in denying Jane Wiedlin’s request to sing one of her own songs on Talk Show because they couldn’t get their heads around someone other than Belinda Carlisle doing the lead vocals (?!). This short-sighted decision led to Jane’s departure and a full collapse shortly thereafter. Their insistence on continuing to call the same old plays in the playbook with the same old players tells me they wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway—bands that fail to grow rarely last, and if they do, they find themselves playing to a shrinking fan base.
But hey, if Del Shannon (a two-and-a-half hit wonder) could make the Hall, so should the Go-Go’s.
It’s important to note that the criteria cited above contains no reference whatsoever to the quality of the music. So, if a shit band captures the hearts of the mindless masses, sells tons of records and spawns a slew of shit-band imitators, Shit Band #1 belongs in the Hall.
Though it won’t have much influence on their chances of successfully completing their quest for enshrinement in the hallowed halls of Cleveland, I shall now proceed to my evaluation of the quality of Go-Go’s music based on the evidence provided by their most popular and most highly-acclaimed work—their debut album Beauty and the Beat.
The Go-Go’s began life in the highly active, exceptionally inclusive and DIY-supportive L.A. punk scene of the late ’70s. “Anybody could do whatever they wanted—it was total freedom,” remembered Belinda Carlisle. The original members had very little in the way of musical experience or training, and though adding Charlotte Caffey to the lineup gave them a member with some classical piano education, Charlotte had been drawn to the punk scene in defiance of that education: “All this music theory, rules, had to be thrown out the window.”
As the band gelled and developed more confidence, they replaced their original DIY drummer with Gina Schock, who not only had a great punk name but had worked hard to shape herself into a solid rock drummer and expected her new band pals to adopt an equally strenuous work ethic (“It doesn’t hurt to rehearse, it only makes you tighter”). Eventually the Go-Go’s became the house band at the Whisky a Go Go, where they connected with the English ska/punk bands Madness and The Specials, leading to a U. K. tour that served as their Hamburg experience. They left the Mother Country a much tighter band with a low-budget single on a British indie label (“We Got the Beat”) that garnered some L. A. radio airplay. At the height of their local success, they once again emulated The Beatles by making a controversial change in the lineup, replacing bassist and punk devotee Margot Olavarria with one Kathy Valentine, a guitarist with no experience on the bass (a condition Ms. Valentine quickly corrected by going on an extended coke binge and immersing herself in the band’s lo-fi demo tape). The change coincided with a gradual but steady turn towards more pop-oriented tunes. While that shift did not sit particularly well with the punk purists, the Go-Go’s were determined to broaden their appeal in order to secure a big label recording contract.
Despite the growing buzz, the major labels, having learned nothing from the infamous Decca-Beatles fiasco, unanimously decided that “All-girl bands just don’t sell records” and left the Go-Go’s out in the cold. When a paradigm is stuck in neutral, only an outsider can shake things up; fortunately for the Go-Go’s, they found one in Miles Copeland III, manager of The Police and brother of drummer Stewart Copeland, who had co-founded I. R. S. records with the intention of signing cutting-edge, boundary-pushing artists.
What qualified the Go-Go’s as boundary-pushers may appear to have more to do with their essential dicklessness than their music. Anybody can listen to the Go-Go’s and pick out the obvious influences (punk, British Invasion, 60’s girl groups and surf music), recall their DIY origins and understandably assume that Go-Go’s compositions are simple, derivative efforts. Your average anybody could then plop his ass in front of the stereo, experience the music going down nice and easy and say, “Yep, pretty simple stuff.”
Hand that anybody a guitar and ask him to play along with “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep” and “This Town,” and I guarantee you that in a couple of minutes his fingers will be tied up in knots as he shouts, “What the fuck?”
Although the Go-Go’s made it sound easy, you have to look under the hood to appreciate the complexity of their music and rhythms. Some of their chord patterns would have thrown Mozart for a loop, and even when a song calls for very simple chording, they instinctively knew how to manipulate time and rhythmic expectations to create all kinds of surprises. Though producer Richard Gottehrer successfully coaxed them into slowing some of the high-speed punk tempos they used when playing live, several of the songs on the album are still pretty damned fast, making for some high-quality chord change practice if you’re up to it.
Once Gottehrer taught them the basics of recording, the Go-Go’s developed a signature sound that was bright and tight, the result of a rock-solid rhythm section and well-executed vocals. On Beauty and the Beat they convey infectious energy, not unlike the more harmonic bands of the Invasion. In contrast to the glaring pomposity and deadening overproduction you hear on the supergroup monstrosity Asia (the only album to outsell Beauty and the Beat in 1982), the Go-Go’s come across as girls who are having the time of their lives and want you to join in the fun. What is very clear from listening to Beauty and the Beat is that the Go-Go’s believed in themselves and their ability to beat the guys at their own game.
Beauty and the Beat lives up to the album name with the introduction to “Our Lips Are Sealed,” featuring the sound of Gina Schock’s steady drumbeat (a greeting that will be used to kick off a third of the songs on the album). Jane Wiedlin helps strengthen the beat with her contrasting eighth-note attack on rhythm guitar, followed by the sweeter texture of Charlotte Caffey’s guitar arpeggio, which in turn cues Kathy Valentine to enter the fray with her thumping bass. Kathy’s entry is somewhat dampened by the simultaneous appearance of a synthesizer, a superfluous addition that serves two purposes: 1.) to let future audiences know that the record was produced in the synthesizer-crazed ’80s and 2.) to give idiotic critics like Stephen Thomas Erlewine an excuse to attach the fake genre label “new wave” to Go-Go’s music. I find the synth annoying as fuck and would have preferred more open space to highlight Kathy’s marvelous picking.
