Splatter Platters – Top Ten Teen Tragedy Death Discs

Weird Musical History #6

One of the strangest sub-genres of pop music and one that I have a macabre affection for is the death disc – songs of teenage tragedy – that rode high in the charts of the early 1960s. These splatter platters told tragic stories of teenagers and their loved ones meeting sticky ends and wallowed in morbid sentimentality. They were often considered in poor taste and frequently banned, which made them all the more alluring.

The golden age of death discs ran from 1960 until 1965 when they were killed off by Beatlemania, the beat boom and the British Invasion. The songs invariably told a story with a tragic ending, often involving car and motorbike crashes, suicide, star crossed lovers and the morbid survivor haunted by the traumatic tragedy.

The music was varied, but was mostly early 60s style teen pop ballads, though some had elements of beat, country and surf music. Many had a spoken word element, which only adds to their morbid charm, as does the frequent addition of catastrophic sound effects like screeching tyres, revving motorbike engines and explosions.

Here are my top 10 death discs of the early 1960s.

Top 10 Death Discs

10: ‘Ebony Eyes’ – The Everly Brothers (1961)

The sweet harmonies of Don and Phil grace this story of a young man waiting for his fiancée’s mysteriously delayed flight to arrive so that they can be married. In the song’s spoken interlude, Don informs us of an ominous announcement asking those with friends and relatives on flight 1203 to report to the chapel at once…

The song ends in typically schmaltzy manner:

If I ever get, to heaven I’ll bet
The first angel I’ll recognize
She’ll smile at me and I know she will be
My beautiful Ebony Eyes

In the UK this was a double A side with ‘Walk Right Back’ and made it to number one in the charts, despite a short-lived BBC ban due to the upsetting nature of the song.

Supposedly, the Everly Brothers were reluctant to play ‘Ebony Eyes’ live as they were frequent fliers and felt it might be tempting fate…

The Everly Brothers – avoiding Flight 1203

9: ‘Patches’ – Dickey Lee (1962)

This US only hit was also banned by some radio stations because of its teen suicide theme. Patches is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, which is why the singer’s parents forbid him from seeing her. Poor Patches, on being ghosted like this, promptly drowns herself and is found ‘floating face down in that dirty old river’.

In a morbid twist, the song ends with the singer planning his own suicide so he can be with his Patches:

It may not be right but I’ll join you tonight
Patches I’m coming to you

8. ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ – Jan and Dean (1963)

Surf duo Jan and Dean had a top 10 hit with this song about dangerous driving (a common trope in teen death discs), co-written by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

The singer is challenged to a drag race through Hollywood to Dead Man’s Curve (supposedly a real place, though opinions seem to differ about where exactly it is).

In the spoken interlude, the singer tells the doctor how it all went horribly wrong:

Well, the last thing I remember, Doc, I started to swerve
And then I saw the Jag slide into the curve
I know I’ll never forget that horrible sight
I guess I found out for myself that everyone was right
Won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve!

Beach Boys style harmonies and car crash sound effects complete this death disc classic, but it gains added poignancy due to a horrible real-life irony.

One half of the duo, Jan Berry, crashed his own car near the supposed location of Dead Man’s Curve in 1966, almost losing his life and sustaining serious injuries.

Jan and Dean

7. ‘I Can Never Go Home Anymore’ – The Shangri-Las (1965)

The Shangri-Las were the queens of teen tragedy and their melodramatic widescreen productions and heartfelt delivery make them irresistible. Although the girl group consisted of four members, two of them were twins and were rarely photographed together. Unlike the other coy girl groups of the time, the Shangri-Las exuded a tough girl attitude, with hints of damaged vulnerability as well as experience.

I love them – so they get three entries in my top ten.

The song is mostly spoken word and the narrator, like a teenage Ancient Mariner, grabs the listener with her feverish narration of what happens when a girl runs away from home after her mum bans her from seeing a boy. It’s easy to sneer at the sentimentality and the earnestness, but when the haunting lullaby section kicks in, it sends shivers down the spine.

