Completely destroyed my preconceived notions of what girl groups sounded like (I confess intimacy with only two of these eighteen songs before listening). I expected the handclaps, I expected the irresistible melodies, I expected equally irresistible harmonies. But I didn’t expect droney backdrops (“The Loco-Motion,” “The One You Can’t Have”), some of the most well-constructed bridges and outros I’ve ever heard (the stuttering descending horn melody the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and the syncopated sharp guitar riff and bass groove of Ellie Greenwich’s “You Don’t Know” respectively), evocative string arrangements (too many to list) and drumming that ranges from garage rock (“The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget”) to Godlike (“My Boyfriend’s Back”). Hell, opener “My Boyfriend’s Back” successfully sneaks in the super-sexual double entendre of “He’s kinda big” into a song that topped the charts for three weeks in 1963. That alone should tell you how daring these songs are.
The biggest draws are “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “The Loco-Motion,” “A Lover’s Concerto” and “Popsicles and Icicles.” The first two are fairly obvious, so I’ll skip straight along to the latter two. On the Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” I don’t know why more people haven’t “borrowed” melodies from J. S. Bach if the results are this refulgent (from “Minuet in G Minor” off Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach). Particularly love how some of the words aren’t sung too clearly (“meadow,” “rainbow,” “forever”); it makes them all the more endearing. Meanwhile, the Murmaids’ “Popsicles and Icicles” sounds like “My Favorite Things” being sung by the cutest girl you know while vacationing in Hawaii. Not only is the main melody gold, aided by the stressed and unstressed syllables popping in and out and creating a wave-like effect, pay attention to the backing vocals that add brief flashes of counterpoint, introducing new melodies that merge naturally with the old melodies (ie. “He loves Levis and brown eyes and…”). These four songs are the rare sort where everything that happens is a hook.
Actually, the first half of The Best of the Girl Groups is almost perfect. The only song that I can confidently say is a failure is “The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget,” whose doo-wop hook grates me to pieces and where Ellie Greenwich is at odds against the big, booming drums. Unfortunately, there’s a noticeable drop-off in quality after “Popsicles and Icicles,” with only a few minor highlights to be found, in particular the bounce in the Exciters’ “Tell Him,” the saxophone solo in the Cookies’ “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby),” the melody of “Wonderful Summer” and the string arrangement of “It Might As Well Until September” (I’m a big sucker for plucked strings that imitate rain; one of the cheapest and most effective tricks to create atmosphere in the book) worthy of note.
Elsewhere, Brian Wilson wasn’t writing good songs in 1963 for the Beach Boys, let alone for his then-girlfriend-and-soon-to-be-wife’s group, the Honeys, and there’s nothing to say about “The One You Can’t Have” except that the intro is eerily similar to that of “The Loco-Motion” and there’s a nice keyboard melody somewhere in the background. Meanwhile, “Chains” was on the lower echelon of tracks from the Beatles’ debut, Please Please Me, and it turns out that was because it was practically a measure for measure copy of the original and the source material wasn’t much to begin with. (Others have noted the song on the lyrical vanguard, but the implications of BDSM four years before “Venus in Furs” of “My baby’s got me locked up in chains” are invalidated by the following, “And they ain’t the kind that you can see.”) And the Shirelles’ first single, “I Met Him on a Sunday,” sounds like even more of a demo than the actual demo of “My Boyfriend’s Back”; check out Laura Nyro’s cover available on 1970’s Gonna Take a Miracle which restructures and shortens the song into a slightly better one.
And though the final stretch of four songs do offer nice melodies, they all have their own issues. The Caravelles’ “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” is threatens to blow away at any moment in time if not for the soft drumming turning into the clip-clop of a horse grounding it (not to mention the fact that those drums already used in “Wonderful Summer”). The male backing vocals throughout “Easier Said Than Done” end up flattening the main melody (maybe I just don’t want men singing on my girl group songs). Elsewhere, “I Love How You Love Me”’s bridge is just a spoken word thing over the main melody to give you the impression of a bridge. Finally, “Johnny Get Angry” (which landed in the top 10) has demented lyrics (wherein Joanie Sommers confesses to emotionally abusing her man in the hopes that he’ll abuse her in turn; “Johnny I said we were through / Just to see what you would do” – not okay) that prevent me from enjoying the piano figure or string arrangement, and the out-of-nowhere kazoo solo banishes it to novelty hell.