Is there a link between the Ramones and the Ronettes? The Stooges and the New York Dolls and the Shangri-Las? There’s no denying that a rich vein of musical similarities and mutual fandom existed between these two camps. Louis Jordan takes us on a time trip through the evidence as we pay homage to the great “girl groups” of the 1950s and 1960s and their positive influence on those who came in their wake. As Louis observes, “the influence of girl group gave early punk records a sense of playfulness, romanticism and melody that’s kept them sounding fresh decades after they were new and shocking.”
When you think of the bands that paved the way for punk, you think of the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, the MC5. Certainly not the Shangri-Las. And yet, if you look at the early punk bands that came out of the CBGB’s scene in the 1970s, the influence of early-‘60s girl groups is all over their sound and style. The Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, the “bad girls” of girl group music, had a profound impact on punk, though they’re rarely credited for it. If a group was referenced by the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and the Damned, you’d think they’d be considered punk heroes.
The inspiration went both ways. The punk scene’s love of girl group music gave both Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las a new act in their careers. Ronnie recorded a punk-influenced album, Siren, backed by members of the Heartbreakers and the Dead Boys, while the Shangri-Las reunited to play a one-off show at CBGB and recorded a still-unreleased album for Sire Records.
Greil Marcus defined the “girl group” sound as “Beautiful construction, rich immediate sound, unbelievable expressions of desire, and a staggering demand for life — all riding on the voice of a single girl driven by the voices of her sisters in the chorus.” From 1959 to 1964, girl groups ruled the radio, until they were dethroned by the British Invasion. Girl group songs were often about teenage romance––but they could be tragic, surreal, aggressive, or sexy. Girl groups sang about proms and dance crazes, but also about class issues, domestic abuse, rape, and death. Like “punk,” “girl group” is just a label put on a group of bands who varied widely in style and sound.
In his book All Hopped Up and Ready to Go, Tony Fletcher gave a good overview of the girl group landscape: “The Angels, the Chiffons, the Raindrops and their ilk epitomized girl groups as a celebration of pop music for its own sake. The Supremes, the Marvelettes and the Vandellas out of Detroit…embodied a new, young, black American soul music. But the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes represented something else, the spirit of a new form of rock ‘n’ roll that was growing all around them…they became idols and heroines for generations of New York rockers to follow.”
When Dick Clark first introduced “Be My Baby” on American Bandstand in 1963, he predicted it would be “the song of the century.” He wasn’t exaggerating. It’s as iconic as a pop song can be. That BOOM-boom-boom drum phrase has been recycled by everyone from the Jesus and Mary Chain to Lana Del Ray.
In his introduction to Ronnie Spector’s memoir, Billy Joel wrote, “Ronnie’s sound is like the neon glow that hits the streets under the elevated tracks on a hot summer night.” There’s a reason why Martin Scorsese used “Be My Baby” to open his film Mean Streets. Ronnie sounds like the streets of New York City––tough, romantic, and sexy.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem in the 1950’s, Ronnie knew she wanted to sing after hearing Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” on the radio. Ronnie recruited her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra to form the Ronettes. Their first few singles on a local label flopped, but Ronnie was too ambitious to give up. “I wanted to be the Marilyn Monroe of Spanish Harlem,” she wrote in her memoir, “and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less.”
In 1961, The Ronettes nabbed a job as dancing girls at the Peppermint Lounge, then the hottest club in the country. Soon after, they won a spot performing at New York City radio DJ Murray the K’s Brooklyn Fox concerts, alongside major acts like the Shirelles and the Four Seasons. It was here that they developed their iconic onstage look.
The Ronettes, who shared a mixture of Black, Irish, Puerto Rican and Native American heritage, drew their clothing inspiration from the streets of Spanish Harlem. They wore tight Chinese qipao dresses slit up the thigh, towering beehive hairdos and dramatic Cleopatra eyeliner. While other girl groups wore demure dresses with full skirts, the Ronettes had a tough, sexy look that set them apart.
After another of their singles flopped, the Ronettes arranged a meeting with Phil Spector, a producer who was racking up Number One hits with his girl group the Crystals for songs like “He’s a Rebel” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” He’d seen the Ronettes perform at the Brooklyn Fox and was impressed. At the meeting, Phil asked Ronnie to sing for him. Before she’d finished the first few lines of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” he exclaimed, “That’s the voice I’ve been looking for!”
