In an era of gleaming Top 40 pedestrianism; among bland chart- topping ne’re-do-wells with forced smiles and fancy dresses; amidst clammy-handed, cigar-chomping behind-the-scenes record executives, shifty-eyed promo men and loud, obnoxious radio DJs with ridiculous voices and “you’re the next big things, baby!” come-ons; in spite of double-talking, chart-topping one hit wonder boys with grabby hands on dark late night tour busses filled with guitars and drums…among, amidst and in spite of stood The Shangri-Las: brilliant, different and dark.
Yet they only have two recognizable hits to their name. Sure, that’s more than what a lot of groups are able to achieve, but considering the talent of both the vocalists and the team behind them, one would think their career should’ve been more storied. What their career lacked in longevity, it made up for with influence, leaving in their wake a dozen singles, a couple LP’s and a rock solid legacy which can be found in both obvious as well as more surprising sub-genres: Punk. Contemporary Vocal. Noise Rock. Pop. Bruce Springsteen. Nation Of Ulysses. Amy Winehouse. The Slits. Kathleen Hanna. The New York Dolls. Kim Gordon.The Ramones. Laura Nyro. Aerosmith.
The Shangri-Las sound and look has since become a personification of “the girl group image”. Yet, at the same time, they defied that very cliché by releasing a string of melancholy singles which clashed with the genre’s more innocuous themes, challenged conventional gender roles of the day, redefined femininity and, last but not least, changed the notion of a pop song’s overall theme. So it only makes sense their greatest work, the one song which can encapsulate their career and worldview, was almost forgotten, buried on the flip side of an arbitrary single released during their most hectic year.
Ah yes, the 45 rpm single: so much can be accomplished in three minutes. As with the punk movement a decade later, the groups of this genre were (and still are) best appreciated two songs at a time; full albums tended to be redundant, if not unnecessary.Sometimes all it takes is one small record to change a life; what may be one person’s trash is another’s favorite song.
The last vestiges of old world showbiz clung in the air during this time of popular culture. Performers were encouraged to play, look and act nice with the audience and the press; don’t rock to boat and all will go accordingly. The Girl Group Era (most commonly pinpointed between 1960 and 1966, though by no means the only time female led musical combos were popular) has been perceived as maybe the last innocent period in the history of Rock ‘N Roll, just before things became weird and serious and all big business-like, just before Rock ‘n Roll died and was reborn as the more vague Rock Music. So, those show biz sensibilities could still be seen in the charts as the Girl Group era took off. The subject matter tended to concentrate on optimistic themes and almost entirely on matters of the heart aimed straight at the ever growing teenage record buyer: The Supremes “Baby Love”; The Ad Libs “The Boy From New York City”; The Chiffons’ “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”’ and The Crystals “There’s No Other Baby Like My Baby”. Boy-Meets-Girl scenarios were running amok all over the charts and one couldn’t turn on a radio without being hit with“he’s the best boy in the world” idealisms or a “he did me wrong” sob-fest or the ever popular “I want him back” reconsiderations.
Much of this material was written by outside composers and matched with vocal groups based on sound more than personality; occasionally a song will be recorded by two different groups within a year giving it two different perspectives, sometimes the perspective didn't change at all. Though the female vocalist was often the protagonist of the songs, it didn’t necessarily equate a position of power. Instead,a good amount of the material has the singer as a mere by-stander in her own situation; oftentimes submissive but mostly eager-to-please. Look nice, act nice and all shall go accordingly. The proverbial boat shall not be rocked.
Of course, there were always exceptions to the rule; writers, singers and producers who couldn't help but do things their own individualistic way have always been around. Most notably, to this reporter at least, were The Tammys who combined their razor-sharp, daredevil harmonies with fantastical arrangements from the minds of Lou Christie and Twyla Herbert. Their third single was the culmination, the beautifully uncompromising masterpiece, “Egyptian Shumba”.
