A sharp new box set of girl-group songs.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Nov. 8 2005 7:04 AM

I'm Gonna Destroy That Boy

A sharp new box set of girl-group songs.

Girl Group Sounds box set.

It all comes down to the song "Peanut Duck." Nobody knows exactly when it was recorded (though they do know where: at Virtue Sound in Philly), and nobody knows who the singer, Marsha Gee, really was. Her name was lifted from another singer by a British DJ. He found the unreleased acetate and put out the song as a bootleg in the 1980s. As for the producer or songwriter, forget it. And what was there to write, anyway? What song-factory hack couldn't come up with an opening couplet like " There's a brand new dance, yeah/ That's sweeping the nation, yeah"? Writing wasn't the point. The point was to grab some of the spotlight and the fast cash that the purveyors of the frug, the monkey, the jerk, the swim, and the mashed potato had enjoyed. The decision not to release "Peanut Duck" probably hadn't even been reached before all hands involved turned their attention back to the assembly line.

But here it is, along with 119 other songs, on the Rhino collection One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds—Lost & Found, and "Peanut Duck" can stand for the spirit of this flabbergasting collection: the desire of the anonymous to use rock 'n' roll as a means of making themselves heard.

You've never listened to anything like Marsha Gee. No hard sell for this girl. She makes a few stabs at pushing out a raunchy soul growl, but mostly she's content to hang back, too cool or too bored, ending each line in a husk of breathy exhaustion that sounds like someone who's got a good buzz on and isn't about to disturb it. You want a rave-up? Go make it your damn self—that is, until the last 45 seconds of the song. Vamping to pad the number out to an acceptable length for a single, Marsha takes off, snorting and yelling and jabbering: " Quack, quack, quackgiggy, quackgiggy, brrrrrrrrr, quack, quack, giggy, giggy, gi-gi-gi-giggy-gooma, gi-gi-gi-gi-gi quackgiggy, quackgiggy, gi-gig-goom, gi-gig-goom, gi-gig-goom-goom"and all of a sudden we're in place where the rock 'n' roll faithful understand that more of the secrets and the mysteries of the universe are contained in nonsense syllables like "bop bop suki do wah dah" (from the Velvelettes' "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin' ") than in third-rate high-school poetry like "I Am a Rock" or "Both Sides Now." Whoever Marsha is or was, she fulfilled her earthly destiny on "Peanut Duck."

You could view One Kiss Can Lead to Another as an argument for the importance of the female contribution to rock 'n' roll—and you wouldn't be wrong. Some of these songs were quickly covered by male groups who had bigger hits with their inferior versions. (Hearing Bessie Banks sing " Go Now"is to accept that there is no longer any argument to be made for the Moody Blues.) But to cast One Kiss entirely in terms of gender reduces this music to terms that have already been settled, buying in to the notion that rock 'n' roll is white guys with guitars.

Just as people have often missed the tenderness in male rock 'n' roll, they've missed the toughness in female rock 'n' roll, specifically in the longing of the girl-group sound. Dee Dee Warwick's 1963 " You're No Good"(the same song later covered by the hapless Linda Ronstadt—not all the hacks were guys) makes you wonder how anything so weird ever got on the radio. Warwick's voice is as low and hard as her sister Dionne's is light and brandied. The performance gives no quarter, embodying the flat scariness that the automaton Grace Jones would later fake.

Sometimes the aggressiveness comes from performers better known for their ballads, like Petula Clark, who manages to keep up with the Phil Spector-inspired Wall of Sound production on "Heart." Or Lulu, who with a young Jimmy Page on guitar, rips it up on the 1965 "I'll Come Running," sounding like a British Brenda Lee. And there's the great Brenda Lee herself, from the year before and also with Page on guitar, trying the British invasion on for size with " Is It True"and finding that it looks pretty good on her. Sometimes the roughness seems to have been there all along. When you hear Chris Clark's "Love's Gone Bad," the oddity isn't that she was on Motown and white, but that a sound this bruising came from a label whose founder, Berry Gordy, aspired to polished pop-soul. The hard-nosed quality of the girl-group sound, which Greil Marcus (referring to the Ronettes) once described as music "for the gods, and the girls' bathroom," is present on One Kiss even in more restrained singers, and it comes from their unembarrassed and unchecked commitment to emotion.

But the cumulative impact of One Kiss has less to do with unchecked feelings than with the hint offered by the last three words of the set's subtitle, "lost and found." Great pop songwriting teams are represented (Goffin and King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) as are the acts you'd expect to hear (the Ronettes, the Crystals, the Shangri-La's). But not the songs you'd expect. There's no "Be My Baby" or "He's So Fine" or "Leader of the Pack." By concentrating on rarities, album tracks, B sides, singles that didn't chart or, in some instances, constituted the artist's entire recording career, One Kiss conveys, in essence, that the past is not the finite place we have come to take it for.

Oldies radio, which reduces rock 'n' roll history to an engineered playlist never to be deviated from, and CD reissues, which can scrape up every take, alternate take, and incomplete take, as if the finished products by themselves were not enough (would anyone want to read every draft of a novel they love?) have come close to convincing us that there's nothing left to know of the past. It has all been unearthed, digitized, and made available for our perusal. One Kiss challenges that sense of surfeit and boredom by suggesting that great songs slipped right by us. They were played on some DJ's graveyard shift, or never played at all, or perhaps never even committed to vinyl. That's not an argument for claiming that the wrong things have been enshrined as classics. But it reminds us of the role chance plays in what does come to light. The fact that someone heard these songs at some time, and remembered them for decades after, is a testament to the obsessive love they inspired.

The anonymity of these songs is fitting. Reading the notes that Sheila Burgel has compiled for each track, you're struck by how ordinary the beginnings of many of these women were. Bandmates were neighborhood friends, schoolmates, cousins, sisters. The Chiffons came out of James Monroe High in the Bronx, the Velvelettes from Western Michigan U. The Shirelles started singing together in their Passaic, N.J., gym class; Little Eva was Carole King and Gerry Goffin's babysitter; the Shangri-Las performed at school dances in their Queens neighborhood. The fact that so many of the careers were so short is, for me, the glory of people seizing their chance to make their mark and making the most of it. It's tempting to think of the performances of these singers and groups as their high-school portraits, in which they slick themselves up and list everything they can about themselves before disappearing into memory.

But do they ever disappear? "One day, back in 1896," Everett Sloane says in Citizen Kane, "I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in—and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on, and she was carrying a white parasol, and I only saw her for one second and she didn't see me at all—but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." These are our girls with white parasols.

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