My pique is mollified by Belinda Carlisle’s attitude-laden soprano, delivered in a girlish tone of slight cockiness that reminds me of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las but with a more melodic quality. The connection with the girl group era is further strengthened with the inclusion of the line, “It doesn’t matter what they say,” a rather prominent piece of lyric in The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You.” It’s important to note the lyrics were written by Jane Wiedlin’s temporary love interest, Terry Hall of The Specials and Fun Boy Three, who mailed Jane the lyrics from the U. K. and asked her to tweak them and come up with the music. Not knowing any better (translation: not having been subjected to classical music theory), Jane came up with a chord combination that makes no sense whatsoever but works like a charm—that out of place A# chord and her subtle departures from the A major scale really enrich the listening experience (as does Jane’s sanctioned lead vocal moment on the arpeggiated intermission).
The lyrics, based on Jane-and-Terry’s somewhat illicit relationship (he had a girl on the side), essentially renew the time-tested rock ‘n’ roll story of facing down the [fill-in-the-blank] (parents, friends, teachers, clergy) who frown upon one’s choice of steady squeeze. Rather than giving into dad (“Leader of the Pack”) or taking a posture of sultry defiance (“Baby It’s You”), Jane and Terry conclude that the best option is to “pay no mind to what they say,” shut the fuck up and enjoy what you have. As a woman who has had more non-standard relationships than most, I heartily endorse this advice.
The ladies harmonized exceptionally well on “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but they take it up a notch on the bouncy British Invasion tune, “How Much More.” Though the chord structures and harmonies recall the sweeter upbeat songs of the invasion, Gina Schock’s near-punk-speed drumming would have blown the Brits to smithereens—just compare her thumping toms on the chorus to Dave Clark’s chorus work on “Glad All Over” and you’ll have to admit it’s Gina by a landslide. Belinda imbues the lead vocal with sweet sincerity and power while the guitarists provide gorgeous three-part harmony support on the verses and richer four-part harmony on the chorus. The only thing I’m puzzled about is why “How Much More” wasn’t one of the singles—it’s a great tune that can change my mood from sourpuss to sweetness-and-light-and-strawberries-and-cream in a heartbeat.
“Tonite” doesn’t quite turn me back into a grump, but I find the rhythms rather clunky and the connection between Gina’s drums and Jane’s rhythm guitar out of whack. Party songs in minor keys generally don’t work unless you’re providing background music for the wake of a person everybody despised. One could say that the carpe diem lyrics foreshadow one of the major causes of the Go-Go’s relatively speedy decline:
There’s no one
To stand in our way
Get dressed up
And messed up
Blow our cares away
I don’t think the use of the word “blow” here was an accident on the part of the Caffey-Wiedlin-Peter Case songwriting team. Cocaine is right up there with cheesy synthesizers on the list of “Things I Will Never Understand About the Eighties.”
“Lust to Love” involves an important evolutionary step in women’s history—the era of unbridled lust that followed the delightful realization that The Pill was not just about birth control but about women gaining the right to fuck whoever they wanted to fuck whenever they wanted to fuck. Hooray! We can use guys as sex objects just like they used us! Yay, freedom!
The thing is . . . unless we’re talking about a woman with strong dominant tendencies possessed with the discipline and desire to control wayward emotions AND a male partner who seriously and sincerely gets off when she dominates with intentional coldness and distance . . . you’re going to run into a problem common in the fairer sex. Women generally have an ample reserve emotional intelligence and there’s nothing that gets in the way of objectifying a sex partner as thoroughly as empathy . . . or worse, feelings of tenderness towards the intended object. That’s the dilemma facing Belinda Carlisle’s character in “Lust for Love,” and man, is she pissed off about it:
It used to be fun was in
The capture and kill
In another place and time
I did it all for thrills
“Love me and I’ll leave you”
I told you at the start
I had no idea that you
Would tear my world apart
And you’re the one to blame
I used to know my name
But I’ve lost control of the game
Cause even though I set the rules
You’ve got me acting like a fool
When I see you I lose my cool
I love the drama of the song—the open space featuring only Belinda, pizzicato guitar and (later) ominous tom from Gina recall some of the Shangri-Las more dramatic moments.
I have no evidence to support the hypothesis that Jane Wiedlin was referring to Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” when she wrote “Change the lines that were said before/We’re all dreamers, we’re all whores,” but my Irish grandmother used to read me that poem when I was a wee lass and dammit, this is my blog and I’ll cite lines from my favorite poems whenever I fucking feel like it:
We are the music makers,And we are the dreamers of dreams,Wandering by lone sea-breakers,And sitting by desolate streams; —World-losers and world-forsakers,On whom the pale moon gleams:Yet we are the movers and shakersOf the world for ever, it seems.
Whatever her reference point, it’s pretty clear that Jane was thinking about Los Angeles, but her experience there spawned a different take:
Change the lines that were said before
We’re all dreamers – we’re all whores
Like worn out cars
Litter the streets of this town
Litter the streets of this town
This town is our town
It is so glamorous
Bet you’d live here if you could
And be one of us
In other words, stay the hell away from the City of Angels.
