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Death on Disc

Fashions are like flowers: they change with the climate. That’s why they come and go, flourishing one year, vanishing the year. In the late 1950s the fashion climate in America became right for a strange new genre of music to flourish: the teenage tragedy song.

Perhaps the most famous song in the genre is “Leader of the Pack”, which was a number one hit for the all-girl group The Shangri-Las in 1964. It told of how a teenage girl called Betty falls in love with Jimmy, the leader of a motorcycle gang. Her parents disapprove, demanding that she say goodbye to her unsuitable new boyfriend. She dutifully obeys, tells Jimmy that it’s over, and watches him roar off on his motorcycle. He crashes and dies before her horrified eyes.

The song packs hopeless love, tragic death and roaring motorcycles onto a 7” disc that is only two minutes and forty-nine seconds long. “Leader of the Pack” was melodramatic and easy to treat as a joke, but it appealed to the vast teenage market that had grown up in the English-speaking world after the Second World War. Rock’n’roll and rebellion were fashionable and teenagers wanted to hear music that was full of emotion, drama and conflict.

Bitter-sweet melodies about early death and parental disapproval were perfect. But how do you get death in song about healthy teenagers? There were two main ways: in road accidents and by suicide. Both of these turn up again and again in the teenage tragedy song. Sometimes they seem to come together: unhappiness, frustration and boredom make the hero or heroine of a song reckless and greedy for excitement; they drive too fast; the inevitable happens.

That’s the story behind the song began the genre, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”, which was written by famous song-writing duo Leiber and Stoller. It was released in 1955 just before the death of the young actor James Dean in a car-crash. He was an idol of teenagers across America and they bought the single in tribute to him. Its success proved that the climate was right for melody and melodrama and many more teen tragedies were set on disc in the following ten years. Some are now forgotten, but songs like “Endless Sleep”, “Teen Angel”, “Tell Laura I Love Her”, “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Johnny Remember Me” have become part of popular culture and are still regularly heard.

Most of these songs were American, but “Johnny Remember Me” was a British entry in the genre. It reached number one in the British charts in 1961, but among the thousands of teenagers who heard it must have been four Liverpool lads who would change the musical climate and start new fashions. I’m talking about the Beatles, who burst out of Liverpool with a sunny sound that would conquer America. The so-called British Invasion of the 1960s, when groups from Britain achieved enormous success in America, is said to have ended the fashion for teenage tragedy songs.

The Beatles sang songs about teenagers holding hands, not placing flowers on graves. Times were more optimistic and pop fans wanted sunshine, not gloom. But the teenage tragedy song didn’t die entirely: new ones continued to be written and old ones continued to be played. The rise and fall of the genre tell us important things about culture and about human psychology. We are fascinated by and fearful of death and the emotions that go with it. In a way, you could say that art and music about death are ways of practising for the real thing, readying ourselves for our own inevitable encounters with tragedy and death.