Shadow Morton made pop art. Like, actual Pop Art. His records with The Shangri-Las were like those big Roy Lichtenstein paintings where he took a panel from a lurid romance comic book, blowing up the image and exaggerating all the already-hyped-up drama. What were “Remember (Walking In The Sand)” and “Leader of the Pack” but musical radio dramas, complete with sound effects and dialog and heightened emotion? Once, I was thinking about signing an indie pop-rock band from the Bay Area, with a deadpan female singer, and I played her the Shangs’ “Past, Present and Future,” which she’d never heard before, and she couldn’t believe that it was a pop record from the 1960s, that someone could make a single so stark, essentially a spoken-word piece with three verses but no chorus, no rhyming, no lyrical hook. Did Shadow invent alternative pop?
His records had genuine mystery — “Out In the Street,” maybe his masterpiece with the girls, hangs suspended: you don’t know what’s waiting for the guy out there, but the girl knows she can’t keep him cooped up, and she sends him into the dark night — and a layer of pure goofball corn (“Long Live Our Love,” with its snippet of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”). And then there was “Give Him A Great Big Kiss,” and there isn’t anything about that record that isn’t lovable and wacky: it’s the only Shangri-Las single with a big smile in it, as Mary details all the wonderful qualities possessed by her guy. He’s tall enough for her (“Well, I gotta look up”), she digs his clothes (“big bulky sweaters to match his eyes,” which I don’t think means he has big, bulky eyes, but that he’s good at color-coordination), he’s just bad enough (i.e., not evil), and he holds her tightly when they’re dancing. Good deal.
Then when the Shangs thang went kablooey, he had the savvy to know that Janis Ian’s precocious adolescent complaint on “Society’s Child” was nothing less than a shrewd, racially aware expansion of the girl-group code: if everyone else thinks he’s bad for me, he must be good (see: “He’s A Rebel,” “He’s Sure The Boy I Love,” “Chico’s Girl,” “Leader of the Pack”). If Janis didn’t come up in the singer-songwriter generation, and was simply another gifted girl from the outer boroughs with a knack for a hook (”I can’t see you anymore, baby” ain’t bad), she’d have shuffled down on the D train to the Brill Building and pitched “Society’s Child” to Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Shadow, and The Shangri-Las would have had a career-extending hit (and maybe Mary would have had the chutzpah to stick with her undesirable beau: they all snickered when she was dating the biker, so seeing a black guy would have just been upping the ante). But while Leonard Bernstein was showering praise on Ian for being a teenager with a problem, it was Shadow’s production that made “Society’s Child” a pop hit, underlining Janis’ angst with echo, giving the song that ominous harpsichord lick. I still want to hear the Shangri-Las version, though, which exists only in my head.
Another thing Shadow did was graft the blue-eyed NY-soul sound of The Rascals to psychedelic blues-band muck and slow everything down to this dark, syrupy goo that was Vanilla Fudge, whose debut album takes Shadow’s Pop Art aesthetic to a whole new level, dismantling Beatles and Motown songs, putting Sonny Bono on an equal footing with Curtis Mayfield (who’d ever expect that?). Like The Shangs, Vanilla Fudge were heavy on the drama, but funny; that first VF album has the kick of one of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies where everyone is emoting up a storm and the thrills are pure cheese. If you want to do the whole rock-family-tree thing, you can draw a jagged line from the excesses of the Fudge to what British bands like Humble Pie, The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zep turned into arena-boogie and extra-heavy rock. Example: on their debut album, Spooky Tooth grafted the Vanilla Fudge approach onto “Society’s Child” and you wonder how Shadow let that particular idea get away. It may be the ultimate Shadow Morton tribute record.
Besides the batch of records he made with The Shangri-Las, my favorite Shadow Morton-related single is one he, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich made for Red Bird, “You Don’t Know.” Ellie sings this one, and it has the spookiness of a Shangs disc, hushed and tormented: she’s nuts about this guy, but he’s dating her best friend, and she just…can’t…handle it (the record has long pauses like that). Like so many of the records Shadow had a hand in, it’s as banal as a a Young Love comic book, slick as hell but pure of heart. Simply brilliant.