On the other end of the spectrum were The Jaynettes who had created a haunting, lost-in-the-woods atmosphere for their single “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses” which found its way into the charts, resting at the number two slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart despite its baffling lyrics. (“…hope this place can’t hurt you / roses they can’t hurt you / Sally don’t you go, don’t you go downtown / Saddest thing in the whole wide world / Is see your baby with another girl…”)
Bessie Bank’s gorgeous 1964 hit ballad, “Go Now”, may’ve been similarly arranged as others of the time, but the narrator is a strong-willed female taking charge of an obvious irreversibly downed relationship; her voice may be covered in sorrow but she knows what she wants. ("I don't want you to tell me just what you intend to do now / Cause how many times do I have to tell you darlin' / I'm still in love with you now...") And gets it.
Then, of course, there were The Ronettes, the ultimate Not-Sure-If-You-Can-Bring-Them-Home-To-Mother Girl Group. With their husky, come-hither voices, stunning African-American Indian-Irish genetic content, purposely half-lidded Cleopatric eyes, topped with perfect hair and wrapped with perfect clothes, they certainly appeared as though they were lot of fun. Something in the way they smiled into the audience, into cameras, though, something about their long run of wonderful singles, gave the impression the Ronettes’ idea of “fun” might be slightly dangerous or at least cause you some sort of mid-level distress.
The three Ronettes possessed a look and sound so unpretentious and all-encompassing it could (and continues to) absolutely shatter the false structural integrity of even the most hardened teenage ruffian. His macho standoffishness but a weak shell against their raspy vocal landslide and producer Phil Spector’s larger-than-life production techniques. The teenage hoodlum begins to question his past and future views on a woman’s place in the world, his idea femininity forever changed. The Ronettes music is so powerful and awe inspiring it brings him to honest tears as he cruises his sparkling new 1965 Ford Thunderbird down the strip, radio blasting “Do I Love You?”; tears flow from his eyes onto his lap onto the floor mats, the tears filling up, up, up and over the car’s windows, the salt audibly corroding the Thunderbird’s frame and drip-drop-dripping onto the roadbed leaving a trail behind him which evaporates into the air. Just like the music invisibly coiling from his radio. “Do I Love You?"
Even as main vocalist Veronica Bennett was slowly, painfully, turning into "Ronnie Spector,"getting pulled into a paranoid web of the most ridiculously misguided, double-standardized self-obsesesd male in their orbit, she was able to throw that smile into an audience and camera knowing full well it's curtains for any teenage boy bearing witness, knowing full well she inadvertently relegated herself to a gross ten year imprisonment in her soon-to-be-husband's LA mansion. "Do I love you?"
Here we go. November 29, 1965, the Moulin Rouge Club not too far from Spector’s mansion/jail. "The Big TnT Show". Stage bright with light, every seat filled with a screaming teenager. This could be the night. A dozen performers. Places everyone, places. Smack dab in the middle of the set, the announcer clutches the microphone, plugging one ear with a shaky index finger: “Give a great welcome to…The Ronettes!” Teenage exaltation and screams turn the air into a solid mass of joy, the three girls on stage soak it all in and smile. Only two songs for the cameras. Ready? Go. Music starts, giant Hal Blaine drum intro --dum. dum-dum, BAP! dum dum-dum, BAP!- and…Jesus, just look into their eyes as they shine through another performance of the wonderfully assertive “Be My Baby”. The screams are of an unknown level, new territory. How unusual for teenage girls to be losing all self-control over female performers. That’s power. They can hardly stay in their seats, their views on a woman’s place in the world, of femininity forever changed as the powerful music and the sight of those three up there in sleek modern pantsuits take control of their world. “Be My Baby”. Just look at those three up there casually singing brilliance, its so natural looking, are they kidding? The night we met I knew I needed you so…look at their eyes, their smiles, lightning arcs right off their every move - zzzzzzZAP! Right between the eyes. Teenage boys vaporized. Girls gone wild…and if I had the chance I’d never let you go…The three do a quick dance during the instrumental break, ka-ZAM! The very air between performer and audience congeals into a mutual agreement. This could be the night. Song ends. Deafening screams. An airplane taking off. The only ones in the vicinity under any kind of control are the Ronettes themselves. They just smile, they just know. Next song, the already standardized “Shout!”, always a crowd pleaser, works every time for even the lamest of groups. You know you make me wanna…more electricity, more arcs. The go-go dancers in the background normally there as decoration for the bands are useless now and so are erased. If this wasn't being captured on film for history, no one would remember them back there trying to keep up…-Shout!