Boys Will Be Girl Group, or the Johnettes

If acceptance in the United States was a major and necessary part of the Beatle phenomenon, there is no doubt that what some call "Girl Group" music was a crucial and perhaps determining factor in that acceptance. The harmonic, lyrical, and arrangement-related aspects of this music may have been the most significant influence on the early Beatles and contributed greatly to their commercial acceptance in America.

Well I Met Him on a Monday

Girl Group music grew from African-American sources, specifically gospel, blues, and call/response chanting. The Crystals, Ronettes, and Dixie Cups were virtual daughters of Mahalia Jackson, Big Mama Thornton, and LaVern Baker. Harmonically, standard formats such as the 1-6-4-5 (I vi IV V) chord pattern and twelve-bar blues were typical staples, often enhanced with the occasional trick chord or quick plagal cadence (IV-I). As we'll see, these patterns were frequently used by the Beatles (especially John Lennon) for many of their early commercial hits, and figure prominently in the songs they chose to cover both at the BBC and in the released canon.

Lyrically, the themes as you'd expect revolve around manic-depressive romantic themes: the joy of new love, the sadness of love lost, the alternating jealousies and ecstasies of puberty. But just as the occasional trick chord or modulation gave Girl Group music an additional level of sophistication beyond its root forms, so too the lyrics often broke new ground by raising social and class issues previously unheard of in American pop music, certainly something the Beatles did as well.

Arrangement, for lack of a better word, is the area where Girl Group music is most easily distinguished from other pop forms. As a vocal-based phenomenon, the most important instrument was always the human voice, usually that of a black female with gospel power and soul emotion. The presence of an often equally powerful set of background singers, enacting various internal and external roles (a Greek-like chorus of friends, good and bad angels of the conscience, and so on) added variety and allowed the songs to present situations from more than one point of view simultaneously. Given the Beatles' three strong voices and their clear affection for this music, it's no surprise that so many of the memorable early Beatles hits feature strong harmonies, often with call/response and alternating viewpoints.

Beyond the vocals, however, other facets of Girl Group arrangement, specifically production techniques pioneered by Phil Spector and Shadow Morton, abound in the Beatle oeuvre. Those echoed handclaps, tambourines, little obbligados playing the melody in the middle, the use of realistic sound effects, all have their beginnings among the Girl Groups. Doubled instruments (for example, piano and harmonica playing the exact same thing to produce a "new" sound) was a Spector technique developed for girl groups, later expanded and mastered by both the Fabs and the Beach Boys. Spector was Brian Wilson's idol, and it is safe to say that without Phil's Girl Group records there would never have been the Beatles or Beach Boys so many have come to know and love.

It's probably important at this point to emphasize that we are NOT talking about Motown here. The contrasts are several and substantial: Girl Group music was happenstance, unplanned, tossed off all around the country by independent, fly-by nighters for the most part, whereas Motown was the consciously created product of a single record company. Motown promoted individual stars, and sought to reach a "crossover" audience, where Girl Groups were usually nameless and often faceless. Smokey Robinson's work with the Marvelettes is a sort of bridge between the two, and there's some overlap, but the Supremes/Four Tops era is the approximate cutoff when Gordy's company stops doing one sound and starts doing another.

This distinction is best supported by anecdotal evidence. Girl group records were often the only one ever produced by a given label. Some hits of the era are the actual demo tapes, as in the case of "He's The Kind Of Boy You Can't Forget," or overdubs onto demo tapes, like the Shirelles' "Baby It's You" with keyboard break by Burt Bacharach. Lineups and lead singers changed on the spot, along with group names, lyrics, you name it, it was basically chaos.

In contrast, Motown became a machine dedicated to turning Diana Ross into the tan Judy Garland, going the Sammy Davis route of full crossover. This strategy had severe adverse impact on the careers of some of Motown's most talented artists, Florence Ballard and Martha Reeves perhaps suffering the most. Tours were well-organized, coordinated to support albums and singles, slickly packaged with dance steps and the like; everything was planned.

The Boys in New York City

To closely examine the bridge from Girl Groups to the Johnettes, let's take a quick time trip to the New York area, late 1963. Were you to poll an average bunch of teenagers as to their favorite musical group, you'd probably find the top vote getters to be the Ronettes and the Crystals. Take the same vote in April of 1964 and there would be only one answer, and if you're reading this you already know who. What made this incredible transfer of loyalty possible? Simply the strong sense of musical continuity between the Girl Groups and the Beatles, that's what.

