• 1963: The Crystals


    The Crystals

    This was part of a series on contemporary popular music I wrote in Isis (Oxford University). Isis at this point was published by Robert Maxwell, and these articles were the only time I was published by Maxwell.


    ‘He’s a rebel, and he’ll never be any good,

    He’s a rebel ‘cause he never ever does what he d[NOTE]should,

    Just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does.’

    These lines from the Crystals’ ‘He’s a Rebel’ (a US Number one, but unfortunately not appreciated in this country, having made Number Nineteen for one week only) seems to portray the classic, negatively destructive anti-social hero of the Rock Age. But the lyric continues:

    ‘If they don’t like him that way,

    They won’t like me for sure today,

    I’ll be standing right by his side.’

    Too much emphasis should not be put on the words of one song, but the work of the Crystals puts a great emphasis on shared experience, and the theme recurs in such records as ‘He’s Sure the Boy I love’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’.

    The societies of East and West are equally totalitarian in their subordination of human beings to such abstractions as Production and National defence. Against this totalitarianism, individualism is the natural response, but it inevitably leads to tragedy. Only when rebellion and self-assertion are a co-operative undertaking can they become positive and creative.

    A sign that popular music is developing away from the purely individualistic ethic is the growing popularity of groups rather than single artists. The latest Top Twenty shows that nine places are held by groups. The significance of groups is that they blur the firm line of distinction between artists and audience. The Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me’ has reached Number Two, yet probably not one buyer in fifty could name the three girls who make up the group. The British group ‘The Shadows’ has changed two out of its four members without suffering any loss in their group popularity.

    This amorphous quality of a group, its lack of a clearly defined boundary, makes it easier for the listener to identify himself with it, to feel himself as a part of it. If it is true that the buyers of popular records are predominantly female, it is striking to observe that while the early Rock idols were exclusively male, there is now in the US, and to a lesser extent in Britain, a growing enthusiasm for girl singers (Lesley Gore, Little Peggy March), and especially for girl groups (Shirelles, Chiffons, Ronettes, Crystals).

    The themes of the Crystals’ songs show that what they offer their audience before all else is identification. They refer to the most common, but the most essential experiences in life:

    ‘I met him on Monday and my heart stood still,

    Somebody told me that his name was Bill.’

    Their expression of emotion is direct and uninhibited, but without the frenzy and overstatement of a Jerry lee Lewis or the early Presley. Line like the following have a classical simplicity worthy of a Goethe:

    I didn’t know just what to do,

    So I whispered “I love you”,

    He said that he loved me too,

    And then he kissed me.’

    I have not discussed the purely technical prowess of the Crystals’ work, in particular the magnificent backings to their songs. But it is this that makes me believe that, from among the many girl groups referred to above, the Crystals will survive as one of the great names of popular music.