The song is noted for its abrupt time signature switch—three measures of 4/4 followed by a single measure of 2/4—executed perfectly by the band. However, there’s a lot to love about this piece—Belinda’s clean and clear vocal, delivered in a tone of slightly bitter cynicism, marked by pauses of varying length as she spits out the words “this town”; the spot harmonies that appear throughout; and Charlotte Caffey’s fabulous lead guitar work that lies somewhere between surf and secret agent. Two minor key songs in a row can be kind of a downer, but the combination of “Lust to Love” and “This Town” confirm the notion that the Go-Go’s were a group of very talented women willing to break both societal expectations and musical norms.
Side Two opens with their well-known anthem, “We Got the Beat.” I expect I’ll get the same kind of flak from commentators that I received when I pronounced the B-52’s “Love Shack” one helluva song—something along the lines of “I can’t stand this song—the DJ’s played it to death!” Well, tough titties, folks, because I think the Go-Go’s nailed this one and it fully deserves its status as a timeless rock classic. Belinda’s vocal is even more girlish as she moves to the upper part of her range, but the unique quality of her voice is perfect for this kind of song (and her status as an ex-cheeleader certainly helped on the “YEAH!”). Charlotte strengthens her cred as a great surf guitarist while Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin wisely avoid the tendency to overplay their rhythmic parts, delivering a strong, danceable beat with just the right amount of punctuation. The stop-time-let’s-all-clap-and-do-the-fucking-Watusi part is a perfectly executed crowd-pleaser.
I do have one nit to pick regarding both “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Both songs are tuned to different pitches, so if you follow the published chord patterns, your opening A chord is going to sound bloody awful. I don’t mind “We Got the Beat” as much because the guitars are tuned a half-step higher, so all you have to do is slip a capo on the first fret and you’re good to go. Unfortunately, you have to tune down a half-step for “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which is a pain in the ass, especially if you don’t have locking tuners and you have a cheap-ass Strat like mine that goes fucking crazy whenever I try to use alternate tunings.
You’re welcome for the PSA.
“Fading Fast” is a good cool-down song after the heat of “We Got the Beat,” a song where Belinda Carlisle rises above the pedestrian you-lied-you-bastard lyrics and delivers a rich vocal that manages to express both the ragged feelings of relational exhaustion and a deep inner conviction that she’s strong enough to withstand the loss of this loser. I also love how Kathy Valentine’s bass plays a more prominent role in the mix, as she always manages to fulfill the rhythmic support role while finding opportunities for harmonic enhancement. Hmm. Now that I think of it, the two best bass players I know personally were both ex-lead guitarists, so maybe that’s where you should look if your band is suffering from the all-too-common Flaky Bass Player Syndrome.
I think I’m the only person I know whose favorite song on Beauty and the Beat isn’t “We Got the Beat” or even “Our Lips Are Sealed” but the third and only non-charting single from the album, “Automatic.” With its dark tones, Charlotte’s sinuous minor-key guitar riff and sudden bursts of silence, it’s the perfect dramatic vehicle for Belinda to nail her audition for a spot in the 1920’s Berlin cabaret show. Her deliberately mechanical clipping of the syllables (aut-o-mat-ic-ic-ic) reflects the values of the modernistic thread in Bauhaus whether she was aware of it or not. Given the cinematic possibilities of the song, I was surprised that they didn’t produce a supporting video with Belinda in drag, surrounded by smoke, performing for an audience of gender-flexible guests. I think the Go-Go’s could have used an erotically sophisticated video to offset the girls-having-fun routine on the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video and thereby earn some cred with the artistic types.
The Go-Go’s opted for the Bo Diddley beat for “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (When You Can’t Sleep),” but their performance here feels more obligatory than fully invested. The primary value of the song is to confirm my deep suspicion of songs with unnecessary long titles. I think they began with a decent concept on “Skidmarks on My Heart” (men loving their cars more than their girls) but their fascination with the concept led to metaphoric diarrhea that gets quite tiresome in short order.
As they approached the finish line, the Go-Go’s found themselves short one song. Richard Gottehrer recommended they shy away from their standard playlist and perhaps consider doing a cover song. The ladies weren’t too keen on that option, and rightly so—a cover song would have eliminated the concept of an all-girl album filled with songs written (or co-written) by the girls themselves. Fortunately for posterity, Kathy Valentine offered up a song she had written when she first moved to L. A. (the first song she had ever written) and her bandmates jumped at the chance to record it.
Given the three-year space between Kathy composing the song and its unexpected emergence in the studio, it’s amazing how the song perfectly captures both the obstacles the Go-Go’s faced and the determination to overcome anything and everything that stood in their way. According to Songfacts, “She was living in a ramshackle apartment with dim prospects when she took out the guitar and came up with the song, which is about not giving up.” Set to an exuberant high-speed beat peppered with syncopated thrusts, “Can’t Stop the World” is also a melodic-harmonic Invasion-oriented delight. Belinda gives us one of her strongest vocals and the band plays and sings with genuine enthusiasm. The enthusiasm is understandable, as they all had to deal with the unique difficulties women face in trying to define themselves in a society that would prefer to limit women to a predictable, supportive role—difficulties of both internal and external origin that Kathy described so effectively in the song:
I gave up looking for a reason
To live with things just the way they were
I came around
Used to be easy to get to
So they got to me just about every way
Caught with no cards up your sleeve
Not much to choose from
Grew up all along just thinking that you couldn’t lose
Don’t want to live without that security
You think that with a little bit more you’ll be alright
Can’t stop the world
Can’t stop the world
Can’t stop the world
Why let it stop you
Why let it stop you
Why let it stop you
While “We Got the Beat” may be the anthem for the fans, “Can’t Stop the World” does a much better job expressing what the Go-Go’s were all about. They had come to a point in their lives when they weren’t about to let anyone or anything stop them—not the men, not tradition, and certainly not the classic female struggle with self-doubt.
