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.
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!
Well, whaddya know? It’s interview time once again.
I really appreciate your positive feedback on the three interviews I’ve featured so far. I have more planned for the near future, so stay tuned!
Today, I’m pleased to publish an interview with none other than the New York-based ‘Queen Bee’ of girl group fandom, Sheila Burgel. Or Sheila B as she’s more commonly known among girl group collectors, Spector nuts or just general fans of 60s music.
Record collector, DJ, music blogger and compiler of girl pop reissues, – Sheila does it all! You can keep up to date with her adventures on her fab blog Cha Cha Charming. It’s an online continuation of the print fanzine she used to run.
Not content to just unearth super-rare girl pop records in dusty record stores or spin her treasured finds for packed dancefloors, Sheila has also been instrumental in bringing her favorite music wider recognition in the form of interesting compilations and reissues.
The most impressive project she’s worked on remains the monumental 4-disc ‘Girl Group Sounds – One Kiss can Lead to Another’ box set issued in 2005 by Rhino Records. Sheila served as associate producer and wrote the track-by-track liner notes. Lovingly compiled, the 120 track strong treasure trove collects a plethora of great 60s girl group records ranging from fairly well-known to incredibly obscure. The packaging itself is a replica of a vintage hat box!
The following interview remains within the Cue Castanets realm – Phil Spector recordings and other songs with a production akin to his Wall of Sound. But if you like what you read, I’ll strongly advise you to head over to the Dust & Grooves blog and read their longer and more comprehensive interview with Sheila.
She’s showing off some of her favorite records and discusses, among other things, general girl group history, the prevalent ‘boys club’ mentality of record collecting, feminism and ‘girl power’ expressed through music etc. It’s a great read!
First off, how and when did you first come across Phil Spector’s productions and what was your initial reaction?
Growing up in the ’80s, ’60s hits were ubiquitous, so songs like “Be My Baby” and “Then He Kissed Me” were as familiar to me as the present-day pop hits. But I wasn’t aware that “Be My Baby” was a Spector production.
In fact, I really had no idea who Phil Spector was until I moved to London at age 17 and began to take a closer look at these songs and the songwriting and production credits. I remember my friend Mick Patrick giving me copies of his fanzine, Philately, one of which came with a green pin with “Back To Mono” written on it. That’s when I really—to borrow part of Timothy Leary’s famous phrase—“turned on and tuned in.”
While researching for this interview, I came across a website where you listed ‘Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica’ as your favorite album. Can you elaborate on your love for this LP? Any specific songs you’d like to single out?
Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica is one of the few ’60s girl-pop LPs that is back-to-back brilliant—from start to finish. Most ’60s girl-pop LPs have just a couple of first-class tracks and a lot of obvious covers and dull B-sides, but there isn’t a dud on this album.
I’m really surprised that it isn’t included on more “Greatest Albums of All-Time” lists. I think most people think of the Ronettes as a singles act without realizing that so many mind-blowing singles on one LP makes for a pretty damn spectacular album!
It’s a shame that a second Ronettes album wasn’t issued. It would certainly have featured some killer material; ‘Is This What I Get’, ‘Paradise’, ‘Here I Sit’, ‘I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine’, ‘Keep On Dancing’ etc. What are some of your favorite Ronettes tracks not found on their sole album?
“Paradise” hands down. I get the hairs standing up on the back of my neck effect when I hear this one. And although “I Can Hear Music” was issued on 45, it would’ve been the ideal opener for the second album.
I know this is completely off topic, but I’d also like to give kudos to their early song “Recipe For Love.”
It’s a pre-Spector cut, but what a cheeky lil’ ditty! I never paid it much attention until I saw Ronnie perform it live at one of her Christmas performances at BB Kings. Wowzer!
You are probably one of the world’s most leading experts on 60s girl pop with an enormous collection of rarities. Any anecdotes you’d like to share about treasured records turning up in strange places or at the stroke of luck?
Oh how I wish I could turn back the clock to London 1996, when I first started buying girl-pop records because everything was cheap! cheap! cheap!
