They sing of secret crushes, school dances, breakups and anything else involving boys. They wear matching dresses or sweaters and flip their hair. They have names like The Butterflys, The Honey Bees, The Blossoms, The Cinderellas, The Fabulettes and The Lovelites. And their music is pure pop perfection in 2 1/2 minutes.
They are the girl groups of the 1960s, and they’re usually disregarded as fluff and brushed aside for not bringing the “serious” or “sophisticated” music that rock critics love about the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Certainly, kitsch is a part of the appeal. The girl group sound (note: some solo artists such as Lesley Gore get thrown in this genre as well) relies on dramatic emotions ” whether giddily in love or so deeply depressed you fear the girl will drown in her tears. Because of such dramatics, these songs contain pretty comical narratives of sitting at home, waiting for a boy to call or running away to be with the “leader of the pack.”
But to call the girl groups silly means to call love and emotion silly. And really, are girl group songs any more “silly” than say, “Tutti Frutti”? Definitely not. Yet the history books would never regard a group like The Shirelles as highly as Little Richard. Thus the discrimination against girl groups has less to do with the quality or kitsch factor than gender.
Rhino’s latest box set, “One Kiss Can Lead to Another,” hopes to correct the girl group image. “One Kiss” is not the first collection to highlight forgotten gems from the early to mid-’60s when for a brief period, girls ruled the airwaves: 1996’s “Growin’ Up Too Fast” and British series such as “Dream Babes” and “Early Girls” began compiling these groups years ago. But Rhino offers its own four-disc set (it comes in a hatbox!) that’s comprehensive and priced below the British series.
Most importantly, Rhino is known not just for compiling hard-to-find singles but also for killer liner notes and pictures to accompany the CDs. “One Kiss” lives up to Rhino’s reputation with a 200-page booklet (in diary form) with rare photos of the Shangri-Las, quotes from the girls and songwriters and, best of all, an essay from author Gerri Hirshey, who wrote a history of women in rock in her book “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
A notable absence on “One Kiss” is the exclusion of girl groups’ best-known producer Phil Spector’s songs (which are notoriously difficult to get rights to). Spector is credited with inventing the production style known as the Wall of Sound, which basically used an echo chamber and instrumental excess to create a big, broad sound. Without Spector, “One Kiss” is missing The Crystals and prime-era Ronettes (a pre-Spector Ronettes track does appear, however).
But Spector’s absence is hardly missed. Whenever girl groups are taken seriously in rock history, it’s only in the context of Spector. Without him, “One Kiss” is able to highlight more behind-the-scenes female stars, such as Carole King, Jackie DeShannon and Ellie Greenwich. And without Spector, Rhino perhaps concentrated on obscure cuts instead of hit singles.
“One Kiss” not only proves the timelessness of tight harmonies, layered strings and handclapped backbeats, but shows the diversity of styles within the girl group sound. There’s the smooth R&B ballad from Maxine Brown, the doo-wop of the Shirelles, the growl and country from Wanda Jackson, a bossa-nova beat from Ruby & the Romantics, the Motown sound from the Marvelettes and the psychedelic mod of Sandie Shaw.
Because of this variety, “One Kiss” brings into question the notion of a “girl group” sound. Is what unified these artists actually just gender? That certainly has a lot to do with it, and provides an easy way to lump ’60s female artists into one group so none become a heroic symbol with a name as large as Elvis or the Beatles.
Still, something unifies these groups and artists on “One Kiss.” No matter what subject or emotion the girls sing about, a sense of urgency surges in their voices.
At the time of these recordings, the ’50s had passed, giving rise to the independence of teenagers and changing the way girls dated. But this was still before the major rise of feminism in the ’70s, so in the girl group songs, a strange contradiction takes place; the girls struggle for independence while remaining desperate for boys’ attention. Whether the artists on “One Kiss” sing of ditching their cheating boyfriends or helplessly sticking by them, they have a restlessness in common.
Amazingly, “One Kiss” shows how little subject matter has changed in girl group pop over the years. Many of the same contradictions in “One Kiss” appear in current pop music. Just look at one of the biggest girl groups in recent years, Destiny’s Child: “Independent Women” compares to Donna Lynn’s “I’d Much Rather Be with the Girls”; “Jumpin’ Jumpin'” to The Pin-Ups’ “Lookin’ for Boys”; “Bug a Boo” to Dee Dee Warwick’s “You’re No Good”; “Soldier” to Carole King’s “He’s a Bad Boy”; and “Cater 2 U” to Roddie Joy’s “If There’s Anything Else You Want (Let Me Know).”
“One Kiss Leads to Another” rescues girl groups from just being footnotes in rock history and proves they were not simply kitsch pop. Within the girl group sound we hear the rising of feminism and glimpse the contradictions we still struggle with today.