Friday, September 26, 2014

This Day in Pop Music History (Pain of ‘Walking in the Sand’ Becomes Gold)

September 26, 1964—“The Leader of the Pack” is far better remembered by fans of the girl group the Shangri-Las, but it wasn’t their first hit in 1964 or, for my money, their best. That distinction belongs to "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," which rose to number five on the pop charts on this date.

The 22-year-old composer and producer of the song, George (Shadow) Morton, nothing if not brash, claimed to have cranked it out in less than a half hour on a dare. But its influence contrasts sharply with the putative time spent composing it. It has been covered by, to name just a few artists, Aerosmith, Imelda May (with Jeff Beck on blazing guitar, in this YouTube clip), and British singer Hollie Cook, in “tropical pop” fashion.

But the more immediate, seismic effects may have been exhibited within a decade by two males roughly the same age as the teen quartet who first recorded it: Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.  

One of the distinctive features of the song, its piano opening, may have been supplied by Joel, whom a friend had wangled this, his first recording session. He was trying to be inconspicuous, hoping that nobody would guess that he did not belong to a union. (It may have been in vain; he never got paid for his work, which also included “The Leader of the Pack.”)

But he kept his eyes about him, particularly when it came to Morton, who, according to a 1987 interview that the Piano Man gave to Uncut Magazine, had “a very theatrical way of producing, he used to wear a cape in the studio. I don't know if he'd been taking any intoxicating substances – what did I know at that age? – but he was very intimidating to a young kid like me.” 

It was quite an education the youth was getting in the realities of the recording industry: a world where a song could be cobbled together, piece by piece, with singers and session players not necessarily there at the same time; where substance abuse was rampant; where musicians’ pay might be at the mercy of forces beyond their control; where a producer with a vision (even one with little if no experience, like Morton), could make a difference in a single recording or an entire career.

How much Joel contributed to that song and “The Leader of the Pack” was ambiguous, he admitted later, since he never received a formal acknowledgement of his work. So, even though the demo he laid down was, according to his recollection, note for note, what appeared on these final records, it’s possible that another, union musician came in and re-recorded the work.

If Joel’s relationship to “(Remember) Walking in the Sand” was ambiguous, Springsteen’s was positively shadowy. But, though he never had direct working experience with the song, it may have left its mark on him. 

Years ago, I recall, a Rolling Stone overview of rock ‘n’ roll music pointed out the resemblance between this song and Springsteen’s “Backstreets.” I don’t remember at this point what those similarities were, but it’s not impossible to discern them, all these years later, even though the Sixties single was estrogen-driven while his own was testosterone-powered:

1    1) Both feature a memorable piano opening. Morton, producing within the brutal realities of radio programmers who liked singles three minutes long (or, better yet, two minutes long), worked economically in engaging the public’s interest. These weren’t just any chords on the keys; their melodramatic descent suggested a dying fall, a requiem. On the other hand, Springsteen may not have employed Roy Bittan to more emotionally shattering effect than on “Backstreets.” (Rolling Stone reviewer Greil Marcus thought this minute-long instrumental intro so powerful that “it might be the prelude to a rock and roll version of The Iliad.")

2      2) Both are flashbacks to summer by the shore. The Shangri-Las not only sang of a lover who “went away ‘cross the sea,” but, of course, evoked memories of their relationship in the title. Springsteen evokes the season from his first line, “One soft infested summer.”

3      3) Both are heavily atmospheric. Morton created atmosphere primarily through sound effects—specifically, seagull cries. With six and a half minutes that practically defied any attempt to tame it into a single, Springsteen concentrated on evoking time and place through lyrics: sleeping in “that old abandoned beachhouse,” the heat, Stockton’s Wing, and juke joints. His use of the organ is a muted echo of the calliope circus noise of seaside amusement parks that would have been ever present to him at the Jersey Shore.

4      4) Both searingly recall a loss and betrayal. The letter received by the heroine-narrator of “Walking in the Sand” not only announces that her relationship with her boyfriend is over, but explains the reason why: he’d found somebody else. The middle of “Backstreets” points to “the lies that killed us” as destroying the lovers’ relationship, but then becomes more specific: “I hated him and I hated you when you went away.” For each song, the lead vocals—by, respectively, Mary Weiss and The Boss—could hardly be more painful and lacerating.

It might startle some to think that Springsteen might have been influenced by the Shangri-Las, but for a long time it has been obvious that the names of those who lighted his musical path have been far more numerous than the obvious: Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Van Morrison, James Brown, The Beatles. He represents a wild magpie of elements of music: not just folk and rock ‘n’ roll, but country, heavy metal, the horn section of the Dave Clark Five, classic soul, and yes, girl groups (specifically referencing The Ronettes in his 2012 keynote address at Austin's South by Southwest music festival)

His apprenticeship in Jersey Shore bars positioned him perfectly to absorb these and other influences—and even before that, 1964 could have been considered an absolutely formative period in his career, since he caught the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and in A Hard Day’s Night. So there is a strong possibility that the Shangri-Las also impressed themselves on his growing musical consciousness.

By his own recollection, Morton had turned out “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” after he had brazenly told composer Jeff Barry that he wrote “hit songs” and the experienced Brick Building hand had challenged him to bring in one. Unlike so many others in that musical incubator—Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Bacharach and David, Neil Sedaka, and Carole King—Morton's time in the business was short. 

Morton might just as well have gone “ ‘cross the sea” like the wayward lover of his first hit song, as first he spent years fighting alcoholism, then chose a whole new career in the 1980s: designing golf clubs. 

Appropriately enough for the creator of The Shangri-Las’ two greatest love songs, he died on Valentine’s Day in 2013. He had never written a single tune before “Walking in the Sand,” but at the time of his death, he had more than 300 to his credit, most still unrecorded.

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