Consider those two songs, the ones that really started it all: "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." The Girl Group influences abound on these songs: strong harmonies, use of the 1645 progression with variants, incidental percussion, romantic topics, and most of all a "sound" clearly identifiable as building upon what the Girl Groups had already done. It was almost too easy for your average New York area teenager to embrace this music, building as it did on what was already happening.

And there's a lot more overlap; even the Beatles' covers reflect an immense Girl Group influence. First off, the Beatles consistently covered girl group material, as has often been noted elsewhere: the Cookies' "Chains," the Shirelles' "Boys" and "Baby It's You," the Donays' "Devil in His/Her Heart," the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." Beyond that, the Beatles also covered the same material that almost every Girl Group covered, things like "Twist and Shout" and "Shout." From the Girl Group fans' point of view, then the Beatles were a triple threat. They wrote and performed originals in the style, covered hits from the style, and covered the songs that the Girl Groups covered. Masters of the milieu, all the way.

In many ways, too, the Beatles were the answer to a vision embodied in Girl Group music. While it's easy to dismiss the Crystals or whatever as insubstantial, commercial groups that put out mindless romantic pap for the teenage masses, it's also highly inaccurate. For example, a revolt against Teen Idol images was already clearly under way before the Beatles arrived, and shows itself plainly in such numbers as "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love." And who better to personify this unlikely antihero than someone like John Lennon in England, or Phil Spector in the United States? These women realized that Fabian wasn't the answer pretty early in the game.

Similarly, there was a consciousness of social issues that predated didactic late Sixties admonitions about brotherhood and love. The Crystals' "Uptown" and the aforementioned "He's Sure the Boy I Love" presented a vision of the "outsider" male, impoverished and sans pompadour, but still worthy of affection. And throughout this music there is an abiding cooperation between white and black American artists, whether singers, songwriters, producers, or players. The roster of Phil Spector's contributing talent, for example, reads as a race-blind Who Is, Was, or Will Be Who of American culture: Lenny Bruce, Billy Preston, Sonny and Cher, Ike Turner, Dr. John, Leon Russell, an unbelievable list. Along those lines, note too that women took center stage for really the first time in pop music, and not just in front of the mike: songwriters like Ellie Greenwich and players like bassist Carol Kaye (an incredibly gracious person, legendary for her work on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, who has given me much musical encouragement and is still out there playing and teaching at www.carolkaye.com) were prominent in the sound as well.

The Fabs' arrival in New York as documented in the Apple video reveals some interesting little tidbits. Note that "Navy Blue" by Diane Renay is playing on the radio; and the ubiquitous self-promoting Murray the K, who was a Girl Group guy before the Fabs came along. 'Twas Murray who anointed the Ronettes as he did the Beatles, giving them their first break as go-go dancers. It's no surprise, then, to note how often the Fabs toured with Girl Group acts, including Mary-My-Guy-Wells (1964) and the Ronettes (1966). The book "Girl Groups (The Story of a Sound)" by Alan Betrock, a primary source for this piece, has a most suggestive photograph of Paul McCartney with Estelle of the Ronettes looking very cozy and interested.

On a personal note, let me say that a lot of what I write here is not just conjecture and research, it is experience. I was 13 in 1963 and lived a half hour from New York. My friends and I inhabited the wrong side of town, clearly delimited by railroad tracks. We went seamlessly from listening to the Ronettes to following the Beatles and the other British beat groups who played this style of music. It seemed a natural progression and the obvious thing to do.

You Get the Picture? Yes We See!

Of the Beatle songwriters, the influence of Girl Groups is most strongly felt in Lennon and Harrison's material, with a smattering from Paul. Notice, for example that when the Beatles cover a Girl Group song it's almost always John on lead vocal, and most rarely Paul. Add these to the aforementioned BBC cuts: "Keep Your Hands off My Baby," "To Know Her Is To Love Her," "Soldier of Love," and "Don't Ever Change." Besides the Spector and Arthur Alexander cuts, note that we've got two more Carole King songs here, and the themes of both are interesting: jealousy, a major theme in Lennon's work, and the rejection of standard, appearance- and fashion-based ways of assessing potential romantic partners.

