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Review – Leaders of the Pack

Sean MacLeod: “Leaders of the Pack – Girl Groups of the 1960s and Their Influence on Popular Culture in Britain and America”

**** (4 stars out of 6)

If you’re going to write a book on the 60s girl group genre you have different ways of going about it.

You could focus mainly on the groups themselves and compile a sort of estrogen-dripping encyclopedia devoted to 60s femme pop like überfan John Clemente has done with the much cherished ‘Girl Groups: Fabulous Females that Rocked the World.’ You could also broaden the scope and reflect upon the wider social and cultural significance of the genre’s output – this has been done somewhat by Alan Betrock in his ‘Girl Groups: the Story of a Sound’ and more extensively by Jacqueline Warwick in ‘Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 60s’


There are of course also those who highlight the girl group phenomenon as just one of many examples of women making their voice felt in popular music through the decades; Lucy O’Brien’s ‘She Bop: the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music’ or Gillian Gaar’s ‘She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock’n’Roll’ come to mind.


Even though there are already plenty of books out there covering the various angles on girl group history, I recently became aware of yet another book about the subject that could be of interest to Cue Castanets readers. ‘Leaders of the Pack: Girl Groups of the 1960s and their Influence on Popular Culture in Britain and America’ by Sean MacLeod came out in 2015 and as the loooong subtitle indicates, it’s a book that tries to do a little bit of everything; offer detailed glimpses into the careers of a few of the most notable groups, discuss their relevance and significance in connection to the era and, finally, outline how these groups, and the girl group genre itself, has had a far-reaching influence since the genre’s heyday. It’s a commendable cause and MacLeod deserves praise for his good intentions and nearly getting there.


I found MacLeod’s style of writing to be very good and informative. – and thankfully not written in an overtly academic manner. The book has a lot of useful info for readers who have just discovered girl groups, wisely singling out a few groups that are dealt with in-depth rather than tiring or confusing readers with too much info on the large number of groups that left behind a myriad of often obscure singles.

Maybe this condensed approach to telling about the genre reflects MacLeod’s work as a lecturer teaching music and media history? Using his selected girl groups as examples he carefully describes the various stages in the development of the girl group phenomena so that no readers are left behind. The Shirelles are used to exemplify the birth of the girl group sound; the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, the Supremes and the Vandellas are all dealt with during discussions of the genre’s climax and finally the Shangri-Las are highlighted when MacLeod discusses how the genre’s impact slowly petered out.


Girl group connoisseurs will probably scratch their heads and wonder why the Cookies or the Chiffons didn’t merit inclusion in standalone chapters as well as soloists befitting the genre such as Lesley Gore or Darlene Love but that minor gripe aside, MacLeods choices and the way he uses them to reflect upon the ups and downs of the girl group sound makes sense while reading the book.


Honesly, this is a tough book to review because I knew a lot about the topic beforehand. Therefore, I quickly began to skim or skip some pages or whole chapters along the way because they state the basic facts that die-hard fans can recite in their sleep. For new fans though I’m sure this book will make for a very interesting and eye-opening read and I suspect it could be especially useful as reading material for a course in music history. A lot of songs are mentioned throughout which will surely send those just digging into the genre record-hunting or checking out sound samples online. The many fabulous girl-themed compilations put out by Ace Records through the years would be a good place to start for girl group newbies.


What I really like about the book is when MacLeod looks beyond the girl groups themselves and reflects upon their own influences or the way they influenced other music of their era.

He makes a really good case for how the girl group sound was not just one specific sound but more of a musical melting pot of diverse inspiration that happened to be carried by female voices. Consequently, some girl group records reflect more of a doo wop or rhythm’n’blues foundation whereas others are more to the poppier, ‘white’ side.