Though Beauty and the Beat was a slow bloomer, taking seven months to reach the top of the charts, the Go-Go’s eventually pulled off the miracle. It may have been only one moment in time, but it was a vitally important moment for women and for music in general—greater inclusion meant greater diversity and different perspectives on music. And while I admit I don’t think the honor is all it’s cracked up to be, the Hall is pretty much all we’ve got in the way of recognizing such significant contributions to music, so I’ll be very happy if the Go-Go’s finally get the recognition they deserve.
You might run across a few opinions here and there that attribute the demise of The Shirelles to the British Invasion. You might respond to that assertion by muttering to yourself, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
As soon as that utterance escapes your lips, I will appear out of nowhere and nail your ass. I will slap you silly and enjoy every minute of it. I will force you to fall to your knees and make you beg for mercy, which I will only grant if you agree to never say something that stupid again.
The problem with the theory is that it doesn’t make any sense:
- It doesn’t make sense because in February 1964, Beatlemaniacs were desperate for more Beatles than Capitol Records was willing to dish out. Despite the efforts of the Capitol legal team, the cash-strapped Vee-Jay label managed to release Introducing . . . The Beatles (a truncated, modified version of Please Please Me) at roughly the same time as Capitol was peddling Meet the Beatles (a truncated, modified version of With the Beatles). While Capitol held on to the #1 spot, little Vee-Jay’s entry remained at #2 for nine consecutive weeks. On that album, The Beatles covered not one, but two songs by The Shirelles (“Baby, It’s You” and “Boys”). Any profit-making organization in the universe would kill to get that kind of endorsement.
- It doesn’t make any sense because four months after the invasion began, another girl group topped the charts in the USA with “Chapel of Love.” A couple of months later—at the height of the British Invasion—The Dixie Cups were followed by The Supremes in locking down the #1 spot. Martha and the Vandellas and The Shangri-Las also made appearances at or near the top. Translation: there was still a healthy market for girl groups in the USA in 1964.
Nope, The Shirelles faded from public consciousness for two reasons: one, their songwriting contributor and collaborator (Luther Dixon) went elsewhere and management failed to supply them with solid material; and two, during the year of the Invasion, they found themselves in the middle of lawsuit hell with their record company (a company run by their manager) around a trust fund set up for the girls that mysteriously ran out of money. Members came and went (eventually Dionne Warwick joined the group for a spell), and though The Shirelles continued to deliver their wares with due professionalism, the material just wasn’t up to snuff.
But during their peak years from 1960-1963, The Shirelles firmly established themselves as a musical force, the girl group whose influence extended far beyond that limiting label. What makes their influence even more impressive is that unlike The Beatles, who wanted to “get to the toppermost of the poppermost,” or Charlie Parker, who aimed to take jazz to levels far beyond what any of the swing bands had in mind, the girls who would eventually form The Shirelles had no such ambitions; they sang together for the fun of it all. A teacher encouraged the girls to audition for the annual talent show and they agreed, calling themselves The Poquellos and performing an original composition they had created for the occasion. A classmate who attended the show encouraged the girls to meet with her small-time record executive mother, who had entered the music business because being a housewife bored the crap out of her. They told their new superfan they had no interest in going commercial and went on with their lives in Passaic, New Jersey. After months of pleading, the girls gave in, changed their name to The Shirelles and released the talent show single to modest acclaim. At that point, record executive mom sold her little record company and The Shirelles’ contract to Decca (while continuing to act as their manager). After two follow-up singles bombed, Decca dismissed them as “one-hit wonders” and gave The Shirelles back to mom along with $4000. Mom (Florence Greenberg) then formed a new record company (Scepter Records), hired a music marketing pro and a gent by the name of Luther Dixon to serve as A&R man. The Shirelles then released “Tonight’s the Night,” and the rest is music history.
The challenge of breaking into the Top 20 had nothing to do with the quality of the performers: the original lineup of Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, Addie Harris and Doris Coley blended together beautifully and exhibited professionalism far beyond their years. While The Shirelles made the usual concessions to capitalism, they never really went all-in for the commercial aspect; their main concern remained the quality of the music. Though still in their late teens and early twenties, they demonstrated a healthy amount of assertiveness in the recording process, insisting on involvement in song selection and modification. While most artists in the lean post-Buddy Holly period targeted the white teen market, The Shirelles pushed back on songs that sounded “too white,” and even had the gumption to adjust a Carole King-Gerry Goffin song to broaden its reach. Their best and most famous songs deal with the real-world quandaries of teenage girls, and they sang those songs with genuine, heartfelt empathy. In those pre-Pill, proto-feminist, grow-up-and-become-a housewife days, music that revealed an understanding of the challenges faced by young girls growing up in a society that viewed them as inferior, second-class citizens was deeply appreciated by the teen girl population.
This collection is fairly faithful to the chronology, allowing the listener to experience the thrilling rise as well as the sad and avoidable decline of The Shirelles. So, without further ado . . .
