Alan Betrock: Girl Groups – The Story of a Sound

Read Alan Betrock’s book Girl Groups – The Story of a Sound [Delilah, 1982]. A fascinating story about the creators of this sound, and the rise and decline of the way popular music was made during the early 1960s.

Dual aspects of pop art.
Alan Betrock (1951–2000) founded the fanzine Rock Marketplace (1973) and the influential punk rock/new wave magazine New York Rocker (1976) before he published the book considered here, Girl Groups – The Story of a Sound, in 1982. During the 70s, he also had first-hand experience with the girl group sound as producer of Blondie’s first demos in 1975, including a cover of The Shangri-Las classic Out In The Street (1965). By the time Girl Groups – The Story of a Sound was out, New York Rocker was already sold and Alan Betrock had instead established the short-lived Shake Records that, amongst others, released the debut singles by the dB’s (Black and White, 1980; ending up on Stands For Decibels (1981) which he co-produced with the dB’s) and Marshall Crenshaw (Something’s Gonna Happen, 1981).

His later music productions include Richard Hell’s album Destiny Street (1982) and The Smithereens’ Beauty and Sadness EP (1983). As a fervent collector of miscellaneous 1960s American pop memorabilia, Betrock used his archive as a supply of information for several books on rather spectacular variations of popular culture issued on his own Shake Books during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In Girl Groups – The Story of a Sound, Betrock convincingly demarcates the genre (which is certainly not a piece of cake), carves this particular section out from other contemporary of popular culture and throws it on the dissection table for the full-blown examination along the reading instructions worthy an ecologist:

“… it is the story of a sound, and of a time that brought a unique combination of performers, songwriters, producers, musicians, and businessmen together. No one aspect outweighs another in its importance to the whole; success was simply not possible with even one weak link in the chain.”

In line with this declaration, Betrock not only depicts the relevant artists, but also frankly discloses the situation around the recordings. All is relatively fresh in mind, since Betrock grew up with this music and he finalized the book not too long after all this occurred. He sends somewhat schizophrenic signals to the reader by doing so. In a very stimulating and enlightening way, I have to add for clarity. Let me explain: On the one hand, we have all this – at least to a certain degree – glorious girl group music that peaked in popularity 1960–1965. On the other hand, we got parts of a music machinery that exploited the artists and composers that made all this possible.

Girl Groups – The Story of a Sound became a documentary in 1983, directed by Steve Alpert.
It is not unreasonable to conceive the factors behind the music product as part and parcel of the music itself. These factors amalgamate with the sound of the music to such an extent that make them impossible to isolate or neglect. An all-inclusive awareness of the music procedure can thus never be wrong. If you think these factors are not of concern, or disturbs the music sensation, you run the risk of losing a dimension in your listening. Knowing more is in fact hearing more! In this case, Betrock really helps the reader to new insights by uncovering what was really going on behind this – at first glance – extravagant girl-group façade. In that way, he actually upgrades the listening experience brought by the girl-groups.

As in many other cases, the fuel for keeping the girl-group music-making machine going was primarily greed; greed accelerated by large quantities of money that potentially circulated in the system. A hit record generated loads of money in comfortable reach for the unscrupulous and business-minded.

To generalize a bit, their business strategy was simple: stay on top of things; enroll enthusiastic but unexperienced artists and bring them together with songwriters without awareness of their true value; pay them as little as possible and do not waste more money than you need on production costs. Keep the rest. In this ecological system, producers and record label owners kept the highest positions in this food chain hierarchy. The girl vocalists and the musicians resided at the very bottom.

The girl-groups were the obvious vehicles of success, but their constellations of members were at the same time, and to a various degree, exchangeable (just as the studio musicians). Under-aged, easily absorbed by the attention they got as stars and pleased with extra pocket money from the recordings and shows, meant that the girls’ (and their parents’) unfamiliarity of economic matters kept the machinery running smoothly.

Ronnie Spector and Paul McCartney in a non air-brushed photograph from 1966 proving that cigarettes were the driving force behind the British Invasion.
Girl-group members seldom wrote their own material. It was churned out elsewhere, often in an assembly line manner with previous tip of the iceberg-hits as template. Most lyrics dealt with how hard it is to grow up. These pieces of empathic advice appealed to many teenagers that also had significant buying power. Two married Brill Building couples, Carole King/Gerry Goffin, and Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry, knew what the teenage audience wanted in terms of comfort and confidence-building and therefore represent the genre’s most prominent composers, while Phil Spector and Lamont Dozier with brothers Eddie Holland and Brian Holland made numerous and important contributions as song writers/producers.

Record labels as Red Bird, Laurie, Philles and Motown flourished a couple of years in the 1960s thanks to the commercial success of the girl-group sound. It went downhill overnight for most of them though (except for flexible and economically solid Motown) when the British Invasion outdated the girl group sound and the whole process behind it. Worth to mention in conjunction is that the girl-groups initially inspired many British bands as their early career cover selections show.

Ellie Greenwich contemplates in the book over the panic and paralysis that set in among songwriters when self-contained male groups suddenly took over the music scene. She wished that she and her colleagues had fought back instead in order to counterbalance the invasion. However, everything points to such fight would have been futile. The artistic forces acting against a labor division between artists and songwriters/studio musicians were really profound and acted on a broad front. One way to put it is that the end of the girl-group era coincided with the dawn of a new practice of creating popular music.

I urge you to make a serious effort to get your hands on a copy of this very interesting book, that is further boosted by the inclusion of Alan Betrock’s list of his 131 best girl-group records embracing 64 groups – whereof I have selected these ten personal introductory favorites:

The AngelsMy Boyfriend’s Back [1963]
The ChiffonsOne Fine Day [1963]
The CrystalsThen He Kissed Me [1963]
The ExcitersDo-Wah-Diddy [1964]
Little EvaThe Locomotion [1962]
The MarvelettesPlease Mr. Postman [1961]
The RonettesBe My Baby [1963]
The Shangri-LasLeader of the Pack [1964]
The ShirellesMama Said [1961]
The SupremesStop! In the Name of Love [1965]

Collector’s Corner:

Trivia: Back of alternate picture sleeve of the dB’s “Black and White” (1980) showing other Shake products, including the Girl Groups book and the dB’s first album (that was never released on Shake Records).
Later version.

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