The teenager's death song
New CD highlights flipside of young life
By Todd Leopold
"Dead!" features 24 songs about death, teen-oriented and otherwise.
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(CNN) -- Teenagers, of course, are immortal: They can rock 'n' roll all night, party every day, and when school's out for summer, watch out: They're born to be wild.
Until they're not immortal, and they die. Sometimes too soon.
And there's nothing like dying young to make a hit -- particularly in the late '50s and early '60s, when the pop charts were suddenly awash in teen death songs.
The trend appeared to start, innocently enough, with Jody Reynolds and the Storms' 1958 million-seller, "Endless Sleep." Two years later, Ray Peterson's maudlin tale of a race-car driver's demise, "Tell Laura I Love Her," hit the Top 10. It was followed by perhaps the sappiest of them all, Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel":
"That fateful night/The car was stalled/Upon the railroad track/I pulled you out and we were saved/But you went running back ..."
The song came complete with mention of a clutched high-school ring, Dinning's mournful vocals and an acoustic guitar lick that attached itself to your brain. Naturally, it went straight to No. 1.
Then the deluge began.
The Everly Brothers, freshly relocated to Warner Bros. Records, hit the Top 10 with "Ebony Eyes," about a plane crash. Roy Orbison -- his voice, as usual, edged with tragedy -- offered "Leah," his tale of a lost love. (Orbison never says whether Leah has died, but given that he's just had a dream about his own death, one assumes the worst.)
Dickey Lee's "Patches" (no relation to Clarence Carter's song of the same title) drowned. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers hit No. 2 with "Last Kiss," featuring a horrific car accident. Jan and Dean took Sunset Boulevard too fast in 1964's "Dead Man's Curve" -- though, in the song, they were fortunate enough to live to tell the tale (however, a real accident nearly killed Jan Berry two years later).
And then there was the "Leader of the Pack," who speeds off on his motorcycle, gets in a terrible sound-effects-laden accident and leaves the Shangri-Las pining for their tough guy from the wrong side of town.
Perhaps "Leader," with Shadow Morton's over-the-top production, was too much to be taken seriously. Or maybe the trend had just run its course.
Whatever the reason, parodies soon emerged -- the Detergents' "Leader of the Laundromat," Jimmy Cross' sick "I Want My Baby Back" (like the Hoodoo Gurus years later, he wants to dig her up) -- and the teen death song more or less faded away.
(Unfortunately for pop music listeners, adult death songs -- as in "Love Story"-type things -- didn't go away: Witness Bobby Goldsboro's 1968 "Honey," Terry Jacks' 1974 "Seasons in the Sun" and Austin Roberts' 1976 "Rocky," the latter of which was not about the boxer.)
Ace Records has collected 24 of these songs, about teen death and other demises, in "Dead!: The Grim Reaper's Greatest Hits," enough to make even rock 'n' roll aficionados want to put on Up with People.
Eye on Entertainment gets some headphones.
Ace's collection is fairly comprehensive, with some of the songs listed above as well as the Shangri-Las' "Give Us Your Blessings," Twinkle's "Terry" and Jack Kittel's grim "Psycho." (Not included: the Buoys' cannibal tale "Timothy" or the Shangri-Las' blissfully haunting "Past, Present and Future.")
There are certain themes running through these songs. Some echo the Appalachian murder ballad, though turned inside out. Some are about mismatched, "Romeo and Juliet"-type relationships. Many feature car accidents, which makes you wonder what was going on in the car beforehand.
The liner notes to "Dead!" quote Peter Blecha's book "Taboo Tunes," noting that authorities were concerned that death songs -- even novelty hits such as Nervous Norvus' "Transfusion" -- would inspire kids to kill themselves. Their panic led stations to ban certain songs, which -- in the time-honored rock 'n' roll manner -- only made them more popular.
Some of these songs have had a surprisingly long afterlife. "Last Kiss" was notably remade by Pearl Jam; "Leader of the Pack" (not included on "Dead!", but if you don't have a copy, buy a Shangri-Las greatest hits immediately) has been done by Bette Midler, Melissa Etheridge and Twisted Sister.
It all makes for entertaining listening. Just get in a happy mood before you put on the disc.
"Dead!: The Grim Reaper's Greatest Hits" was released in the United Kingdom in mid-March; it's due in the United States by mid-April.
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