I’d pop into a high street charity shop, flip through a crappy box of 45s and find a stack of Billie Davis singles on Pye.
Then there was Lesley Duncan’s “I Go To Sleep,” which I got for £1 at a junk shop on Hanway Street, and Lorraine Silver’s “The Happy Faces” for maybe £20.
At that time, the interest in these records was teeensy, and there was no eBay to unite the demands of record collectors worldwide. I’d say I had a whole lotta digger’s luck for almost the entire time I lived in the UK.
I must also credit a Texan girl-group obsessive named JD Doyle, who once had one of the biggest collections of girl-pop records in the US. He had pretty much sold the entirety of his collection by the time we first met (via e-mail), but I still managed to nab a few gems that he had left. The Bittersweet’s “The Hurtin’ Kind” on Tema was on of them.
As someone who’s heard literally thousands of girl group recordings, how would you describe what Phil Spector and his Philles girl groups brought to the world of 60s female pop and their overall influence on the genre?
Take a peak at Ace Records’ compilation series, Phil’s Spectre: Wall of Soundalikes, to witness the enormity of Phil Spector’s influence on ’60s female pop and beyond.
Nearly every major and minor pop artist tried in some way to mimic his sound, usually with very impressive results. On the downside, this producer-as-rock-star mentality espoused by Spector had an unfortunate effect on the artists, who were often viewed as disposable or easily replaceable. The Crystals and Darlene Love both suffered immensely from Spector’s carelessness with “He’s A Rebel,” and the bitterness remains to this day.
Also, Spector’s enormous ego took away from writers like Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who we sometimes forget composed “Be My Baby” and so many of the other big Spector hits. And now look! Here I am calling them Spector hits as opposed to Crystals hits or Greenwich/ Barry hits.
We credit Spector with everything, whereas without the top quality songs, vocal talent, and personalities, I don’t believe Spector’s production techniques alone would’ve earned him such earth-shattering success.
The writers, artists, and Spector together created those songs and that magic.
What, if push comes to shove, are your top 5 girl group records with a Wall of Sound or similar bombast, over-the top backing track?
Adrienne Posta – Shang A Doo Lang
The Castanets – I Love Him
Cherilyn – Dream Baby
Marie Antoinette – He’s My Dream Boy
Debra Swisher – You’re So Good To Me (this record is so loud!)
You also work as a DJ spinning cool 60s girl pop for packed dancefloors. Let’s say you were to get things going at a party exclusively spinnin’ some Wall of Sound gems, not limited to Phil Spector productions. Which singles would hit your decks?
Beryl Marsden – Gonna Make Him My Baby
The Orchids – Love Hit Me
Maureen Gray – Goodbye Baby
The Girlfriends – My One and Only Jimmy Boy
The Bonnets – Ya Gotta Take A Chance
Cue Castanets deals not only with Phil Spector’s music but also with the work of similar minded producers and arrangers of the time.
Do you have a particular favorite producer or arranger that you’d say tends to get overlooked in favor of more well-known legends like Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche, Brian Wilson etc?
I am verrrrrry fond of all the producers you mention—Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche, Brian Wilson as well as David Gates, Bob Crewe and Shel Talmy. But I don’t pay as much attention to production and arrangement credits as I do to the songwriting credits. Because if the song (essentially the foundation) isn’t strong, not even the most skilled producer or arranger can save it.
I could list a gazillion over-looked songwriters, but those at the top of my list are Russ Titelman, Bert Berns, Howard Greenfield and Helen Miller (the team responsible for Bernadette Castro’s “A Girl In Love Forgives,” one of my all-time faves), Chip Taylor, Toni Wine, Pam Sawyer and Lori Burton.
I’d like to ask you the same question about girl group pop – any favorite, yet obscure group that stands in the shadows of well-known girl groups like the Ronettes, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las or the Supremes?
When I flip through my pile of Chiffons 45s on Laurie, I am constantly astounded by just how many excellent singles they put out. “You’re So Fine” and “One Fine Day” are just the tip of the iceberg. “Up On The Bridge,” “Nobody Knows What’s Going On (In My Mind But Me),” “Stop, Look, and Listen,” and “I Have A Boyfriend”….. the list of top-notch singles goes on and on and on.
