You would think that in 1950s Americana, teenagers were a happy lot. They had drive-in movie theaters, rock and roll, their dad's Oldsmobile, and Clearasil. Yet the post-WWII era was responsible for launching a music genre that persisted for several decades: the teenage tragedy theme. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, young characters in songs met untimely deaths through car and motorcycle crashes, drownings and even suicide--and these songs routinely topped the U.S. music charts.
The question is why were these songs so popular? Teenagers sure weren't dreaming them up--it was the songwriters and record companies. Why did so many hits kill off the subjects of the songs? Who knows...but at least we can trace the beginning of this macabre trend to one event in pop culture history.
|Image via The Song Blog|
"Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" might have faded into pop music obscurity if it weren't for the timing of its release. It climbed to number six on the U.S. charts. (Alas, The Cheers were not so cheerful, it seems: their follow-up teen tragedy song was "Chicken", which is about a disastrous hot rod race; it sounds almost exactly the same as "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots.") After its popularity came the funeral march of teen tragedy hits for songwriters and singers.
There was "Endless Sleep" (1958) by Jody Reynolds, "Teen Angel" (1959) by Mark Dinning, "Tell Laura I Love Her" (1960) by Ray Peterson, "Ebony Eyes" (1961) by The Everly Brothers, "Last Kiss" (1962) by Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, "Moody River" (1961) by Pat Boone and "Dead Man's Curve" (1964) by Jan and Dean, just to name a few.
One of my favorites from this period is Johnny Preston's "Running Bear" (1959) which I first heard when it was featured in the 1989 movie Scandal. Perhaps the "uga uga" chanting is a bit politically incorrect by today's standards but it's classified under the genre (due to its Romeo and Juliet theme) and I love its saxophone and rockabilly sound:
Ironically, "Running Bear" was written by J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") who died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens--another event which could be attributed to the genre, along with teenage car culture and the rise of the Motor City, Detroit.
The radio waves got a little more cheerful when Beatlemania swept the world. But then a girl group named The Shangri-Las scored perhaps the biggest and most well-known teen tragedy song of all, the 1964 hit "Leader of the Pack." With its ominous opening piano strikes and motorcycle sound effects, it tells the tale of a girl whose rebel boyfriend dies in a motorcycle crash after her father tells her she must break up with him. It was banned for a while in the UK and became a hit there after the ban was lifted. The Shangri-Las seemed to be the queens of songs that dealt with teenage heartbreak at the time; their earlier hit of 1964 was "(Remember) Walking in the Sand" and in 1965 they topped the U.S. charts again with a somber song about a girl who runs away from home to be with a boy, causing her mother to die from loneliness called "I Can Never Go Home Anymore."
Here's The Shangri-Las performing "Leader of the Pack" on the TV show "I've Got a Secret"--with Robert Goulet providing comic relief:
The hits continued throughout the 1960s with songs such as "A Young Girl" (1966) by Noel Harrison, "Green, Green Grass of Home" (1966) by Tom Jones, and "Ode to Billie Joe" (1967) by Bobbie Gentry. The 1974 hit "Billy Don't Be a Hero" by Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods is mistakingly thought to be inspired by the Vietnam War, but is really about a Civil War soldier.
I also think that Skeeter Davis' hit "The End of the World" should be lumped into this category as well--even though there's no direct mention of suicide in the song, it seems to me the main character's point of view is that she can't go on living after a breakup. Sylvia Dee, one of the song's writers, drew inspiration for it after her father's death.
Probably the best thing to come out of the teen tragedy genre were the parodies. Even Lucille Ball got in on the act. While preparing for a 1965 episode of The Lucy Show called "Lucy in the Music World" she was advised that "Today's youth aren't happy unless they're miserable." She sings a song with Mel Torme in the special called "The Surfboard Came Back By Itself" about a surfer who's eaten by a shark--thus taking a playful swipe at two music genres of the time at once. (As an aside, I believe Ball was in her 50s in this clip yet looks like she's 22!)
In the 80s, I distinctly remember the Julie Brown parody "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun"--a song written years before school shootings became tragic recurring events (I think it's safe to say such a song could never be released today, even though I admit my friends and I found it funny at the time.)
But the best parody, in my opinion, was the one recorded by Jimmy Cross in 1965 called "I Want My Baby Back." This sick, twisted song became a staple on the Dr. Demento radio show and was voted the World's Worst Record in the UK, but that's only if you take it literally. Cross "sings" (or rather, speaks most of the song) in an accent reminiscent of Gomer Pyle, from the point of view of a distraught necrophiliac boyfriend whose lover was killed by the Leader of the Pack himself, leaving her dismembered body all over the place ("over there was my baby...and over there was my baby...and way over there was my baby.") By the end of the song, the singer decides that he simply can't live without his girl, and digs up her grave and crawls inside the casket (accompanied by a creaking special effect that seems to go on forever.)
Fortunately, it does seem like the teen tragedy theme has died down (no pun intended) in recent years--but then again, I don't generally listen to the usual pop and hip hop stations, so I'm blissfully out of the loop. Would anything they could dream up today anyway have quite the same impact as these songs did?