How The Shangri-Las Created Punk
Fifty years ago, New York's the Shangri-Las hit it big with tunes of tragedy -- and set an influential example of bands to come. Leader Mary Weiss recalls her rock 'n' roll youth below.
At a Texas concert venue in the mid-1960s, as James Brown was preparing to headline an all-black soul revue — complete with segregated audience seating — he doubled over laughing when one of his supporting acts showed up.
Based on the Shangri-Las’ soulfully evocative 1964 singles “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Leader of the Pack” (hits that reached No. 5 and No. 1, respectively), Brown had assumed that the group behind the songs was black.
Instead, he was faced with four white teenage girls. And before the night was over, the lead singer, Mary Weiss, would see a pistol pointed her way.
“I was almost arrested for using a ‘coloured’ bathroom,” Weiss tells The Post. “It was close to the stage, and I had no time to find the ‘White’ bathroom. [The sheriff] yelled at me, and I yelled back. He came in with his gun drawn and told me to get out.”
It wasn’t the last time the teen star would deal with a gun in her career.
Formed in 1963 in blue-collar Cambria Heights, Queens, the Shangri-Las consisted of two sets of sisters — Mary and Betty Weiss, and identical twins Mary Ann and Marge Ganser — who attended Andrew Jackson High School together. They sang in school talent shows, and quickly became one of the most important acts of the “girl group” era, later influencing performers as diverse as the Go-Go’s, Blondie, Amy Winehouse, the New York Dolls and Twisted Sister.
At a time when pop music consisted largely of clean-cut cuties singing about sweet crushes — even The Beatles sang mostly of love when they first hit — the music of the Shangri-Las dealt with running away from home, breaking your mama’s heart and even violent death.
“Pre-Beatles and pre-Motown, there was nothing exciting happening [in music],” says Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, one of the top radio disc jockeys of the time and a current SiriusXM broadcaster, who first saw the Shangri-Las at a talent show at their high school after hearing about them from listeners.
“But then here come these four very beautiful young women showing that they can be tough and strong, displaying angst and rebelling.”
Weiss, now 65, was singing from the time she learned to speak. When she and her sister met the Gansers and decided to form a group, their chemistry was apparent.
“We rehearsed constantly, until the harmonies were perfected. I think our voices blended so well because we were two sets of sisters. In a brief period of time, we had a manager, and we started doing small gigs.”
They released several singles that went nowhere, then recorded a demo of a song called “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which was written by George “Shadow” Morton — who would later co-write and produce “Leader of the Pack” and other songs for them as well — and featured a then-unknown Billy Joel on piano.
The Shangri-Las were punk before punk existed. People thought we were tough. - Mary Weiss
When Artie Ripp, from a company called Kama Sutra Productions, heard the demo, he was blown away, and signed the Shangri-Las to a production deal.
“That song was like a fabulous opera. It was absolute genius. I was stunned by them,” says Ripp. “Mary . . . sang as if she had lived every single moment of a song. The lyrics were drama. She sang like she was telling you her story.”
“Remember (Walking in the Sand)” reached No. 5 in July 1964. When the group’s “Leader of the Pack” topped the charts that November, it established them as more than just a top act of the day.
From the rumbling of a motorcycle — a common anti-establishment symbol at the time, thanks to films like Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” — just before the song’s first verse, to the death of the protagonist’s boyfriend in a crash, Weiss’ love for bad boys came shining through in “Leader of the Pack.”
“The song starts off with motorcycles, and she met him at the candy store — everything they were doing was specifically youth-oriented,” says Morrow. “They weren’t trying to placate Mom and Dad. They were trying to say to the kids, ‘It’s OK. You can do what you want.’ ”
The resonance of “Leader of the Pack” ran so deep that Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider, who covered the song with his band on their 1985 “Come Out and Play” album, even makes a case for it as an influence on heavy metal.
“Talking about someone dying, that’s metal. The bad guys in leather jackets, that’s metal. The bad kids, that’s metal,” he says. “And that driving chord structure — there was such a heaviness to that song. It’s a metal song.”
If the day’s youth were attracted to the blatant rebellion, the other draw was Weiss herself, with a combination of looks, talent and attitude that left boys panting in her wake.
“Mary, with the long blond hair, was very striking. They were wearing leather jackets, and they looked tough, too. They didn’t look like good girls,” says Snider. “They looked like the girls all the bad guys wanted.”
Though she won’t name names, Weiss admits that guys in bands tried hitting on the Shangri-Las, but to no avail. “We went to dinner with a few of the Beach Boys and hung out with the Zombies in England and New York, but did not date any of them.”
Plus, when “Remember” was released, the girls ranged in age from just 15 to 17, with Weiss being the youngest. “All of the groups [we toured with] were older than us,” she says. “I saw [tour hookups] happen, but never with the Shangri-Las.”
Impressive, since the teenagers toured the world for two years without a guardian (their parents were fine with this and the girls managed to finish high school) . Oftentimes they got to be kids acting silly. They would buy and set off fireworks in any state that sold them. When playing a show with Marvin Gaye, Marge Ganser changed the name on his dressing room door so it read “Marvin’s Gaye.”
But while there was much fun to be had, the downside to this independence was that they were forced to grow up quickly.
“We were 16-year-old kids on the road in a very tough, grown-up industry,” says Weiss. “We had no entourage, just one massive 19-year-old bodyguard, sometimes. I bought a pistol in Georgia … because fans were trying to break into our hotel rooms. [She later turned it in to police in Florida.] So we were as tough as we needed to be. We had little to no protection on the road, and I usually carried the band’s cash. It was a scary time.”
As such, the stress got to be too much for some of the members, and the lineup became a revolving door. Betty and each of the Gansers left for a bit (all returned at some point), with Weiss the only one who remained throughout.
The group had just one more Top 10 hit — 1965’s “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” — but music was changing, and the group was tiring of the grind.
They were done by 1968, and became embroiled in litigation regarding their songs. Weiss is not allowed to discuss the situation, but says it prevented her from recording for a decade.
The Weiss sisters and Marge Ganser played a few shows in the ’70s before attempting a full-on reunion in 1977. (Mary Ann Ganser died in 1970. Her cause of death has been alternately reported as both encephalitis and as an overdose of barbiturates. Weiss refuses to address it.)
They recorded an album for Sire Records, but it was never released, as all agreed that the material failed to live up to the group’s best.
But the Shangri-Las did play a one-off 1977 show at CBGB that allowed Weiss to see how much her music had influenced the next generation.
“The jukebox at CBGB had a lot of Shangri-La cuts on it,” says Weiss. “I was amazed. And I was deeply touched when Joey Ramone told me what a big influence we were on them.”
The Shangri-Las performed together for the final time at a show sponsored by Cousin Brucie in 1989. Marge Ganser died of breast cancer in 1996, and Betty Weiss has stayed out of the limelight since.
Mary Weiss went on to pursue a career in architecture and interior design. She released a solo album in 2007 called “Dangerous Game,” to much critical acclaim.
These days, she and her husband, Ed, live in California. While she still questions just how “tough” she and her bandmates were, she appreciates what turned out to be her pioneering role in music.
“The Shangri-Las were punk before punk existed. People thought we were tough,” says Weiss.
“It’s funny how no one thinks today’s artists are ‘tough.’ Now, you can be nude and swing on a wrecking ball and no one blinks an eye.”