From the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties there was one of the most bizarre (and, for that matter, morbid) cycles in popular music. Quite simply, an inordinately large number of songs were released in which the the protagonist's beloved or, almost as often, the protagonist himself or herself died. What was even more odd is that these rather macabre songs were not recorded by artists on the fringes of popular music at the time (such as Goth bands in the Eighties or Emo bands in the Nineties), but by mainstream pop music artists. Artists from The Everly Brothers to Pat Boone recorded such songs. What was even more strange is that a number of them topped the charts, hitting the top ten on the Billboard singles chart. Some of them even occupied the #1 spot. They have been called "teenage tragedy songs (the term Wikipedia uses for them) and more often "death discs". I always called them "teenage death songs".
As anyone familiar with teenage death songs can see, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" contained many of the tropes that would be seen in the later death discs. It featured a protagonist who died in a vehicular accident. It also featured a girlfriend who grieved for him. Indeed, the plot of "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" resembles one of the most famous teenage tragedies of all time, "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las. In many respects, then, it can be argued that writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller virtually invented the genre of teenage death songs. Surprisingly given its morbid subject matter, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" went all the way to #6 on the Billboard singles chart.
In 1956 The Cheers would record another death disc as a follow up to "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots". "Chicken" centred on a game of "chicken" (in which two automobiles are driven towards each other and the individual who swerves first is the "chicken") in which all of the participants died in the crash. Unlike "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots", "Chicken" did not even chart. As a footnote I have to point out that future game show host Bert Convy was a member of The Cheers.
Despite the success of "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots", it would be several years before the rush to record death discs would begin. In fact, it would be a few years before even the first harbingers of the cycle towards teenage death song genre would be released. The first of these precursors was the rockabilly ballad "Endless Sleep" by Jody Reynolds. "Endless Sleep" centred around a young man who went looking for his girlfriend and found her in the ocean in a suicide attempt. Fortunately tragedy was averted when the song's protagonist ran into the water and saved her from drowning. "Endless Sleep" fit the teenage tragedy almost perfectly, down to the anguished boyfriend. Only the happy ending prevented it from belonging entirely to the genre. Regardless, "Endless Sleep" proved to be a hit. It entered the Billboard singles chart in May 1958 and went all the way to #5.
Released as a single in October 1959, "El Paso" proved to be the biggest hit of Marty Robbins' career. The song reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 on 29 December 1959 and would remain there for two weeks. Marty Robbins would write and record two sequels to "El Paso". In 1966 there was "Feleena (From El Paso)", which told the story of Feleena's life, including the events of the original song from her point of view. In 1976 he recorded "El Paso City", in which the song's narrator could be a reincarnation of the protagonist of "El Paso". Neither song repeated the success of "El Paso".
Curiously "El Paso" would be immediately followed in the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 by another precursor to the teenage death songs. Unlike many of the teenage death songs (and "El Paso", for that matter), both of the protagonists of "Running Bear" would die. The plot of "Running Bear" was a variation on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. It centred on two Native Americans, Running Bear and Little White Dove, who are in love even though their tribes are at war. Worse yet, the two were separated by a "raging river". Eventually Running Bear and Little White Dove tried to reach each other by diving into the water and swimming to each other. Unfortunately, the river was too strong for them and they both drowned.
"Running Bear" was written by J. P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, who died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on 3 February 1959 (forever known as The Day the Music Died, as Don McLean called it in the song "American Pie"). It was recorded after J. P. Richardson's death by Johnny Preston and released in August 1959. "Running Bear" entered the Billboard singles chart in October 1959 and hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on 12 January 1960, where it remained for three weeks. The song was later parodied by Ben Colder (the pseudonym used by actor and singer Sheb Wooley for song parodies) as "Running Bare". Unlike the original song, the protagonist of "Running Bare" was a fellow caught in the bathtub by a jealous husband with a gun (hence the title). More serious covers of the song were made by country singer Sonny James, as well as rock bands The Guess Who and Mud.