- The air breaks on the first downbeat – sscchLAM. Three Ronettes clapping in 4/4 time…say you will…hip shaking, wrist twirling full-on sensory attack. There are no survivors -Shout!-This could be the night. Say you will! The three synchronize their way off stage with smile as big as the screams are loud, -Shout!- Ronnie giving a delicate wave of the right hand, goodbye. That’s it, song’s over. Anything more might be slightly dangerous or at least cause some sort of mid-level distress. Teenage screams forever it seems and the three know they’ve just upped the jig with a mere two song, seven minute set preserved for all time on film and eventually slid into the Library Of Congress shelves. Male-dominated entertainment industry has been emasculated, burning embers under their feet if only for that sliver of time. Shout! Screams everywhere. There were no survivors. All barriers smashed, say you will…no matter the color, Shout!, no matter the creed, because rock ‘n roll is fun and racial inequality is a drag. Say you will...everyone shrieks -Shout!- with delight at the power of The Ronettes. Do I love you? Be My Baby.
But I digress.
Anyway…where was I? Ah yes: while a more watered down group such as The Supremes were all forced smiles, glittering gowns and far too eager to win your acceptance, The Shangri-Las were downright glum by comparison. Our girls just stood at the lip of the stage and looked fairly serious; when they smiled it was one of confidence, defiance and being comfortable under the bright lights and nerve racking pressures. An invisible but palatable bond connected them giving off the impression they were just as much a gang as they were a vocal group.
Being made up of two sets of sisters, Mary and Betty Weiss and Marge and Mary-Ann Ganser, they kind of were a gang. Having a grown-up in the rougher parts of Queens, New York (and, in the case of the Weiss sisters, a troubled upbringing with their father dying when they were young and a subsequent strained relationship with their mother), they came by this image honestly giving their music and persona a distinctive air but also served as protection. Any unwanted advances from wide-eyed male musicians or other industry types licking their chops at the sight of young, successful female flesh were met with a cool wave of indifference. It was well-known from early on: don’t mess with The Shangri-Las.
Of course, there’s some differing of opinions on the true nature of these four, however. Motor-mouthed 1960’s radio DJ MurryThe K and singer Evie Sands have both weighed in about the girls rebelliousness but with differing opinions. The former was known for being a bit of a windbag and prone to unnecessary hyperbole; so, his version is typically apocryphal as he claimed the girls were arrested multiple times for various pranks and even has them kidnapping a male fan who eventually tries to escape from their hotel room by hanging a bed sheet out the window. “Those girls were crazy,” K would later gush, “I LOVED them!"
Sands, meanwhile, was just starting her career but not as easily charmed. Claiming to’ve been snubbed by the girls while sharing a car en route to a performance, her adverse reaction to their gang mentality was inevitable. “I was excited to meet them,” writer Mick Patrick quotes her as saying, “but they were the rudest girls I had ever met. Really crude and crass. I came from a very strict home, very respectable; [and had] never heard such language in my life, I didn't even know some of those curse words existed. They were absolutely disgusting.”
On the other end of the spectrum were those who claimed the girls were anything but rabble-rousers. Writer John Grecco, dismisses the Shangri-Las bad girl legend and claims (completely unsubstantiated) they spent more time together in their hotel rooms while on tour as the other bands ran wild, chalking it all up to just harmless fun: “Over the years the girls jokes have taken on a life of their own with people wanting to make more out of them, blowing them out of proportion with interpretations leading to the sinister," Grecco insists in the liner notes to the best collection of the groups music Myrmidons of Melodrama, "but they were simply teenage pranks pulled by fun-loving teenage girls."