As Phil constructed a record to introduce the Ronettes to the world, he and Ronnie fell in love. “Be My Baby” was the embodiment of their courtship. The song has a sense of agency that was unusual for girl groups. Rather than hoping a boy will ask her out, Ronnie asks him out, makes a case for herself, tells him to be her baby now. It’s not a plea, it’s a seduction. Her “woah-oh-ohs” practically throb with urgency. You’re not sure he’s going to say yes, until the song climaxes with that ecstatic drum break.
In 1963, “Be My Baby” shot to number two on the charts, and overnight, the Ronettes became one of the top girl groups in the country. They followed up with hits like “Baby, I Love You” and “The Best Part of Breaking Up” and in 1964 toured England with the Rolling Stones as their opening act. But as the British Invasion took over America, the Ronettes popularity waned.
They had one last top 20 hit with the sublime “Walking in the Rain.” In 1966, the Beatles invited the Ronettes to open for them on tour, but Phil gave Ronnie an ultimatum—either tour with the Beatles or stay and marry him. Ronnie married Phil.
She’d thought that marrying her producer would be a good career move. Ronnie didn’t realize that after their marriage, Phil wouldn’t allow her to continue making music. She effectively became a prisoner in his Beverly Hills mansion. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house without his permission, which was enforced by armed guards. Phil grew paranoid, abusive, even violent. He threatened to kill her and put her in a coffin with a glass lid in his basement. Ronnie began to drink heavily. She wondered if she would make it out of that house alive.
As the Ronettes’ fame was cresting in 1963, two pairs of teenage sisters––Mary and Betty Weiss and Margie and Mary Ann Ganser––formed a singing group at Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, Queens.
The Shangri-Las played some record hops and released a few singles, but their career didn’t take off until they paired up with their own “mad genius” producer, George “Shadow” Morton. Despite never having written a song before, Morton wanted to break into songwriting, so he recruited the Shangri-Las to record a demo of his haunting ballad “Remember (Walking in the Sand).”
It was unlike any other girl group song to that point. Mary sings the verses in an anguished wail, refusing to believe that her lover has left her. Then, in the chorus, she falls into a kind of fugue state, seeking refuge in memories of the couple walking in the sand. The other Shangri-Las harmonize eerily in the background, over the sound of cawing seagulls. It was intense to the point of melodrama, but Mary meant every word.
“I had enough pain in me at the time to pull off anything,” she remembered, “and get into it and sound believable. You can hear it on the performances. The recording studio was the place where you could really release what you were feeling, without everyone looking at you.” “
Shadow Morton recalled, “I didn’t know that I was making such unusual demands of a 15-year-old girl…I didn’t know that if it hadn’t been Mary Weiss from the Shangri-Las in that room, I would never have gotten the sound I wanted.”
Remember (“Walking in the Sand”) was a top five hit in 1964, but the Shangri-Las didn’t truly become stars until their next single, “Leader of the Pack.” The song climaxes with Mary’s boyfriend dying in a motorcycle crash as she stands in the road, helplessly screaming, “LOOK OUT!” “Leader of the Pack” was banned on a number of radio stations because of its “violent content,” but it still beat out the Beatles and the Supremes to hit number one on the Billboard chart.
It was around this time that the Shangri-Las developed their “bad girl” image, wearing tight black leather catsuits with white blouses and high heeled leather boots. They often resembled an all-girl motorcycle gang.
“They were very tough-looking,” recalled Ellie Greenwich, one of the group’s main songwriters. “They had a hardness about their ways. They would come in with the black stockings with the ripped stuff, and they’d be chewing gum and carrying on…I’m not a goody-goody, but I wasn’t really quite used to that kind of scene.”
As the Ronettes career began to fade in 1965, the Shangri-Las were still going strong, performing on bills with rock groups like the Beatles and the Byrds, but also with R&B acts like The Drifters and James Brown. At a show in Harbor Springs, Michigan, the Shangri-Las were backed by a local group called the Iguanas, whose drummer, Jim Osterberg, would go on to become Iggy Pop of The Stooges.