Both "El Paso" and "Running Bear" had a good deal in common with the later teenage tragedy songs. In both songs the protagonists died. And in both songs the protagonists had unhappy romances. While "El Paso" would differ from the teenage death songs in that its hero died by gunfire, "Running Bear" would not be the last song in which someone drowned. At any rate, the occurrence of two songs in which the protagonists died ("El Paso" and "Running Bear") hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 was a sign of things to come. The same month that "Running Bear" entered the Billboard singles chart saw the release of "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning.
The United States was not the only place where "Teen Angel" was the source of some controversy. In the United Kingdom the song was banned by the BBC for being too morbid. Regardless, the song peaked at #37 on the British singles chart. "Teen Angel" would not be the last teenage death song to be banned by the BBC, as many more would be. In fact, it seemed as if the majority of the teen death discs would run afoul of the BBC for their morbid subject matter.
One would think that radio stations' reluctance to play "Teen Angel" would dissuade other artists from recording similar songs. Apparently the song's success in the wake of radio stations' dislike of the song created an outright rush to record more teenage tragedies instead. What is more, the next teenage death song would not be long in coming."Tell Laura I Love Her" was written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, and performed by Ray Peterson (who had already had a hit with "The Wonder of You"), and released in 1960. The song tells of a young race car driver named Tommy who wants to marry his girlfriend Laura. To get the money to get married he enters a race with the intent of winning the prize money. Unfortunately, he is killed when his car rolls over and bursts into flames (the lyrics do not tell how this happened). His last words were "Tell Laura I Love Her".
A response to "Tell Laura I Love Her" would be recorded by Marilyn Michaels later in 1960. "Tell Tommy I Miss Him" essentially retold he story of the original song from Laura's point of view. Unlike "Tell Laura I Love Her", it would not be a hit.
While "Teen Angel" and "Tell Laura I Love Her" are well remembered, "The Water is Red" by Johnny Cymbal is nearly forgotten. Released in 1960 the narrator of "The Water is Red" told how his girlfriend was swimming when she was attacked by a shark. The narrator swam out and brought her dead body to the shore. As if that was not bizarre enough for a teenage death song, the narrator then grabbed a knife and went back into the water. He then killed the shark. "The Water is Red" did not chart, perhaps because it was just far too strange even for a death disc.
With songs such as "El Paso", "Running Brave", "Teen Angel", and "Tell Laura I Love Her" hitting the charts in late 1959 and much of 1960, it should not be surprising that there were those in the music industry who took notice of the cycle towards morbid songs even as it was beginning. Country and rockabilly performer Bob Luman recorded a novelty song that attacked the genre, even referencing "El Paso" in doing so. "Let's Talk About Livin'" proved to be a popular song, reaching #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #9 on the country chart in 1960. Unfortunately, Mr. Luman's admonition to focus on living and loving instead of crying and dying apparently fell deaf ears. Not only would there be yet more death discs, but the cycle towards them would continue for literally years.
"Ebony Eyes" proved to be a hit for The Everly Brothers, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the United Kingdom the BBC treated "Ebony Eyes" as they did most death discs and banned the song, although they later relented. Much of this may have had to do with the popularity of The Everly Brothers, who were even more popular in the United Kingdom than they were in the United States (they continued to the hit the top twenty of the British singles chart well after their career had stalled in the U.S.). Much of the BBC's lifting of the ban on "Ebony Eyes" may also have had to do with the fact that the song is much tamer and even much more tasteful than most of the teenage death songs. Indeed, it isn't even made explicit that the plane crashed, although we can assume from the lyrics that it did. At any rate, "Ebony Eyes" hit #1 on the British singles chart.
