Ah, writing about music I like. The thing where I open up fifteen tabs and regret never having studied music in any capacity. (I’m sure my week-long stints teaching myself chords every couple of years, then abandoning the guitar before calluses form amounts to absolutely nothing.)
It’s digital equivalent of this guy and my brain is tired.
Not being hugely into the girl groups of the 50s and 60s, even in a retro kind of way, I thought listening to these two songs were going to be a mild agony. There’s something I don’t love about a clear-as-a-bell voice tone, which is just a taste thing and not a value judgement, but it is what it is. It just happens that those clear, steady voices were popular in those girl groups (also, holy shit they were young, The Shangri-Las were literally a bunch of teenagers, so it’s no wonder they sound like a children’s choir).
For both of these songs, the subject matter in “Leader of the Pack” and the minor chords in “Remember” serve in opposition to the innocent voices singing the lyrics, which may be why I ended up liking these songs. It’s definitely not how I expected to feel.
“Leader of the Pack” is one of those songs you find on compilations, it’s almost like a novelty. I guess there is a “grand tradition” of teenage tragedy songs, like “Last Kiss” or “Run Joey Run,” to which “Leader” belongs, but knowing this doesn’t make it any less strange.
This particular song entered my life in high school when one of my friends choreographed a routine for a small group of us to perform as an act break between plays at our community theater. It’s had a special place in my heart since then and I was pleased to dive a little deeper on it for this project. The sing-along quality makes a song that could easily be annoying more fun.
Looking into the history of the song, wikipedia pointed me toward a bunch of weird covers:
The Carpenters with a very playful Karen Carpenter strutting around in a very 70s ensemble.
Bette Midler making some weird tempo and ad lib choices.
Twisted Sister with a version that charted at 53 in the US and 47 in the UK in 1985. What even? (The Shangri-Las version hit #1 in the US but that was in 1964.)
I also found out that Ellie Greenwich, one of the writers and producers credited on “Leader” performed in a jukebox musical based on her own life, called, of course, “Leader of the Pack.” This album cover of hers fills me with joy – a proud multi-hyphenate! She seems to have been a really bad-ass songwriter and a prodigy, so I’m definitely interested in finding out more about her work, both writing for others and music she put out herself.
As of writing this, I’ve only known this song for a day but something about it is so familiar to me. In 24 hours, I listened to “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” about 21 times in various versions trying to unlock whatever it is that’s so familiar. Searching for some context, I found out that Amy Winehouse mashed up this song with “Back to Black” during some of her live performances. Maybe it’s the similarity of the two songs that makes me feel like there’s something uncanny about “Remember,” especially when I never really got into Amy Winehouse, so her song is only vaguely familiar to me…like the song’s structure was just floating on the edges of my pop-culture consciousness. After discovering the similarities, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to use online remix tools to meld the songs together. I’m sure it would work in more capable hands than mine.
Like “Leader,” this song is weirdly dark for a group I would have associated with like, sock hops and milkshakes. I’m not sure the lyrics play out logically, the narrator is reminiscing about her guy who’s been overseas for, we find out in the second verse, literally two years and being hurt he found somebody new. Girl. But you can’t let logic ruin a good time, said anyone who ever loved a Max Martin song.
I would love to be able to verify the story on wikipedia, which has “Remember” songwriter George Morton going to see his ex-girlfriend, Ellie Greenwich, to break into songwriting and in a pissing match with her new writing partner (who would later become her husband), proclaimed that he wrote “hit songs” despite never having written any before. He hired The Shangri-Las to sing and came back into the studio with “Remember.” Since it made it to the top five of the Billboard Hot 100, his statement ended up being true. However, that story lacks a source and it sounds like Morton told several versions of how he came up with “Remember” over the years, so who knows.
This is another song that has been covered to death and is still being covered today. Here are a few of the highlights of the versions I came across:
Aerosmith, whose version charted in 1980
The Go-Gos making it sound kind of punk?
Giselle on her album Not Ready to Grow Up from 2017
The Aqua Velvets doing an instrumental that really unlocked the Back to Black connection for me
If you search, you’ll find no shortage of other covers. It’s sort of shocking that I’d never heard it before, considering a) I love a cover and b) it’s still being covered pretty widely – at least for a song so old.
So will this turn me into a 60s music fan? Probably not. I did check out some of The Shangri-Las other songs on their debut album, but none were as good as “Remember” or as silly as “Leader.” Still, I’m glad these songs were part of the Rolling Stone project. And if I ever create a decent mashup of “Remember/Back to Black,” I’ll be sure to let you know.