I have a theory that one of the most important events in modern music history happened in 1963. The location was Cambria Heights in Queens, New York and the event was the formation of The Shangri-Las. For those of you who are about to stop reading having decided that I’m throwing hyperbole against the wall to see what sticks, hang on, this is fun. If you are only familiar with Mary Weiss, Elizabeth “Betty” Weiss, Marguerite “Marge” Ganser and Mary Ann Ganser, commonly known as The Shangri-Las, as the leading purveyors of the ‘death disc’, for their classic Leader of the Pack then you can be forgiven. They managed to take what was a music trend with miserable songs like Dead Man’s Curve by Jan and Dean and Teen Angel by Mark Danning, then turned it up to 11 by adding in screeching tires and broken glass. Sure other bands used sound effects at time but George (Shadow) Morton, their producer was the master. By mixing together singing and spoken word not only did The Sangra-Las elevate the classic bad boy that the parents hate story, they managed to turn it into a teenage Greek tragedy.
If Leader of the Pack had been their only contribution to music it would have been a good legacy. Bette Midler and Twisted Sister covered the song and The Damned used the opening line in New Rose, which is considered to be one of England’s earliest punk songs. But it was their style and attitude that made the true impact. This was no cookie cutter girl band, put together by a producer out of handpicked kids. I’m not using the term ‘girl’ lightly, they dropped out of Andrew Jackson High School when they got popular. The sisters and their two best friends had grown up in what was considered to be the toughest neighborhood in New York. Stories about The Shangri-Las weren’t what tween pop star they might be dating it was that the FBI was looking into Mary Weiss for carrying a weapon across state lines without a permit. She was quick to explain that someone tried to get into her room so she had bought it for protection. You did not fuck with The Shangri-Las.
I was lucky enough to walk into my LRS Obsessions when Steve had put the needle down on a very nice copy of their second album Shangri-Las 65. The songs on this album are not their most famous but it does have what I consider some of the coolest and are part of the reason I made my big statement at the beginning. The only cover is I’m Blue (Gong Gong) written by Ike Turner, and they give the Ikettes a run for their money even with Tina Turner singing backup. The rest of the songs are all over the map from the swinging Sophisticated Boom Boom to another ‘death disc’ Give Us Your Blessing where a young girl begs for her parents to bless her marriage to the bad boy and then promptly dies in a car accident. So many of the songs are about alienation, depression, death, and misery that it’s basically a Goth album done to doo-wop. I can imagine some teenager dropping the needle on this in a time when there wasn’t anything else like it out there. It must have been like a bomb going off in their head. The vinyl is sleek, an import and in amazing condition. Of course the MND did his usual masterful job and now I get to listen to the woman who truly made rock music what it is today.
Now we get to the meat of what makes The Shangri-Las so damned important. Okay sidebar here, I promise it will get back to my point in a minute. The MND is a huge fan of Prog Rock. He has it all — Marillion, Spock’s Beard, King Crimson, Yes, everything Rush has ever done including the bootlegs, Porcupine Tree, etc. etc. Actually there isn’t a Prog. Rock named etc. etc. I really thought there should be but it turns out it’s a record label from Australia. However, he is aware of the, let’s call them, excesses of the Prog style. So periodically he will hold up albums like Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Works Vol. 1 & 2 and say, “This is why punk happened.” And damn if he ain’t on the money. I know I could only listen to so much Fanfare for the Common Man before I said “WTF!” and went looking for something less overloaded. It wasn’t just me, there were people who wanted to start bands and they knew it wasn’t going to be with six semis worth of equipment. The question was who to look to for inspiration? Well, if you wanted music that was dark but bouncy at the same time, a band that was tough as nails but cute, made music that was pretty simple but took it to the edge, who was the best example? Yep, that group who carried guns in their luggage and sang songs about people dying in horrible car accidents.
I’ll start with one of my favorite bands, Blondie. Debbie Harry has talked about how The Shangri-Las were a major influence and you can certainly hear it in the music. Lucky for all of us they just re-released all of Blondie’s early catalog on vinyl. The box set isn’t a great deal since they jammed the records in so tight in the case that once you pull out a record, you can’t fit them all back. Starting with their self-titled album in 1978 you can hear the influences of The Shangri-Las in the very first track X Offender complete with ooh, wah ending. How can you listen to a song like In The Flesh and not recognize the girl group influences? On vinyl it’s even clearer how much Blondie wanted to celebrate those tough girls from Queens. Seriously, I can’t recommend getting this set on vinyl more.