Despite having been recorded by one of the tamest pop singers of the Fifties and Sixties, Pat Boone, "Moody River" was nearly as morbid as "Teen Angel" or "Tell Laura I Love Her". The song tells of a man who went to meet his lover at "the old oak tree" only to find one of her gloves on the ground and a note left for him. The note explained how she had "done him wrong" and as a result could no longer live "with this hurt and this sin". Despite the fact that it dealt with suicide, surprisingly the BBC did not ban "Moody River". Perhaps they felt drowning oneself was more acceptable than death in a car crash.
Although it might have seemed so at the time, not every recorded teenage death song was released as a single. "The Prom" by Del Shannon was an album cut on his album Runaway, released in June 1961. "The Prom" told of a young man who on his way to the senior prom comes upon a crowd gathered around a dying girl in a gown. As it turns out, the girl was the one he loved. She took his hand, gave him her ring, and then died. While the song does not tell what caused her death, the narrator felt anguish that she might not have died had he "picked her up on time".
Despite the fact that the BBC generally banned them, the American teenage death song had made inroads into the United Kingdom. It was then perhaps inevitable that a death disc would originate on British soil. What is more, songwriter Geoff Goddard put an original, if macabre twist on the teenage tragedy. "Johnny Remember Me" was performed by John Leyton and it was released in July 1961. The song centred on a young man haunted by a girl he loved who had died a year ago. What caused her death is never explained. Instead the song concentrates on the narrator's feelings for the girl and how she is haunting him (whether it is an actual ghostly manifestation or all in his mind).
One of the most notorious teenage death songs was recorded in 1961, although it would not be a hit for nearly two years and then it would not be a hit for the original artist. What is more, unlike many of the death discs, it was inspired by an actual car crash. The inspiration for "Last Kiss" was the death of songwriter James Lafayette Tarver's daughter Carol Ann, killed when her car collided with a train in Grand Prairie, Texas in 1960. The song was recorded by Wayne Cochran in the summer of 1961. "Last Kiss" told of a young couple who were on a date when they encounter a car stalled in the road. The boy swerved to avoid hitting the car, only to have the car crash. The boy awakened a short time later and found his girlfriend dying. He held her and the two shared one last kiss before she died.
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' cover of "Last Kiss" was not the last version of the song to chart. In 8 June 1999 Pearl Jam released a cover of the song as a single. Pearl Jam's version peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Money from the single went to help refugees of the Kosovo War.
By 1962 the cycle towards death discs showed signs of slowing. While artists continued to record teenage tragedies, the year produced no hit songs as big as "Ebony Eyes" or "Moody River". In fact, one of the earliest death discs of the year did not even chart. "Chapel Bells Ringing" was recorded by rockabilly legend Gene Summers. The song centred on a young man whose fiancée had died before they could be married. As teenage death songs go, "Chapel Bells Ringing" is rather tame. We are never told how his fiancée died and the song concentrates more on the narrator's grief than the fact his beloved has died.
While "Patches" was Dickey Lee's first hit, "Leah" was another in a string of hits by Roy Orbison. What is more, it wasn't even the A-side of a single. Instead it was the B-side of the single "Working for the Man". Regardless, "Leah" proved to be the more popular of the two songs. While "Working for the Man" peaked at #33 on the Billboard Hot 100, "Leah" peaked at #25. "Leah" centred on a pearl diver who dives each day to collect pearls so he will have money enough to marry his beloved Leah. Unfortunately, one day while diving his leg gets caught and he drowns.
Perhaps no teenage death song of 1962 was as macabre as an obscure song recorded by Johnny Victor entitled "Come to Me, Johnny". The song told the story of Johnny. whose girlfriend Jeannie is killed when they hit a truck because Johnny was driving "fast and wild". Afterwards Johnny found himself haunted by Jeannie, who keeps urging him, "Come to Me, Johnny". Ultimately Johnny decided to kill himself by driving off a mountain so he could join Jeannie in death. "Come to Me, Johnny" did not chart.