“I Met Him on a Sunday (Ronde Ronde)”: This was their talent show song, a group composition recorded and released in 1958. It almost qualifies as a novelty song, describing the day-by-day progression of a teenage romance. Things are going well until the guy doesn’t show up on Friday; when he arrives on Saturday to pick up his date for an evening of (fill-in-the blank: movie, bowling, malt shop dancing, putt-putt golf), the girl says “Bye, Bye Baby” in an unintended tribute to legendary Giants announcer Russ Hodges. While the song isn’t particularly impressive, you have to give the girls credit for creating a performance piece that was a perfect match for the occasion: the story was easy to follow and the punch line guaranteed to draw a few laughs from a crowd yearning for a distraction to take their minds off those horrid, cold metal folding seats. What is impressive is the vocal presentation, with shared lead vocal lines each followed by doo-wop harmonic lines covering the range from contralto to soprano and executed with remarkable precision. “Geez, these gals sure can sing!” I hear someone say. “All they need is one great song and by golly, they’ll be on Ed Sullivan lickety-split!”
“Dedicated to the One I Love”: Well! Here’s a great song for you . . . what? It died at #83? What kind of alternative timeline is this?
Sorry, it’s not an alternative timeline. One of the most iconic songs of the era pretty much bombed in its initial release. The common explanation is that Decca didn’t know how to market a black girl group. My question is this: did Decca know how to do anything right in the 1960s? They dumped The Shirelles (American Decca) and passed on The Beatles (British Decca). Well, they did sign The Stones in the spirit of the old phrase “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” Fortunately for history, the new-and-improved Scepter Records re-released The Shirelles’ version as a follow-up to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” et voila! Success!
“Dedicated to the One I Love” was originally recorded and released by The “5” Royales, a jump blues/doo-wop band who contributed mightily to the origins of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s. Their version hit the shelves in 1957 and made it to #13 on the R&B charts. The Shirelles take on the song is pretty close to the original, and their desire to model that record may have manifested itself in the decision to give Doris Coley the lead vocal rather than Shirley Owens, who would sing lead on most of their hits. Doris has a big, brassy voice not unlike Eugene Tanner’s of The “5” Royales, though there are significant differences in phrasing and attitude. The first thing you notice when comparing the two is that Doris knew how to dial it down at the right spots while Eugene didn’t. The second noticeable difference is Doris had greater command of her vibrato, especially where you don’t expect it (like on the exiting vowel sound in the un-euphonious word “little”). Doris could also exit her path for a split-second, shift to conversational (“This is dedicated”) and glide right back into the melody. The tempo of The Shirelles version is a tad slower than the original, allowing the listener to savor Doris’ magnificent performance as well as the equally impressive contributions of the other girls in background and call-and-response modes. Of the three popular versions, The Shirelles’ take best captures the sound and feel of a teenage girl calling her favorite radio DJ and recording a dedicatory snippet addressed to this week’s crush.
The third version, of course, comes from The Mamas & The Papas and is absolute C-R-A-P. White bread overproduced insincere bullshit.
“Look A Here Baby”: This was the B-Side of “Dedicated,” a snappy little number again featuring shared lead vocal lines with heavy doses of tight doo-wop harmonies. The background harmonies in the bridge are particularly delightful, and while the song doesn’t have a strong enough chorus to qualify for the hit parade, it’s a damn fine B-side in an era known for really awful B-sides.
“Tonight’s the Night”: Great story behind the creation of this one, courtesy of BSN Pubs’ “The Scepter/Wand Story”. “(Luther) Dixon began rehearsing The Shirelles and working with them on songs. Before a recording session in 1960, Florence told them they needed another song, and to go write something. Shirley Owens asked, ‘When?’ When Greenberg answered, ‘Tonight,’ Owens replied, ‘Well, I guess tonight’s the night.’ She and Dixon worked on a song using that title, and it was ready for the next day’s session.”
The story behind the song isn’t so great: teenage pregnancy was at its peak in the USA in the late 50s/early 60s. It’s not difficult to understand why: The Pill was years away, sex education virtually non-existent, guys hadn’t adopted the habit of keeping a condom in their wallets and abortion was a back alley horror. Teenage hormones were oblivious to those limitations, leading to a dangerous situation in which the desperate cries of the dick and the clit, combined with relative ignorance, emotional immaturity and naïvete regarding the responsibilities of pregnancy, increased the likelihood of a girl getting “knocked up” and daddy reaching for his shotgun to consummate a face-saving marriage.
“Tonight’s the Night” pretty much captures the ambivalence from the female’s perspective; the only thing missing is hearing the guy ramp up the pressure by saying, “If you really loved me . . . ” She is reasonably concerned that her emotional motivations might lead to ruin and ridicule:
You say you’re gonna make me (tonight, tonight)
Turn the lights down low (tonight, tonight)
You said you’re gonna make me (tonight, tonight)
Feel all aglow (tonight, tonight)
Well I don’t know
I don’t know right now
I might love you so (tonight, tonight)I might love you so much
You may break my heart
I may want you so much
And all my dreams may be torn apart
Apparently, she decides to go for it, though her optimism about the outcome is countered by a troubled soul:
Let’s take a chance (tonight, tonight)
It’s gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Feel it in my heart now (tonight, tonight)
It’s gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Upsettin’ my soul (tonight, tonight)
Gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Let’s take this chance
The song has the strangest intro to any pop song ever—a weird, disconnected fragment of clunky bass, thin violin and drums. The duple meter rhythm borrowed from Baião was a risky but effective choice by Luther Dixon, anticipating the craving for Brazilian rhythms that peaked a few years later with Getz/Gilberto. Shirley Owens is marvelous in the lead role, supported by her always-on colleagues. “Tonight’s the Night” is a masterpiece of pop, combining danceable rhythm, a hummable melody and a meaningful story in less than two minutes.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: Their first #1 hit (and the first by any African-American girl group) continued the exploration of teen sex, this time focusing on the trust angle. Their initial reaction to this Goffin-King creation was less than enthusiastic, as noted on The Shirelles’ fan website: “When Dixon received the song, he was overly excited about it. However, the girls were not. They felt that Tomorrow appealed to white audiences alone and did not cut across all divides of race. For instance, they felt it was too country for them.” The girls agreed to do the song only after Luther Dixon consented to their suggestion to add a string arrangement—but even with the added violins, none of the Shirelles believed they had a hit on their hands.
