Contradiction animates girl-group pop, that vibrant offshoot of early rock 'n' roll that flourished between Elvis' army induction and the full ascension of The Beatles. Performed, like doo-wop, by talented, hungry young artists who were lucky if they managed one moment in the spotlight, its songs take a street-level look at the often brutal facts of teen life circa the turn of the '60s. The songs, on the other hand, came largely from professional songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Ellie Greenwich, all some years removed from teendom. The perspective is decidedly feminine, and the music is muscular enough to fuel some of Martin Scorsese's most memorable movies. A girl-group single can be a burst of pleasure or a plunge into despair. The titles are enough to reveal the mixed messages at play: "When The Boy's Happy (The Girl's Happy Too)," "He Makes Me So Mad," "Don't Ever Leave Me," "Please Go Away."
A long-overdue—but worth the wait—survey of the girl-group moment, the four-disc set One Kiss Can Lead To Another (which, in a nice touch, comes packaged in a hat-box) compiles tracks well-known and obscure, from "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'," a Motown hit for the Velvettes, to "Peanut Duck," a never officially released single by… who knows? (A bootleg release chose the "Marsha Gee" attribution at random.) Mostly, it leans to the obscure. That's partly by design—leaving definitive girl-group songs like "Baby It's You" to slimmer collections—and partly by necessity: Rhino couldn't secure rights to Phil Spector's productions.
That's akin to releasing a British Invasion collection without The Beatles, but it leaves room for plenty of great, unfamiliar material that captures the full spectrum of the girl-group sound itself. Continuing rock 'n' roll's race-mixing and anticipating the operatic emotions of late-'60s soul, it found room for everyone from Mary Wells to Twiggy. There was a formula—women wearing too much makeup and singing their hearts out beneath hair that defied gravity—beneath the formula was serious business. Whatever the subject, the songs always sound like a matter of life or death, sometimes literally. The "Last Kiss" death-song spilled over beyond "Leader Of The Pack" (which isn't included). But just as memorable are more down-to-earth melodramas. Bessie Banks' "Go Now" (later a hit for the Moody Blues) and Maxine Brown's "Oh No Not My Baby" capture everyday heartache powerful enough to consume the world; The Cinderellas' "Baby, Baby (I Still Love You)" depicts a passion powerful enough to conquer it. Between those two extremes rests the emotional life of an entire generation—or half of it—preserved on wax in three-minute bursts.