A more probable assertation can be found in the words of someone who was closer to them than any of the above. Songwriter Ellie Greenwich, composer of the group’s most effective lyrics, thought the girls were a little of both in an interview with writer Charlotte Grieg:
“Overall, the girl groups had very sweet images, except for the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, who had a tougher, harder attitude. By today's standards, they were as innocent as the day is long. Back then, they seemed to have a street toughness, but with a lot of vulnerability. Mary Weiss [had] the sweetest long straight hair, an angelic face, and then this nasal voice comes out, and this little attitude - the best of both worlds. Were they tougher than [say] the Dixie Cups? They were a little harder. They also knew they had a look, and they played into it. You'd say, "This is what you're gonna do," The most they'd ever say was, "Well, we're not gonna do it." Ten minutes later, they were doing it. That's as bad as they got, if you wanna consider that bad.”
We'll leave the final word of this aspect to Mary Weiss herself, speaking with Telegraph writer Iaian Aitch in 2007, she unapologetically shrugged it all off:
“Our road manager was just a few years older than us, so there was no one to protect us. One time I was in my hotel room and there was a glass panel in the door and I saw a hand coming through it. We were in a state where it was legal to buy a gun, so I walked into a store, showed my ID and bought a Derringer. I was sixteen years old."
See how easy it is to get sidetracked by their mystique? Let’s get back on track. Their first singles, “Wishing Well”, “Simon Says” were good but overall benign; their voices were already in place but they hadn’t distanced themselves from the rest of their peers. That all changed after scoring two successive hits with “Remember (Walking In The Rain)” and “Leader Of The Pack”; it was with these two singles which established what would become their trademark style and subsequent legacy: melodramatic singles packed with soap opera story lines, heavy use of studio techniques and a dash of sound effects all packed into three minutes. The most standout element were the spoken interludes somewhere in the song, a fantastic way to draw the listen further into the narrative. Though first popularized and brought into the charts thirty years earlier by The Ink Spots, and used by some of their peers, it was a technique which would become The Shangri-Las calling card, one which would be copied and parodied in the following decades.
Whether by design or default, "Remember" and "Leader of the Pack" fit the girl's natural tough exterior perfectly; their label, Red Bird Records, knew they had something special and quickly revamped their image to fit accordingly. As luck would have it, the BBC helped matters considerably by pulling the latter from airplay due to its violent content (Melody Maker January 16th, 1965, p. 20: “The Shangri-Las new single has been banned but shouldn’t fans have the right in what they can and cannot listen to on radio and television?”). The clean appearance initially adopted during the time of their earliest singles was ditched for something more alluring; the typical light colored skirts, heels and sensible shirt (the go-to attire for female performers at that time) was replaced by succession of sleek, eye-catching outfits, each one better than the previous: cat-suits of white boots, tight black curve-fitting leather pants topped with a white ruffled shirt under a leather vest. Sleeveless up-to-the-neck sweaters and matching tight polyester chinos. Dark pants, button-down oxfords with a necktie. Genders bended. Completely singular.
This is not to suggest all of their material was based on rebellion or fused within complex parameter, (" The boy", "Simon Says", "what is Love" for example, are all void of drama) but it would turn out those which were ended up being their best and most memorable work. “I Can Never Go Home Again” is mostly spoken instead of sung and revolves around the story told by a girl who runs away from home to be with her boyfriend, only to discover her mother has died while she’s gone.
“She grew so lonely at the end / The angels picked her as a friend / And I can never go home again." The funeral march of “Dressed In Black,” “He walks along, a shadow in the night / each time he walks past my window / can’t hold the tears from my eyes / we’re still so much in love, why can’t they realize?” makes no bones about its intended mood. The superb “Out On The Streets” is a fantastically complex and haunting narrative about a girl who knows she has to break up with a boy as their relationship has taken the rebel out of him. He used to act bad, used to, but he quit it / It makes me so sad ‘cause I know he did it for me.”
