The Crystals

TrackSingle
There's No Other (Like My Baby)Philles 100 (1961)
UptownPhilles 102 (1962)
He's A RebelPhilles 106 (1962)
He's Sure The Boy I LovePhilles 109 (1962)
Da Doo Ron RonPhilles 112 (1963)
Then He Kissed MePhilles 115 (1963)

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Contributor: Merric Davidson

Phil Spector made great singles with The Crystals, and here’s six of them. A topper six-pack. You won’t find any album filler here, it’s all classic pop single.

There are at least three Spector productions that could be in contention for best 60s pop song: Be My Baby (Ronettes), River Deep Mountain High (Ike & Tina Turner), You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (Righteous Brothers). I love those three records, but the main contender, the one that appears in my all-time top ten … He’s A Rebel by The Crystals. In fact, strictly speaking, it’s by Darlene Love and the Blossoms but I’ll come on to that later.

He’s A Rebel is what Frank Zappa might have described as “a little bit of vocal teenage heaven, right here on Earth”. Penned by Gene Pitney and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, a smash No.1 in the States, just grazing the Top 20 in the UK. Right from the instantly catchy opening piano melody with dramatic drumbeat to the classic sax break, you knew straightaway that this was something other, something else. While we may not have been aware in 1962 that there was going to be a Wall of Sound revolution, it was clear this one was a monster.

See the way he walks down the street
Watch the way he shuffles his feet
My, he holds his head up high
When he goes walking by
He’s my guy

He’s A Rebel was the third single credited to The Crystals. The first, There’s No Other (Like My Baby), was also the first release in 1961 on Phil Spector’s Philles label. It’s the first of three Crystals singles with lead vocals by Barbara Alston. There’s No Other (Like My Baby) is unlike the Crystals records that were to come; with strains of the Chantels from a few years ealier, it’s more of a 50s sound than 60s. It’s a brilliant record though with strong harmony, taking it slow, reeeal slow, and clearly the shape of things to come. The flipside, Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby, even “borrows” a part of the title of the most well known Chantels hit, Maybe. There are some Spector strings on the flip but the lead vocals by Patsy Wright are a little weak. Phil was starting to have concerns about the vocals.

Next up was a ready-made classic from Brill Building hit machine Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, which Spector turned into a magnificent big screen, big strings, castanet-clicking two minutes of magic.

He gets up each morning and he goes downtown
Where everyone’s his boss and he’s lost in an angry land

But when he’s Uptown he can hold his head up high, Uptown he knows that I am standing by. It’s a perky little number that made No.13; an improvement but there would be a setback before world domination.

Spector had gotten to know another pair of hitmakers in Gerry Goffin and Carole King. They wrote He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) after hearing a sorry tale from their babysitter, (Little) Eva Boyd, who told them that her boyfriend had (lovingly?) lamped her. Goffin/King handed the song over to Phil who recorded it with Barbara Alston on vocals as the third Crystals single. It got little airplay and was soon withdrawn from sale. With one of the most convoluted lyrics in pop, searching impossibly hard for a happy ending, this was not it seemed Goffin & King’s finest hour.

Hang on a second though. Today, the song is praised by many as an anthem against abuse. I’ve even seen it described as satirical. Times change, thank god. Here it is for your bewilderment. Can’t imagine you’ll hear it on X Factor anytime soon (not that you’ll be watching of course):

He hit me and it felt like a kiss
He hit me but it didn’t hurt me
He couldn’t stand to hear me say
That I’d been with someone new
And when I told him I had been untrue
He hit me and it felt like a kiss
He hit me and I knew he loved me
Cause if he didn’t care for me
I could have never made him mad
He hit me and I was glad
Baby won’t you stay…

I’m not even going to go to Please Hurt Me, another from Goffin & King, and one of the tracks on The Crystals 1962 album, Twist Uptown. Least said … The LP also includes the first version of On Broadway where the backing vocals sound flat to these ears. Of the other tracks, Another Country-Another World, written by Spector/Pomus, is catchy and classy but something’s lacking.

However, just the following month it was all going to be okay – but not for Barbara Alston and the other girls who disliked He Hit Me intensely – with the release of He’s A Rebel with Darlene Love’s gutsy vocals taking control. The irony is that it’s Barbara singing the B-side, I Love You Eddie, and I’ve always been fond of it, having played it to death along with the A-side.

