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Girl Group Sounds Then & Now pt. 2: Now!

July 27, 2010

About a week and a half ago I did part one of this post series all about girl group sounds of the 60s and my never ending love for them. This week, as promised in the original post, I will highlight bands and artists I adore who came after that original girl group wave who still bring that sound to their music, further proving how classic and timeless said sound is and why it makes music all the better for it. And while some of these bands are from as long ago as the 80s (gasp!), I am going to define “now” as anything that came after the original girl groups heyday in the 60s. Get it? Got it? Good! Now on to the tunes! (P.S. Because I recently did a whole post about The Pipettes I won’t include them in this post, but trust me, they are so a major part of the 21st century girl group sound revival)

80s ladies:

Bananarama – “Really Saying Something” & “Love in the First Degree”: Bananarama originally began there career as a lark – providing backing vocals for punk bands of the era and performing impromptu gigs in silly outfits and kind of mocking the girl group constructs of yore. It’s rare to see a video of theirs, even after they began their meteoric rise to fame in the UK, where there aren’t moments of joking around, laughing and possibly being drunk. But in the midst of all of this drinking and larking around, Bananarama managed to make some really fantastic pop music, much of which emulated the girl groups sounds of the 60s. Their first album, the criminally underrated Deep Sea Skiving, featured this type of sound to the max, not the least of which was their cover of the Velvelettes’ song “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'”. (Shortened to “Really Saying Something” and featuring backing vocals by Fun Boy Three) The track, while lacking in the soulful punch of the Velvelettes version, is a gem of early 80s pop, full of laissez-faire vocals and snazzy harmonies.

As their career progressed, Bananarama moved from a more organic, shambolic sound to a slicker, more dance oriented sound, especially when they began working with then famous hit makers Stock Aitken Waterman (who, in retrospect, sound like they should be a law firm instead of songwriting and producing team). SAW, as they were often referred to, seemed to be trying to create a modern day version of  Motown hits, especially those written for The Supremes by Holland-Dozier-Holland, another songwriting team with a legal office sounding name. And they succeeded for a bit, before descending into utter blandness and repetition of sounds. One of their best songs with Bananarama was “Love in the First Degree”, an uber-catchy pop smash that you could easily imagine The Supremes doing in their heyday, complete with real horns in the place of the synths and similarly coordinated hand movements. Interestingly enough, the ‘Rams landed in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most chart entries of any girl group in history since The Supremes, a record they still hold to this day.

Tracey Ullman – “They Don’t Know”: Many people know Tracey Ullman as the chameleon-like comedic actress and star of The Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Takes On… and Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union. But what less people know is that she had a pretty successful, albeit brief, music career singing retro-tinged, girl group-esque pop songs that were rather fabulously done. Her first album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, was a revelation to me when I finally discovered it – full of girl group era covers and worthy originals, the best of which was her hit single “They Don’t Know”, originally written and recorded by Kirsty MacColl, who contributes backing vocals to Ullman’s version. “They Don’t Know” is one of my all-time favorite pop songs and I think you’ll see why as you watch the fabulous video with a guest appearance by a very famous Englishman.

Blue Angel – “I Had A Love”: While lots of folks may not have known about Tracey Ullman’s musical past, even less folks may know that Cyndi Lauper once fronted a band called Blue Angel before rocketing to stardom as a solo singer. Blue Angel had a retro, rockabilly-tinged sound that, while not 100% girl group-esque, definitely nodded to that era with some of it’s tracks. “I Had A Love” sounds like a lost Lesley Gore track, complete with dramatic timpani drums and soaring vocals. The entire album is loaded with similar deliciousness, including the insanely catchy “Maybe He’ll Know”. What’s clear is that Cyndi Lauper has always been pretty much fantastic and her voice totally owns.