Other favorites are the Cookies (and all of their spin-off groups), Orlons, Exciters, Honeys, and Reparata & the Delrons.
Recently, you’ve compiled the two brilliant Nippon Girls compilations of superb Japanese girl pop and you have a lot of knowledge about that country’s 60s music scene and how it was influenced by Western popular music.
The Wall of Sound seems to have left quite a mark there, so much so that there’s even been a locally released compilation of Japanese Wall of Sound pastiches from the 70s and beyond. And new stuff crops up occasionally, like Megumi Hara’s ‘Everlasting Love’.
Would you say that the wide-eyed romanticism of 60s Wall of Sound resonates in a particular way with Japanese mentality?
Isn’t it curious that the Spector sound had no influence whatsoever on ’60s Japanese pop music, and then suddenly, 10-15 years later it’s all over late ’70s, early ’80s idol pop?
I think the warm, lovey-dovey Spector sound was a bit too sweet for ’60s Japan. It was the era of the Group Sounds—Japanese rock n’ roll that leaned heavily on the Beatles and the British Invasion. And once the GS craze cooled, folk took its place.
So there really wasn’t any genre appropriate for the Spector sound until idol pop—when female voices got lighter n’ sweeter and everything sounded so unabashedly pop. The combo of idol pop and Spector’s production values worked beautifully, especially on Seiko Matsuda’s “Issen Ichibyou Monogatari,” Celia Paul’s “Yume De Aetara,” and Eiichi Ohtaki “Kimi Wa Tennenshoku.” Oh, and Megumi Hara’s “Namida No Memory.”
A pet project of mine is to find modern Spector soundalikes, many of whom I’ve featured on the blog. How do you feel about musicians with all the modern, digital recording possibilities of today trying to recreate the Wall of Sound from a bygone era?
On one of your blog posts about Simon Reynolds’ interesting ‘Retromania’ book I noticed you asked the question, “why listen to modern interpretations of the past as opposed to the real thing?”
I have no problem with anyone attempting to recreate the Spector sound if they do it with some originality, taste, or talent. Just because it has the Spector sound doesn’t mean it’s a good record.
I think it’s important to remember that a big part of Spector’s success was due to quality control; he was renowned for his pursuit of perfection. If today’s music industry had just a third of Spector’s appetite for high quality records, I think we’d have a much healthier industry.
I think a lot of the Japanese Spector soundalikes are particularly appealing because you have 1) the Japanese language, which takes the track to a whole other place, 2) the ’70s and ’80s production, which automatically differentiates it from the Spector sound, and most important of all—3) the songs are well written.
That’s also why I love and adore Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black. She wears her ’60s girl groups and jazz influences loud and proud, yet the heart and soul of the album is pure Amy Winehouse.
That combination of talent, heart, and knowledge of music history doesn’t come around often enough these days. Modern interpretations of the past without talent or heart will never beat the real thing, hence what I said on my blog.
Are there any artists today you would like to recommend for Cue Castanets readers as someone carrying the torch for the sensibility, songwriting and production values of 60s pop?
I’m racking my brain to come up with one artist in the past ten years who I think has done anything remotely close to the quality/ style of ‘60s pop, but I’m drawing a blank. In the ‘90s there were acts like Japan’s Pizzicato Five and the UK’s Saint Etienne, who took ’60s elements and so seamlessly weaved them into their own sound.
There are artists today who cite girl groups and Phil Spector as influences, but I haven’t really heard anything worth recommending. Oh, wait, Janelle Monae! If you’re fond of ’60s and ’70s soul n’ funk with a futuristic twist, Janelle Monae will appeal big time! Also, she puts on an unforgettable live show—tremendous energy!
Well, I hope some of the modern Spector soundalikes I highlight on the blog might appeal to you then.
Sheila, thank you for taking your time to participate in this interview. I look forward to your future compilation projects and blog posts on Cha Cha Charming!
Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…