John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Walking In The Sand”

The Shangri-Las ‘60s hit remains a classic of honest teen emotions.

By - Oct 9th, 2014 03:23 pm
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The Shangri-Las

The Shangri-Las

Adolescence is a time of overpowering emotions. If it isn’t operatic in scale, it’s at least soap-operatic. The laughs are few and far between and made scarcer by adult suggestions to lighten up. It demands great music and for a brief period in the early 1960s it was served up impeccably by the writers, producers and artists of the Brill Building. About 15 years later, Punk Rock happened and youth and rebellion were once again linked in interesting and sometimes threatening ways. If you think the two were completely unrelated, there’s at least one person who says not so.

That would be my friend Stan Erickson. Stan used to have a great record store in Appleton and still obsesses about music in a way that wouldn’t be healthy for me but works perfectly for him. He enjoys it immensely and even claims to like some of what I do. (Stan, I will collect my fee later) He recently posted something on Facebook about The Shangri-Las and their connection to punk rock. He claims they were there first punk rockers, citing their image and their subject matter. I’ll buy that, I guess. Consider Joey Ramone, who was influenced by the girl groups and did a very passable Ronnie Spector every time he opened his mouth. He adored The Shangri-Las and told them so.

Punk music was famously about passion over craft and appeared at a time when popular music had somehow reversed that order. It was a deserved slap in the face for the bloated, pretentious, over-financed mess rock had devolved into. The Shangr-Las and all the other Brill Building groups were also about passion, but they were up to their mascara-drenched eyeballs in a well-crafted and beautifully realized genre. The level of difficulty was higher, no doubt about it. The headmaster of the School of Rock was, of course Phil Spector. His wall of sound put these artists and their songs in an epic space, taking them seriously and as a result, he earned teenage America’s undying loyalty — along with a mountain of cash.

The story of my favorite Shangri-Las song is an interesting one. It starts with the group itself, two sets for sisters from Long Island. Mary Weiss, who sang lead, was only fifteen. Her older sister, Betty, along with identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser sang harmony. They had gotten together in high school to sing at school dances. Once they had their hits, they were soulful enough to fool James Brown, who freaked when the group showed up at a show he was playing wearing the wrong skin. He was a expecting a black group.

The Lennon Sisters they weren’t, and their producer was a Spector wannabe named Shadow Morton. Apparently he did a pretty good disappearing act from time to time, heading out to the  bars to chase skirt… thus the moniker. Shadow knew he was a hit maker but had trouble convincing the folks at the Brill Building. I have read various stories of how he got his break, the most colorful has him writing his masterpiece, “Walking In The Sand,”by the side of the road on his way to his first session. In the definitive book on the subject, Always Magic In The Air, by Ken Emerson, he already had demoed the song in some podunk studio and received help fleshing it out from Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. He already was friendly with Greenwich, who he went to high school with. Various stories have Barry telling him to put up or shut up. He chose the former.

Let’s watch the video —I wish there was a full performance of it somewhere, but I can’t find one. This is no less dramatic, despite the cut up and sometimes out-of-synch nature. I’m sure it was posted by someone who loves the song as much as I do. Listen to Weiss’ voice — it is so obviously a very young woman singing. Though this may have been laughable to adults, she turned in a polished and sincere reading of the material and I find it very moving. Today there are a some full grown women in pop who affect this little girl sound. The result is a kind of embarrassing kiddie-porn for the ear. This is not that.

Then there are the lyrics:

Walking In The Sand

Seems like the other day
My baby went away
He went away ‘cross the sea
It’s been two years or so
Since I saw my baby go
And then this letter came for me
It said that we were through
He found somebody new
Oh, let me think, let me think, what can I do?
Oh no, oh no, oh no no no no no

(Remember) walkin’ in the sand
(Remember) walkin’ hand in hand
(Remember) the night was so exciting
(Remember) the smile was so inviting
(Remember) then he touched my cheek
(Remember) with his fingertips
Softly, softly we’d meet with our lips

Whatever happened to
The boy that I once knew?
The boy who said he’d be true
Oh, what will happen to
The life I gave to you?
What will I do with it now?

(Remember) walkin’ in the sand
(Remember) walkin’ hand in hand
(Remember) the night was so exciting
(Remember) the smile was so inviting
(Remember) then he touched my cheek
(Remember) with his fingertips
Softly, softly we’d meet with our lips

So, OK — it’s obviously melodrama. But lyrics that are laughable on the page absolutely glow when sung by the right person. Add the glorious production and you have something that is more than the sum of its parts. Even it was just the music, this would be true, for Shadow, a relative newcomer, came up with a doozy.

The song has an odd, two-part structure, each with a different tempo and feel altogether. But once you hear them, you realize they were destined to be together. Morton claims the song was inspired by a tune The Modern Jazz Quartet performed called Sketch. You’ll have to take his word for it. I listened and, while I heard the chord sequence to the verse, it was a small part of the whole and had a completely different melody. If that’s the source material, give him credit for going somewhere completely different and don’t bother calling any lawyers.

The finger-snapping section, which I think of as the chorus, has a sense of timelessness about it. It doesn’t seem possible that this was written in recent times — it must have somehow existed in the collective subconscious for eons before it chose a guy named Shadow from Long Island to surface. Would this song be a hit today? It’s undeniably big and grandiose, so that might appeal. But it is also odd and asymmetrical, hewing to no formula. It seems the time for songs like that came and went a long time ago.

Was Mary Weiss a real singer or just a well-coached youngster being exploited by the machinery of the music biz? On the basis of this song, I say she had it. The fact that the group didn’t really last much after the ’60s says more about the business than their talent. Morton eventually was moved out of his central role and Barry and Greenwich took over. They saw fit to have at least one teenager killed in each song and the formula played out quickly. Had they been given better material and allowed to mature, The Shangri-Las might have made it past 1968. They did some reunion shows, the last being in the ‘90s and in 2006 Mary Weiss reappeared with the scrappy Memphis band The Reigning Sound on a recording called Dangerous Game. It’s on Amazon and worth picking up, because she answers the question at the top of this paragraph. Yes, that girl can really sing.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Walking In The Sand””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Yes, this song is poetic – in its intonation particularly (just as when sometimes, when one hears a poet read their work aloud, the poem comes alive)!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I absolutely love this song, and the group. The other day I “sang it” in my head while walking, and the laughed and thought “I bet I’m the only person who remembers this song.” Guess not!

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