Heck, even the upbeat “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” isn’t spared from trouble during the spoken exchange between the girls:
“What color are his eyes?”
“I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.”
“Is he tall?”
“Well, I gotta look up.”
“Yeah? Well I hear he’s bad.”
“Umm, he’s good bad, but he’s not evil.”
That last word comes and goes quickly, a mere fact more than a point of concern as the song continues on its bouncy way. A term such as “evil”, however, wasn't thrown around in pop songs too much back then, if at all, so with it comes questions. Since the term was used, we must presume the girl has had some experience with evil, or at least enough to compare and contrast it against typical strains of juvenile delinquency. What horrors has she seen? How many teenagers knew (or know) what constitutes a felony? Just that one four-letter word, used so casually, gives an insight to some dark, complex themes under the surface of these songs.
Interestingly, and much like the usage of sound effects, this doom and gloom recipe did have a tendency to backfire. The most obvious example being “Past, Present And Future”, anentirely spoken piece done with an emotionless tone while, underneath, is just a mournful piano and strings (based on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, no less). The simple narrative has a girl talking to a boy who is interested in her availability:
"Was I ever in love? I called it love, I mean, it felt like love. Will I go out with you? Why not? Do I like to dance? Of course. Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to, but don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me ‘cause that will never happen again. Shall we dance?"
At which point the strings and piano tornado up, pushing the song into ridiculousness. Words this powerfully stark can be interpreted differently and many have speculated its sub-text to be pertaining to the protagonist having been raped; others think it’s more about the rather common defense mechanism (especially in teenagers) which kicks in after getting spurned. A similar controversy arose in 1962 after The Crystals released “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss”; repelled program directors kept it off the airwaves as public debate swirled over its subject matter. The song’s writer, Carol King, later regretted having anything to do with it but never denied either it being about domestic violence or her own experience with such horrors (The song as a whole was inspired when King discovered Little Eva (singer of the hit "Locomotion") was in a physically abusive relationship). All of which is too bad since “He Hit Me…” is an amazing piece of work, its minimal arrangement (a Phil Spector production, ironically) makes it far more successful than the overdone “Past, Present And Future”. Morton’s hamfisted production all but compromises the girl’s vocal take here, thus voiding the lyrical power.
The amalgamation of these sights and sounds reached its zenith in the early months of 1965 for their appearance on ABC TV’s hit teen show, Shindig! while promoting the beautiful “Out In The Streets” (“Shindig’s pick of the week!”). They stand on three individual pedestals in an otherwise empty stage wearing close-fitting all black leather suits and boots, anything white in previous wardrobes is gone (as is Betty Weiss who had taken a leave of absence). The song begins, a haunting angelic chorus, the stage goes black, the only source of light being three spots shining down from above each girl dramatically highlighting their profound look. The Ganser’s bowled, black hair curling under their remarkably pronounced underbites; when one of ABC’s TK-41C cameras slowly meanders to stage right and zooms in on the twins’ profile, their seriousness envelops the entire screen. The bridge of their nose slopes perfectly south towards a mouth subtly miming the lyrics, eyes swallowed up by dark pools, heads slightly tilted back in defiance. More shadows than light.
In direct contrast, Mary Weiss’ long blond hair is the brightest image in the TK-40’s Ektar 135 mm lens, her soft facial structure looks to be made of a haloed, luminous fog, it drifts into the camera’s lens, into focusing coils, deflection coils, into transmitters, oscilloscoping into electro-beams and then breathing –ssssSSSSHHHAAAAaaaaaa-- into cathode-ray tubes across the country, lifting off, drifting off nationwide television screens into homes, into the eyes and ears of good ‘ol American teenage Shindig! viewers. They hear the haunting ballad, see the three girls stand almost motionless on their pedestals, moving only their arms in slow, graceful movements. To the teenage viewer staring with awe into their flickering black and white television screen, those languid actions take on a fluttering magical strobe effect, blurring lines of objectivity; the Information-Action Ratio no longer traceable in living rooms across good ‘ol America. A sound mistaken for the delicate breaking of thin crystal threads -tink!- is actually the sound of hearts breaking in good ‘ol American teenage Shindig! viewer’s chests. (So won’t you hurry, come on, come see about them.)
