“Leader of the Pack” and the Teenage Tragedy Song sensation

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Teenage Tragedy Song Leader of the Pack

Everyone wants to live forever. Few, if any, of us will ever achieve such a thing, but it’s not for lack of trying. We’ll try every new miracle cure, every wellness fad—essential oils, stuffing lord knows what into who-knows-where, generally following the dubious influence of people more attractive than we are. Because if they look like that, then surely there’s something valid to this outlandish claim, we think, overlooking the fact that they’re 20 years younger than we are and born with a silver IV drip.

You can’t outrace death, which is in part where the idea of a church promising eternal paradise comes in—a personal network that’ll help reserve you a seat in the afterlife. If death is a certainty, then people can hardly be faulted for not only holding fast to the idea that something else—something better, even—is still yet to come, but that we can maneuver our way to the right place. In more far-fetched scenarios, there’s also resurrection and reincarnation, but in the event that our bodies eventually break down, and the next plane is a bust, there’s always immortality the old fashioned way: Living a legend that exists well after you’re gone.

Short of being bit by a vampire—jury’s still out on that one—the last way is the most achievable way to immortality, but it’s by no means easy. The shelf-life on a posthumous legend is roughly a generation or two. We typically reserve the plaques and the monuments for those who changed history in some way, and not always necessarily for the best—world leaders, pioneers in groundbreaking fields, explorers, heroes, saints. But even celebrities aren’t immune to fading into history’s unforgiving ether. Shakespeare made it a few centuries and The Beatles probably have a good shot at being remembered in whatever’s left of our world a few hundred years from now. But the rest of us probably won’t be so lucky to have documentaries made about our lives and books written about us. And as much as we try to leave an impression through digital means, the Internet isn’t forever. Take it from someone who’s had to remind himself to download PDF copies of the stories written for websites that no longer exist.

Dying young, however, has an ironic way of making immortality seem strangely closer to achievable. It’s in the morbid glamour of the “27 club”—artists gone before their time, such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, who feel permanently ingrained in our popular culture. In fact, there was once an entire genre of song based around young lovers meeting tragic ends at the end of a fiery speedway. It began with the Cheers’ “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” in 1955, eerily just before the untimely death of James Dean, and continued through the following decade through songs like “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Last Kiss” and, most famously, ’60s girl group The Shangri-Las’ morbid hit “Leader of the Pack.”

“Leader of the Pack” is one of the most popular examples of a “teenage tragedy song,” alternately known as “splatter platters.” They were a bit like murder ballads but produced for a youth demographic, romantic in their depictions of car wrecks and airplane crashes and other manner of grisly demise. Sometimes with a class ring still on their hand, in the case of “Teen Angel,” or given a touch of ghostly effects in “Johnny Remember Me.” And occasionally, like in Jody Reynolds’ “Endless Sleep,” they survive in a last minute twist—though Reynolds’ original version was written with a tragic ending, his label (Demon Records, interestingly enough) thought it too depressing to release as is.

“Leader of the Pack” is also a work of fiction. Written by Brill Building songwriters George “Shadow” Morton, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwhich, supposedly after consuming a bottle of champagne and some cigars. Intended as a follow-up for the group’s prior single “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, it tells a fairly simple story of love between a girl and her ill-fated, motorcycle-straddling misfit suitor—think Arthur Fonzarelli but more of a reckless rider. The song is heavy with the sounds of revving hogs—which the group replicated in their own performances, supposedly by bringing an actual motorcycle backstage—and dripping with teenage naiveté.

The song’s most famous line is arguably its first: “Is she really going out with him?” Borrowed by Joe Jackson and The Damned, it’s become an oft-repeated pop culture reference point, one of the great opening lines in popular music, but here it’s intended as an innocent bit of adolescent gossip that slowly walks us into a familiar story between narrator Betty and her hellraiser boyfriend Jimmy. Girl falls for bad boy (“My folks were always putting him down (down, down)/They said he came from the wrong side of town“), girl breaks it off with bad boy because dad’s being uncool (and pretty classist, it would seem), bad boy speeds off toward his imminent doom (“As he drove away on that rainy night/I begged him to go slow, whether he heard/I’ll never know“). And with a “Look out, look out, look out!”, and a climactic instrumental crash, Jimmy’s story comes to a violent end. Or as Barry in High Fidelity puts it, “The guy fuckin’ beefs it on his motorcycle and dies, right?”

Strange as it might have been for youth audiences to be as enamored with the idea of songs about loved ones getting mangled in wrecks 60 years ago, it’s not exactly a mystery why “Leader of the Pack” became a hit song, reaching as high as number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s catchy! I don’t imagine there are many of us who wouldn’t recognize the title hook—there’s immortality for you!—and it essentially follows the basic rules of a great pop song, in and out in less than three minutes, memorable chorus, simple melody, don’t keep the audience waiting for the hook, and so on. But it’s also a very weird song in some respects. There are a lot of spoken word parts, and the reverb-laden middle section in which Betty says goodbye to the doomed Jimmy feels pretty weird to sandwich into an otherwise upbeat pop song, but then again, it’s a pop song about rowdy teenagers meeting an untimely demise, so I suppose it fits. You can hear its echoes on an album like Bat for Lashes’ The Bride, which uses similar aesthetics in an album that turns the trope upside down by spending most of it working through the aftermath and the grief. And, to a lesser extent, Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life.

“Leader of the Pack” and the many other teenage tragedy songs of the ’60s are connected “Stagger Lee” or “Ode to Billie Joe” in that they essentially descend from a similar folk tradition of grim and tragic narratives told through song. In fact, folk music had something of a resurgence in popular music at the time, which also saw murder ballads like “Tom Dooley,” popularized by The Kingston Trio, made into contemporary favorites. The difference is perhaps in the marketability—the songwriters behind “Leader of the Pack” and “Dead Man’s Curve” saw a listenership that craved this macabre romanticism, likely in part because it echoes the inevitable sense of rebellion that every American teenager will at some point embrace. Sure, Jimmy’s dead, but at least he didn’t have to ride his motorcycle responsibly. Safety is for squares.

But maybe there’s another, more hopeful explanation is the one that goes back to the idea of immortality—that if you go out in a fiery inferno with your engagement ring still on, or you lose control of your speedster so you can win your best girl’s affection, perhaps the tale is just too good not to turn into a song. Sure, eternal youth comes at a cost, but it’s a lot harder to sell a song about growing old and being forgotten.

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  • Great story. I have a particular fascination with the subgenre. There’s a book that came out last year “Rock & Roll Nightmares: Along Comes Scary” which features a funny take on the teenage tragedy song (in a short story by Jeff Strand).

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