Supported by the strings another marvelously arranged and perfectly executed background vocal arrangement, Shirley Owens delivered a lead vocal that comes as close to perfection as any lead vocal can get. Playing the role of a more assertive and uncertain girl than we heard in “Tonight’s the Night,” Shirley sings with a palpable measure of detachment, as if she’s having the conversation with her suitor at arm’s length. As such, she tempers her emotions so that the emotional impact will land on the listener, which is as it should be. The lyrics themselves are a bit awkward from a metrical standpoint, but Shirley covers for them so well we don’t even notice. Her phrasing on certain lines—“Can I believe the magic in your sighs,” “You say that I’m the only one,” and the unwieldy “Is a love I can be sure of”—is exquisite. And though I usually abhor the Mantovani-Mancini strings of the early ’60s, the string arrangement here is restrained and highly complementary.
It doesn’t surprise me (though I wish it did surprise me) that the song was banned by some radio stations in the U.S. and U.K. for its “sexual content” and “description of a one-night stand.” Yeah. Like ignoring the issue and pretending it doesn’t exist will stop teenagers from having sex. Got it.
The thing that troubles me about both “Tonight’s the Night” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is the implication that the responsibility to stop the proceedings before they go too far lands solely on the girl. Whether it’s teenage hanky-panky or rape, the broad always gets the blame. I’ll also admit that when I hear the line, “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes,” I want to scream, “That’s not love, that’s testosterone! Run for your life!”
“Boys”: I’ll say up front that I love the version by The Beatles. I love Ringo’s energetic vocal and I even love George’s post-modernist guitar solo. It’s an absolute gas! I will point out that the Wikipedia contributor who wrote the piece on this song is off-the-mark when he describes The Beatles’ cover as one that “bears many similarities between Ray Charles’s hit ‘What’d I Say’, particularly during the chorus verses.” Beyond the inappropriate use of the word “between” by failing to specify the comparative, the truth is that Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell used the same chord progression as “What’d I Say” and The Shirelles’ take is far more similar to the Ray Charles classic because of the omnipresence of piano. The Shirelles’ version is classic proto-soul grounded in R&B while The Beatles’ rendition was pure rock and roll designed to blow the walls off The Cavern. One could argue that the growling sax solo from King Curtis gives The Shirelles the edge, but really, both recordings are keepers.
The one “defect” in the Fab Four presentation is the half-hearted attempt at gender-bending. McCartney offered a suitable explanation in a 2005 Rolling Stone interview: “Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do ‘Boys’, which was a fan favourite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song. I think that’s one of the things about youth — you just don’t give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.”
“Mama Said”: And the hits just keep on coming! The Shirelles are on top of their game in this Luther Dixon-Willie Denson number that features another superb lead vocal from Shirley and the soulful precision The Shirelles always brought to their background vocals. The intro featuring the girls harmonizing with the horns is one of their strongest openers and mama’s message is spot-on. The Shirelles lived in an age when the primary mission of a young woman was to get married and crank up the baby assembly line ASAP. When Shirley sings, “Chapel bells are callin’ for everyone but me,” she’s expressing the pervasive fear among girls of the era that if they stayed on the market too long, they’d hit some kind of expiration date and earn the label “old maid” (something they were reminded of every time they played the old Victorian card game where you learned to avoid “getting stuck with the old maid”). Although the girl has the hots for a guy named Billie Joe, mama urges caution and dismisses the “need” for a girl to marry young as utter nonsense:
And then she said someone will look at me
Like I’m looking at you one day
Then I might find
I don’t want it any old way
You go, mama!
“What a Sweet Thing That Was”: This was actually the B-side of the next song on the album, and is fully deserving of B-side status. The production is seriously over the top and Shirley’s phrasing is unusually stiff as she tries to navigate the equally stiff Latin-esque rhythms. Unfortunately . . .
“A Thing of the Past”: The A-side isn’t that much better and suffers the same problems of poor rhythmic flow and ridiculously lush production. The single feels like management was attempting to expand The Shirelles reach into the easy listening market, as evidenced by the roughly simultaneous release of an album entitled The Shirelles Sing to Trumpets and Strings.
No, no, no and no!
“Big John (Ain’t You Gonna Marry Me?)”: I have no idea how or why two “Big John” songs were released in September 1961. Neither had anything to do with JFK and my research yielded no evidence supporting the theory that Americans had become enamored with larger toilets. Whatever the cause, the winner of the competition was Jimmy Dean, whose “Big Bad John” went all the way to #1 while The Shirelles “Big John (Ain’t You Gonna Marry Me?)” hit #21 on the Billboard Pop Charts and #2 on the R&B side.
