by Kim Cooper
Ideas ooze slowly down into Memphis from the coastal flash points of popular culture. In 1968, a bright shiny bulb flickered o’er the dome of one Don Davis, record producer: “The Shangri-Las – what a swell bunch of gals! We oughtta have our own Shangri-Las, southern style!” And thus, perhaps, were The Goodees born.
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Never mind that The Shangs’ distinctly urban brand of teenage opera had made its mark back in 1965 and ‘66 – an eternity past in chart-years. A great gimmick is forever, as is the appeal of the archetypal Gang Girl. Multiply her by three or four, and the effect is still more thrilling. A delinquency that in solitude is merely poignant becomes erotically charged en masse. Good-bad, but not evil, the Gang Girl is a fantasy-figure for both sexes. Mix sass, trash, and an anti-Dickensian yen to climb a rung or three down the social ladder, and you have something iconic on your hands. In 1965 it meant stardom for The Shangri-Las, just as it had (in less baroque form) for The Angels and Chiffons; in 1968 it was an interesting regional oddity in the six delicate hands of The Goodees, whose pose was perhaps more appealing for being ridiculously archaic when placed against the mode of pop womanhood being espoused by a Grace Slick or Janis Joplin.
“Condition Red” – which was the closest thing that The Goodees had to a hit single (#46 in December 1968) – is a bold distillation of Shangri-Las’ impresario George “Shadow” Morton’s writing and Artie Butler’s arrangements. The title refers to the code shared by the young vocalist and her swain, a warning that her folks are on the warpath so he’d better lay low. She mimics their persnickety, superficial complaints in a kittenish drawl: “Why doesn’t he get a haircut? Why doesn’t he shave?/ Y’know, he used to be such a nice lookin’ fella before he grew that awwwwful beard!” The leader of the pack was at least (presumably) clean-shaven; the image of a boy on a motorcycle had changed profoundly in a very few years.
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On closer perusal, one finds that the song is a direct adaptation of “Leader of the Pack,” which in its 2:52 running time – the precise length of “Leader,” and of course the perfect duration for a pop single – manages to hit nearly every emotional mark of its predecessor.
Let’s review, class. In The Shangri-Las’ original, a schoolgirl chat session commences with the charged question “Is she really going out with him?” – a sneery query denoting the unlikeness of a girl like Betty being pinned by a boy like Jimmy. But she really is, and she’s wearing his ring. Well, then, is he picking her up after school today? And here “Betty” (lead singer Mary Weiss) loses her treasured cool, with the saddest sounding “uh uh” ever caught on tape.
Betty breaks into song to recount her tragedy: her parents had denigrated Jimmy, harping on the class differences between their families. But Betty recognized that he was not “bad,” but “sad,” and for this she loved the leader of the pack. With each declaration of her love, the rev of engineer Joe Veneri’s motorcycle proffers wordless confirmation of its strength. Nonetheless, one day her dad says find someone new, and the dutiful daughter obligingly tells her sad Jimmy they’re through. Straddling his motorcycle in the street, sorta-smiling as Betty’s eyes fill with tears, Jimmy prepares to enter eternity. Speeding away on rainy asphalt, his own eyes perhaps bleary with unshed tears, he doesn’t make it off the block before crashing into a car. Betty returns to school, a mystical widow. And she cries, perpetually, unashamed by her tears or the stares they engender. The other Shangri-Las kick in with some beatific whoo-whoos, as Betty swears eternal fealty to her fallen love.
But in “Condition Red” the narrator has no confidantes to share her troubles. It is a telling omission, for it was this Greek Chorus effect that gave songs like “Leader” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” much of their immediacy. The Gang Girl, remember, is a figure of pathos when stripped of her accompaniment. Just as Jimmy is merely a geek on a bike without his pack, so too is Betty a freakish drip when denuded of her feminine compatriots. The lead Goodee stands alone against the harsh parental world, without the solace of a friend to ease her anguish. She speaks directly to her fella (her only ally), explaining that he can’t come over tonight because her parents disapprove. Oh, she always defends him, assuring mama and daddy that despite his long hair, he’s the right one for her. But they won’t listen, won’t be swayed. Brazenly, then, she suggests that they meet down on the corner from now on. She’s quite willing to sneak around in order to see him. But the boy is mortally insulted by this reminder of the class division between them – she squeals as she sees “that look in [his] eye!” His flash of anger is the necessary excuse to cue the familiarly-Mortonian sound of a motorcycle engine turning over, as the boy enacts the one event essential to cementing his immortality.