Suicide appears to have been a predominant theme of the death discs of 1962. Mark Dinning, who had started the entire cycle towards teenage tragedies with "Teen Angel", even returned to the genre with "The Pickup." In "The Pickup" the narrator tells how he made a date on a dare from a friend, only to find himself falling in love with the girl. Unfortunately, he was worried about what his friends might think and told the girl he did not want to see her again. She then committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. "The Pickup" was the B-side of Mark Dinning's single "All of This For Sally". Regardless, neither song charted.
The only major release that could possibly be counted as part of the genre from 1963 was "A Young Man is Gone" by The Beach Boys, and even then that would be debatable. While "A Young Man is Gone" references death in a car crash, it is because the song is a tribute to the film star James Dean. It appeared on their album Little Deuce Coupe, released on 7 October 1963. The album is historic as one of the earliest rock 'n' roll concept albums, most of the songs dealing with cars.
While the cycle towards teenage death songs came to a screeching halt in 1963, the genre would make a bit of a comeback in late 1964. It was in that year that J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' version of "Last Kiss" was released and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Roy Orbison would also record another death disc, this time perhaps taking inspiration from "Running Brave". "Indian Wedding" was the B-side of "It's Over", released in April 1964. The song concerned a Native American brave named Yellow Hand, who fell in love with and married the maiden White Sand. Unfortunately, following their wedding they rode into the hills to disappear in the snow, never to be seen again.
Here it must be noted that the song is believed to be based on an actual place located along a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, north of UCLA's Drake Stadium. Perhaps its most famous victim was Mel Blanc, who in January 1961 drove head on into another car while on the curve. Mel Blanc was severely injured with two broken legs, a broken pelvis, and head injuries. It was not long after Mel Blanc's accident that the Los Angeles Board of Public Works instituted changes that would make the curve less dangerous. According to an engineer for the city of Los Angeles at the time, there had been 26 accidents on the curve, three in which individuals had lost their lives.
"Dead Man's Curve" proved to be one of Jan and Dean's biggest hits, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1964. The song remained one of the best known of the era, and would be covered by such bands as Blink-182 and The Belljars. Sadly, Jan Berry would later experience a horrific car crash himself. On 12 April 1966 Jan Berry's Corvette ploughed into a parked truck on Whittier Drive in Los Angeles. Sadly, Mr. Berry suffered partial paralysis and brain damage. Jan Berry never completely recovered from the accident, but was eventually able to return to performing.
In the United Kingdom the BBC banned "Leader of the Pack" although the reason for the ban may have been more complicated than that of many other death discs. The year 1964 had seen violence between the Mods and their motorcycle riding adversaries the Rockers on various occasions, including the notorious Battle of Hastings that took place over the Summer Bank Holiday in August. While it seems possible that the BBC banned "Leader of the Pack" on the same grounds as other teenage tragedies (it dealt with death), there are those who believe the BBC may have feared the song would incite violence between Mods and Rockers. Not only did the BBC ban "Leader of the Pack" but the ITV shows Ready, Steady, Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars also refused to let The Shangri-Las perform the song. Regardless of the controversy, "Leader of the Pack" proved to be a hit in the UK, reaching #11 on the British singles chart.
"Leader of the Pack" would be parodied in 1965 with "Leader of the Laundromat" by The Detergents. The song resulted in a plagiarism suit from songwriters George "Shadow" Morton, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich. It would also be parodied by British R&B band The Downliners Sect with "Leader of the Sect" in 1965.
"Terry" was not only banned by the BBC for being tasteless, but by ITV's rock show Ready, Steady, Go as well. Even playwright and novelist Ted Willis, Baron Willis referred to the song as "sick" and "dangerous drivel". Regardless, "Terry' moved up the charts very swiftly, peaking at #4 on the British singles chart in December 1964. The single also hit the Canadian singles chart, where it peaked at #5 in February 1965.
