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Myrmidons of Melodrama: The Definitive Collection - Shangri-Las

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Genre: Pop / Artist: Shangri-Las / CD / Audio CD released 2002-04-08 at RPM

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      17.10.2010 19:21
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      A fine introduction to the teen dramas of the Shangri Las

      MTV is nearly 30 years old, meaning there's an entire generation who hasn't lived without it and the music video as an extension of the single , and as an essential marketing tool for the music industry.

      At the risk of sounding like the fogey I admittedly am, in the time before MTV the main way of selling your record was via the radio (or a bit of payola, but we won't go into that here) and as a result, production values tended to be different then as it was imperative to get your song to stand out on the radio.

      Phil Spector was probably the most distinctive producer of the 1960s, with his wall of sound, but equally distinctive were the Motown songs and also the work George "Shadow" Morton did with girl group the Shangri Las. Morton had got his nickname because people found him hard to pin down, but he certainly left his indelible mark on the records he produced.

      Using sounds such as seagulls and waves crashing onto a beach, a train horn or, most dramatically of all, the sound of a motorbike crashing, his sound turned four girls from New York into the queens of teenage soap operas, presenting female teen angst in a way no-one has ever quite managed again in music.

      Much of that is perhaps due to the changes in attitudes over time - but there was an edge to the Shangri Las songs which was also ahead of their time and it's no surprise that they were a huge influence on the New York punk scene - with Debbie Harry in particular a huge fan. The songs could be subversive and so was the look at times with copious use of black leather, big hair and knee high boots.

      It all sounds a bit innocent now in an era where stars who appeal to youngsters sing about sex in a quite open manner (witness "Rude Boy" by Rihanna) - instead the Shangri Las talk about teen romances in far less explicit terms, and sing about relationships with your parents, break ups and even death.

      Using a term of the era, "Leader of the Pack" was a "death disc" extraordinaire. The press in the UK deemed it "depraved" and in "bad taste" however it entered the charts three times - originally in 1965 and twice as a reissue in both 1972 and 1976. It's been covered too, but there's nothing to beat the sincerity of the original and Mary Weiss' impassioned vocals.

      ~~The Shangri Las~~

      The Shangri Las comprised of two sets of sisters, all of whom were from the Queens district of New York City. Betty Weiss and her younger sister Mary were the blonde two, and Mary Ann and Marge Ganser who were identical twins with brunette hair.

      The group were originally signed to Kama Sutra records but hit the big time when George "Shadow" Morton took them over to Red Bird records after asking them to record a demo version of a song he had written entitled "Remember (Walking In the Sand)" and then deciding they were so good they could release the single themselves.

      As a teen girl group they were the real deal - when they signed to Red Bird Mary was just 15, the twins 16 and Betty 17. They also had a reputation for being tough nuts. Mary was brought to the attention of the FBI for transporting a gun across state lines and stories abound regarding how coarse they could be. It has been suggested however that these stories were put out to strengthen the girls' image and also to ward off unwanted attention as they toured.

      Although there were four permanent members, frequently Betty would be missing from publicity shots and sometimes one of the twins would be absent and Betty would appear. It seemed that the girls were viewed as interchangeable by their management, despite their distinctive vocal sound being dependent on Mary's voice in particular.

      The other girls did sing some lead vocals on B-sides but it's generally been accepted that Mary Weiss was the "voice" of the Shangri Las and in pictures she comes across as a pretty, yet accessible role model for teenagers of the era.

      The group had their biggest success whilst on the Red Bird label. They signed in 1964 and were there up until the label folded in 1967. They signed to Mercury records that year but no hits followed and the band came to an end in 1968.

      Mary Ann passed away from a seizure in 1970 and the girls only came together again twice - they reformed in 1977 and signed to the Sire label on the back of the punk music scene's interest in them but no material was ever released. They performed together for one last time in 1989, with Marge succumbing to breast cancer in 1996.

      For years the group had an air of mystery about them due to the speed with which they rose to fame and then vanished again. The girls had chosen to move out of the spotlight and live "normal" lives after an adolescence which was anything but ordinary but Mary returned to music a few years ago, introducing a new generation to her voice.

