The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits: the story of Death Discs

In the UK we called them Death Discs. America was a little squeamish so they were Teenage Tragedy Songs. If you were a happening DJ they were splatter platters, that genre of popular song, often a ballad,  where someone dies.

The late 1950s to the mid 1960s are full of them, a product of the moral panic society felt in the mid Fifties when confronted with outlaw imagery from the movies and this new rock and roll thing. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Elvis swinging pelvis. The phenomenon was juvenile delinquency and the Man was terrified of it. Thankfully for them that new rock and roll music had already become white and safe. It was the ridiculously clean cut and God-fearing Pat Boone who had the big hits with Ain’t That A Shame, Long Tall Sally and Tutti Frutti not Fats Domino or Little Richard. Even Elvis’s pelvis had been tamed, first by the TV censors and the by the Army. So there was a bit of a reaction.

Death discs are not necessarily bad songs but they are deliberately cautionary tales full of the symbols of juvenile delinquency like motorcycle crashes or drag racing accidents, plus suicides and drownings and plane crashes. You will know Tell Laura I Love Her, Ebony Eyes, Johnny Remember Me and possibly the best known and may be the best Leader of the Pack. 

The first successful rock and roll death disc was Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Bootswritten as a spoof by the legendary song-writing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the first hit for them before they wrote some of the greatest songs of the second half of the 20th Century – Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Yakety Yak, Love Potion Number 9, On Broadway and Stand By Me. Christ they’d be among the greatest for Stand By Me alone.

Image result for james dean crash

Black Denim Trousers…, recorded by The Cheers in mid-1955, is the story of a motorcycle rider and his loyal but oft-neglected girlfriend Mary Lou, who pleads with him not to ride one night but because he’s an outlaw, he ignores her and rides to his doom. However, when investigators arrive at the scene of the crash, they find no trace of the motorcycle or rider except for his clothes, the eponymous black denim trousers and motorcycle boots. And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back. I thought you’d all appreciate the sartorial detail

It would have faded into obscurity had it not received an unbelievably tragic bit of promotion two weeks after release. Good news indeed for the Cheers, very bad news for James Dean, who crashed his Porsche Spyder on 30 September 1955 and the great teen idol was dead at 24. To catch the national mood of despair, DJs reached for an appropriate recorded and Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots was it. It reached Number Six on the US chart in October 1955.

It took a couple of years for more death discs to hit the charts. There was a rather bizarre song called Endless Sleep, an American hit for Jody Reynolds (and Marty Wilde’s first hit here) where lovers row so badly that the girlfriend runs into the sea and drowns herself. That was too miserable even for the record companies so Reynolds had to re-write it so that he dives in and rescues her, so I suppose it’s technically not a death disc as no one actually perishes. It is a terrible song though.

In the meantime there were a couple of Western tragedy songs – Marty Robbins’ El Paso which packs quite a story into its 4 minutes, about a cowboy who falls in love with a dancer and kills the man who is bothering her. He goes on the lam but his love is so strong he returns to find her, only to be shot by the posse. He dies in the dancer’s arms. Wow. There was Johnny Preston’s Running Bear, a Native American Romeo and Juliet, where Running Bear, so desperately in love with Little White Dove, alas from a rival tribe and on the other side of a raging river tat to be together they dive into the river, kiss and then drown.

What these songs needed was cars or motorbikes and possibly some really bad lads. Then another bit of good luck, though not for Mssrs Holly, Richardson and Valens who died in a plane crash in February 1959. The first record to cash in was Teen Angel by Mark Dinning, a singer who grew up on a turkey farm in Oklahoma. Bitten by the rock and roll bug, he said goodbye to the turkeys – until his sister wrote Teen Angel after deciding that all young people couldn’t be little devils, some had to be teen angels. How that brought to a mawkish song about a nice young man who takes his best girl out for a drive but alas the car stalls on a railway line just as a train hurtles towards them. He pulls her to safety but then she runs back to the car to get his high school class ring and is killed.

Many stations in America wouldn’t play it but a few in big cities did and it took off from there. It was Number One is February 1960 for 2 weeks and sold 3.5 million copies. Here in the UK it was banned by the BBC, not for being in poor taste but for being awful. The Melody Maker even said it had blood in the grooves in its review. It was barely played by Radio Luxembourg and it only made Number 37 here. Ever quick to cash in, Brill Building songwriters Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh gave us Tell Laura I Love Her. Incidentally Barry too one of the best songwriters of the second half of the last century, mainly with wife Ellie Greenwich who together gave us Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me, Be My Baby, Chapel of Love and River Deep, Mountain High.

Tell Laura I Love Her gives us teenager Tommy, desperately in love with Laura but unable to afford a wedding ring for his best girl so enters a stock car race for the prize money so he can. You can see where this is going: the car crashes, Tommy;’s brown bread but his last words are Tell Laura I love her. In the US it was a huge number 7 hit for Ray Petersen, an otherwise unremarkable singer from Texas, but in the UK the BBC banned it  and his record company Decca didn’t even bother to release it. Step forward EMI, sniffing an opportunity, who had nice Welsh singer David Spencer do a version. Cashing in on the generally grisly theme, what with this being only a year since Buddy Holly’s plane crash, his name was quickly changed to Ricky Valence. It was banned by the BBC but Radio Luxembourg didn’t really care about tasteless and vulgar so they featured it heavily and it went to the top of the charts for 3 weeks in October 1960 and sold a million copies.