“Big John” features a rollicking beat, an odd choice for a song where the girl is left waiting at the altar. The lyrics don’t reveal if the girl has something cooking in the oven, but the lines “My folks know you’ve jilted me/I’m ashamed to show my face” imply that the façade enabled by the girl not showing yet is about to collapse. Shirley adds some oomph to her vocal during the stop time passages but something tells me that The Shirelles were more comfortable and at their best with the slower numbers.
“Baby, It’s You”: Luther Dixon used a pseudonym for his co-writing credit here, perhaps because he was nervous that working with Burt Bacharach and Hal David might damage his R&B cred. Whatever, dude.
While the song doesn’t have the more complex jazz-oriented chords that mark many a Bacharach composition, Burt does go off-script by starting the verse with the IV chord (Eb) instead of the root (Bb) and compromising resolution by refusing to stay on the root at the end of the verse, quickly shifting to the complementary minor chord (Gm). The emphasis on the minor chords in the transition lines gives the song a melancholy, bluesy feel and the expansive melody offers a tremendous opportunity for a singer willing to go for it. Shirley Owens does just that, giving a highly varied and remarkably nuanced vocal loaded with dynamic shifts ranging from conversational asides to belt-out mode. Though the album tells you to expect twenty-five songs, there are actually twenty-six tracks: the compilers included both a mono and stereo version of “Baby, It’s You.” If you really want to appreciate Shirley’s vocal, listen to the stereo version, which gives her an open playing field on the right channel. Though I think the mono mix works better in comparison, the clarity assigned to Shirley’s voice in the stereo mix serves as an exceedingly pleasant form of education in vocal phrasing, controlled dynamics and that elusive quality known as command.
“Baby, It’s You” is obviously a great slow-dance number, but I do resent the intrusion of male background singers burying The Shirelles. One note of caution regarding the stereo mix: turn the volume down a few notches when the song nears the organ solo. That sucker is loud.
“The Things I Want to Hear (Pretty Words)“: Uh-oh. Syrupy strings always trigger my internal alarm bells, and in this case, the alarm bells are more than justified. The Shirelles were simply not designed to do Jerome Kern.
“Soldier Boy”: In 1962 the number of those in active military service on behalf of the USA (not counting reserves) stood at 2.8 million. Given the numbers of WWII and Korean veterans, it was pretty likely that everyone in America knew someone who was in the service, had left the service or was praying that they wouldn’t get the call from the draft board.
All that data meant that a sentimental song about missing one’s beloved while he was in the service would likely do very well in what had become a very pro-military country. The Shirelles played the part of the ever-faithful chick keeping the home fires burning for her man in uniform and played the part so well that the song became their second #1 hit.
Congratulations on the success, girls, but this is probably my least favorite track on the album. The music is rudimentary, like the first song written by a fifth-grader who has taken three piano lessons. The rhythm is so clop-along-little-dogie that I’m stunned that the girls didn’t reject it as being too country-western. The harmonies and unison singing are nice but the song structure forces the girls into a rhythmic straitjacket, turning the vocals into something you might hear from the fifth-grade choir. In the middle of the song is what Tom Breihan of Stereogum called “a plinky-plonk go-nowhere guitar solo” that could have been played by a fifth-grader who heard Duane Eddy three times. “Soldier Boy” doesn’t seem to be a song worthy of The Shirelles’ talent, but they did it, it went to the top of the charts and what the hell do I know anyway.
Another thing that pisses me off about “Soldier Boy” is that none of The Shirelles received songwriting credit despite making THE major contribution to the song. The original was a collaborative effort by manager/executive Florence Greenberg and lead songwriter Luther Dixon titled, “I’ll Be True to You.” They gave the song to The Shirelles, who made one teeny weeny change: they turned the song into a story about a girl missing a soldier.
Yes, that’s right. The original “Soldier Boy” mentions no soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines. No hussars, Red Army, Wehrmacht or confederate rebels. Not even a mention of the followers of popular golfer Arnold Palmer, a group known as “Arnie’s Army.”
If you think a fifth-grade song about missing some unidentified loser boyfriend would have shot to the top of the charts, let me sell you a bottle of my coronavirus cure. Without the soldier, you’ve got bupkis! The Shirelles should have received songwriting credit and the fattest royalty check in history!
“Welcome Home, Baby”: The follow-up to “Soldier Boy” made it into the Top 30, not bad for a follow-up. The music is classic early 60s slow-dance, displaying a strumming pattern similar to that presented by the girl-group-influenced Beatles in “This Boy.” The song features a far more interesting chord progression than “Soldier Boy,” and the girls sound great, tackling the more complex harmonies with ease and grace. The song opens with two turns of the girls harmonizing “There is no place like home,” then goes on to describe a particularly dull day in the life of a housewife:
Well, at ten o’clock
I was lonely and blue
At twelve o’clock
I thought of nothing but you
From two o’clock
Till a quarter of four
I waited patiently
To hear your footsteps at the door
It is very tempting to interpret this song as a pointed protest of female repression, but there are two obstacles to getting there. First, the song was written by a man (dear old Luther) who also co-wrote “Soldier Boy,” a tribute to those women who faithfully wait. Second, instead of reaming the bastard who has given her such a meaningful life, she welcomes him home with open arms. Still, there is something in the tone of The Shirelles that hints they might have been playing dumb . . . but I think that’s probably wishful thinking on my part. All the supplementary evidence indicates that the phenomenon of the “bored housewife” gobbling down drugs to retain her sanity came to light years later in a variety of psychological studies and The Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.”
But then there’s that line about “That little stain on your lips/Where honey drips.” Was the guy dipping in another woman’s honeypot? Nah. Can’t be.