The influence continues on Parallel Lines when Debbie does songs like Pretty Baby complete with the harmonies, talking some of the lines, and backbeat. They did the new albums on 180 gram heavy duty vinyl and were from analog so it was like picking them up at the record store/head shop that is now a KFC back in 1979 all over again. The recording is clean and sweet so that when Debbie tells you that one way or another she is going to get you, you fucking well believe her. Pretty Baby is a song the Shangri-Las could have done without missing a beat.
So from Blondie we go to the Go-Go’s. I got lucky one Sunday and scored both Talk Show and Vacation. Listen to songs like Cool Jerk on Vacation and its pure Shangri-Las. The first Go-Go’s album was LA punk that the producer lightened up to the sound we are familiar with today but even in their more hardcore days songs like Fading Fast were pure Shangri-Las. The wonderful thing about the two albums is that they have that wonderful sense of fun that I always got from the Go-Go’s. Yeah, going back and reading their interviews I know their life wasn’t really like that but the music really comes off the vinyl in a way that makes you feeling lighthearted.
Another artist who has spoken about the influence of the band from Queens is Susan Janet Ballion also known as Siouxsie Sioux. I’m listening to the vinyl of The Rapture right now and songs Tearing Apart would work just fine on my imagined cover album by the Shangri-Las. If you haven’t had a chance to Siouxsie and the Banshees on vinyl, it really is a treat. Analog does something wonderful to her voice that makes it even smokier and spine tingly.
Punk bands from Le Tigre to Sonic Youth have all mentioned the Shangri-Las when questioned about their influences. To me this means that an entire form of music Riot Grrrl might not have existed without the tough band from Queens. Another digression; it was a fairly typical Sunday vinyl hunt but I hadn’t found anything I wanted at Obsessions. The MND and I were wrapping up the day and it had been successful so far at other stores. I had picked up Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around and The MND had managed to score a leftover from National Record Day disc that Garbage did called The Chemicals. As I was getting ready to leave I noticed a Voodoo Glow Skulls album that hadn’t been priced. The boss was helping a customer so I kept an eye on it and waited for him. Then I saw it, 7 Year Bitch, Viva Zapata. Nothing else mattered now, I had to have that album.
When I told him I wanted Viva Zapata, the first response was, are you sure? Then it’s really expensive, $40. I stuck to my guns. I really don’t know if I want to sell it, he said. Huh? Well there aren’t many out there, it’s really hard to get. Well, I’d really like to buy it. Do you know who they are, what the music is like, he asked. I wanted to talk about how they were in the pantheon of riot grrls with L7, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Jack Off Jill, and Le Tigre. How the album title was a tribute to their friend, Mia Zapate, who had been murdered in 1993, but stopped myself. I tend to start talking and bury myself.
Finally he broke down, admitting he had listened to the album and really liked it. It was unusual for him to find something in a completely new genre of music that would hook him like that, so he was loath to part with the album. After some wrangling an interesting deal was struck. He would sell it to me, if The MND would do a needle drop for him. There was talk of giving me a discount on the record but I said to give it to the MND since he was doing the work. The store owner admitted that he would have to listen to the drop in the garage since his wife would absolutely hate it.
Why would she hate it? Now that’s a good question. It’s not just that 7 Year Bitch is aggressive and raw, they music is a kind of weird mix of surf punk, sludge, and alt. To say they kick ass is putting it mildly. Songs like Icey Blue jump off the album and grab your ears just daring you not to pay attention. Rock A Bye uses Elizabeth Davis’s bass and Valerie Agnew’s drums to slam you into your chair then lets Roisin Dunne’s guitar and lead singer Selene Vigil-Wick just rip you up. I’m still convinced that as Shangri-La 65 and Viva Zapapte are the second could not exist without the first.
So I’ve talked about woman bands who were influenced but there male bands as well. William Reid of Jesus and Mary Chain said that he wanted to do an entire album just of their music. The New York Dolls have talked of their love for their fellow New Yorkers. Twisted Sister, Belle and Sebastian, Red Kross, The Shop Assistants and HIM have all covered the Shangri-Las songs.
A girl band that cut only two studio albums (there have been nine compilation albums since then but meh) has influenced the world of music profoundly. They created songs worth listening to and covering for generations to come. Not only that but their no nonsense, tough New York attitude was a source of inspiration for so many woman musicians of the future. After all if you can get banned in England because your song is seen as taking sides in the battle between the mods and rockers you can’t go wrong.