Image result for tell laura i love her

Surprisingly even the Everly Brothers, huge hit-makers then and still one of the most influential groups of all time– imagine Simon & Garfunkel, the Hollies and the Beatles without them – were not immune. They had been pallbearers at Buddy Holly’s funeral but that didn’t stop them releasing airplane-based death disc Ebony Eyes, barely a year after Holly’s death. Initially on the b-side of Walk Right Back, the ghoulish record company flipped it after two planes collided over New York City in December 1960,  killing 134 people. With the most grisly promotional boost imaginable, Ebony Eyes reached No.8 on the U.S. charts and Number 1 here in March 1961.

But we didn’t really have the same iconography as the USA, our cars were smaller and much uglier so there are not huge numbers of homegrown death discs till John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me, produced by maverick record producer Joe Meek in his home studio at 304 Holloway Road N7. Literally his home studio, as he had microphones in every room of his flat. The main band were in the studio, the violins were on the stairs, the brass section downstairs and the ethereal backing singer was in the echoey loo on the top floor.

It was sung by actor/singer John Leyton whose manager, Robert Stigwood – at that point not the powerhouse impresario he became later when he managed the Bee Gees – realised that telly could be a huge boost for his client so used his contacts to get Leyton a starring role on top ITV show Harpers West One as pop singer Johnny St Cyr. Not surprisingly he sang his new single on air and 12 million viewers watched it and most of them appear to have bought it. Within 4 weeks it was number one where it remained for four weeks.

A couple of years later, we got Terry by Twinkle, a nice girl from Surbiton called Lynne Ripley, who at 16 was the girlfriend of one of the Batchelors, a rather bland but fantastically successful Irish singing trio, who got her record deal. At least she wrote the song herself and recorded it with the tudio greats of the time and that included Jimmy Page, but overall Terry sounds like a terribly anaemic version of probably the genre’s pseudo-operatic peak with Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las

Leader of the Pack takes things to another level, an operatic level, maybe an  cinematic level. This song is in technicolour where the others are black and white. Everything is a little more vivid, the sound is bigger and then there are the sound effects. Not to say the clichés aren’t piled on. Jimmy is a bad boy with a motorcycle, from the wrong side of the tracks, who her parents – and by the sound of it her friends too – thoroughly disapprove of. Her dad forces them to break up, Jimmy rides off on his bike and crashes.

Image result for shangri las

The Shangri Las’s were real tough girls from Queens, New York – you can hear how strong the accents are in the opening dialogue at the start. They were a quartet, two sets of sisters, the identical twins the Gansers and the Weiss sisters, who when they made their first records, Leader of the Pack and the earlier (Remember) Walking in the Sand? were aged just 15.  However they posed for photos and made public appearances as a trio most of the time because Betty Weiss had had a child in 1964, which have been scandalous even in a death disc. Publicity said it was a bad cold.

The song comes once again from Jeff Barry, his wife Ellie Greenwich and the song’s real architect, producer George Morton, who preferred the more mysterious name of Shadow Morton. He was a Brill Building hustler who had never really written any songs and was probably just interested in Greenwich, until he was challenged him to show some of his work. He didn’t have any but went to the beach to think and came up with (Remember) Walking in the Sand? When that was a Number 5 hit, the label said what ‘s the follow up. He didn’t have one of those either, so he got drunk and took a shower and came up with Leader of the Pack.

It was recorded in July 1964 in NYC and took 62 takes to get it right. The piano player may have been a 15-year-old Billy Joel, he certainly remembers playing on Shangri La’s sessions but because he wasn’t in the musician’s union yet, they may have had a union guy in to do it later. Either way Billy never got paid. Another legend suggests the sound of the sound of the motorcycle was recorded as it was being driven through the lobby of a hotel. Great outlaw story but it was taken from a sound effects record.

It was Number One in the US for one week in November 1964 but was again initially banned by the Beeb but was pushed hard by Radio Luxembourg and the new Pirates stations and it got to Number 11 in the UK. We obviously really liked it here because it was re-released here in 1972 and 1976 and got to 3 and 7 respectively.

The death knell for Death Discs was the British Invasion, when pop culture and in particular the US charts were interested in happy, upbeat, long-haired British guitar groups, not maudlin songs about dead girlfriends and suicides. There are only a few really, maybe Honey by Bobby Goldsboro in 1968, which rode the heartbroken national mood following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy as to get up to Number Two. Or maybe Ode to Billy Joe by Bobby Gentry which might be a little too clever and cheese-less to qualify. It’s more of a spooky mystery song, where we never quite find out why she and Billie Joe McAllister were throwing something off the Tallahachie Bridge and why Billie Joe McAllister then jumped off and kill himself. There really was a  Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi, although since it’s only 20 feet high, death or even injury was unlikely. A fine of $100 however was certain.

The last Dearth Disc to dent the charts might just be the worst. Paul Evans’ Hello, This Is Joanie is  truly awful song from 1978 which seems to epitomise the genre. It updates Endless Sleep with a bit of new technology in the form of the telephone answering machine. The lovers argue, she storms out to drive home and crashes – fatally. He doesn’t realise and keeps calling her answerphone and gets her chirpy answerphone message Hello, this is Joannie, I’m sorry but I’m not home But if you leave me your name and number I promise, soon as I get in I’ll phone. Which of course we all know she won’t do. It got to Number Six here in December 1978. Which seems perhaps an appropriate place to come to a stop. A dead stop perhaps.

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