The article explores the enduring impact of the Shangri-Las, a 1960s girl group, known for their rebellious and edgy image. Despite initial commercial decline, the Shangri-Las found unexpected resurgence in the punk era, influencing iconic bands like the New York Dolls and Blondie. Their distinct sound continued to inspire diverse artists, from Amy Winehouse to Abba, and even garnered recognition from the Jesus and Mary Chain. The article delves into Mary Weiss's post-music career and highlights the enduring fascination with the Shangri-Las across generations and genres.
When discussing the mid-60s body of work by the Shangri-Las, the focus often turns to the influence of their producer, George "Shadow" Morton. This emphasis is understandable, given that Morton's distinctive production style was hard to ignore from the moment you played the needle on the New York City girl group's initial hit, "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," released in 1964. Claiming to work without experience or musical ability, Morton was not one for subtlety or refined taste. He saturated everything with echo and incorporated dramatic sound effects such as screaming gulls, crashing waves, thunderclaps, departing trains, squealing tires, and the sounds of vehicles colliding at high speed.
Morton may have believed that standing out was essential in a U.S. pop scene undergoing a revolution – "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" was recorded shortly after the Beatles' debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, amidst a Hot 100 dominated by the British invasion. If that was his plan, it worked, as the song marked the beginning of a series of hits for the Shangri-Las over the next two years.
However, the de facto leader of the Shangri-Las, Mary Weiss, who sang lead on nearly all of the band's hits, managed to distinguish herself amid the sonic chaos. Discovered singing together at talent shows and school events in the city, Weiss and her bandmates – her sister Betty and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser – found success when they teamed up with Morton.
Weiss, just 15 when "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" was recorded, had a seemingly sweet appearance with blonde hair and an "angelic little face," according to songwriter Ellie Greenwich. However, her voice told a different story – it was hard, piercing, and slightly nasal, capable of cutting through Morton's elaborate productions. Audibly a product of Queens, her emotional range was evident, ranging from distress on "Never Again" to stoicism on "The Train from Kansas City" and sweet lovestruck tones on "Heaven Only Knows." Despite the matching gowns worn by her fellow girl group members, Weiss exuded toughness and streetwise attitude; one could almost imagine her chewing gum or filing her nails while singing. Perhaps this added a realism to her voice that contributed to the emotional impact of the Shangri-Las' singles.
The arrangements were characterized by high camp, and the lyrical teen melodramas occasionally verged on the ridiculous – for instance, in "Give Us Your Blessings" (1965), a lovestruck couple meets a tragic end in a car crash due to their tears blinding them to a road-closed sign, a result of their parents' refusal to let them marry. However, despite these elements, the Shangri-Las' songs almost always delivered an emotional punch. As noted by critic Greil Marcus, these were "records [that] left wounds in their listeners." Amy Winehouse even labeled their 1965 single "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" as "the saddest song in the world."
Undoubtedly, Mary Weiss's voice served as the perfect conduit for the Shangri-Las' body of work, where parental authority was challenged, unsuitable boyfriends were ardently pursued (as evidenced by Weiss's nonchalant response regarding her sweetheart's character on "Give Him a Great Big Kiss"), and gruesome deaths occurred—typically, though not always, in road accidents. On their remarkable 1964 No. 1 hit, "Leader of the Pack," Weiss screamed a cautionary "Look out!" as her biker beau Jimmy angrily sped into the night to meet a grisly fate, with George Morton skillfully employing sound effects to drive the point home.
While they weren't the first girl group to pine for a rebellious love interest—consider the Crystals' 1962 hit "He's a Rebel"—or to project a tougher image than their coordinated outfits suggested (as seen with the Angels' Peggy Santiglia on "My Boyfriend's Back" in 1963), the Shangri-Las elevated defiance against parental norms to their defining ethos, reshaping expectations for girls in pop music.
Their "bad boys" weren't simply misunderstood like the hero in "He's a Rebel"; their allure stemmed from their outright bad behavior. Delighted, Weiss sings about "dirty fingernails" and declares, "Oh boy, what a prize!" in "Give Him a Great Big Kiss." Their worldview finds expression in the 1965 ballad "Out in the Streets," where Weiss bemoans the transformation of her former gang-member boyfriend into a tamer version, expressing distress over the loss of his wild ways and rugged appearance: "I wish I'd never met him."
The irony is apparent in the fact that their hit-making era concluded with 1966's "Long Live Our Love," where they were tasked with saluting a boyfriend drafted to fight in Vietnam to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again." The song's patriotic, ostensibly pro-war stance clashed with the countercultural sentiment of the time, deviating significantly from the Shangri-Las' established image, which included leather outfits, stories of Weiss carrying a gun, and confrontations with police after using a segregated bathroom in Texas. The incongruity was striking—why were they bidding their sweetheart farewell instead of resisting the war effort, and who was this sweetheart anyway? Shouldn't the Shangri-Las be advocating for a long-haired draft-card-burner?
Regardless of the reason, this marked the end of their career, though they managed to release one more extraordinary record. "Past, Present and Future," essentially a spoken-word monologue set to the backdrop of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, could be interpreted as yet another tale of teenage heartbreak. However, amid the portentous strings and Weiss's softly delivered lines lies the implication that the protagonist's problem goes beyond a failed romance, hinting at something far more ominous: "Take a walk along the beach tonight? / I'd love to / But don't try to touch me / Because that will never happen again."
Understandably, a song that appeared to imply its protagonist had experienced abuse or assault failed to rejuvenate the Shangri-Las' success, and the group gradually faded into obscurity. Mary Weiss eventually found employment at an architectural firm. Surprisingly, their music did not wane in popularity despite being initially perceived as nothing more than disposable teen pop. "Leader of the Pack" experienced a resurgence in the UK in 1972 and again four years later. Predictably, they became the favored girl group among fans of proto-punk and punk itself.
The New York Dolls borrowed Mary Weiss's defiant spoken-word introduction from "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" for the opening of their 1973 track "Looking for a Kiss" and, regrettably, enlisted Shadow Morton as the producer for their second album, "Too Much Too Soon." The Damned's groundbreaking punk single, "New Rose," commenced with singer Dave Vanian asking, "Is she really going out with him?"—a line pilfered from the spoken-word intro of "Leader of the Pack." Blondie, influenced by their sound, covered "Out in the Streets" and paid homage to the Shangri-Las in their debut single, "X Offender."
Interest during the punk era prompted a brief Shangri-Las reunion, marked by a solitary gig at CBGBs, backed by a band featuring Patti Smith's guitarist Lenny Kaye. They began work on a new album, but it remained unfinished. However, by the mid-80s, they gained recognition as an influence on the Jesus and Mary Chain and were covered by glam metal band Twisted Sister. Amy Winehouse was a devoted fan, incorporating lines from "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" into live performances of "Back to Black," and apparently, Abba's Agnetha Fältskog covered "Past, Present and Future" on her 2004 album "My Colouring Book." Shangri-Las fandom became a common thread connecting unlikely artists such as Lana Del Rey, Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Bette Midler, and Belle and Sebastian.
Mary Weiss eventually stepped back into the spotlight, releasing a well-received solo album, "Dangerous Game," in 2007. In her interviews, she revealed little, leaving journalists perplexed as they attempted to reconcile the middle-class professional they encountered with the voice behind "Out in the Streets" or "Give Him a Great Big Kiss." Whether it was an act or not, the enduring truth remained: Mary Weiss's voice continued to captivate.