Summer is a party-time kind of season. It’s also a road-trip kind of season. Recently, I lent an item for both a party and a road trip to some friends that will be the subject of this post. It’s Rhino Records’ girl group anthology One Kiss Can Lead to Another. 120 classic and obscure girl group tracks from the 1960s. These songs are timeless and go with everything. Not a morning person? Throw this on for your morning commute. Having a party? This is sure to please. Doing chores around the house and want to wink knowingly at your own domestication? Here’s your soundtrack.
Yes, this collection has been around for a long time (summer 2005). It’s even been around my house for a long time — my partner got it for me Christmas 2007. It’s a little pricey — retail value is around $70 — but in my estimation, it’s worth it. It is at once a fun party favor guaranteed to get people dancing, a site of feminist discourse, an incredibly well-preserved piece of musical history, and a tasty pop culture artifact. And for all you commodity fetishists who like your semiology, I have to point out that the collection comes in a hat box, each volume is packaged to look like a compact mirror with a reflective panel inside, and each disc is designed to look like a powder puff. You even get a diary that goes with it that contains multiple critical essays and key information on each song.
I admit that when I originally received this collection, I was a little disheartened by what I originally perceived as a very limited notion of gender in popular music. Ironically enough, I was cooking when I listened to the first disc and was like “all these songs are about girls being subservient to men.” Later, when Vivian Girls appropriated the girl group sound to make garage rock and shoegaze’s indebtedness to the Spector Sound more pronounced (and I had a good two years of post-structuralist theory under my belt), I revisited this collection and was pleasantly surprised at just how much was going on.
The first thing that immediately hit me about the collection is how good it sounded. The folks at Rhino took great pains to make sure these songs, some of which were all but lost because the last few out-of-print copies and master tapes were damaged, destroyed, or missing, sound brand new. These songs were originally recorded, arranged, produced, and mastered with the car stereo in mind, and damn if they don’t sound as shiny and clean as the lines on a 1961 mint-condition Corvette.
The other thing that struck me about the collection is how the term “girl group” is less a catch-all term for female pop and pop-informed R&B acts primarily active during the first half of the 1960s and actually a pretty diverse, borderless signifier. All kinds of interesting influences and sounds are in this collection — songs informed by pop, R&B, country, blues, rockabilly, folk, bossa nova, jazz and songs that would help to inform dub, reggae, hip hop, and electronic music.
While I have yet only confirmed that two pieces on this collection were actually sampled in other songs (Daedelus lifted the vocal, hand clap, and drum tracks of The Pin-Ups’ “Lookin’ for Boys” for “Fair-Weather Friends,” Saint Etienne borrowed from Dusty Springfield’s “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” for “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”), I am also struck by how sample-friendly a lot of these songs are. The Flirtations’ “Nothing But a Heartache” and The Jewels’ “Opportunity,” among many others, could easily be incorporated into any hip hop track (specifically one that 9th Wonder is producing).
Which also lets you in on how weird and ground-breaking a lot of these songs are. Listen to the reverb-laden a capella opener for The Chiffons’ “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” and you get a sense for how ESG and Luscious Jackson came to their sound. Keep your ears open for the eerie theramin arrangement in Julie Driscoll’s stately break-up anthem “I Know You Love Me Not.” A song like The Bitter Sweets’ “What a Lonely Way to Start the Summertime” has a hollowed-out, haunted psychedelic sound that may have left quite an impression on Broadcast. Songs like “Nightmare” by The Whyte Boots easily draw a line from girl groups to L7. Some dance songs, like The Goodies’ “Sophisticated Boom Boom” and Marsha Gee’s “Peanut Duck” have an effortless quirky cool to them that no hipster can fake. And that doesn’t even get into The Tammys admittedly un-PC rave-up “Egyptian Shumba” that The Black Kids covered, but couldn’t match the original’s manic glee.
In addition to obscure songs by minor recording artists once left to dust in storage vaults, you get little-heard songs by bigger names. Behold the woozy drum syncopation with Cher’s deep alto in “Dream Baby.” Behold the sugary urgency of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Drop Out.” Behold the cinematic majesty of The Shangri-Las’ “The Train to Kansas City.” Listen for The Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and The Ronettes’ “He Did It” (one of the few early cuts Rhino could get a hold of without having to involve producer Phil Spector). Get dirty with Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and Lulu’s “I’ll Come Running” (which features future Zeppelin ax-man Jimmy Page on guitar). Even folks like mod it-girl Twiggy got a shot at the pop charts with the proper little ditty “When I Think of You.”