These visuals combined with the chilling elegance of “Out In The Streets”, makes for the perfect sensory elixir, coming at your in an entirely different way than, say, The Ronettes; where they tended to meet you head-on, The Shangri-Las crept up from behind. That this was all done for such a fleeting two and a half minute appearance lends itself to the importance the visual image was to their music and, ultimately, their success and legacy.
By this time the Shangri-Las had already been kicked into the fast lane which garnered them steady work; they filled 1965 with a handful of singles and a hectic public appearance schedule including tours, radio/TV appearances and commercial endorsements (“Won-der, won-der, get Revlon’s natural wonder! How pretty can you get?”). Their third release of that year, “Right Now And Not Later”, was a fantastic Motown-flavored mid-tempo number; Weiss’s voice was upfront and distinctive and the four blend perfectly and the melody was ridiculously catchy but, ultimately, it was neither here nor there. What was missing was their true essence.
That essence wasn't really missing, it was just on the other side. “The Train From Kansas City”, the actual reason for this here dissertation, was a 180 degree turnabout and encapsulated everything so distinctive about The Shangri-Las: incredible harmonies and musical arrangement, depressive lyrics and sound effects making it one of most brilliantly sung and arranged records of the genre, right up there with “Egyptian Shumba” and “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses":
Baby, baby, please believe me
I would never, never
Do anything to hurt you
Baby, baby please believe me
I would never, never
Do anything to you to make you blue
But yesterday I got this letter
From a boy I loved
Before I ever knew you
Before I even knew you
And the train from Kansas City is comin into town
The train from Kansas City is a-comin
Nothing I can do can make it turn around
Baby, baby please don't worry
Nothing in this world could tear us apart
We'll never, never part
So wait right here and I will hurry
I'll be back in time it takes to break a heart
I gotta break his heart
Yes the train from Kansas City is a comin'
The train from Kansas City is a-comin'
Nothing I can do can make it turn around
Well I never answered his letter
I just couldn't tell him that way
No I never answered his letter
Cause I didn't know what to say
Now I'm going down to the station
He'll be there at ten after two
I'll show him the ring on my finger
I don't know what else I can do
Oh, the train from Kansas City is coming into town
The train from Kansas City is a-comin'
Nothing I can do can make it turn around
Here comes the train
Here comes the train
Here comes the train
(Greenwich/Barry/Tender Tunes/Trio Music, 1965)
As with many of their greatest songs, the lyrics and arrangement were from the minds of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, one of the most talented songwriting teams out of the already successful Brill Building. These two had already crafted some of the best songs of the early and mid-60’s: “Be My Baby”, “Then He Kissed Me”, “The Kind Of Boy You Can’t Forget” as well as a handful of past and future Shangri-La sides (“Out In The Streets”, “Heaven Only Knows” and “What’s A Girl Supposed To Do”). Depending who you believe they may or may not’ve helped write “Leader Of The Pack”, though, according to the song’s producer/writer, Shadow Morton, he gave them credit merely for “business purposes”, a claim Greenwich would later refute. Either way, if you were to take a look at the Billboard Hot 100 list covering the year 1964, the duo were responsible for seventeen; Greenwich, in particular, had a brilliance for writing strong, concise lyrics which carried more dramatic pull than any other song floating around the airwaves at the time. It should be pointed out the duo also contributed their fair amount to the ever growing mountain of saccharine pop singles (“Da Doo Ron Ron”) as well as nauseating girl-loves-boy anthems (“The Chapel Of Love) illustrating, if nothing else, the Greenwich/Barry team were just as capable of pandering to the more boring aspects of pop music. That they could write in both directions gave credence to their talent as well as a certain disinterest in playing by industry standards.
