Somewhere in the wild welter of punk is a pinch of girl group prowess. The raucous movement that emerged from the silted climate of the back half of the seventies was very much a culmination, spinning out a smorgasbord of pop culture influences in an era-defining snarl. One central tenet came from the unlikely source of harmonising sisters, who, in a short blast, changed the way that kids looked at music.
Despite the wildly kitsch name of ‘The Shangri-Las’, they were a pop band who disavowed the commercial teeny-bopper fodder that often springs to mind when you think of the genre. Of all the female four-pieces that sat outside of the usual status quo and spawned a revolution by doing so, the main protagonists in punks prelude were the 1960s pop phenoms, these four bold females.
When Mary and Betty Weiss teamed up with Marge and Mary Ann Ganser, they might have dominated the commercial radio waves, but they did so on their own terms, signified in part by the fact that Marge Ganser retained her less than poppy-sounding name. This strident individualism became a central factor that would help them on their way to stardom — a stardom that helped to illuminate a new way and inspire the punk movement.
They rehearsed until the notes of their harmonies couldn’t be separated by a wasp doctor’s scalpel and soon found themselves signed up to a major label when their youngest member, Mary, was just 15-years-old. As fate would have it, one of their first recordings was produced by George Morton, who would later produce the New York Dolls records that the singing sisters had helped inspire in the first place with their glam edge.
The Shangri-Las then became such an instant sensation that they were still in school when taking to the stage with the likes of James Brown and the Rolling Stones. During this they didn’t hide their youthfulness away or claimed to be virtuosos, they simply exhibited the punk attitude of being in it for the thrills and they did it with a head-held-high expression of individualism that proved revolutionary. Eventually, they even rubbed shoulders with was the shirtless progenitor of punk himself: Iggy Pop.
The future incendiary frontman of the rollicking Stooges recalled: “My cover band… had a professional engagement the summer that we graduated high school at a teen club called The Ponytail in northern Michigan. They served Cokes. And a lot of big acts came through. I got to play drums behind the Shangri-Las, the Crystals, the Four Tops. Learned a lot.”
He then comically adds, regarding the beehive hairdo’s that group’s spiritual leader sported: “Mary, the lead singer of the Shangri-Las, had a really beautiful head of hair…and I just remember being very happy in the back you know playing ‘ts, ts, ts,’ while she was going, ‘remember, walking in the sand.’”
With iconoclastic lunatics like the young Iggy Pop tapping the drums behind them, their music had to be befittingly dark. They traversed subject matters that no typical girl group would go near, tackling motorcycle beheadings, heart failure of the spiritual bent and all the darkest pages of a teen’s diary. However, it was darkness tempered with the light touch of pop sensibilities.
In short, punk followed a similar principle of finding fun in darkness, being brattish and proud, and swimming against the current of expectations. The Shangri-Las were unruly outsiders refusing to succumb to an exploitative business much like the disenfranchised youth of New York where punk was spawned and kids sought their own clutch of exultation amid the comic book dystopia. As Mary Weiss will tell you herself: “The Shangri-Las were punk before punk existed. People thought we were tough.”
They were tough. And they were wildly carefree. They pranked the likes of Marvin Gaye and boldly shared the stage with the eponymous scene-stealing James Brown, in such a way that proved sometimes to hold your own you simply have to be yourself. Most of all, they inspired punk because they did what they wanted, they did it for fun and they proudly laughed at the notion of being packaged into something acceptable. When the sixties were reappraised by the next generation, this is what would stand out.
As Patti Smith once told William S Burroughs: “We all felt loneliness as a hunger for something to happen. As we thought we were lonely, a group like Television thinks they’re alone. The boys that later became the Sex Pistols thought they were alone. All of us people that should have been perpetuating, or helping to build on, the Sixties, we were dormant. And we thought we were alone. Our credo was, ‘Wake up!’ […] I didn’t want to be a giant big hero, I didn’t want to die for the cause. I didn’t want to be a martyr. All that I wanted was for the people to fuckin’ wake up. That’s all I wanted them to do, and I feel that that’s what happened.”
The Shangri-Las were a wake-up call in themselves. And when punk was fully formed like Frankenstein’s monster and ready to emerge from the mire in its final form, the half-man, half Afghan hound, forefather Joey Ramone would tout the ways of the Shangri-Las as an inspiration. “The jukebox at CBGB had a lot of Shangri-La cuts on it,” says Weiss. “I was amazed. And I was deeply touched when Joey Ramone told me what a big influence we were on them.”
As Clem Burke of Blondie would add: “They had their black leather vests and their tight black leather pants, and they sang ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss.’ They sang about dirty fingernails, wavy hair, and leather jackets, and things like that.” Dark, moody and daring but always for fun, now there’s a sentence that could be both a Shangri-Las lyric and the prayer of the punks.