How’s THAT for an attention-grabbing title?
“Be My Baby” and “Leader of the Pack” are two of the best-known archetypal “girl group” songs of the early 60’s.
Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack
The Ronettes, the Shangri-Las and other similar groups from this period, as well as Spector and The Wall Of Sound, are such hugely-foundational pieces of pop and rock music that my recommendation to everyone is simply to somehow get your paws on a copy of One Kiss Can Lead To Another. It’s an anthology every bit as crucial as the Nuggets series.
I’m going to talk about the groups that have reclaimed and revived the spirit of this music, again and again. Its combination of sugar-sweet melodies, rhythmic simplicity, hormone-addled primal emotions and echoey noise has proved to be an irresistible inspiration to successive generations of punk and post-punk musicians (and all of us who are teens at heart).
Unlike the original girl groups, these groups are not always entirely comprised of girls, and they also generally write their own songs and play their own instruments; but despite the differences, they help ensure the sound and the spirit that they love so much would keep on reverberating down through the decades.
First up: Scotland’s Shop Assistants, here covering the Shangri-Las in 1986:
Shop Assistants – Train From Kansas City (Shangri-Las Cover)
Shop Assistants borrowed heavily from fellow Scots The Jesus and Mary Chain – themselves huge girl group fans who’d re-used the iconic “Be My Baby” drumbeat on no fewer than three songs on their 1985 debut – and their epiphany that the Wall Of Sound’s traditional orchestra could be handily replaced with the white noise of the Velvet Undergound’s guitars:
Shop Assistants – You Trip Me Up (JAMC Cover)
Shop Assistants, and the larger independent scene that they were part of, were often willfully primitive, amateurish, lo-fi and noisy, or had…idiosyncratic approaches to the concept of tempo:
Talulah Gosh – Talulah Gosh
But not all of the newer generation of bands inspired by girl group sounds were so shambolic. The Primitives were sometimes thumbnailed as “Debbie Harry fronting the Mary Chain” (and of course, the consummately-professional Blondie had also played with classic girl group iconography and oldies song structure).
Their version of the formula resulted in some highly-polished pop songs that still have bite, like 1988’s “Crash”:
The Primitives – Crash
By 1990 in the US, DC’s Black Tambourine would be pursuing a similar course as the Shop Assistants, inspired in part by another black-leather-jacketed, buzzsaw-guitared band of Spector-and-girl-group fetishists: The Ramones.
In a way, this wave of post-punk girl-group-inspired bands feels like a reclamation, wresting the wheel back from the men who had paradoxically ruled the genre for so long. Feminism had made serious inroads into mainstream culture since the original girl groups of the early 60’s; fittingly, these newer girl-group-inspired bands are much less lyrically…passive when singing about about their subjects, or their romantic rivals:
Black Tambourine – Throw Aggi Off The Bridge
Shop Assistants – I Don’t Want To Be Friends With You
In recent years, the sound has come around again (third wave now? Or maybe it never really left):
Vivian Girls – Tell The World
But it never loses sight of its roots; with lots of songs about pleading, and running, addressed to or about their baby:
Vivian Girls – Where Do You Run To
Dum Dum Girls – Take Care Of My Baby
And boyfriends, and waiting by phones, and outsized teen emotions:
Best Coast – Boyfriend
And outright rewrites of classic girl-group tropes, like the teenage tragedy song (see also: “Leader of the Pack”):
The Manhattan Love Suicides – Head Over Heels
Speaking of “teenage tragedy”, The Smiths were also girl-group aficionados who wrote songs about adolescent automotive catastrophe. Here they get their payback with this beefed-up (HA!) tribute:
Dum Dum Girls – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (Smiths cover)
This stuff floats in a nexus between garage, indie pop/rock, and (fittingly, given its own affinities for walls of sound) shoegaze.
Given the last, and the fact that modern bands can also be more explicit in their “overwhelming love as drug” metaphors, it’s no surprise that there can sometimes be a psychedelic edge to this stuff:
Black Tambourine – For Ex-Lovers Only
Dum Dum Girls – Coming Down
Beaches – Send Them Away
To maybe bring things full circle – Stephin Merritt is a prolific and accomplished songwriter who often gives his songs to girls to sing, and sometimes constructs Spector-esque pocket symphonies using unusual or old-fashioned instrumentation. In some ways, then, he’s a bit of a throwback to the assembly-line way things were often done at the time of the original girl groups.
In 2008, under his main guise of the Magnetic Fields, he released Distortion, an avowed, unabashed tribute to the JAMC’s Psychocandy (and therefore, to the girl groups which were its inspiration).
It contains the hilariously bitter “California Girls” (no California girls were hurt in the making of this song):
Magnetic Fields – California Girls
Add in any I’ve missed, or just old favorites, in the comments!