      ~~Myrmidons of Melodrama~~

      There are countless Shangri Las compilations available to buy, with some available for only a couple of quid. I decided to opt for "Myrmidons of Melodrama" because it contains rarely released stereo versions of some of the girls' best loved songs which I hadn't heard before. Most of their singles were recorded in stereo but for some reason released only in mono during the 1960s.

      The overall feeling you get from listening to the Shangri Las music is one of doom. There are some moments of light relief on this album, but the intense sense of darkness is what will overwhelm you on some of their songs.

      The opening track is "Remember (Walking on the Sand)" a song which is beautifully constructed with a verse sung mournfully by Weiss and a chorus where her voice becomes wistful as Morton uses the sound of seagulls to evoke those memories of a lost love. There's no denying much of this music will sound a bit dated - certainly the backing vocals from the rest of the group scream "early 1960s" but it works. This is the first time I have heard this in stereo and brings Weiss' voice out in a way that wasn't apparent in the mono version - and for the better too.

      "The Leader of the Pack" is the song the Shangri Las will always be best remembered for is the ultimate teen tragedy song. It's been part of popular culture for over 45 years now, and has been parodied several times but this is the ultimate musical melodrama and was branded as "sick" by the UK press when it was first released here. You can't buy publicity like that.

      I first heard the song when it was reissued in 1972 and was immediately fascinated by it. In the space of three minutes we are told the story of Betty and Jimmy's doomed romance. In true teen fashion, the lyrics deal with romance, parental interference and breaking up, but the addition of a death, complete with the sound of a motorbike crashing, takes this to another level. We also have spoken segments, which was to become a trademark sound of the Shangri Las.

      There is no way any radio listener could miss "The Leader of the Pack" but all Morton had done was take the ideas he had used on the girls' debut single, taken them up a notch and given them a truly individual and easily identifiable sound. What really makes the song work is the question and answer aspect of the song, with "Betty" being asked questions by the other girls before starting the story with that immortal line, "I met him at the candy store".

      The girls did another so-called "death disc" with "Give Us Your Blessings", this time telling the tale of star crossed young lovers Mary and Jimmy who drive off to elope after Mary's parents refuse their consent to marriage. The song is a cut price version of "Leader of the Pack" however - the song does make use of a thunderstorm to add to the atmosphere but because we don't hear the full story from Weiss and her impassioned voice, it's hard to care what happens when Jimmy "didn't see the sign that read detour".

      If this proves anything, it's that the death disc has to be told in the first person to really hit home I suppose.

      Tragedy comes to a peak on the song that is my favourite Shangri Las song, the epic "I Can Never Go Home Again" which is probably the most melodramatic song the group ever recorded. Weiss' voice on this is utterly believable as she speaks about her mother and how their relationship became strained over a boy.

      I have often wondered why Weiss didn't become an actress as her vocal performance on this is just amazing. She barely sings on this song but her voice is utterly convincing. When she does sing a plaintive "mama" it just give me chills. The backing vocals are fantastic too, giving us a song which becomes a tragedy of epic proportions - mostly due to the incredible performance of Mary Weiss.

      On "Out In the Streets" the girls sing about the inner city life they were grown into, captured perfectly by songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. The backing vocals are particularly good on this atmospheric song which also uses pizzicato strings effectively as Weiss reflects on how her influence has muted her lover's ability to hang out with his friends where he is most at home.

      There's more heartache on "The Train from Kansas City", and once again Morton uses sound effects (yes, of a train) to add to the atmospheric levels on the song, as Mary sings about telling a former love she is now with someone new. Once again Mary's singing is perfect - genuine teen angst set to music.

      Of course the Shangri Las did do some happy songs too. They were a girl group and whilst it was unusual just how much darkness there was in their work, they could produce good old fashioned love songs when it mattered.

      "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" is probably the most upbeat song here. I have long wondered if the creators of "Grease" go the idea for "tell me more, tell me more" on "Summer Nights" from this song. Morton repeats the "question and answer" idea from "The Leader of the Pack" on the bridge but instead of heartache and pain Weiss is able to convey the sheer ecstasy of being a teenager in love. Similarly "What is Love", one of the few songs the Shangri Las recorded without Mary on lead vocal, is upbeat and has Margie conveying thoughts on all things romantic. Margie's voice isn't as heart wrenching as Mary's but it makes for a bit of light relief from all the intensity.

