The Spinners

♪ Leader of the Pack (The Shangri-Las, 1964) ♪

In American, Girl Group, Pop, Rex Baylon, Track Reviews on January 11, 2010 at 7:48 am

The history of popular music is littered with all sorts of curious and unexplored side streets. By 1964 The Beatles had effectively gained a foothold on the American Billboard charts, decimating many local music acts except three: Motown Records in Detroit, the surf rock sound associated with California, and the Brill Building style in New York City. The Brill Building was host to many young talents that may not have been as popular as The Beatles but were no less influential in shaping popular music.

One such fabled and forgotten act was The Shangri-Las, a girl group from Queens that set themselves apart by adopting a ‘tough girl’ persona. The epitome of the Shangri-Las’ style can be seen in their most famous song, “Leader of the Pack”. The song, written by record producer George “Shadow” Morton, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich, was originally meant for another girl group, but because of The Shangri-Las’ success with “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, Morton quickly handed the song to the Shangri-Las to release as a follow-up single.

To first-time listeners the song may elicit derision due to the strained histrionics of the vocals, but the song is quite revolutionary during its time. The lyrics are structured as a conversation among a group of girls as they question their friend Betty about her boyfriend, a guy who is with a local motorcycle gang. Although Betty’s parents warn her that she may get into trouble with him, she continues to see him till he meets his demise on a rain-slick highway. Betty recounts her doomed romance to her friends as the sound of the motorcycle engine revving and the real motorcycle crash are heard throughout the track, giving the song a very ethereal feeling.

Although the song was recorded to capitalize on the public’s morbid interest in teenage delinquency and tabloid tragedies, “Leader of the Pack” played an integral part in bringing about the birth of the punk movement almost a decade after its release. Bands like The Ramones, The New York Dolls, and Blondie were inspired by the band’s swagger and even imitated their vocal styling, but very few had been able to authentically capture teenage angst in a three-minute pop song the way the Shangri-Las did with this song.

– Rex Baylon

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