If you were a teenager beyond Elvis, your path to personal musical expression was well set out and relatively easy to fulfil. Get a bunch of your pals together, hope that one of them has a van (you’ve found your drummer) and then learn a few chords. Play your school dance or disco, hope to get a few local gigs and see how the world likes what you’ve got say for yourselves.
Things were different for girls. They possibly still are.
The advent of punk opened things up but in the period between Jailhouse Rock and Patti Smith, there isn’t much too show for those that tried and failed to make it big. Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilations capture those one-off garage band hits (or nearly hits) but are mostly male-oriented.
In journalist Jessica Hopper’s introductory notes, she says the following:
Girl dreams need a thousand contingencies
In 60s America, the questions from a woman’s perspective about marriage and babies were “when?” and “how many?”. Hopper asks what was conceded, what was negotiated to get these a shot at singing in a recording studio? What were the expectations? When these girls could see Elvis or Buddy Holly or latterly Diana Ross achieving fame and fortune, what were their hopes and dreams? Were these songs itches that needed scratching, did they think that this was the first step to a musical career or were the recording sessions the equivalent of Presley walking into Sun Studios in the summer of 1953 paying to record a gift for his mother?
Numero Group’s latest compilation Basement Beehive: The Girl Group Underground shines a light on the girls of the 60s who got a chance to capture their dreams on vinyl but didn’t progress to stardom.
The compilation is immaculately packaged and available on CD and LP. Go for the CD option, there are twice as many tracks – 56 in total and it’s half the price.
The first thing that one notices is that despite the artists being most probably unknown to listeners, is that the music is instantly familiar. Some of it is a little formulaic but what underlies is a sense that this sound is timeless and universal. Whether it is the use of reverb by Amy Winehouse and the Arctic Monkeys or brass sections from those retro-soul acts that the Daptone label records, there is nothing to scare the horses. This is a tonal palette that we have absorbed, via the universal appeal of Motown, Levis adverts in the 80s or Tarantino soundtracks.
The other unifying element is the almost 100% quality of the songs and the performances. Even though this music was probably recorded on a relatively low budget, it is rich, emotionally nuanced and skilfully performed.
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
“I’ll Never Know” by the Chantells with the Aqua Lads is 2:22 minutes of sheer joy that one could imagine tearing up the floor at Wigan Casino. The Lads were a North Carolina show band that had been grinding a living playing air force bases. Jaded, they stopped off to watch a battle of the bands and saw a girl duo, The Chantells, performing. Debbi Newton and Vicki Skinner hooked up with the Aqua Lads and in 1968, recorded two songs for a single on the band’s own Aqua label in Charlotte.
The single bombed, not helped by there being an existing New York 50s band called the Chantells. The girls and boys went their separate ways a year later, allegedly due to friction between the two girls and the Aqua Lads brass section. The boys ended up suing each other over money issues, Debbi Newton appears to have never sung again, whilst Vicki Skinner still performs on the Carolina Beach scene. This publicity shot from 2012 shows her third down on the right-hand side of the flyer.
One of the immediate standouts on the album is “Melvin” by the Belles. The reasons for its hookiness are numerous. The Belles were svengali free, a rare thing for these bands. Self-sufficient, they were an all teen rock band that played their own instruments and wrote their own songs. Based in Miami Beach, Debbie Teaver had been learning to play the guitar for three years and the age of 14 in 1965, started phoning local music shops, seeking out potential musical cohorts. She located the Perez sisters, May and Marina along with drummer Pam Kent. The band was formed a Spanish/Jewish/American venture.
Teaver’s dad built them a PA system, hosted the rehearsals at the family home and bagged stage outfits for them. Teaver’s mum handled promotions and got them gigs and even a half page feature in the Miami Herald. Reporter Beverly Wilson described them as:
Natural longhairs in the world of rock’n’roll. The image they project is lady-like, not wild.
Again playing teen dances and airforce bases, they were eventually ready to record. Teaver’s mum used some inheritance money to fund a demo recording session. The band caught the ear of local label Tiara who released their only single “Melvin” paired with Teaver’s own “Come Back”.
It’s a brilliant piece of garage rock, gender swapping Van and Them’s “Gloria” to the unlikely chant of “M E L V I I I I I I I I N, M E L V I N Melvin!” with the fifth place “I” again pivotal (I guess it could have been a tribute to Martin). It’s clever, catchy and a ton of fun.
The band got the backing of a few local radio stations, but unfortunately, the relatively young and differing ages of the band proved too much. They burned out by the end of 1968, too clean cut as the decade turned towards its dark musical ending. Teaver lost touch with the other girls as her career direction moved towards performing children’s music.
Hearing Teaver reflect on the Belles, does leave one wondering whether the musicians that Numero didn’t manage to contact are aware of the compilation? If so, what do these women, if still alive who may well be grandmothers and widows at this point, think of hearing evidence of their former lives? I’d love to think that they’d be delighted, akin to JR Hartley finding his fictional fishing book. How wonderful would it be to hear this blast from the past? Or maybe it would bring back memories of opportunities missed or at worst denied.
The bulk of Numero’s releases to date have been brilliant, capturing old soul or specific recording labels. This is a different direction but yet again, is executed with aplomb.
This is music is without exception easy on the ear and joyful.
And is it too much to hope that somewhere in the USA, an older woman is getting an unexpected thrill from hearing her younger self and can tell tales that were long forgotten, confined to the attic? Wouldn’t that be the perfect ending?