Manufactured, yes, but there are good causes why such acts endure, says pioneer Ronnie Spector
Music snobs reserve their worst contempt for pop songs enjoyed by girls. Boy bands and girl groups receive specifically harsh treatment, mocked as pabulum for a hormonal audience too busy screaming to notice the insipid tunes.
But it was not usually so. When Ronnie Spector arrived in London with The Ronettes in 1964, she was delighted to find herself treated like royalty by the leading bands of the day.
“I remember how when we had been in England we would go out with The Beatles to a club,” she recalls. “They would often ask us about the American acts, the girl groups: how did we get the various sound, how did we dress, our routines.
“They wanted to know all about the dances: the twist, the hullabaloo, the jerk. When we went to a club, I remember John Lennon would say: ‘Show me that step once more.’ It was the time of my life.”
The Ronettes belong to a time when pop was dominated by young women. In between 1960 and 1965, in the period in between rock and roll and the British Invasion, all-female vocal acts ruled the charts, bearing peppy names such as The Marvelettes and The Cookies.
The term “girl group” was employed to describe them, a coinage that is now almost 60 years old. In contrast, the description “boy band” did not seem until the late 1980s.
Spector, 72, is still performing: she has an album of British Invasion covers out next month, English Heart. When she toured the UK with The Ronettes, their opening act was The Rolling Stones. “We were so innocent back then. There have been no drugs, every person was content when a person had a hit record,” she says.
She formed The Ronettes in New York with her sister Estelle Bennett and cousin Nedra Talley. Girl group pioneers The Shirelles were an inspiration. So was the teenage doo-wop singer Frankie Lymon, a precursor of the sweet-voiced higher tenors who would later be recruited for boy bands.
“His voice just pierced me. I got goose pimples. I was 14 or 15 and truly liking guys. When I heard his voice chills ran up and down my spine. I wanted to sing like that,” Spector laughs.
These goose bumps had a wealthy historical pedigree. Teenage girls and young females have long been a focus of the recorded music sector, dating to the dance craze of the 1920s, the era of “flappers” and “jazz babies”.
“If it have been not for the flapper, the Victor individuals may possibly as effectively go out of enterprise,” a trade journal commented, referring to Victor phonograph players. “They acquire 90 per cent of the records — mainly dance records.”
As well as being marketed to, women also became a lot more visible as performers in the 1920s and 1930s. The girl group phenomenon of the 1960s intensified the approach as teen-pop. Spector was 19 when The Ronettes recorded their very first hit, “Be My Baby”, not a lot older than her audience.
Girl groups had a sturdy image: towering beehive hairstyles, dark mascara and tight dresses in The Ronettes’ case, a appear adapted from their Spanish Harlem neighbourhood. “We took it from the streets, every little thing we did,” Spector says. “Not like the groups of today, they have a complete entourage of individuals, make-up artists, choreographers. We in no way had that.”
Today’s music snobs deride “manufactured pop” as fake, a lazy complaint that makes no allowance for the high quality of the manufacturing. With The Ronettes and their girl group peers, the good quality was of the highest.
Songs were composed by the leading songwriters of the day, operating from New York’s Brill Developing, house to scores of music publishers. The distinctive girl group sound, blending doo-wop, pop and rhythm and blues, essential revolutionary arrangements and production. When the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby”, a beautifully orchestrated evocation of juddering wish, he was hit by an epiphany. “I wanted to try to do one thing as excellent as that song and I by no means did. I’ve stopped attempting,” he when mentioned.
Strong, typically unscrupulous guys played a function in the rise of the girl groups, assisting to mould these young, largely African-American women for a mass market place. Phil Spector was the producer behind The Ronettes, a visionary musical creator but also a violent bully. He married Ronnie in 1968, subjecting her to a reign of terror until 1974, when she emerged as although from a kidnapping. “I was sort of taken from it in the ’60s,” she says. “I was like, who am I, what am I? Oh you’re a performer: get back up on stage.”
Despite the presence of male Svengalis, girl groups projected an image of female independence. The Cookies’ “Girls Grow Up More quickly Than Boys” is an early instance of what the Spice Girls would come to label “girl power”. The Shirelles’ “Tonight’s the Night” addresses a teenager’s ambivalent feelings about losing her virginity, although their “Will You Enjoy Me Tomorrow” anticipates the aftermath.
Modern girl groups could have skimpier outfits and racier routines, but they carry out a equivalent role to their predecessors a lot more than 50 years ago. Small Mix, for instance, make the tradition explicit with their Ronettes pastiche “Love Me Like You”. Along with their US counterparts Fifth Harmony, the UK foursome are bidding to reverse a fallow decade for girl groups. The conditions for revival are promising.
One particular Direction’s short-term split has left a void in teen-pop. Solo stars such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé (formerly of Destiny’s Youngster) preach a message of female solidarity that finds its embodiment in the girl group. All-female acts thrive in the so-known as K-pop and J-pop scenes in South Korea and Japan.
Meanwhile Ronnie Spector continues touring. “When I walk out there and I see these girls with the large beehives, I freak out,” she laughs. “I cannot look too much or I neglect my lyrics, you know! To see that 50 years later girls are nevertheless coming to my shows. It’s thoughts-blowing.”
Ronnie Spector’s ‘English Heart’ is out on April eight. Tiny Mix play the O2 Arena in London on Sunday. Fifth Harmony’s album ‘7/27’ is out in Might
Photographs: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar Redferns/Getty ABC Photo Archives/Getty Dave J Hogan/Getty
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