Garage-y girls:

The Delmonas – “Why Don’t You Smile Now”: The Delmonas were a female trio who made music from the mid to late 80s with prolific renaissance man Billy Childish and his band The Milkshakes. If The Shangri-Las, clearly The Delmonas spiritual foremothers, had a raucous, rockabilly backing band, they would have sounded a lot like The Delmonas. Their songs are all about love, lust, deception and jealousy, full of sneering vocals and chant-along harmonies. Their albums are a bit hard to find (although Dangerous Charms is on eMusic and iTunes and The Delmonas 5 + The Delmonas can be found for a bit of high price at Discogs.com) but worth owning because the songs are catchy, scrappy and fun as hell. There’s no video for “Why Don’t You Smile Now” so here’s the track to listen to!

Thee Headcoatees – “Cara-Lin”: Springing from the same well as The Delmonas (and including original member Ludella Black) Thee Headcoatees kept the girl-group-meets-garage-band sound going from 1991-1999. The members of Thee Headcoatees all sang and were backed by Billy Childish and Thee Headcoats although Headcoatees member Holly Golightly went on to write and play her own songs as a solo act, getting the most mainstream attention for contributing vocals to the White Stripes song “Well It’s True That We Love One Another”. (Golightly’s solo work has a more bluesy feel than Thee Headcoatees and less of a girl groups tone, so she won’t be featured in this post) “Cara-Lin” is a cover of a track by a wacky 60s pop group, The Strangeloves, who pretended to be Australian and released the hit “I Want Candy”. It’s a bumping little slice of 60s pop that turns into a girl group tune with the chant-along gang chorus and the Shangri-Las do “Sophisticated Boom Boom” feel to it.

April March – “Chick Habit”: This is one of my all-time favorite songs in existence. It’s by April March an American singer/songwriter with a Francophile bent and a former career as an animator for Ren & Stimpy. “Chick Habit” is an English language cover version of “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” a Serge Gainsbourg-penned hit single for French ye-ye singer France Gall. (March also recorded a French language version of it with the exact same music substituting French vocals for English) The song was originally featured in the film But I’m a Cheerleader and I tracked it down with a ferocious desire as the official soundtrack of the film was never released. It resurfaced in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and got some much needed love once again. The song is a perfect marriage of garage-y sounds with a girl group sensibility. One can almost imagine wacky 60s girl group The Tammys recording this back in the day, substituting there on impressive screams with the scream-like horns in the verse. Whatever the genre though, the song is a flawless slice of pop joy that I could honestly listen to 100 times in a row and never get sick of.

Modern sounds:

Amy Winehouse – “Back to Black”: It’s hard to remember that there was a time when Amy Winehouse made headlines for her music and not for her very public meltdowns and substance abuse problems. But in 2006 Winehouse released the much-lauded (and deservedly so) Back To Black, an album chock full of girl group-tinged tracks like the mega-hit “Rehab” and the Supremes-esque “Tears Dry On Their Own”. But it was the titular track that had the most girl group cred for me, with it’s “Be My Baby” drum break, reverb-drenched vocal break and chiming piano, it sounded like a lost track written for The Ronettes or The Shangri-Las, give or take a few raunchy-ish lyrics. Whatever her personal problems and public trainwrecks, this song stands on its own as a fantastic homage to the girl group sound.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – “How Long Do I Have To Wait For You?”: I am going to cheat a little bit here, because I don’t feel like Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings quite fit into the girl group revival sounds genre but here is the deal: I feel like a lot of that revival is by white women. Amy Winehouse made it big with an album backed by The Dap Kings, while Sharon Jones has been churning out delicious music with them for years and getting a fraction of the recognition. It’s such a reflection of the way black musicians and performers have historically paved the way for a certain sound only to watch white artists swoop in, take it over and get runaway success as a result. This is one of my favorite SJatDK tracks, possibly because it does remind me of something The Marvelettes could’ve done in their more soulful phase.

Solange – “I Decided”: Another black artist who deserves credit in the girl group revival but hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as some of her white peers (or her totally megaultrafamous sister), Solange released the underrated S0l-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams a Motown/girl groups-inspired selection of modern soul songs. “I Decided” is a perfect example of when Village Voice reviewer Rob Harvilla called her album “a decades-late but nonetheless compelling audition tape for The Supremes”. The album is uneven but tracks like this and the dance party that is “Sandcastle Disco” stand out like the gems they are.

