Bob Feldman was sitting in a Brooklyn soda shop when a girl burst inside yelling, “He went away and you hung around and bothered me every night. And when I wouldn’t go out with you, you said things that weren’t very nice.” The songwriter eventually immortalized those words for the intro of the Angels’ song, “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
Add a few “hey las,” “wah oohs” “ooh wahs” and “shoop shoops” to the woes of a teenage girl in the ’60s and you had girl-group classics the likes of “Leader of the Pack,” “Where Did Our Love Go?,” “He’s So Fine” or “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Too easy. But the songs were easy. The lyrical content and simple orchestration were easy to get across, easy to relate to and easy to love.
In March, Rhino collected 40 vocal-group favorites into two releases: Girl Group Greats and More Girl Group Greats. Song after song, the memories flood back, whether they’re from the soda shop itself or the backseat of your parents’ car, listening to oldies radio. The work of Detroit favorites Martha & the Vandellas, the Supremes, the Marvelettes and Mary Wells have respectable representation on the discs. And nearly every song chosen was a massive hit.
This is somewhat of a surprising move for Rhino, a label more often recognized for championing somewhat obscure musical heroics. One also wonders why a few artists have multiple tracks contributed while others, such as the Crystals or the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, are ignored. Evading controversy is one possibility: The Crystals song “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” or Ike and Tina’s well-known abusive relationship might not have sat well with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which shares space with the liner notes inside both CD booklets.
The songs captured on the discs and many that are missing — especially the crunchy garage-style ones of groups such as Ike & Tina — have inspired a group of young female musicians from various established bands in the Detroit area to create a girl-group cover band called the Sirens. They dress in matching outfits, mimic the call and response, speak the intros and sing the harmonies to great songs such as Ike and Tina’s “Tina’s Dilemma” and “Right Now and Not Later” from the Shangri-Las. The only visible difference is that the Sirens play the instruments themselves, adding some gravel to the sugary sound. Deanne Iovin from the Come Ons takes on drumming duties, Michelle Lannoo plays bass and Muffy Kroha sings.
“We don’t have the luxury of musicians to back us,” Kroha says. “So we make do with our own talents, whatever they may be.”
She admits that the idea is a bit gimmicky, what with the matching miniskirts and cover material: “We’re definitely walking the line between playing the Woodward Dream Cruise, weddings and bars. It’s more like Halloween. But I enjoy it. I’m not that cute. For me, it’s kind of the teenage dream.”
The lyrical content of these famous girl-group classics epitomizes how we imagine the ’50s and ’60s for teenage girls: meeting friends at the candy store, falling for the rebel from the “wrong side of town” and every cute boy’s name being Johnny. The tales of trading in sweet innocence for toughened skin and maturity still ring true today, offering advice for young girls on how to deal with choice and consequence.
The irony, of course, is that men such as Bob Feldman, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland wrote the majority of the songs. And even more ironic, often the songs were criticized for shameless sass and rebellion. In “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” Betty Everett kisses and tells. The Chiffons outright objectified a man in “He’s So Fine.” On the other hand, the compilations also retell countless groups going to the chapel and following him. The Marvelettes contrast these “stand by your man” themes with the opening of “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” which has more of a “stand by your girlfriend,” feminist, “drop the jerk” feel.
Joanie Sommers sparked criticism from feminists for “Johnny Get Angry,” in which she begs for punishment. But each song proves that rules, manners, norms and expectations are pretty much irrelevant when it comes down to the possibility of “getting some” — be that “necking” or “true love” or both. And whether that drive is conditioned in women or inside them naturally, the men who wrote the songs managed to hit the nail on the head time and again.
Glitzy, middle-aged male producers have always put words in the mouths of young female vocalists. What makes the girl-group songs so endearing, however, is how the women wrapped their souls around the words and reclaimed them, really making the sometimes silly and melodramatic stories their own.
The songs helped young girls in that rough period between childhood innocence and mature womanhood. They gave you all kinds of choices, whether you were a starry-eyed Sandy, a sophisticated Marty, a rebellious Rizzo or a goofy Frenchy, though they kind of stuck on one element of the period — dealing with boys. The equivalent for today’s adolescent perhaps can be found on the magazine rack. Do you subscribe to YM, Mademoiselle or Jane? Or do you cut and paste your own zine at Kinkos?
Since the girl groups of the ’50s and ’60s, various deviations from the mold have arisen, from the punks and disco queens of the ’70s to the boy toys and hip-hop MCs of the ’80s, to the riot grrls and divas of the ’90s, to the Destiny’s Childs and Britney Spears of today. Each of these is discussed in detail inside Gerri Hirshey’s new book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25). The author does a great job tackling a huge musical history, often marginalized into a topic outside the context of music — as in, well, there are bands and then there are girl bands. Hirshey places the women back inside the context, displaying their influence on the greater whole through a number of provocative interviews intertwined inside a 269-page narrative.
What makes the Sirens so remarkable is that they incorporate all of the movements covered in the Hirshey book — from shoop shoop to riot grrl to diva — into a brand-new sound, all the while deviously pretending to be “only a cover band.” They grew up listening to the songs, read about various feminist movements, gagged at current popular radio and out came the Sirens. Knowing all of this, they recognize the somewhat objectifying nature of the songs they cover.
“I can’t believe some of those things (Tina Turner) was saying. It’s quite perverse to emulate that. But we objectify guy rock stars. … And the main reason we do it is because it couldn’t be more fun. We’re living every little girl’s dream. Who doesn’t want that? Every drag queen in the world wants that. What a bonus, we’re girls. It’s nice to be a girl drag queen. We’ve got one up on ’em.”