Wednesday, November 2, 2011

November 2: The Shangri-Las, "Leader Of The Pack"

Artist: The Shangri-Las
Song: "Leader Of The Pack"
Album: Leader Of The Pack (single)
Year: 1964

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As popular music began to expand in ways like never before at the beginning of the 1960's, new, more youthful sounds were dominating radio stations across the globe.  Due to advancements in "listening technologies," as well as cultural trends, the entire face of music was being altered in massive ways on what seemed a continual basis.  From the rise of the more modern sense of rock and roll to the smooth soul and power of the "Motown" style, nearly every sound for the next four decades can be traced back to this time period.  Among the wide range of new musical approaches that were emerging, one of the finest and most enduring was what was dubbed the "girl group," and this blend of doo-wop and teenage lyrical appeal would form the blueprint for the entire "pop music" scene that persists to this day.  Due to this massive amount of cultural impact, many of the names from such groups remain highly revered to this day, and yet due to their unique sound and somewhat darker approach, one can make the case that the finest of all the "girl groups" was none other than The Shangri-Las.  Releasing a number of unforgettable singles over the course of just a few years, The Shangri-Las were able to make themselves completely distinctive amidst an era when their sound was constantly being mimicked.  However, among all of these timeless recordings, there may be no other in history that can quite measure up to the power and long-term impact of The Shangri-Las' unforgettable 1964 release, "Leader Of The Pack."

Truth be told, over the entire course of music history, there are few opening moments from any song that are as instantly recognizable as the lone, almost haunting single piano note that kicks off "Leader Of The Pack," and the tone that this sets from the onset immediately makes the track completely unique.  Soon after, the song swings in with a presence that has rarely been equaled, and it is the way that the piano gives way to the shimmering guitar chords that gives "Leader Of The Pack" a distinctive level of depth.  In many ways, one can hear the actual orchestration as a dance onto itself, as the various instruments seem to swing an sway around one another.  Yet achieving this sonic perfection remains one of the most seemingly frustrating stories in all of music history.  Those who were present for the sessions recall that it took over sixty individual takes by a number of different pianists before Roger Rossi finally completed it to the approval of producer George "Shadow" Morton.  There is no question that the end result is anything less than perfect; and yet it is the way that all of the sound blend together which give "Leader Of The Pack" such an individual tone.  All of the instrumentation is far darker than almost anything else being recorded at the time, and yet there is no question that the way the sounds work with one another has an absolute pop sensibility, and this is much the reason the song remains such a treasured recording after almost five decades.

However, while it is certainly the musical arrangement that sets the mood for "Leader Of The Pack," one cannot argue that the lasting quality of the song comes from the uniquely gritty and raw vocals from the trio of voices that comprised The Shangri-Las.  Though they were not as polished or sweet-sounding as a majority of their contemporaries, it is the fact that The Shangri-Las were so much more up front and "real" that vaulted them to such heights.  For most other groups, recording a song of this nature would have completely gone against the image that had been created for them; and yet "Leader Of The Pack" works perfectly with the "innocent girl looking for trouble" feel that The Shangri-Las are able to convey at every moment on the song.  It is the lead vocals from Mary Weiss that have become one of the most iconic moments in all of music history, as she moves from a bit of an arrogant brag about her new beau, through the tragedy that was a perfect representation of the general mindset of the era.  There is no question that when Weiss sings of her father's outright disapproval of her new boyfriend that there were countless teenage girls that could either relate or want to relate to this drama, an it is this almost simple story of innocence an love that drove the song to the top of the charts.  The way that the song comes to an end in the lament of loss and love is again the ideal way to capture the imagination and hearts of the teenage audience, and this in many ways would become the trend for decades within popular music.

Yet it is also the controversial (for the time period) ending of "Leader Of The Pack" that actually found the song being banned from radio stations.  The graphic (again, for the time period) way that the "death" of the "leader" is conveyed on the song was too much for the stations that were not as progressive, and "Leader Of The Pack" was completely banned from British radio stations by The BBC until the early 1970's.  Many also make the case that in this situation, people were worried that the song might encourage violence between youth groups of bikers and "mods," and yet regardless of the reasoning, in modern times it is almost comical to think that such a song would have resulted in this sort of controversy.  However, regardless of the view of some at the time, there is no question that "Leader Of The Pack" was a massive hit with teenagers across the planet, as few songs were as accurate in capturing the dreams and realities that many teens faced at the time.  Furthermore, the almost rough vocal performances give the song far more of a "real" feel than many of the other "girl groups" at the time, and it is largely due to this reason that The Shangri-Las stand so far above their peers.  Achieving absolute musical perfection in everything from the orchestration to the theme to the fantastically unique lyrical performance, there are few songs that have become as instantly recognizable or as timeless a The Shangri-Las' phenomenal 1964 single, "Leader Of The Pack."

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