Late 1964 would produce one other teenage death song. "The Hero" by Bernadette Carroll would not reach the Billboard singles chart, although it was a local hit in Miami and elsewhere. The narrator (named Sue) is determined to marry Johnny, the hero of their football team. Unfortunately, Johnny and the team had to play a game in a town thirty miles away. While she sat at home waiting for Johnny to return, Sue received a call from Patty who tells her how the bus "..turned over and everyone was killed". Upon learning this Sue seemed rather unconcerned about the rest of the team, simply lamenting her Johnny. In some ways the song seems like a failed attempt to capture the teen angst and melodrama of The Shangri-Las.
Despite a slight comeback in late 1964, the year 1965 would see the era of the teenage tragedy songs come to an end. Only a few teenage tragedy songs would be produced that year. Of those, it is questionable whether one was a teenage death song, another was a cover song by The Shangri-Las (who would be expected to continue working in the genre), and yet another was an out right parody.
In 1962 Dickie Lee had success with "Patches", a song about double suicide. That having been said, it is debatable whether his song "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)" can be counted among them. The song's narrator told how he met a girl named "Laurie" at a dance and walked her home. Along the way she said that she was cold and so he gave her his sweater. After they kissed "good night" and went inside her house, the narrator remembered his sweater. He knocked on the door and asked her father for "Laurie", only to be informed by her father that Laurie had died a year ago. He later visited her grave, where he found his sweater lying atop it. Given its subject matter, it is debatable whether "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)" is a teenage death song at all. Instead it would appear to be a ghost story of the "Resurrection Mary" or "vanishing hitchhiker" type. Regardless, it provided another hit for Dickey Lee, going to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Shangri-Las returned to the death disc genre with the a cover of Ray Peterson's song "Give Us Your Blessing". While Ray Peterson's original version had performed poorly upon its release in 1963, The Shangri-Las had a moderate hit with it. The Shangri-Las' version of the song peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1965.
There was perhaps no clearer sign that the era of the death disc was coming to an end than the release of a very outrageous parody of the genre, one that played like a cross between "Leader of the Pack" and an Andy Griffith monologue. What is more, it occurred very early in the year. "I Want My Baby Back" was recorded by radio producer Jimmy Cross. In the song the narrator explained how he and his girlfriend were going home after attending a Beatles concert. They were very nearly home when it began to rain and they encountered a stalled car, which the narrator swerved to avoid hitting (much like in the song "Last Kiss"). Unfortunately, the narrator then found his car headed straight for an oncoming motorcycle (according to the lyrics, "...And I knew at last me and my baby were about to meet The Leader of the Pack"). Apparently the narrator's car hit the motorcyclist and in the process both the motorcyclist and his girlfriend were killed. As in nearly every other teenage death song, the narrator then found himself overcome by grief. After months of mourning his girlfriend, the narrator decided he was "...going to have her back one way or another". He then dug up her grave, climbed into her coffin, and closed it behind him. He then proclaimed, "I got my baby back". Much like "Leader of the Pack", "I Want My Baby Back" features realistic sound effects, not simply of the crash, but of the narrator digging up the grave and opening the coffin.
Given the fact that the song veers into necrophilia, it should not be surprising that "I Want My Baby Back" was not a huge hit for Jimmy Cross. Given its subject matter, however, "I Want My Baby Back" actually did respectfully well. It actually reached the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #92 in February 1965. It would be covered by British band The Downliners Sect and included in their EP The Sect Sing Sick Songs (along with their parody of "Leader of the Pack") in 1965. In 1977 "I Want My Baby Back" by Jimmy Cross took the #1 spot on British DJ Kenny Everett's "Bottom 30", earning it the title of "The World's Worst Record". It would also be frequently played by American DJ Dr. Demento on his show. Ultimately, "I Want My Baby Back" may be more famous now than it was in 1965.
It is difficult to pin down a precise year for when the cycle towards teenage death songs ended. As there were no major entries in the genre released in 1963, one could consider it having ended in 1962, with those songs released in 1964 and 1965 being considered mere echoes of the cycle. That having been said, one could consider the cycle towards teenage tragedy songs to have ended in 1965, with the year 1963 a mere lull in the cycle. At any rate, the cycle most certainly ended in 1965. The remainder of the Sixties would see no teenage death songs reach the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100, nor would there ever be another time in pop music when death discs would hit the top of the charts in significant numbers on a regular basis.