Duffy – “Distant Dreamer”: Even though her hit single “Mercy” won my heart and then got overplayed to death and she has some painfully Norah Jones-esque moments, Duffy had some great, girl group-esque tunes on her debut album, 2008’s Rockferry. I’ve actually had a lot of conflicts around my liking of Duffy. At first it felt like I’d discovered someone doing an album full of lost songs meant for a Dusty Springfield album. But I began to read articles that claimed Duffy herself was not all that familiar with the sounds she was emulating and that a lot of it had to do with her production team wanting to cash in on the girl group revival with her as the new Amy Winehouse, since Winehouse was busy doing all the drugs she could possibly find. But all of that aside, the album stands on its own, especially this track, which is my favorite of the bunch. It’s sweeping, epic and dramatic, like a ballad by the aforementioned Ms. Springfield or by Lesley Gore.

Lucky Soul – “Woah Billy”: Lucky Soul are a six piece English band fronted by singer Ali Howard, playing a mixture of 60s pop/soul/girl group-tinged sounds full of lush harmonies, strings, handclaps and percussion. Their second album, A Coming of Age is chock full of girl group worthy moments, not the least of which is the sonic ear worm of a single, “Woah Billy!” Employing one of the girl group staples – a song about a guy whose name ends with a “y” – “Whoa Billy” nails that love-gone-wrong-but-I-want-him-still drama of the songs of that era. I got this album from a friend and, while I have not done much background research on them, the music speaks for itself and its already got a repetitive home in my iPod.

The Like – “He’s Not a Boy” & “Why When Love Is Gone”: Oh man, The Like. I am so very obsessed with this band right now. I only recently discovered them when a friend was trying to help me fill the void left by The Pipettes in my musical life. I downloaded their album Release Me from eMusic after listening to the samples of it and fell in love instantly. It is rare that I love an entire album from start to finish, even by bands I have adored for years, and don’t dislike any tracks. But this album is seriously all killer no filler as the kids used to like to say. It’s tight but frayed at the edges in a way that makes it all seem like a really well-run party. They can bust out a sneering little biter of a tune like “Wishing He Was Dead”. all about the violence lead singer Elizabeth “Z” Berg and just as capably tackle a melancholy, mid-tempo number like “Narcissus In a Red Dress”, a lilting tale of a girl who’s foolishly single-white-female-ing Berg. (Hear these tracks and more at their Facebook page) The lyrics range from sassy to scornful, poignant to pensive and the music, with help from the excellent production of Mark Ronson (who still has the excellent ability to make my pants all excited in the crotch area) and help from the aforementioned Dap Kings. Apparently the sound of Release Me was a very calculated move on the part of the band. But it totally paid off and the album is a passionate, fun romp of a disc that won’t be leaving my ears anytime soon. In fact, I am going to call it as my favorite album of 2010 and feel pretty secure that it won’t be shaken from that spot. Here’s the video for the shindig of a single, “He’s Not a Boy”. Their drummer, Tennessee Thomas, makes me so happy in this video I could kind of die.

And because this next track is currently my obsession on Release Me and has already logged the most plays, I will share it here. “Why When Love Is Gone” is a track Lesley Gore would’ve fought the Shangri-Las for – full of sweet melodies, angelic harmonies, infectious percussion and such flawless girl group songwriting it sounds like it’s coming to you from another century.

And because I can’t actually leave The Pipettes out, even if they did break my heart, here is one of my fave tracks, “I Love You”.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 9:17 am

    You need to get your mitts on a copy of Charlotte Greig’s excellent (if far-reaching) book “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” And isn’t it funny that the Velvelettes also provide the Belle Stars with one of their single choices (“Needle in a Haystack”).

  2. July 27, 2010 10:02 am

    I kind of wish they did something other than covers, but The Detroit Cobras have that garage-meets-girl-group sound. And Kate Nash’s new album veers into that territory, too.

    • July 30, 2010 12:22 am

      Kathy, I totally adore the Detroit Cobras! But since they have a much more straightforward rock sound and this post was more about contemporary bands/artists that seem to emulate the girl group sound more, I didn’t think the Cobras were totally appropriate. But I love them nevertheless!

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