Recurring Riffs Mark II: Shangri-La and the Great Big Kiss

One of the great girl groups of the 1960s, the Shangri-Las emerged during the twilight years of the Brill Building’s reign over the world’s teen audiences. Under the tutelage of producer/songwriter Shadow Morton, they not only unleashed arguably THE great teen tragedy song of the era in “Leader of the Pack”, but also projected a black-clad-in-leather, bad-girl persona that was something of an anomaly on the charts in 1964. Though leader Mary Weiss was only 16 when they took off, the group sang of teenage lust through the lens of a wild storm of rebellion, somewhat removed from the innocent lovelorn daydreaming that was most girl groups’ stock-in-trade. In so doing, they must have exacted a huge influence on many following acts which took a cue from their sweet-voiced glorification of edgy street culture, perhaps most significantly their hit “Give Him A Great Big Kiss”. It’s here that we get the ultimate description of the attractive “bad boy”, the natural elaboration on the Crystal’s “He’s a Rebel” (1962), and the main subject of this post.

The song kicks off with this famous rallying cry:

The Shangri-Las - "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (1964)

The “L-U-V” bit was resurrected by the New York Dolls for a song off their 1973 debut record:

New York Dolls - "Looking For A Kiss" (1973)

And again by the Nation of Ulysses from their 13 Point Plan To Destroy America:

The Nation of Ulysses - "Today I Met The Girl I'm Going To Marry" (1991)

Three very different songs to be sure — a testament not only to the wide-ranging appeal of the phrase, but also its disarming quality as an assured pronouncement of love in the midst of anarchy. This is particularly true of the Nation of Ulysses track, whose title alone exudes an outward sweetness absent from much of their post-hardcore record, but it also applies to David Johansen of the Dolls assuring his girl that “I didn’t come here for no fix — I came looking for a kiss.”

One of the coolest proclamations on the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” comes in a spoken dialogue between the girls:

The Shangri-Las - "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (1964)

This whole notion of “Good Bad — Not Evil” so perfectly encapsulates what they and their ilk are on about that it’s no wonder Black Lips used it as an album title in 2007:

Indeed, the spoken parts of “Great Big Kiss” are quite possibly its best moments, and here’s another:

The Shangri-Las - "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (1964)

Sonic Youth referred to the “very, very close” line on this number featuring Kim Deal from 1995:

Sonic Youth - "Little Trouble Girl" (1995)

Of course, it’s hard not to think of the Shangri-Las’s “Mwah!” chorus on every tune that mentions a “Great Big Kiss”, whether related or not, like the Slits’ “Love und Romance”:

The Shangri-Las - "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (1964)
The Slits - "Love und Romance" (1979)

From the proto-punk New York Dolls’ obvious admiration on through the other artists mentioned above, it’s easy to see why the Shangri-Las are said to have had an impact on the punk ethos at large. In the spirit of that, to close things out, let’s hear a gender-reversed cover by the legendary Johnny Thunders:

Johnny Thunders - "Great Big Kiss" (1978)

Recurring Riffs #1: Stealing Candy From A Baby

Tom Hanks from Big

Introducing a new series here at TSSL, one that may as well be christened “Recurring Riffs”. In it, I’ll trace a chosen musical motif through as many of its incarnations as I can think of, starting with the earliest and ending with its most modern iteration. These will exist in a land separate from notions of copyright and plagiarism, instead concerning salient phrases or repeated figures which are not necessarily “copied”, and don’t really belong to anybody in particular, but which resurface from time to time in a broad array of recorded works for any number of untold reasons.

This will be a subject that naturally begs for reader participation, largely because there will no doubt be plenty of examples that either space or my own scope on the matter will limit me from covering. It is thus highly encouraged for you to take to the comments section and fill in any gaps that may arise. We’ll then add any pertinent examples to the post, soundclips and all, in an addendum section.

For the inauguratory post, we take things back to the playground.

The children’s sing-along clapping game, known as “Down Down Baby“, is one of those age-old passtime games that exists in many variations in its natural setting of the schoolyard. What might not be immediately apparent is its longevity as a theme used in the outside world.

Here’s a video from Sesame Street, featuring some kids learning the game:


And a quicker clip of children’s singer Laurie Berkner singing the song:

Laurie Berkner - "Down Down Baby" (1997)

Right off the bat, I’ll bet many of you who were at first uncertain have by now remembered where else this tune has surfaced, and so in that spirit let’s take a chronological look at a few places it’s been.

Starting with perhaps its earliest appearance in a hit song, Little Anthony‘s version injects some sexual tension into his use of the phrase in an ever-modulating chorus:

Little Anthony and the Imperials - "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop" (1959)

Tom Hanks Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop

Next, a version of “Down Down Baby” was used in a particularly memorable scene in the Tom Hanks movie Big, as the method by which Hanks’ grown-up character Josh convinces his friend Billy who he really is. In lieu of an available youtube clip, here’s the audio:

Tom Hanks - "Shimmy Shimmy Handshake" (1988)

This brings us to probably the most well known use of “Down Down Baby”, found in Nelly‘s debut hit single “Country Grammar“. I don’t know what it is about rappers using juvenile ditties for their hooks — from Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” to the bevy of hip-hop figures involved in reprising “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” (a likely contender for a future Recurring Elements post) — but Nelly’s may well be the most successful attempt at “stealing candy from a baby” in such a fashion. It’s hard to imagine the song would have been such a hit without that irresistible melody and the delightful subversiveness of mixing the original lyrics with lines like “light it up and take a puff / pass it to me now”:

Nelly - "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)" (2000)

Finally, have a listen to one of Philly’s best bands incorporating the song into their sublime “Freedom Park”:

Marah - "Freedom Park (Intro)" (2004)
Marah - "Freedom Park (Chorus)" (2004)

Marah and Nelly