October 31, 2016
With the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s came a deluge of fresh young superstars, new cultural heroes and music business attempts to grab the imaginations (and dollars) of a rapidly-awakening post-war generation. Evolving as a brave new teenage parallel to the patriotic war heroes of the movies, these new heroes were often bad boys; rebels without any cause other than to ride fast cars and motorcycles against a backdrop of doo-wop angst and primal early rock ‘n’ roll.
Inevitably, these near-mythical figures in black leather jackets were shunned by society but worshipped by teenage boys and loved by young girls. The music industry was quick to latch on and started producing hundreds of records for this new market, exploring anything from true love trysts and car anthems to the previously unthinkable scenario of death, previously the domain of traditional folk murder ballads but now portrayed as an often inevitable result of a reckless life lived at high speed.
James Dean was the first big screen anti-hero in Rebel Without A Cause; moody, misunderstood, vulnerable and tragic. The first teenage tragedy songs started emerging in the mid-1950s after The Cheers’ ‘Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots’ became a hit after Dean’s car crash death in 1955. Although not a death disc (unless you mean his soul), Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ caused such ruckus and revolution in 1956 that it paved the way for exploring the darker side of life in much deeper, more unsettling scenarios than the traditional love ballad.
Jody Reynolds was one such singer gripped by the song’s bleak, cataclysmic power, writing and releasing ‘Endless Sleep’ in 1958 (although it can’t be considered a death disc as such because he saves his baby from an endless slumber). The following year saw the doom disc genre loom more blatantly with Mark Dinning’s heart-twanging ‘Teen Angel’ “What is it you were looking for when you took your life that night?’ he asks his departed 16-year-old true love plaintively over subtly brushed guitars.
Texan-born LA-based singer Ray Peterson hit big with 1960’s ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, which reached number seven in the Hot 100. Written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, the song concerns a teenage boy called Tommy who’s so desperate to marry his Laura he enters a stock car race in the hope of winning the money to buy her a wedding ring. Sadly, his car turns over and bursts into flames, leaving the dying Tommy to croak the title before he slips away. Declaring it “tasteless”, Decca in London refused to release Peterson’s original, but the song still shot to number one in the UK when it was covered by Ricky Valance.
Death discs now became ultimate rebellion songs as here the parents or establishment had no control over their offspring taking their life. The songs also presented the ultimate manifestation of unrequited love and mirrored the sadness after several pop stars died themselves, including Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. In 1961, the Everly Brothers hit number one in the UK with ‘Ebony Eyes’ (about a young man who loses his beloved in a plane crash).
Not to be outdone, the UK came up with its own splatter platter classic with John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, its eerily ethereal atmosphere (produced by doomed genius Joe Meek) perfectly embellished a song about a young man being haunted by his dead sweetheart. Unsurprisingly, it was banned by the BBC but galloped to number one. More Recently, Dr John Cooper Clarke and The Strangler’s Hugh Cornwell delivered their own take courtesy of their ‘This Time It’s Personal’ album, released this month.
In 1962, Memphis country singer-songwriter Dickey Lee brought suicide into the equation with ‘Patches’, striking on a deeper level as two star-crossed lovers are separated by their parents for being of different social classes. As death discs got more complex and ambitious, Ray Peterson returned with 1963’s ‘Give Us Your Blessing’, which broached death coming out of parents refusing to approve two young lovers’ marriage. Death even invaded California’s idyllic surf genre when Brian Wilson co-wrote ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ in 1964 for Jan and Dean. The tale of an LA street race that went tragically awry reaffirmed the place of cars in death discs.
By 1964, the British beat and R&B uprisings were well under way and sweeping the old-fashioned death disc out of fashion. Some managed to adapt the old genre with a hip new twist, starting with ‘Terry’ by Twinkle who, with her blonde hair and kinky boots, provided an alluring vision that became potentially life-changing when she appeared singing the song on Top Of The Pops. Twinkle wrote her gripping tale of a boyfriend getting killed in a motorcycle crash when she was only 16. Jimmy Page was among the elite session stalwarts who played on the track, which whipped up a storm of outrage and bans but reached number four in December 1964 and now stands as a landmark of the genre.
Twinkle’s hit arrived around the same time as the Shangri-Las, the ultimate girl group and queens of the death disc. Consisting of two sets of two sisters from Queens, New York, the Shangri-Las were an exquisite final blast of unfettered teenage abandon before drug culture, the Vietnam War and civil rights changed America forever. Appearing on Leiber and Stoller’s Red Bird label, they explored themes rarely visited by female singers, including forbidden love, tragic death and teenage angst.
Their broken-hearted melodramas were brought to life by the widescreen soap opera-style productions of George ‘Shadow’ Morton, who plucked the group from playing school dances to acting out any teenage girl‘s pop star fantasies (later to a frightening, ultimately soul-destroying level). Although lead singer Mary Weiss was just 15 when ‘Remember (Walking In The Sand)’ stormed the US top ten in July 1964, by the end of the year the Shangri-Las were toting the black leather, street-wise image that perfectly complimented their first number one, ‘Leader Of The Pack’.
The song saw Morton’s Cecil B. DeMille visions mushroom into a three minute epic masterpiece complete with conversation sections and “That’s when I saw the leader of the pack” punch-line whose impact was heightening by revving motor-bikes from a sound effects disc (contrary to mythology). Despite establishment disapproval and usual bans, the single strafed the world’s charts and inspired novelty answer records such as the Detergents’ ‘Leader of The Laundromat’. The death disc genre was an easy target for parody songs, themselves turned into a fine art by such cringe-inducing outings such as Jimmy Cross’s ‘I Want My Baby Back’ (which he ends still singing from his descending coffin).
Morton continued refining his productions. 1965 saw further teen tragedy with the Shangri-Las’ version of Ray Peterson’s ‘Give Us Your Blessings’, in which the besotted couple plead vainly for their parents’ approval then elope but get killed in a car smash. The storm-lashed death sequence and ghostly thunderclaps ‘n’ fingerclicking finale took Morton’s productions to new levels of morbid melodrama. It was followed in early 1966 by the heart-wrenching ‘I Can Never Go Home Any More’, where Mary tearfully reflects on neglecting then losing her mother and turns the splatter platter into a new kind of agonized teenage soul music. Her piercing cries of “Mama!” still send chills. “We had to turn the lights down in the studio for that one,” she told me a few years ago. “I cried when I was doing it. There were a couple of songs when I did.”
These may have included ‘Long Live Our Love’ (when Johnny doesn’t come marching home from Vietnam) and spine-chilling classic ‘Dressed In Black’. The girls’ last single for Red Bird was June 1966’s haunting ‘Past Present And Future’, their most mysterious outing of all, planting Mary’s angst-ridden confessional over ‘Moonlight Sonata’ orchestral bombast. It’s still the subject of much fan speculation; why does she keep saying “It will never happen again”?
In the world moving on swiftly outside this defiantly teenage phenomenon, the death disc as originally forged would not happen again either, although the counterculture and musical trends went on to approach death in ever more inventive ways. But still nothing beats their savage, slaughtered innocence, particularly on a dark night when the clouds are cracking outside and rain is pouring down the window panes like May Weiss’s tears.
– Kris Needs.
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