“We were 16-year-old kids on the road in a very tough, grown-up industry,” said Mary. “I bought a pistol in Georgia …because fans were trying to break into our hotel rooms. [She later turned it in to police in Florida.] So, we were as tough as we needed to be.”
During that year, they had five songs on the Hot 100, including “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and “Out in the Streets.” But at their record label, debts began to pile up from mismanagement. The group had made a lot of money but, like most girl groups of the time, the performers saw very little of it.
By 1966, their singles had begun to flop, and before the end of the year their record company folded. The Shangs recorded a few singles for another label and kept touring, but by 1968, they decided to split up. In 1970, Mary Ann Ganser died at the age of 22. Her cause of death has been variously reported as a heroin overdose, a seizure, and an overdose of barbiturates.
Only two years later, the New York Dolls would begin laying the groundwork for punk––and paying tribute to the Shangri-Las. The Dolls’ guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain, was a huge fan. Sylvain recalled in his memoir how after his family emigrated to the U.S., he would listen to the radio, and fell in love with “…that whole girl group explosion that would eventually peak with what I consider the greatest musical partnership of them all, Shadow Morton and The Shangri-Las. Those sounds, those voices, those looks. From ‘Leader of The Pack’ to ‘Past, Present, Future’ and all songs in between, there has never been a more perfect combination.”
Sylvain described the Dolls’ sound as “girl groups mixed with the Stones and The Kinks, and then merged with The Stooges and the [Pink] Fairies.” The group’s look, inspired by glam rock and underground New York theater, could have been a drag version of the Shangri-La’s “tough girl” style. On their first album, the Dolls paid homage to the Shangri-La’s in their song “Lookin’ for a Kiss,” lifting the intro from the Shangs’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”: “When I say I’m in love/ you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V!”
In 1974, when it came time for the Dolls to record their follow-up album, they hired Shadow Morton as their producer. The record, self-mockingly titled Too Much Too Soon, didn’t quite live up to their now-legendary debut album, but Morton added some very Shangri-La’s-like sound effects and spoken intros to songs like “Stranded in the Jungle” and “Babylon.” The New York Dolls soon disbanded. But their short career made a big impression on the musicians who would soon populate the stage at CBGB––especially a group of young men from Forest Hills, Queens.
Before Jeffrey Hyman was Joey Ramone, he was a shy, gawky kid obsessed with his transistor radio. Former Rolling Stone editor David Fricke said that “when you talked to Joey about the music that meant the most to him, he’d talk about The Kinks and The Beatles and The Ronettes, Phil Spector, Shangri-Las.” Like David Johansen, Joey had grown up watching the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las perform at Murray the K’s Brooklyn Fox concerts.
The Ramones are widely credited as the first punk band––and they were heavily influenced by girl groups. From their 1976 album Ramones, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” sounds like a gender swapped Shirelles song. Their second album, Leave Home, is crammed with girl group homages in songs like “I Remember You,” “What’s Your Game” and especially Joey’s “Oh, Oh I Love Her So.” “Hanging out on a night like this,” he sings, “I’m gonna give her a great big kiss,” while the other Ramones croon background “ooooh’s” like the Ramone-ettes. On Rocket to Russia, Joey wrote “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” with Ronnie Spector in mind.
At the same time the Ramones were coming up at CBGB, another band was also giving a punk take on the girl group sound––Blondie. “The Shangri-Las were a huge influence on us,” said Chris Stein. “When I was a kid, I didn’t get it. I thought they were commercial and weird. All those soap opera scenarios they sang about were strange. But after Debbie and I started Blondie, I realized how fantastic and raw their music was and that their gang-related sensibilities were appealing.”
On Blondie’s demo, they recorded a cover of the Shangri-La’s “Out in the Streets.” Their 1976 self-titled debut was produced by Richard Gottehrer, who had started his career as a songwriter in the Brill Building, where he’d co-written and produced “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels. Blondie’s lead single, “X Offender,” was Chris and Debbie’s version of a Shangri-Las song for the 70’s. Instead of a good girl falling in love with a doomed bad boy, a hooker falls in love with the cop who’s arresting her for solicitation.
