The Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las
Q: What color are his eyes?
A: I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.
That’s one of the classic lines of all girl-groupdom; it’s a verbal shrug, like who can say which details matter and which ones don’t? The boy in question, the object of Mary Weiss’s affection on the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” wears “big bulky sweaters to match his eyes,” but how can she be sure of this, given the ever-present sunglasses? And it’s not, we can assume, that his eyes are bulky: that’s just syntactical license. There are many wonderful things about the Shangri-Las: their over-the-top emotionalism; the interplay between Mary and her handmaidens; the baroque production of Shadow Morton; the combination of insolence, defiance, and desolation. Each record was an episode in an ongoing romantic drama, the singles appearing every few months for a few years: the ill-fated affair with the biker in “Leader of the Pack;” the selfless act, in “Out in the Streets,” of sending a boy back out to run free with his gang; the runaway couple in “I Can Never Go Home Anymore;” the spookily defensive monologue in “Past, Present and Future;” and this bleak conclusion of ‘Dressed in Black”:
I climb the stairs
I shut the door
I turn the lock
Alone once more
And no one can hear me cry
The Shangri-Las should be taken seriously. You can picture a lecture in a class on ’60s Pop, along with “Socioeconomic Dialectics and Notions of Masculinity in the Work of the Four Seasons,” or “Hedonism, Insecurity, and the Perfect Wave: the Beach Boys and the Crisis of Identity.” Maybe “The Boy: Idealism, Sacrifice, and Sexuality in the World of the Shangri-Las.” They are worthy of a book, and now they have one. Ada Wolin has written, for the 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury Academic, a study of the album Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las. Wolin has a deep appreciation for the group, does a good job of putting them in geographical (Queens, NY) context, and has a keen ear for Mary Weiss’ distinctive vocal phrasing and local accent. But maybe the Shangri-Las shouldn’t be taken quite this seriously.
The premise of the 33 1/3 series, now over 130 volumes strong, is to focus on iconic albums as albums, but that gets tricky when it comes to albums that are collections of singles. It works when, as in the case of Elisabeth Vincentelli’s Abba Gold, there is one definitive compilation, a set that everyone can agree on. That’s not the case with Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las, a 12-song LP that was released on Mercury Records after the group left Red Bird Records, and is not in print anymore in any configuration. It’s been replaced by albums that are more comprehensive (Golden Hits doesn’t include some essential Shangs tracks, like “Dressed in Black,” Harry Nilsson’s “Paradise,” and “Right Now and Not Later”). And it’s randomly sequenced, kicking off with “Leader of the Pack” then jumping to the much later “Past, Present and Future.” For singles acts like the Shangri-Las, chronology matters: that’s how these songs filtered out to us, one at a time, beginning with the mysterious “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” in the late summer of 1964, and if a hits album isn’t going to be bound by release schedule, then some thematic consistency would be appreciated. Wolin points us to the important songs, but doesn’t make a case for Golden Hits as the way to receive them.
And she’s an unreliable guide. There are a lot of errors (typos, mostly, and misspellings). She refers, for example, to the “…famous case of the Drifters (the male doo-wop group who sang ‘Under the Boardwalk’ and ‘On Broadway’), one main singer, Clyde McPhatter, came to represent the group’s sound even though he was only with the Drifters for one year.” In that one sentence, she undermines her own point (McPhatter didn’t sing on those two hits) and ignores that starting with “Save the Last Dance for Me,” the Drifters were mostly identified by the (also short-lived in tenure) voice of Ben E. King, and then the singers who took over when he went solo.
What can you make of a book on the Shangri-Las that mentions William Blake but not notorious music-biz hustler Artie Ripp, who signed the group to Kama Sutra Productions and produced their early records? Or that the Shangs’ “Give Us Your Blessings” was originally recorded by Ray Peterson (produced by Red Bird’s Leiber & Stoller), who had a hit with the death-pop song “Tell Laura I Love Her,” a predecessor of “Leader of the Pack”? (Wolin might have also cited Leiber & Stoller’s motorcycle-crash song “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots.”) You will learn not one thing about Red Bird Records, not even its name. What about the Shangri-Las’ “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do,” as candid a rationale for youthful passion, or at least youthful sexual pressure, as any girl group record? It’s a first encounter (“We just met that night”), but filled with portent: he looks deep in her eyes. “What’s a girl supposed to do but kiss him? So I kissed him.”
Then he said he wanted me so
And my heart said ‘Don’t let him go’
What’s a girl supposed to do but hold him?
So I held him
You’ll find, in Wolin’s book, quite a lot about James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. She says the group’s name “comes directly” from that novel and film. But just before she makes that claim, she reports (accurately) that the girls took the “Shangri-Las” from a Chinese restaurant in Queens. Nonetheless: “The connection of the Shangri-Las to Hilton’s Shangri-La is a metempsychotic one.” I suppose. It’s also a culinary one. And there was also a hit single (#11) in 1957 by the Four Coins called “Shangri-La” (the song was written in 1946, and was a top 20 single by composer Robert Maxwell the same year the Shangs made their chart debut). Pop history is a jumbled flea market of influences.
One more thing I wish Wolin had mentioned (although it falls out of the scope of Golden Hits): the Shangri-Las did radio spots for Revlon cosmetics that, in addition to hawking Natural Wonder makeup (it comes in compact, liquid, and tube configurations), offered advice on dating etiquette. Be polite to a boy when he gives you a gift (“Don’t be disappointed that it’s not an expensive bauble,” Mary warns, her voice dripping with the sound of Cambria Heights). Let a boy open doors for you (“Don’t charge ahead like a baby elephant”). “How pretty can you get?” the Shangs ask on behalf of Revlon. Dating tips from a girl whose liaisons dangereuses end in tragedy, who warns a boy “Don’t try to touch me, ’cause that will never happen again,” who sounds, at the end of “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” as though she might be walking directly from the sand into the cold black sea.
VIDEO: The Shangri-Las – Leader Of The Pack