With Shadow Morton behind the board, this resulting team was far above the normal. To drive home the point of the lyrical narrative, they mixed in sound effects; not all the time, mind you, just when it really mattered. The most famous being the sound of a motorcycle in “Leader Of The Pack”, but there’s also seagulls in “Remember”, a crack of thunder in “Give Us Your Blessing” and ghostly train sounds which appear in “The Train From Kansas City”. Interestingly, these sound effects worked both ways for the group. As the years have ticked by, “Leader Of The Pack” is now mostly known for the motorcycle sound and not the depth of the story or strength of the vocal arrangement. As such, it’s become a caricature, a cartoon version of this particular era, a case of kitsch eclipsing content.
As it begins, “The Train From Kansas City” finds the protagonist (a female in the original with subsequent cover versions flipping gender roles) in mid-conversation as she in informs her fiancé about an old boyfriend coming into town looking for her; she hasn't had the heart to end their relationship in letters and, now that he’s soon arriving, knows she has to do it in person. “I’ll be back in time it takes to break a heart,” assures Weiss later in the song and then delivers one of the song’s more crushing lines: “I have to break his heart.” Crushing not because she wants to break his heart, but has to; it’s a part of the human condition this song so greatly mirrors.
The crux of the matter here is this impending heartbreak, but just exactly whose is left uncertain as it doesn't happen by song’s end, there's no real conclusion and a sense of urgent dread hangs over the entire piece; from the opening piano charge to the closing harmonies, in Weiss’ voice and in the mournful train whistle. The enormity of the event isn't lost on her, there’s ache and sympathy in Weiss’ delivery; the news she has to deliver just might squelch anything else in her old boyfriend’s life; he’s doomed and she knows it. As does her fiancé. And now, so do we. Heartbreak is inevitable for all of us at some point and here it’s symbolized in the form of a train the story's antagonist (and yet another addition to the long list of songs using trains as a metaphor or subject in popular American music, not least of all Andrew & Jim Baxter's mournful "Kansas City Railroad Blues" originally recorded in 1927). As Greenwich so skillfully has her admit: “Nothing I can do can make it turn around.”
For anyone having been in a situation of rejection (and, I would suppose, that’s most, if not all of us), this song shoots right to the core of that particular fear; no one wants to be replaced, especially by someone for which they still hold feelings. In that light, “The Train From Kansas City” is a unintentionally vicious and brilliantly written break-up song in an era already steeped in such matters. How Greenwich, Barry, Morton and these four girls were able to crystallize this completely unique perspective on the pitfalls of relationships in three and a half minutes is simply astounding.
With all the layers in this song (the story, the voices, the instrumentation, the use of the studio) it requires multiple listenings. Weiss’ strong alto and the story she’s relating is difficult to hear past, but once you can latch onto Betty Weiss and the Ganser sister’s absolutely perfect backing harmonies, a whole new dimension opens up, they are the song’s (and quite possibly the group’s) secret weapon. Listen how they hang on to and stretch out the word “and” in the line: “so wait right here and I will hurry…”; their voices work counter against Mary Weiss’s troubled and determined tone. As the final section begins with “I never answered his letter”, Betty and the Ganser’s voices seal together attaining gospel proportions.
As with a lot of great songs from this time, certain aspects of instrumentation are added at just the right points to audibly expand its world. This is made clear as the very opening: a rolling piano and the sound of a train whistle begin simultaneously; Betty and the Gansers start the narrative with the first line off in the distance, a train whistle distance. Mary enters right on their heels for the second line strengthening the sound and bringing it all into focus. The instrumentation counterpoint (which has only been the piano, tambourine and percussion thus far) kicks into gear with guitar, bass and drums; this balancing act is accomplished in thirty seconds giving us little time to soak in the true essence of what exactly is going on here.
Other small ingredients can be picked out as well: the double-time tambourine during just the final measures of each chorus; the tack piano swelling under the entire performance. The most powerful trick, the one which breaks it all open, happens just as the final verse reaches its emotional peak. Everything drops out except for their voices (Betty and The Gansers’ voices…I mean, crimony, these are teenagers singing this?) and that constant tambourine’s whole notes...
