Remembering the gloriously controversial 60s girl group who preferred biker jackets, jumpsuits, jeans and T-shirts to the conventional shift dresses of their era
In the early 1960s at a Queens, NY high school, sisters Mary and Betty Weiss, Marge and Mary Ann Ganser started playing music at talent contests, school shows and teen parties. They had signed their first record deal by the close of the year, and were to go by the moniker of the Shangri-Las – inspired by a local Chinese restaurant.
The band’s first hit, Remember (Walking in the Sand) was released when Mary was just 15, and they were soon playing with the likes of James Brown, the Beach Boys and The Zombies, making them the envy of a generation. Batting away the advances of boys in bands, setting off fireworks after every show, and eschewing an entourage in favour of a pistol, the Shangri-Las soon became renowned for being the tough girls of pop – all while making time to complete high school and earn qualifications at business school between tours.
Although they had many female compatriots, being key players in the ‘girl groups’ set, for the most part their contemporaries would be singing about waiting for a guy to call, dreaming about first dates and lamenting heartbreak. When the Shangri-Las covered similar bases, it’d be with undercurrents of fighting dogs, rumbling motorcycles and running away from home, death-obsessed melodrama and girl gangs.
They had reputations as being leather-clad street toughs, favouring biker jackets, jumpsuits, and jeans and T-shirts over the the conventional shift dress. Their single Leader of the Pack was banned by news outlets and TV shows on the grounds that it encouraged the rumbling battle between the Mods and Rockers. “I thought it was amusing,” said Mary Weiss in a recent interview. “When I got off the plane in my leather jacket everyone knew which side I was on.”
On the aforementioned promotional tour for Leader of the Pack, Mary stumbled upon a party at Dusty Springfield’s flat. “She had a very interesting apartment with big French doors, and there was a food fight. Dusty taught me how to throw crockery, too. She would get frustrated so she would go out and buy a couple of hundred bucks’ worth of cheap crockery.” She later employed these crockery-throwing skills during a residency at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre. “They had these long corridors that echoed and we would stand at one end and throw plates to the other. We would let off a lot of steam that way,” says Weiss. “That was how I met Marvin Gaye. He was trying to get out of his dressing room. He stuck his head out and all of these plates went flying past his head.”
Earlier in their career, the group were hanging out one night in a suburban hotel room that had a glass-panelled door. “I saw a hand coming through it,” Weiss said, “and 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 16 years old... and our road manager was just a few years older than us, so there was no one to protect us.”
They Are AnOther Women Because...
The Shangri-Las dispersed in a mess of lawsuits, tensions and burn-out in 1968, but their legacy lives on through rumour-strewn history, musical dedications and style homage. Their influence has been noted across heavy metal, punk rock and pop; and their fans continued to track down Weiss in her roles at various architecture firms long after she cast fame aside.
In an uncharacteristic move into the public realm, Weiss recently commented on Donald Trump’s use of Leader of the Pack at one of his political rallies: “I do not want anyone to think that I would in any way shape or form endorse this man. A letter will be sent, but if you hear one of our songs at any of his engagements, please note I did not and never would authorise it. Thank you for your understanding.” She later elaborated: “Actually I throw up in my mouth a little knowing that this is being done! Of all the people... I will never endorse hatred of any groups of people and would never give my permission to use this song.” It would seem that Trump hadn’t realised that the leader of the pack would go on to die in a motorcycle accident, after getting upset when Mary broke off their relationship. With as immortal a message as this, how could the Shangri-Las be anything less than AnOther Women?