When MacLeod tries to pinpoint the influence of the girl group genre itself on later generations of girl singers and female musicians things get very interesting, though also at times a bit far fetched and subjective. Although I’m sure Madonna, the Spice Girls and Lady Gaga know a few girl group hits or more, I doubt the genre’s influence on their sound has been big enough to merit whole chapters devoted to the subject. But then again; Amy Winehouse certainly took her point of departure in the girl group sound so it’s definitely a topic worth discussing. I do like the fact that MacLeod doesn’t shy away from trying to connect the dots between then and now, even though some of his conclusions are debatable.

Which girl group 45′ do you think Amy is spinning?

All in all, this is a fine and worthwhile book but one that’s more for casual fans than experts, hence my 4-star rating. Let me put it this way; if you know someone that you feel are ready to be introduced to this fascinating, yet criminally overlooked genre, then give ‘em a great big kiss and this book for Christmas to get them off and running!

Guest post: Be my Baby

Here’s a great guest post for Cue Castanets courtesy of a good friend and fellow Spector fan and collector. Online, he calls himself Spectorlector. Enjoy!


– A song,… and a book.

I never really cared for music! I know that is hard to believe since I am guest-posting on this blog, but being born in 1974, I grew up during the 80s with hiphop, rap, breakdance and huge ghettoblasters. (Btw. why was it necessary to have such a big machine to play those small casette tapes?) I was certainly born in the wrong decade…

But then in 1987 a song changed my life: ‘Be my baby’ by the Ronettes. The first time I heard the song I had an epiphany, very much like Brian Wilson, when he heard the track back in 1963 and almost crashed his car. In 1987, for a 13 year-old boy like me at the time, 1963 seemed like a century ago. I was hooked though, wanting to dicover more…. know more about the girls, the group, their story…. Who did that song, and what happened to them? The words ‘performed by THE RONETTES’ printed on the back of my sisters vinyl copy of the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack was sketched into my brain.


For me, the song in itself was the sound of lust, love, innocence and emotional yearning, all rolled into one. The triple drum-fills sounding like a heart skipping, the castanets evoking the feeling of shivers down the spine and the strings putting into sound the butterflies in my stomach. Never before had a piece of music spoken to me like this. I was in love with a song… Thus began a love affair, that has lasted longer than any real romance in my life.

This was before the world wide web, and back in those days, finding info on anything was like searching for a needle in a haystack. One day though, I happened to see the words “BE MY BABY” in bright pink letters on a bookstand, I could feel the black in my eyes growing, like when a cat eyes a mouse… That was the first time I laid eyes on Ronnie, her tight skirt and high beehive hair. Wow! I finally got a huge step closer to solving the mystery of The Ronettes and ‘Be my Baby’.


25 years have passed since I first read her book, and what a book! The perfect page-turner. The story of a half-breed teenage girl from Spanish Harlem, striving for success in show-business, eventually recording one of the most iconic and loved 60s pop-songs, only to watch it all slip away. The nightmare of her marriage to – and lock-up by – the producer of her songs, the subsequent battle with alcoholism, frustration… and finally, surviving it all and getting back to the one thing she loves and does best: performing.


Ronnie’s book was republished in 2004 and is in print now again in 2015 in a brand new version featuring lots of ‘never before seen’ photographs. It comes in four different versions, an Ebook/Kindle version and three printed options. A paperback with only b/w photos, a paperback with colour and b/w photos, and most importantly: a “have to own” hardback. As far as Ronnie’s story goes, it’s the same as when first published. What’s important here is the updated discography and the mind-blowing set of both black/white and colour photos included.


For me this new edition is important. I helped updating and putting the discography together, a fine and impressive labor of love, that was original done (among others) by one of my mentors and friends: David A. Young. Because I helped a little, my name is mentioned twice in the book….this makes me so proud. The song, the book and I have come full circle. I never dreamed I would be part of a piece of work that I adored so much. If someone had told me this 25 years ago, and all the people I would connect with during my love affair with “Be My Baby” – the song and the book – I would have said “you’re nuts” and laughed in their face. Pretty much the same feeling I know Ronnie Spector has whenever she is out on the road, singing, performing and meeting fans that are still in love with her, her songs and her story… 50+ years down the line…


On a final note, I would like to say that I gain no profit what-so-ever from being a part the book, nor the sales.