One day, Gottehrer brought his friend Ellie Greenwich to the studio. She’d co-written some of the biggest girl group hits, including “Be My Baby” and “Leader of the Pack.” Greenwich arranged and performed backup vocals for “In the Flesh,” a sexy Shirelles-style ballad about going all the way. It became Blondie’s first hit, going to number two in Australia. That same month, the Damned released “New Rose,” the first British punk single, which lifted the opening line from “Leader of the Pack”: “Is she really going out with him?”
In 1977, Mary, Betty and Margie decided to come out of retirement and record an album for Sire Records––the Ramones’ label. The Shangs chose to work with producer Andy Paley of the Paley Brothers. The Shangri-Las wanted to take a new, more adult direction with their music, and recorded songs like the country ballad “I’m Not Lisa,” and the 50’s R&B standards “I Need Your Lovin’” and “Bony Moronie.”
“The best thing we did was a version of ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’,” remembered Andy Paley, “which was really, really beautiful. The way we cut it, it sounded like a Shangri-Las record from 1965…We didn’t do it in a lounge-y style. It was more like a stroll.”
After recording the whole summer, the girls only had five or six tracks that they liked. Paley suspected that, in a way, Mary, Betty and Margie had reunited because they wanted an excuse to spend time together.
“I was driving a convertible that one of them owned,” he said, “and we went out to Long Island after we had been drinking in the city. They were flashing guys, giving people the finger, throwing stuff, but they knew it was all just a goof. This is what they must have always done, and I think they hadn’t hung out with one another in so long that they immediately went back to what they used to be like.”
One day, Margie suggested they play a gig somewhere with the new material. Paley suggested CBGB, which happened to be free that night. He quickly rounded up Jay Dee Daugherty and Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group as their backing band, and that night the Shangri-Las took the stage at CBGB.“I remember Lester Bangs jumping up and down,” said Paley, “screaming, telling me how great it was. Debbie Harry, you know, everybody was really impressed.”
“The jukebox at CBGB had a lot of Shangri-La cuts on it,” said Mary Weiss. “I was amazed. And I was deeply touched when Joey Ramone told me what a big influence we were on them.”
Photos of the performance ran in Rock Scene magazine, promising new Shangri-Las music, but the album was never finished or released.
“At the end of the summer,” recalled Paley, “it just seemed like it was over. It was almost like we were just doing it for the fun of it. I don’t think they really cared that much about making a record.” After that performance, the Shangri-Las once again went their separate ways.
Ronnie Spector was also attempting a comeback. Back in 1972, she’d finally escaped from Phil Spector, fleeing his Beverly Hills mansion barefoot and penniless. She filed for divorce and attempted to reunite the Ronettes, but Nedra and Estelle weren’t interested. Ronnie hired two new girls and began to tour the oldies circuit.
In 1974, she did a residency at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse made famous as a concert venue by the girl group-loving Bette Midler. During one of Ronnie’s shows, she noticed Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls sitting by himself at a table, crying through every song. In 1977, Ronnie got her first shot at reviving her recording career. After duetting with Southside Johnny and the Ashbury Jukes, Ronnie was invited to make a single with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a cover of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” It was a perfect update to her classic Ronettes sound––but it flopped on the charts. Ronnie’s career was at a standstill. Then in 1979, she got a call from Genya Ravan.
Genya Ravan got her start in the early ‘60s as the lead singer of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, but by the late ‘70s had moved into music production. After becoming involved in the CBGB’s scene, Genya produced the first Dead Boys album, Young, Loud and Snotty. Now, she wanted to make a record with Ronnie, and revamp her for the punk era.
Genya started taking Ronnie to see bands at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. One night, the Patti Smith Group played an after-hours show at CBGB. When she heard Ronnie was in the audience, Patti shouted, “I hear Ronnie Spector is in the house! You better get your ass up here and sing!” Ronnie joined Patti onstage for a duet of “Be My Baby.”
Ravan assembled Ronnie’s backing band from members of the Dead Boys, Mink DeVille and The Heartbreakers. The recording sessions for Ronnie’s new album Siren started out strong, but Ronnie and Genya’s relationship soon grew fraught. In Ronnie’s memoir, she portrayed Genya Ravan as a coke-snorting, controlling bully. Genya accused Ronnie of being an ungrateful, two-faced alcoholic. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Siren opens with a cover of “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” the Ramones song that was inspired by Ronnie. Ronnie tears into the album with a fire and ferocity she’d never shown on record before.