There are also songs that were obscure and later became popular when other people (perhaps unsurprisingly, primarily white artists) covered them. P.P. Arnold got to Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut is the Deepest” first. Former Cookies member Earl-Jean scored a minor hit with Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “I’m Into Somethin’ Good” a year before Herman’s Hermits rode it the top of the pop charts in 1965. Dee Dee Warwick made minimal commotion with “You’re No Good” before Betty Everett and Linda Ronstadt got ahold of it.
Also, not all of these songs are about boys who treat girls bad. Yes, that’s a component and the folks at Rhino would be ignoring a huge lyrical motif and its pre-second wave context by omitting the tracks about fellas who “lie sly, slick, and shy,” as The Velvelettes sing in “Needle in a Haystack.” And by putting these songs in a larger context, lyrics like “I know he’s cheating on me, but I don’t care” in The Angels’ “I Adore Him” play both dated and baldly disturbing.
I also think by acknowledging the racial aspects of girl group may also help confront the fact that many of these groups were comprised of African American girls, many of whom had to deal with the ingrained lack of social or economic value placed on the romantic love and family units built by people of color in white society. A song like The Fabulettes’ “Try the Worrying Way,” which is about how a heavy-set woman becomes skinny as a result of her partner’s infidelity, cannot be read without this context and becomes profoundly sad with it.
The raced component, alongside issues of age, is crucial to understanding what girl groups contributed — a space for young women and young women of color, many of whom were working class and had minimal opportunities in the job market, to be a part of the work force. This isn’t to absent that many of these groups were designed, produced, and controlled by men. But some were not, or found ways out of it.
But there’s much more going on in these songs than waiting for boys to shape up. For one, there are a lot of break-up anthems. There are elegant songs like “Walking In Different Circles” from Goldie and the Gingerbreads. There are poignant odes to post-break-up autonomy like Reparata and the Delrons’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby Now.” There are also almost-love songs like Sandie Shaw’s “Girl Don’t Come” (which was written and arranged by Burt Bacharach). There are maternal warnings of men’s true nature in Cathy Saint’s “Big Bad World.” There are humorous rejections in The Hollywood Jills’ “He Makes Me So Mad.” And, importantly, there are sneering kiss-offs and odes to female bonding like Donna Lynn’s “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls” (originally written by and for The Rolling Stones).
For me, it’s not hard to read all of these break-up songs and anthems to being single and out with girlfriends as having a queer element to them. The renouncement of stupid boys, or heterosexual courtship altogether, is heightened by girls singing to, for, and most importantly, with one another. In close proximity. In intimate spaces. In matching outfits.
You also get lots of songs about death, many, like The Goodees’ “Condition Red,” that recount dark, grisly tales of parental disapproval, juvenile delinquency, and racing accidents gone horribly wrong. This was the era where boys beefed it on motorcycles, after all. Indeed, this teen angst bullshit has a body count.
You even get critiques about the fleetingness of youth, the plastic lies of feminine consumerism, and the urgency of action in songs like Toni Basil’s anthem “I’m 28,” which I fully intend to sing drunk at my birthday party in two years.
Oddly enough, she was 23 when she recorded it. She’s 65 now and still working. I think she did okay for herself.
But there are also celebratory songs about love (many explicitly heterosexual, some more ambiguous). These songs are important too, particularly because most of these songs were sung (and, in some cases, written) by unmarried teenagers. Though marriage was the stated goal in many of these songs, it hadn’t happened yet. Thus, it was pretty easy to dismiss these songs, performed by teenage girls, as frivilous. But they aren’t. The feelings, regardless of how artfully or artlessly worded, are real and amplified by mammoth orchestration and pop-song immediacy. Take a song like The Girlfriends’ “My One and Only Jimmy Boy.” A giddy, up-tempo ode to love on the surface, its hook, soaring vocals, and wall-of-sound production takes teen love to “Hulk smash” levels of power and might.
And, of course, a lot of these songs were written by women. Carole King, in addition to singing two songs included in the anthology, wrote many of these hits, along with fellow Brill Building dwellers Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil and many other independent female songwriters.
Thus, this collection has the best that any feminist music geek could hope for — sites of discourse that have, to borrow from American Bandstand, “a good beat and you can dance to it.”