“Stop the Music”: Stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere . . . girl has party . . . invites her guy . . . her guy winds up with another girl . . . girl is devastated. If that sounds like Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” well, you’re right! It’s also the plot behind “Stop the Music.” The Shirelles’ busted party song came out a year before Lesley’s, but even with that edge, Lesley’s tale is musically superior. The difference is obvious: Quincy Jones produced “It’s My Party” and I don’t really care who produced “Stop the Music” but they should be jailed for musical manslaughter. The ridiculous strings and absurd piano crescendos will serve as Exhibits 1 and 2.
“It’s Love That Really Counts (In the Long Run)“: The B-side of “Stop the Music” is another Bacharach-David composition sharing some of the same production flaws of the A-side but to a lesser degree. The bright spot here is the quality of the harmonies, falling like a welcome, gentle rain and blending beautifully with the lead vocal.
It was roughly at this point in 1962 timeline that Scepter owner (and still Shirelles manager) Florence Greenberg found her shiny new thing in the form of Dionne Warwick, who had provided the lead vocal on one of Bacharach’s demos. Greenberg signed her to a contract and rushed her first single to the market in August 1962 (“Don’t Make Me Over”). Warwick’s debut almost broke into the Top 20, but more relevant to the story is that it outperformed “Stop the Music,” which stalled at #36. The Shirelles now had competition for management care and feeding.
“Everybody Loves a Lover”: Luther Dixon took Doris Day’s more swing-oriented hit and used Barbara George’s “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” as a rhythmic template to push The Shirelles back into the Top 20. Doris Coley returns to the lead vocal spot, delivering a spirited vocal I’ll describe as “secular gospel.” An unfortunate switch to group vocals following the sax solo weakens the song’s soulful feel, but on balance, it’s a pretty solid number.
Though he did some pre-production work for their next single (and earned half-credit for production), this was Luther Dixon’s farewell to Scepter Records and The Shirelles. Dixon’s departure and Florence Greenberg’s fascination with Dionne Warwick would soon result in a noticeable drop in the quality of material sent their way . . . but first, The Shirelles had one last fling with chart success.
“Foolish Little Girl”: The Shirelles’ last trip to the Top 10 is a morality tale from Brill Building pros Helen Miller and Howard Greenfield that begins with a spoken word introduction from Doris Coley:
You broke his heart and made him cry,
And he’s been blue since then.
Now he’s found somebody new,
And you want him back again.
What follows is a mini-play featuring three roles: The Voice of Wisdom (played by Shirley Owens), The Foolish Little Girl (portrayed by Barbara Lee) and The Greek Chorus (obviously a group effort minus Barbara). The casting is perfect, as Shirley’s confident and commanding Voice of Wisdom contrasts beautifully with the childlike voice of Barbara Lee playing the sadistic dingbat. The Greek Chorus appears from time to time to call bullshit when The Foolish Little Girl attempts to offer a defense for her ultimately cruel behavior:
The Voice of Wisdom: Foolish little girl, fickle little girl, you didn’t want him when he wanted you. He’s found another love, it’s her he’s dreaming of and there’s not a single thing that you can do.
Foolish Little Girl: But I love him.
Greek Chorus: No you don’t it’s just your pride that’s hurt.
Foolish Little Girl: I still love him.
Greek Chorus: If you got him back again you’d go right out and do him dirt.
Not exactly Shakespeare, but surprisingly effective . . . and it sounds like the girls had a lot of fun with the theatrics. The music is quite advanced for the time, with repeated use of a minor seventh chord combination that serves to enhance the tragi-comic quality of the mini-play. The spoken word intro would soon become a staple of the girl group genre, and prove particularly effective in songs by the “tough girl” ensembles like The Angels and Shangri-Las.
Their performance on “Foolish Little Girl” showed that The Shirelles still had it and that not only could they handle more complex material but that they seem more engaged doing it. Instead of throwing them challenges, management began tossing them a few crumbs—second-rate songs made worse by substandard production. The last seven songs in the collection are both unmemorable and frustrating—frustrating because you get flashes of unrequited potential that prove The Shirelles were capable of so much more. These include Shirley Owens’ let-it-rip vocal on “What Does a Girl Do?”, the sensitive background vocals on “His Lips Get in the Way” and the energetic call-and-response featured in “Maybe Tonight.” The problem wasn’t the performances, it was the dated, stilted, limiting material. The chart pattern beginning with “Foolish Little Girl” in early 1963 and ending with “Maybe Tonight” in late 1964 demonstrates the effect of gross mismanagement: 4-26-53-57-69-63-88. To add insult to injury, their release of the Oscar-nominated title song from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—a terrible mismatch for their talents—peaked at #92.
One can only imagine what The Shirelles might have achieved had they not become victims of mismanagement and comparative neglect. It’s healthier to focus on what they managed to achieve the triumph of overcoming the many obstacles they faced. In Jacqueline Warwick’s fabulous study Girl Groups, Girl Culture, the author points out that one of the most significant but generally unacknowledged obstacles facing the girl groups was the label itself—“girl group” implies something soft, cuddly and inconsequential. Warwick argues that The Shirelles and the other young female vocal groups of the era managed to overcome that stigma and generate an impact that still resonates to this day: “The well-known girl groups of the 1960s are clearly archetypes of girlness set to music, so much so that their musical vocabulary, choreographed moves, and matching outfits, as well as many of their actual songs, have transcended their initial social and historical context and continue to be significant forty years after their original moment.”