And the hits just kept on a-comin’. It was always going to be hard to follow He’s A Rebel but the next, the fifth Crystals single, He’s Sure The Boy I Love, is another great production number, once again with Darlene Love on lead vocals. Here’s the epic spoken intro for Goodfellas fans:

Always dreamed the boy I love would come along
And he’d be tall and handsome, rich and strong.
Now, that boy I love has come to me
But he sure ain’t the way I thought he’d be.

This is no longer black and white music but a cinemascope release in glorious technicolor with its joyous wall to wall of sound. Spectacular. Yep, when he holds me tight, everything’s right, crazy as it seems.

Dolores “LaLa” Brooks had sung lead on two songs on Twist Uptown, Gee Whiz and Frankenstein Twist, and she was about to have her day in the sun with the release of the sixth single. Spector had decided to replace Darlene Love’s vocals on this record with the 15 year-old LaLa. Anyone who hasn’t had a turn please stand up!

Spector turned to another Brill Building songwriting couple, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, for Da Doo Ron Ron in 1963. What can you say about Da Doo Ron Ron? This is a monumental record – a dirty, dusky, gritty, muddy, grunty, rolling, thundering, sweaty offering. It sounds like it was made in an elevator (lift) struggling to finish before it reaches the ground floor. I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still. The desired 2 mins 17 secs of crash bang wallop magnificence. Somebody told me that his name was Bill – deed they did. Straight to No.1 guys – in a hundred different countries. Well, #3 in the US and #5 in UK.

Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had more gold dust for Spector. The quick follow up to Da Doo Ron Ron was a more romantic offering with full Wall. Then He Kissed Me (UK #2) has got the lot and is probably the most played, and most covered, of these six records.

Barry and Greenwich did it again with I Wonder (UK #36, no US release), revisiting the spoken intro and it would have squeezed into this listing if it had been a topper ten. As much as I like it, we are now starting to feel that we’ve heard it all before. And so it was to prove.

On the 1963 LP, The Crystals Sing the Greatest Hits (not necessarily their own hits) four of the tracks are now credited to The Ronettes. You’d need Sherlock Holmes to figure all this out!

I’m also slightly tempted by Santa Claus Is Coming To Town off Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You but the intro on this one is hideous and I much prefer The Ronettes’ Frosty The Snowman!

Oh and here’s a “Crystals record” you won’t see in this toppermost – “song” here, story here.

After Then He Kissed Me, the hits were drying up. Phil had moved over to The Ronettes in a big way. The last two Philles singles from The Crystals, Little Boy and All Grown Up, nestled in the lower reaches of the US Top 100. They both have merit, and LaLa continued to bash out the vocals, but the magic had gone in the production. The Crystals left Philles and moved to United Artists where they released a couple of awful singles before eventually disbanding in 1967.

It would be easy enough to pump this toppermost up to 10 tracks with the inclusion of, say, Another Country-Another World, I Love You Eddie, Girls Can Tell, I Wonder – but I’ll leave it at a topper six of the rockingest poppermosts you’re ever likely to hear in one short session.

So, thank you Barbara Alston, Dee Dee Kennibrew, Mary Thomas, Patsy Wright, Myrna Gerrard, LaLa Brooks … and Darlene Love … and the Blossoms.

The Crystals were very special. Rave on.

 

Barbara Alston (1943–2018)

 

The Crystals biography (iTunes)

Coming soon to this theater … The Ronettes (later – see topperpost #199 Ed.)

TopperPost #196

2 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Feb 13, 2014

    Great piece, Merric. I see the power of saying “Six of the best pop songs ever recorded” with no padding. I agree that you’ve got the “Top of the Toppermost” with exactly this selection. To Phil Spector, I suspect the girl groups were seen as interchangeable … until he fell for Ronnie. Da Doo Ron Ron is one of the finest Spector productions. The lyrics are also the best way of saying “etcetera etcera” I’ve heard: Yes, my heart stood still, Yes, his name was Bill, And when he walked me home, Da Doo Ron Ron Ron, Da Doo Ron Ron
    Watch the great video above, with their hands going straight on those sassy hips every time for the line. We know they know that they’re singing “I’m not telling you what happened next.” And the drum break tells us what happened anyway. There is still argument over whether Brian Wilson thought Then He Kissed Me or The Ronettes Be My Baby was the peak of Spector. He was quoted on both.

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Feb 14, 2014

      You are absolutely right Peter, that is 2 minutes 10 seconds of pure pop genius!

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