Appropriating directly from the thanatoic Morton casebook, “Condition Red” closes with the exasperated suitor driving away from his inconstant girl… incredibly… nay, agonizingly…. slowly. Slow enough for her to beg him “take me with you” in five or six permutations, and then sing a neat little bridge about how strong her love is – a bridge that’s interrupted by a shriek of warning just before her careless sweetie-pie smashes himself to a pulp against an apparently parked car. The brutal sound of metal on metal is chillingly realized. Cut in: soaringly lovely police sirens, an eerie click track, and the angelic voices of the three Goodees, melodically celebrating the sacrifice that equals perfect love in the arena of the Gang Girl.
The fantasy of romance forged by Morton and his peers in these songs was an incredibly powerful (if simple-minded) one. The Boyfriend was a cur with a heart of gold, and only the magically perceptive eyes of the Girlfriend were capable of seeing his true form. They want to get married, but they’re so young. “Give us your blessings” they beseech a harsh world that turns a stony face to their plight. “Mom, Dad, please understand, please-” But they never, never do. Besides, his heart is out in the street, and that’s the only real place for him. These Romeos of the brownstones have to spill their blood in the gutters before they can metaphorically consummate their love. And in dying, they give the ultimate gift to their Juliets: a love unsullied by the ugly reality of teenage marriage among the lower classes: no babies, no fighting, no dingy fifth-floor walk-up, not a whisper of mutual disinterest or disdain. Eternally young, bad and beautiful, the dead hero lives on in the romantic memory of his lover, even as she and her Girl Gang chorus sing him into the grave. Surely it’s no accident that The Shangs share their name with the mythic utopia of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a paradise where no one grows old.
In an odd coincidence, Morton originally intended “Leader of the Pack” to be recorded by another girl group, Long Island’s Goodies! Red Bird, The Shangs’ label, discouraged Morton from spreading his songs around to unknown acts, and so this classic of teen death music became the second, biggest, hit for The Shangri-Las. Some three years later, the Memphis Goodees would make the scenario, if not exact song, their own.
By 1968, the primacy of 45 rpm singles was passing, and all swinging groups required an LP record if they were to be taken seriously. The Goodees’ stereo long player Candy Coated Goodees sported an amateurish cover drawing seemingly inspired by the low-rent bubblegum imagery of the Kasenetz-Katz studio. The Goodees themselves are represented holding oversized lollipops on the front, and a grainy black-and-white group totem pole pose on the flip. Although their purported body mass (“NET WT. 110 LBS EA.”) was trumpeted on the cover, the women’s names were omitted. They were, in fact, Kay Evans, Sandra Jackson, and Judy Williams.
Candy Coated Goodees was the second of four releases on the small but interesting Stax-affiliated Hip Records label. Preceded by Smell of Incense by The Southwest F.O.B. (featuring England Dan and John Ford Coley in a far-out vein), and followed by the debut of The Knowbody Else (later to become Black Oak Arkansas), The Goodees’ album is a minor classic of demented pop, fusing the girl group style with charming regional twists and a even little bit of frat rock. It is, if nothing else, unique.
The Shangri-Las were city girls, students at Andrew Jackson High in Queens. Composed of the Ganser twins, Mary Ann and Marge, and sisters Mary and Betty Weiss, The Shangs exuded a toughness that seemed rooted in personal experience. George “Shadow” Morton, their discoverer and primary writer, was himself a product of the mean streets of Brooklyn, and claimed to have been stabbed and shot at even before being made a junior member of the Big Red Devils Gang. Later his family moved out to Hicksville, where George met Bumpy – yes, Bumpy – a diner hooligan who was to be the inspiration for the character of the Leader of the Pack. (“I had to tell my Bumpy we’re through…”)
Morton encouraged The Shangs to hike up their skirts and toss garters into the audience, and wrote songs that cemented their image as rough chicks. Because Betty Weiss frequently failed to appear at live bookings and for photo shoots, rumors circulated that the group had an agreement that they could each take time off as unspecified bad habits took a toll on their health. The band split up soon after Red Bird went bust; their last charting single was “Past, Present and Future” in June of ‘66. Mary Ann Ganser died of encephalitis in 1971, but for years it was the mythical drug overdose of sister Marge that was widely reported in the rock press. Marge actually was still living on Long Island until 1996, when she died of breast cancer.
