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
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
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
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.