"Death Cab for Cutie" was included on The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's first album Gorilla in 1967. It was never released as a single, but would forever be remembered for its performance by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in The Beatles' television special Magical Mystery Tour. In 1967 The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band also performed the song in an episode on the ITV television programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, on which they were regulars. In the Nineties indie pop band Death Cab for Cutie would name themselves after the song.
The following years would only see a very few teenage death songs of any significance. In 1968 girl group The Goodees released "Condition Red". The song owed a good deal to The Shangri-Las' "The Leader of the Pack", with spoken lines and sound effects. Even its plot, in which the narrator's parents disapprove of a young man who ultimately dies in a motorcycle crash, owed a lot to it. Not only was "Condition Red" a bit of an anachronism for 1968, but it was also an atypical song for The Goodees, who tended more to a soul sound than imitations of The Shangri-Las. Regardless, "Condition Red" proved to be their most successful song. It went to #46 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1971 Bloodrock released what might be the most graphic teenage death song of all time, "D.O.A." "D.O.A." centred on a plane crash that took the life of the narrator and his girlfriend. Among other things, it described how "life is flowing out" of his body. The song was banned by many radio stations, but managed to reach #36 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first death disc to reach the American top forty in literally years.
From a modern standpoint it seems incredible for a time from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties that songs about the deaths of teenagers regularly hit the charts. What is more incredible is that most of these songs were not recorded by fringe artists or obscure bands, but by such mainstream artists as Pat Boone, Del Shannon, and Jan and Dean. Using modern recording artists as an example, it would be as if Bruno Mars, Matchbox 20, and Katy Perry recorded songs in which teens die in horrific car crashes. Of course, while the teenage death song appeared to have gained some acceptance among mainstream artists at the time, radio stations would often refuse to play the songs. "Teen Angel", "Tell Laura I Love Her", and "Patches" all found themselves banned on radio stations across the United States. If anything opposition to the death discs was even greater in the United Kingdom, where they were regularly banned by the BBC. Indeed, a few of the teenage death songs, such as The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" and Twinkle's "Terry", would be the source of considerable controversy there.
Indeed, today many of the songs would probably seem shocking to most listeners. Although most people associate the teenage tragedy songs with vehicular deaths (and admittedly that is the most common way people die in the songs), there were all sorts of deaths covered by the songs. Drowning may have been the second most common sort of death in the song, whether intentional or not. Motorcycle crashes, the cause of death in the very first teenage death song ("Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"), were also fairly common in the death discs of the Sixties. Even when the cause of death was a car accident, the way the victims died may have varied: smashed by a train in "Teen Angel"; crashing and burning in a race in "Tell Laura I Love Her"'; careening off "Dead Man's Curve" in the song of the same name; and so on. Not only were the teenage death songs morbid to begin with, but they could be very creative about how their victims died. There can be little wonder that many radio stations of the time refused to play them.
Of course, the question remains as to why from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties so many songs centred on the deaths of young people hit the charts. It seems too simple to regard the cycle as the result of the popularity of "Teen Angel" in 1960. While many of the songs (particularly "Tell Laura I Love Her") probably emerged because of "Teen Angel", it does not explain a cycle that literally lasted for years and included songs that were quite unlike "Teen Angel" beyond dealing with teenagers dying. Given how common automobile accidents are in the songs, it is tempting to see the cycle as a reaction to the death of James Dean in a car crash on 30 September 1955. Not only was James Dean a phenomenally popular actor among teenagers of the era, but his death at the age of 24 may have reminded many teens of their own mortality.