Collecting Phil Spector – the Book

When I got seriously into the Wall of Sound in the early 00s I quickly felt the need for a good overview of Spector’s recorded output. 

How much had been left off the Back to Mono box that was my rite of passage into all things Spector? What were the stories behind all of these productions? Some, like the Modern Folk Quartet or the Alley Cats seemed to be one-offs? And what, if anything, had Spector committed to tape after his Philles heyday?

Remember, this was in the early years of the internet. There wasn’t a great deal of info online and as a fresh-faced, nascent Wall of sound fan in my early 20s I was looking for answers. They came in the form of a curious book called ‘Collecting Phil Spector – The Man, the Legend and the Music’ which I was delighted to find via a search through the national library system in my country.

To this day, I suspect there’s only one copy available through the library here – the one that I was able to bring home and study like it was Holy Scripture. I kept renewing my loan on this book for several months. This is where I first read about the over-looked productions of the 70s. It was also the book that really whetted my appetite for hunting down various Spector soundalikes. There’s a whole discography in it devoted to these soundalike records, old and new – even meticulously divided into sections like ‘Righteous Brothers soundalikes’ or ‘Spector Soundalikes 1980s’. It’s a wet dream for every fan of the Wall of Sound that finds the official Spector output too limited to satisfy his craving for bombast.

Front cover of the Collecting Phil Spector book, Spectacle Press 1991
Front cover of the Collecting Phil Spector book, Spectacle Press 1991
Since then I’ve read almost every book on Spector and his music with Mick Brown’s seminal tome ‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound’ being my favorite, followed closely by Rob Finnis’ ‘the Phil Spector Story’ and Mark Ribowsky’s more trashy but very entertaining ‘He’s a Rebel.’ And would you believe there are more than these solely focused on Spector along with auto-biographies by Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Sonny Bono, Hal Blaine, Cher etc?

Ronnie's book. This must be the best subtitle for a Spector-themed book yet, - hands down!
Ronnie’s book. This must be the best subtitle for a Spector-themed book yet, – hands down!
The Spector-related book shelf is actually pretty crowded with lots of entertaining, highly informative reads. But ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ somewhat holds a special place for me with its earnest fan-boy focus on the music. There is a bit of info about Spector’s personal life but it’s very basic and the authors point out in the foreword that their book isn’t meant as a biography but a walk-through of the music.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to locate the authors Jack Fitzpatrick and Jim Fogerty via Facebook but to no avail. It’s a shame because I’d love to hear more about their book’s origin. It’s clearly a labor of love written by two über-fans – and they are readily described as such on the dust cover. But why did they undertake such a project in 1991? At a time when Spector had been lying low for more than a decade?

Well, the Back to Mono box came out the very same year as the book so maybe the book was somehow tied into this project? It seems though that the book came out first since the box isn’t listed in the book’s Spector discography. Rhino Records allegedly worked on a project along the lines of the Back to Mono box with Spector before he changed horses in the middle of the stream and gave the project to ABCKO to finish. So there may be a connection there?

No matter what, ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ is an interesting read even today. More of a catalog with short essays rather than a book maybe but you can definitely feel the enthusiasm and love for the music throughout. I don’t know how limited the print run was but I suspect it was kept rather low for a vanity project like this.

In the book you'll find nice colour inlays like this collage of Spector-related collectibles.
In the book you’ll find nice colour inlays like this collage of Spector-related collectibles.
About 8 years ago I was lucky enough to find a reasonably prized copy on Ebay – usually they go for much higher prizes the few times they pop up online. If you happen to see one at a fair prize, grab it! It’s a well-worth investment for any serious Spector / Wall of Sound fan, – even just as a sort of historical source like those old Phil Spector Appreciation Society newsletters and Philately fanzines I’ve previously written about here:


Jack & Jim! If you’re still out there,… if you happen to see this I’d love to know more about your work on the book. And a sincere thank you for giving me a great crash-course in the Wall of Sound all those years ago!