Old School Throwback: The Shangri-Las were a melodramatic pop group that killed everyone in their songs
Welcome to Old School Throwback Friday, where we'll be revisiting the best music you don't know about, music that's been plucked straight from a time where iPhones were a pipe dream and people still died of syphilis.
This week, we'll take a look at a band people were getting down to when Armstrong walked on the moon: the Shangri-Las. This sumptuous 1960's all-female trio reinvented pop music of the day with their intense, melodramatic hits and girl-next-door demeanor. They also killed most everyone in their songs.
Hear that, Katy Perry? Eat shit.
Anyway, the band consisted of two sets of sisters; Mary Weiss and Betty Weiss, and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. The gaggle of gal pals met at Andrew Jackson High School in New York City, where they started playing school shows, talent shows, and teen hops, coming to the attention of Artie Ripp, who arranged the group's first record deal with Kama Sutra. They'd been playing as a nameless foursome of underage babes, but after signing that deal, they started calling themselves The Shangri-Las after a restaurant in New York City. Because, no matter how hard you try, you can't go wrong with a band that has twins and is named after food.
Their music was heavily narrative-driven, focusing on interpersonal melodramas and the unfairness of teen life. In their first hit, "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," which debuted at #5 on the US Top 40 in 1964, a young girl's boi toi goes off to war and is never hear from again ... except when he writes her a letter telling her he'd found someone new. Ass. Hole.
Billy Joel, a then-unknown session musician, actually played piano on the track. The desperate confusion, and intense longing of the song made it ear candy for the American youth, who, at the time were still reeling in reaction to the assassination of JFK, and responded particularly strongly to music with a strong emotional chord. Eventually, it was covered by every artist with two eyes and a face, including Aerosmith and Amy Winehouse.
But shortly after "Walkin' in the Sand," the Shangri-Las got real and started to talk about murder. Maybe it was bitterness over that army boy, or maybe it was because they were operating during a time where it seemed like every action had a irreversible consequence, but either way ... their first hit was, for the most part, any characters in their songs weren't miraculously removed from the human race.
That same year, the Shangri-Las hit it big again with "Leader of the Pack," which was much more upbeat and hilariously teen dream-y. It's about a good girl who falls in with a badass high school gangster who rides a motorcycle, but her parents don't approve of this jackass, so she has to tell him goodbye ... but then, he dies. That'll show you, parents.
At that point, the mystique of teeny-boppers crooning about revenge by death made them irresistibly alluring. The adopted a "tough girls" persona, which set them apart from other girl groups at the time. But they weren't just frontin'; they had all grown up in a rough neighborhood in Queens, and they carried that attitude into public appearances and live shows, making them decidedly less demure than perhaps their parents would have liked them to be. Rumors about supposed escapades stoked the fire, including one that lead singer Mary Weiss attracted attention from the FBI after smuggling firearms across state lines. But no matter what rumors flew around their badassery, they gave zero fucks and embraced the increasingly seedy image they were growing exemplify. Mary was even quoted as saying she liked that people thought of her as dangerous, because it helped fend off advances from other musicians and music industry professionals.
Mmm, baby, Mary Weiss and The Shangri-Las don't need no man.
Here's one of the more intense, death-driven tracks that earned them such a reputation, "I Can Never Go Home Anymore." It's about a girl who's mom loves her too much, so she's like, "No parents, no rules! Fuck off, mom!" and runs around with another badass gangbanger who never received the motherly seal of approval. But then, her mom gets so lonely without her daughterer that ... you guessed ... she dies.
But unfortunately, after a slew of hits, world tours, and amazingly weird singles, enthusiam for the band died along with their lyrical characters, and the group split up. All that's left now is five years worth of extremely sample-able histrionic femme pop.
Actually, there's been a huge movement towards sampling their stuff; apparently the stirring effect of their girly drama tracks was so intense throughout the last five decades, that people are still being sucked in to the allure today, going so far as to make insane dubstep remixes of their early shit.
Here's the Adventure Club remix of "Walking in the Sand."
So, even though a few of the members are dead, and they haven't released a single since 1968, The Shangri-Las are still alive and well in our culture today, because they fuckin' rule. And now you know more about them than 99% of people, which should make for a great icebreaker at your next office picnic or painfully awkward Tinder date. You're welcome!