Indeed, James Dean would not be the only iconic figure, then popular with teenagers, who would be killed in an automobile accident in the late Fifties. It was on 17 April 1960 that rock star Eddie Cochran was killed in London when the taxi in which he was riding crashed into a light post. He was only 21 when he died. Not only did Eddie Cochran's death probably have an enormous impact on teenagers of the era, but like James Dean it seems possible that his death at such a young age may have reminded them of their mortality. Indeed, it must be pointed out that the day Mr. Cochran died, the song "Teen Angel" was still in the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100, slowly dropping after having reached the #1 spot in 1960.
Of course, even the deaths of James Dean and Eddie Cochran seem inadequate in explaining how for several years from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties several teenage death songs topped the charts. There have been those over the years who have theorised that underlying the deaths by automobile accidents and drowning in the songs was actually a fear of nuclear annihilation. The Fifties was the height of the Cold War, when an all out nuclear attack from the U.S.S.R. seemed to many Americans to be an eventuality. It was an era when American schools regularly held civil defence drills and many municipalities (and even individuals) had fallout shelters. The fear of an imminent nuclear war manifested itself in films from monster movies such as Them! to post-apocalyptic dramas such as On the Beach. Because of this fear of dying in a nuclear attack, it would not be surprising if teenagers of the era were more aware of their own mortality than at any other time in recent history.
As to why automobiles played such a large role in the teenage death songs of the era, that probably went beyond the deaths of James Dean and Eddie Cochran as well. In the years following World War II more Americans bought cars than at any previous time. It is for that reason that the Fifties saw the emergence of American automobile culture. It was this period of time that saw the rise of drive-in restaurants, drive-in theatres, shopping malls, and other industries that would not have been possible had it not been for the popularity of the car in the United States. Of course, with an increase in car ownership also came an increase in traffic accidents, some of them fatal. The number of automobile accidents grew throughout the Fifties and into the Sixties. Given that the years following World War II saw more teenagers owning cars than ever, it should not be surprising that automobile accidents should number among the most commons types of death among teenagers in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, chances were very good that most teenagers knew at least one person or knew of at least one person who had died in an automobile accident, if not one of their peers then someone older.
While it is difficult to speculate how the cycle towards teenage death songs began, it is much easier to speculate how it ended. Quite simply, within only a few years there had been a glut of such songs created on the market and radio listeners simply lost interest. Indeed, this could explain why the cycle towards teenage death songs appeared to lose steam in 1963, with almost no songs of any significance released in the genre. Between 1960 and 1962 the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100 saw no less than eight songs in which the protagonists died. It would then be surprising if by 1963 many were not tired of the genre. It is notable that the few teenage death songs that were hits in 1964 and 1965 tended be different from those recorded before. "Dead Man's Curve" concentrated more on the fatal race than the protagonist's death and featured no girlfriend to grieve over him. "Leader of the Pack" featured the powerful vocals of Mary Weiss and sound effects such as the revving of a motorcycle. Of course, by 1965 even creativity and originality could not save the teenage death song genre and it generally faded from view.
The demise of the teenage death song was also probably helped along by the arrival of The Beatles in the United States in February 1964. The Beatles and the other British bands that followed in their wake had no interest in recording teenage death songs. While the dominance of British bands on the American charts in the years from 1964 to 1966 is often exaggerated, the bands of the British Invasion would have an enormous impact on American music, enough to change its course forever. The teenage death song would then go out of fashion in favour of other subject matter.
While there has been no time since the late Fifties and early Sixties that the charts were dominated by songs about teenagers' deaths, the teenage death songs would have a lasting impact. The genre would later be parodied by such bands as 10cc (1973's "Johnny Don't Do It") and Jethro Tull (1976's "Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die!"). Many of the songs from the teenage death songs cycle would be covered in later years, including "Teen Angel" (by Canadian band Wednesday in 1974), "Last Kiss" (by Pearl Jam in 1966), "Leader of the Pack" (covered multiple times), and "Terry" (covered by Spell in 1990). Nearly fifty years after the cycle towards teenage death songs ended, its impact is still being felt.
Book Review--Jean Cocteau: A Life
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