      "Sophisticated Boom Boom" is sultry and sassy. I can't find out definitely who sang the lead on this - but it was either Margie or Mary Ann. This is the song that shows why Mary Weiss was the lead vocalist however - even when she is just singing harmonies you can hear her distinctive tones.

      The only single the girls released which really was "not of the time" is "Long Live Our Love", which is riddled with patriotism and out of sync with the anti Vietnam war sentiment of the time. However Morton's use of horns to represent troops being greeted home works very well, even if the song isn't one of the girls' best.

      The last Red Bird single the Shangri Las released was "Past Present and Future" which on paper sounds absurd with Mary speaking what seems to be random thoughts over Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

      However there is something incredibly touching about her voice and how her words blend with this classical piece. The first time I ever heard it I was moved to tears - and I was eighteen years old at the time, so hardly a gauche youngster myself. It still can move me to tears such is the power in Mary Weiss' spoken voice. You also have to remember she was only 17 when she recorded this and it's a testament to her ability to understand the poetry of the lyrics and convey them without the life skills of an adult that makes it work so well. This is true American teen girl angst and for me it's a work of art.

      There's also a bit of filler here - there's an alternate version of "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" and some purely kitschy radio jingles the girls recorded for Revlon.


      ~~Finally~~

      If you have never heard of the Shangri Las and find the sixties to be ancient history then you might struggle to listen to this album.

      I would recommend you give some of the songs a go however - perhaps not "The Leader of the Pack", but certainly "Past Present and Future" or "I Can Never Go Home Anymore". Lesser known tracks that work very well are "He Cried" which sounds like it should have been a Phil Spector track - and probably would have become a classic if it had been. Similarly "Dressed in Black" is an accessible 1960s slice of girl pop which makes excellent use of percussion to set a mood, and once again allows Weiss to speak and sing of a lost love.

      Much of this music has been parodied in the past. Much of it has been covered by other artists however too. I've never heard anyone come close to the sheer beauty of Mary Weiss' voice however - although Agnetha Faltskog made a decent stab at "Past Present & Future" on her "My Colouring Book" album.

      The fact is however that this music captures an era that is gone. An era when girls would fret about what their parents thought of the boy they dated, an era when you were supposed to be a "good" girl, and an era when teen angst was a big deal and conveyed to teens by people who weren't stage school brats but genuine teens themselves. Overt references to sex were out and at the risk of really sounding like my grandmother, it was an altogether more innocent time.

      The harmonies the girls sing on these songs is excellent too. Even on songs such as "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" which are dominated by Mary, the backing vocals are impeccable and it's to Weiss' credit that she hasn't tried to re-form the Shangri Las using different singers in more recent times, preferring to let the original recorded versions stand as tribute to her former band mates.

      The album comes with an insert containing photographs and an essay recounting much of the band's history and thoughts on their music - this makes for an informative and enjoyable read.

      My only complaint really is that this isn't the definitive collection by the Shangri Las at it omits their work released by Mercury before they split up in 1968, but it's probably the best compilation you will find due to the stereo content.

      If you like your pop music to have more than a hint of intensity, pain and more than anything else a deep sense of darkness and drama, then the Shangri Las will be for you, and "Myrmidons of Melodrama" contains their best work. Try to see past some of the more dated production values and do what kids had to do back in the 60s - listen and use your imagination.

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    • Product Details

      Disc #1 Tracklisting
      1 Remember (Walking In The Sand)
      2 It's Easier To Cry
      3 Leader Of The Pack
      4 What Is Love
      5 Give Him A Great Big Kiss
      6 Out In The Streets
      7 Boy
      8 Give Us Your Blessings
      9 Heaven Only Knows
      10 Right Now And Not Later
      11 Train From Kansas City
      12 Never Again
      13 I'm Blue
      14 What's A Girl Supposed To Do
      15 Dum Dum Ditty
      16 You Cheated You Lied
      17 I Can Never Go Home Anymore
      18 Bull Dog
      19 Long Live Our Love
      20 Sophisticated Boom Boom
      21 He Cried
      22 Dressed In Black
      23 Past Present And Future
      24 Love You More Than Yesterday
      25 Paradise
      26 Simon Says
      27 Simon Speaks
      28 Give Him A Great Big Kiss
      29 How Pretty Can You Get
      30 Revlon Endorsement
      31 Good Taste Tip
      32 Dating Courtesy Tip