Although next to nothing is known about The Goodees, it seems unlikely that these Southern gals would have had much personal experience with guys like Bumpy. But in their best song, “Jilted” (a Davis-Briggs original), they adapt the overwrought teen tragedy genre into a distinctly realistic form. “Jilted,” as operatic as any Morton production, presents a personal tragedy that is both more likely and more frightening than many of The Shangri-Las’ scenarios.
The production begins with a stately wedding bell intro, the spacey skronk of a synthesizer, and a cool, countrified guitar figure. The lead Goodee shameless emotes, in a mournful (yet still sassy) voice, as each couplet pots up the meter on the level of her shame:
“Mama’s embarrassed, Daddy is furious
And Brother is looking for him with a gun
And those who came to wish me well
Are watching me go through hell
My tears have just begun
As I look in my Mama’s face
As I look in my Daddy’s face
Can’t help but hang my head in disgrace
I been jilted
The man I love has jilted me!”
This is bad, real bad. But it gets worse:
“Preacher man, preacher man
Put your bible away
Ain’t gonna be no wedding here today
Flower girl, flower girl
Take those flowers out your hands
Throw them, throw them
In the nearest garbage pail
Ain’t it a shame, such a shame
A lowdown shame
Gonna have a child
But my child won’t have a name!”
Amazing, ain’t it? The Shangs may have presented themselves as bad girls, but you somehow knew they’d keep their knees together no matter what. Three sweet little Goodees make manifest the implied sins of every girl group to come before in this one great song.
The rest of the album is a mix of predictable and offbeat covers, and a few originals. “A Little Bit of You” offers an interesting hair-of-the-dog response to a broken heart, when The Goodees beg their lost love for “a little bit of you, enough till I can break away.” A raunchy take on The Swingin’ Medallions’ “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” is a fine example of what I’ll clumsily call Sor Rock – Frat Rock’s flip side. With well-lubricated horns and one drunken, grumbly guitar for accompaniment, The Goodees sound as if they’re no strangers to passing out in front yards. The track closes with some very sexy shouts of ooh, yeah, and the like, and it goes particularly well with “Jilted.” But transposing the sexes in The Brooklyn Bridge’s hit “Worst that Could Happen” was a peculiar idea at best, and when the lead Goodee peals “I’ll never get married, you know that’s not my scene/ But a boy needs to get married” the only possibly response is to think, my, that’s odd.
On the utterly craven “Didn’t Know Love Was So Good,” the group sound like they’re being ravaged, but digging it. Unfortunately, their version of “My Boyfriend’s Back” is hampered by an overwrought arrangement and unconvincing vocal. More successful is the nearly funk version of “He’s a Rebel,” which is notable for the excellent syncopated enunciation: “he’s not a rebel, no-no-no” instead of the smeary way The Crystals handled the lyric.
Even if The Goodees’ record wasn’t such an anomaly for its time, it would be worth seeking out as a fairly strong example of the girl group genre. But because it was recorded in the annus psychedelicus of 1968, its strange blend of innocence and calculation conspire to give it a unique charm. Following an imagined trajectory from The Shangri-Las outward, one can presume that there may be examples of teen death girl group music recorded in Chile in 1974… Bora Bora in 1980… maybe in Uzbekistan last week. In fact, anywhere that young people are forced to fit their passions into the narrow furrows of accepted behavior, maneuvering painfully though the rituals of maturity while dodging the real and imagined missiles of family and of fate, there is a need for such pocket operas. And I’d like to someday to hear those songs, but in the interim, I’m digging the slinky sounds of The Goodees – the girl group’s last gasp of 1968.