“Well I never answered his letter…”
Then, as all good arrangers know, tension builds with added instrumentation and the Barry/Morton team’s expertise coalesce with added guitar and handclaps…
“Now I’m going down to the station…”
If you’re listening close (I know, not everyone is and that’s okay, but you and me, we’re listening close and hanging on every syllable) you’ll notice it all comes to this: the reverb drenched snare drum. Entering begins; it kicks you in the guts, it’ll drive you nuts, its pulse heightening the agony of the line:
“I’m going to show him the ring on my finger…”
All of these elements are small but crucial in defining this as a major work and much of it due to the talents of Jeff Barry and Shadow Morton.
That such a magnificent look into sorrow was relegated to the B-side of a single gives one pause. The reasoning for this seemingly giant oversight may to do with their label wanting to back off the dark stuff a bit; their two preceding releases of that year (both Barry/Greenwich compositions), the aforementioned “Out On The Street” and the ethereal “Give Us Your Blessing” (a young couple plead with their parents to accept their relationship and, when they don’t, the couple die a car accident while eloping) were indeed grim. So, the general consensus from the label must’ve revolved around not wanting to over-saturate the market with all things macabre as well as not wanting to pigeonhole the girls so quickly.
Regardless, “The Train From Kansas City” has since been re-discovered and covered several times in the ensuing years and, with each one, furthering its stature. Two of the best latch onto different aspects. The now legendary inde rock band Superchunk from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, recorded one and fittingly tagged it onto the B-side of their debut single. Being a rock band, they naturally transfer the original version’s piano riff onto guitar and bass, zero in on the song’s unrecognized anger and frustration then play it into the ground. The result is wonderfully ramshackeled and a far more cathartic take; how they ended up with a less vague conclusion is refreshing as it is confounding.
For her 2004 live EP release, The Tigers Have Spoken, Neko Case was able to wring-out something amazingly close to the original. Possessing a wonderfully unique voice, (an alto which matches Weiss' perfectly) and accompanied by the Canadian band, The Sadies, Case is able to concentrate on the song’s vocal beauty and its accumulative pain. Kelly Hogan’s pristine harmonies add that last, helpful final touch, almost equaling the eloquent ache of Betty Weiss and the Ganser sisters some forty years previous. Where Superchunk tightly wound themselves around the song and try to strangle it, Case and The Sadies bore their way straight into its very fibers. And not a dry eye in the house.
The final line, “Here comes the train”, repeats three times building up the necessary tension and mystery, but no matter who is singing, those four words act as a perfect cliff-hanger leading us eavesdroppers to wonder what happens as the music and the girl’s last notes fades out and the sound of the train clamors in. But maybe we already know what happens. The kind of heartbreak detailed here is distinctive enough to be easily recognized by anyone who has experienced it, even when it’s not our own anguish. We’ve all been on the train, we’ve been at the station, we’ve all waited for someone to return. And therein lies the song’s power: it magnifies the most harrowing ingredients of emotional vulnerability and, smothering it in harmonies, reverb and mournful sound effects, allows us to empathize with not just the character’s situation, but our own as well.
Despite its surface appearance of renewal and an impending fresh start, “The Train From Kansas City” seems to be more about goodbyes, that horrible, sometimes life-altering kind which we all must face at one point or another. As listeners, we’re not so much concerned with the girl’s fiancé or their new life together; no, it’s the conclusion of her old romance which draws us into that world. Greenwich’s ability to pinpoint the tension of this singular narrative couldn’t have been pulled off by The Supremes or The Angels, not a goddamned chance. More than anyone else during the renowned Girl Group Era, the four tough, beautiful and exceedingly talented girls from the darker parts of Cambria Heights, Queens, were able to give this three minute drama a timeless essence.
For the broken-hearted, for those left waiting, for those who’ve been replaced, for anyone scarred from a goodbye and left with that great aching void swirling inside their chests: fear not, The Shangri-Las understand, they have your back. “The Train From Kansas City” is proof positive, adding beauty to the sadness of life, sadness to the beauty of life.