If you read a biography on any punk band that burst into existence during the 1970s, then you’ll come across something similar to this: In the strange mix of their snarling sonic output is the glam of David Bowie and T.Rex, the grimy fucklessness of The Rolling Stones and girl-group pop, all hurled into a DIY shaker and poured out shambolically. In fact, I wrote something similar about proto-punk pioneers the New York Dolls recently.
While girl-group pop might stand out in that sentence like a sore cock at an orgy, there are many incarnations of the genre that disavow the commercial teeny-bopper fodder that often springs to mind when we hear that phrase. 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 phenoms, The Shangri-Las.
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 was a central tenet that would help them on their way to stardom.
One of the second key ingredients was that they had natural talent, and as Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys once said: “There is just something special about siblings harmonising.” The Shangri-Las had that in abundance, but they also worked hard at it, as Mary Weiss explains: “We rehearsed constantly until the harmonies were perfected. I think our voices blended so well because we were two sets of sisters. In a brief period of time, we had a manager, and we started doing small gigs.”
Soon enough they were thrust from small shows into the headlights, a time 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 that New York Dolls records that the singing sisters had helped inspire in the first place.
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. Another act that the Shangri-Las rubbed shoulders with was the shirtless inventor 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. Mary Weiss will tell you herself: “The Shangri-Las were punk before punk existed. People thought we were tough.”
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.”
Like many of the punk bands that followed, their incendiary flame is one that would soon be extinguished. By 1968, they were done, and tragically in the years that followed, Mary Ann would die at the age of 22, the cause of which is unclear. Their legacy, however, as young proto-punks who pulled pranks on Marvin Gaye, boldly took the stage alongside the scene-stealing James Brown and donned leather jackets and middle finger attitudes, is one that is set in stone, and we can be thankful for the music that followed in their wake.