She especially shines on a trio of rockabilly-inspired tracks with the Diamond Dupree Band–– “Hell of a Nerve,” “Setting the Woods on Fire” and “Dynamite.” Not every song is a winner, and the production doesn’t always suit her voice, but overall, it’s a very good album. However, in 1980, when Siren was released, New York punk had started to fall out of fashion. The record flopped, and Ronnie was back where she’d started.
At the same time Ronnie was covering the Ramones on Siren, the Ramones were covering the Ronettes on their new album, End of the Century. After four albums, Ramones were still unable to get a hit on the radio, so they hired Phil Spector as their new producer. In theory, the collaboration should have been perfect––the Ramones loved Spector’s work. The problem was that the Ramones were minimalists, while Phil Spector’s trademark was layering instruments for his massive “wall of sound.” He wanted to make End of the Century the “biggest” album ever made. Problems started almost immediately.
It’s now passed into rock n’ roll legend that Phil Spector forced Johnny Ramone to play the opening chords of “Rock n’ Roll High School” for eight hours straight. “It wasn’t eight hours,” said Ed Stasium, the Ramones musical director, “but it was an enduring length of time.” In his memoir, Dee Dee Ramone accused Phil Spector of pointing a gun at his heart. The only Ramone that Phil got along with was Joey. “Phil loved Joey,” recalled Stasium. “Joey had a little bit of Ronnie in his voice.”
End of the Century is a polarizing album, though tracks like “Do You Remember Rock n’ Roll Radio?” “Chinese Rock” and especially “Danny Says” are undeniable Ramones classics. The first single was a faithful cover of the Ronettes “Baby, I Love You.” Johnny Ramone called it “the worst thing we’ve ever done in our career.” That’s a little harsh. The string arrangement is too perky for its own good, but Joey’s vocal is remarkable. More than any other singer, he sounds like the male counterpart to Ronnie. It went to number eight on the U.K. charts, giving the Ramones their first hit.
A more seamless combination of the Ramones and the Ronettes style came almost twenty years later, in 1999, when Joey Ramone produced an EP for Ronnie titled “She Talks to Rainbows.” Ronnie finally got a comeback in 1986 with the Eddie Money duet “Take Me Home Tonight,” but by the late ‘90s she hadn’t released an album in a decade. One year, Joey came to her annual Christmas show at the Bottom Line, and they did an impromptu duet of “Baby, I Love You.” He offered to produce her next project.
Ronnie’s cover of Joey’s song “She Talks to Rainbows” is a small miracle, it sounds as if was written for her. Her version of Ronettes superfan Johnny Thunders’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” rivals the heart-wrenching original. She and Joey even duet on the Ramones’ “Bye Bye Baby,” channeling the classic Ronettes sound. It makes you wish they’d recorded a full album, but Joey was already sick with lymphoma. He died two years later in 2001.
Ronnie and Joey adored each other. For the first time, Ronnie felt like she was collaborating with a producer as an equal. They even looked alike, with matching bangs, all-black outfits, and sunglasses–– the prototypical “bad girl” and “bad boy.”
“He was the most unselfish artist I knew,” Ronnie said. “His personality — well, he was an artist, and artists are sensitive people; Joey was no different. He was a pure soul, shy, innocent, in love with the music, and we both believed a song never needed to drag on; two minutes was plenty!”
In 2007, Mary Weiss finally decided to come out of musical retirement with her first solo album, Dangerous Game. Backed by garage rockers The Reigning Sound, Mary had that same combination of vulnerability and toughness she did at 16. She was inspired to go back to the recording studio by her old drummer, Iggy Pop. She heard an interview with him where he talked about seeing life as a series of seven-year cycles. “You start revaluating what’s important,” said Mary. “And I thought: Why not spend my last years working doing what I loved in the first place?”
Though their time at CBGB may not have resulted in any hits, punk gave Ronnie Spector and Mary Weiss a new context and audience. And in the same way, the influence of girl group gave early punk records a sense of playfulness, romanticism and melody that’s kept them sounding fresh decades after they were new and shocking. Ultimately, “punk” and “girl group” are nothing but labels. It’s all just rock n’ roll.