When the Beatles capture America on the first Ed Sullivan appearance, it is with an undeniable Girl Group approach. Besides Those Two Songs, they also play "This Boy," a 1645 variant with very strong harmonies, and "Twist and Shout." It's hard to imagine any music that four Englishmen with guitars could play that could be more accessible to the American, especially New York area, teen population of 1964. Other prominent songs of this period are equally influenced by the Girl Group sound: "Please Please Me," "From Me To You," "Thank You Girl," "There's A Place," "All My Loving," "If I Fell," "It Won't Be Long," and "Hold Me Tight" (Phil Spector produced a cover of that last one in early 1964). Secondary and unreleased material includes the demo version of "I'm In Love," "One After 909," "Hello Little Girl," "P.S., I Love You," "Misery," and "Do You Want to Know a Secret." There are five Girl Group covers on the first two albums, far exceeding those of Chuck Berry or any other discernible influence.

While Paul's compositional contribution in this area is small relative to John's, it's important to note the importance of his backing vocals and bass playing. McCartney had the perfect voice, under George Martin's sophisticated guidance, to meet and exceed the requirements of Girl Group harmony. Driven to do something interesting to get attention while John was on lead, Paul did some of his best work in a secondary role; John in contrast was almost always considerably less busy on Paul's tunes. And let's not forget Hazza in the middle, blending perfectly with his mates to create ensemble work challenged only by other top-notchers like the Beach Boys.

Those background voices, besides adding variation to the vocals and providing esthetically pleasing moments, are strong contributors to the content. In songs such as "Devil in Her Heart," "Baby It's You," "You Can't Do That," "You're Going to Lose That Girl" and many others, the chorus acts as a social context, playing the role of the other teenagers in the crowd (besides the speaker, love object, and rivals), commenting on the action and widening the perspective.

As mentioned earlier, one of the Spector/Girl Group trademarks were those little noises, fills, riffs and so forth that helped distinguish one song from another within the limited harmonic vocabulary of the day. Ringo excelled at this trick, something that poor Pete Best never really caught on to. John Lennon's famous triplets-over-fours were a Girl Group trick (listen to "Don't Ever Change" from the BBC tapes), and the tambourines on "Revolver" descend from the triangle on "It's My Party."

He's a Rebel

Certainly the giant in all of this is Phil Spector, in his role as producer of the Crystals and Ronettes and as songwriter of "To Know Him Is To Love Him." Lennon fans may be interested to note that the latter title is taken from Phil's father's grave, certainly fodder for some interesting speculation given John's paternity-related situations and his later relationship with Spector. Phil also married a person of another race, and dealt with similar flak to that experienced, especially in England, by John and Yoko. Note too that both John and George are the primary practitioners of Beatle Girl Group tunes, and both use Phil as producer on what are generally regarded as their best two solo albums. Phil's bedrock principles (emotional honesty; create a "sound" that no one can cover) certainly apply to the best Beatle/Lennon/Harrison work.

Of course, the Beatles had other important influences and went on to create new forms, sounds, and lyrical themes. Nevertheless, a strong Girl Group influence remained present throughout their time together and beyond. The roster of songs that rely on Girl Group harmonic progressions, lyrical themes, and arrangements is extensive and irrefutable even in the middle and later periods. Let's see, quickly...: "Eight Days a Week" (harmonies with that extra little Beatle/Martin twist), "Every Little Thing," "I Feel Fine," "No Reply," "Nowhere Man" (truly extending the lyrical envelope), "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You" (George on lead vocal), "The Night Before" (Paul and the same topic as the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," from the boy's point of view), "Another Girl," "Ticket To Ride," "What You're Doing," "Tell Me Why" (the most formulaic piece of Lennon's Girl Group-style cuts), "Help!" (note those backing vocals that expand the realm again), and the unreleased "answer song," "That Means A Lot."

Still, there will be more: it's there in "When I Get Home," "Yes It Is," "Day Tripper," "You Won't See Me," "Girl" (backing vocals with dirty words!), "The Word," "Rain," "Here There and Everywhere," "Got to Get You into My Life," and "She Said She Said." Over time, the influence lessens in the psychedelic/backwards era, and is diminished as Lennon and McCartney generally withdraw from one another's work and stop singing together. Still, it's a contributing element to "Good Morning Good Morning," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "With A Little Help from My Friends," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Sexy Sadie," "Hey Bulldog," "Revolution," "Something," "Oh! Darling," "Octopus's Garden" and "Because." Many of these songs have extremely formulaic structures or passages, vocal hooks, arrangement tricks, and so forth that go all the way back to the earliest Girl Group influences. It's a thread throughout without a doubt.

That the Beatles were conscious aficionados, conoisseurs even, is borne out by more than the BBC tapes and the touring schedule. Fact is, the stuff the Beatles covered was often pretty damn obscure even here in the USA, and probably more so in the UK. "Devil in His Heart" and "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" did not sell a lot of copies, yet the Beatles executed exacting and elaborate arrangements of those tunes.

I Can Never Go Home Anymore

Conventional wisdom credits (or debits) the Beatles and their Invasion compatriots with "killing" Girl Group music. The historical record indicates, if anything, the converse. Both Manfred Mann ("Doo Wah Diddy") and Herman's Hermits ("I'm into Something Good") arrived on the charts the way the Beatles did -- with that sound, covering that music. The percentage of hits from Girl Groups did not diminish at all from 1963 to 1964.

Well, if the Fabs didn't kill it, then who did? Unfortunately, it's time for the American music business to grab a mirror. Who put out all those cheap imitations of the Beatles rather than devote time and energy to the good music they were already producing? Who mismanaged the careers of excellent artists, putting out predictable clone followup records that noone bought?

Consider as a mismanagement example the career of Darlene Love. Hardly anyone knows who she is today (although she's still to be seen as Danny Glover's wife in the "Lethal Weapon" movie series), yet here's a list of the songs she sang lead on in the Girl Group heyday: "He's A Rebel," "Zip a Dee Doo Dah," "He's Sure the Boy I Love," "Why Do Lovers Break Each Other's Hearts," "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry," a great gospel "Chapel of Love" that was never released, "Not Too Young to Get Married," "Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home," and "Fine Fine Boy." The lead vocals on those cuts are soulful and powerful, yet Darlene remains an unrecognized talent by the general public, all of whom know who Diana Ross is. From another angle, my "Marvelettes' Greatest Hits" CD has Smokey Robinson's name on it about 10 times for his various songwriting and production roles, but nowhere, not once, does it list the names of the women who sing.

Knee-jerk followups too often guaranteed failure by concentrating too hard on specific and insignificant details of the first hit rather than on overall quality. Little Eva has a dance hit, so give her another dance tune ("Turkey Trot"); oops, we missed, she's dead. Diane Renay had "Navy Blue," so she is our nautical artist. "Kiss Me, Sailor?" No thanks. The list goes on and on. This is what happens when the business is controlled by people who don't listen to the music and don't give a damn about it, which has been the rule rather than the exception all along in this culture.

Those who point the finger at the Fabs and their compatriots forget that lots of Americans managed to flourish in the Sixties. Folk, then folk-rock emerged into the mainstream, bringing Dylan and the Byrds and a whole new genre to the fore. These sounds both influenced and reacted to what the Beatles were doing, to the mutual benefit of both. Acid rock and classical rock added to the mix, and of course the Beach Boys produced outstanding work in the middle Sixties. The Four Seasons wrote, played, and sang, put out a great streak of hits, and weren't British. And let's credit Berry Gordy with succeeding at what he set out to do: Diana Ross did become the tan Judy Garland. The world simply moved along to new ways of doing music, and left the haphazard methods of Girl Groups in the dust.

The Invasion didn't stop Motown, Lesley Gore, the Shangri-Las, and several British females (Dusty Springfield, recently deceased and an immense talent, comes immediately to mind) from having hits after 1964. Carole King went on to great success as a songwriter for the Monkees and Aretha Franklin, and as a solo artist. Phil Spector was far from done, producing quality hit records with Ike and Tina Turner, the Righteous Brothers and the Checkmates ("Black Pearl").

The sleaze side of the business was another factor. Plenty of artists and songwriters got ripped off by the proverbial cigar-chomping whomevers. Payola had already stained the industry, but the distribution channel was particularly corrupt and totally insensitive to what teenagers would consider good art. One can certainly imagine that records by black performers in those days were not distributed as widely or in the same way as what was considered "white" music; there was still racism reminiscent of how Elvis and Pat Boone were preferred and promoted over Little Richard and Chuck Berry in the Fifties.

No, the Beatles didn't kill the Girl Groups. They respected them, covered them, toured with them, hired their best producer -- and, like others, went beyond them. Girl Groups passed away in the natural progression of music, though maybe at an early age because of greedy and incompetent management on the business side. All of which is in some ways sadly reminiscent of how the Beatles, too, passed like all things must from the musical scene...