The poor old bad girl’s mum eventually dies of a broken heart, and the teenage girl is haunted by guilt:

She grew so lonely and in the end
Angels picked her for a friend
And I can never go home anymore

6. ‘Teen Angel’ – Mark Dinning (1959)

This early example of the genre was banned by the BBC and several US radio stations, but eventually hit the American top spot in 1960. The first two lines are one of my favourite opening couplets:

That fateful night the car was stalled upon the railroad track
I pulled you out and we were safe, but you went running back

So why did the singer’s girl rush back to the car that was stalled on the railway lines after just being rescued? Well, the singer tells us that when they pulled her body from the wreck ‘they say they found my high school ring clutched in your fingers tight’.

Returning to a car stuck on a train track just to get a ring suggests the Teen Angel was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so she wins the prize for the dumbest of the deaths in this list.

The final verse laments:

Just sweet sixteen, and now you’re gone
They’ve taken you away
I’ll never kiss your lips again
They buried you today

5. ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ – Ricky Valence (1960)

This classic tells the story of how young Tommy enters a stock car race hoping to win the prize money so he can buy a wedding ring for his beloved Laura.

Of course, it all goes horribly wrong:

No one knows what happened that day
How his car overturned in flames
But as they pulled him from the twisted wreck
With his dying breath, they heard him say

Tell Laura I love her

And poor Laura is left crying in the chapel with Tommy’s dying words ringing in her ears.

Ricky Valence became the first Welsh man to hit the top of the UK charts, despite the customary BBC ban. The song is actually a cover of RayPeterson’s original American hit of the same year, though Decca refused to release it in the UK, considering it in bad taste.

4. ‘Johnny Remember Me’ – John Leyton (1961)

This moody slice of haunted pop hit number one in the UK and was produced by the troubled eccentric genius Joe Meek. It’s ghostly backing vocals, eerie echo laden vibe and galloping drums earn it a place in my top ten.

It tells the story of a young man who’s haunted by the ghost of his love, whose voice he hears ‘singing in the sighing of the wind’.

The song’s atmospheric opening lines run:

When the mist’s a-rising and the rain is falling
And the wind is blowing cold across the moor
I hear the voice of my darlin’
The girl I loved and lost a year ago

The last line was originally ‘The girl I loved who died a year ago’, though the change didn’t stop the killjoys at the BBC from banning it.

John Leyton was actually an actor in a medical soap opera called Harper’s West One, and when the song was featured in the show it became a huge hit. It became a hit again when Bronski Beat and Marc Almond covered it in 1985.

The strange story of Joe Meek deserves its own blog article – stay tuned.

3. ‘The Leader of the Pack’ – The Shangri-Las (1964)

The spoken word introduction (‘Is she really going out with him?’), the screeching tyres and violent car crash sound effects and the cinematic production style makes this one of the most iconic of the teen tragedy hits.

Betty and Jimmy are the star-crossed lovers, but when Betty’s folks make her dump him because he comes from the wrong side of town, Jimmy drives off into the rainy night on his motorbike. Betty begs him to go slow and…. Well, you get the picture.

The Shangri-Las take the teen tragedy to new levels. Their backing vocals remind me of the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, interjecting, discussing and commenting on the action. It nearly made it to the top of my list, and so have you dear reader…

The Shangri-Las – Queens of Teen Tragedy

2. ‘I Want my Baby Back’ – Jimmy Cross (1965)

If you’re only going to have one minor hit, then THIS is how to do. This pastiche of the genre is in spectacularly bad taste and had to be near the top.

The spoken word verse tells the story of a young man taking his girl home from a Beatles concert on the back of his motorbike when he crashes straight into the Leader of the Pack:

Well when I come to I looked around
And there was the Leader
And there was the Pack
And over there was my baby
And over THERE was my baby
And waaaaay over there was my baby

As the months pass, the singer longs for his baby back one way or another and so heads to the graveyard. Cue digging sound effects and creaking coffin lids….

In 1977, radio DJ Kenny Everett had a public vote and this glorious piece of bad taste was named the Worst Record in the World.

1. ‘Give us Your Blessings’ – The Shangri-Las (1965)

Not as well-known as the ‘Leader of the Pack’ but just as brilliant, the Shangri-Las claim the top spot on my list.

Mary and Jimmy (presumably not the Leader of the Pack Jimmy) are lovers – but elope to get married as their parents refuse to give their blessings. As they drive away, they cry so much that they miss the detour sign and die in a horrific crash:

The next day, when they found them
Mary and Jimmy were dead
And as their folks knelt beside them in the rain
They couldn’t help but hear
The last words that Mary and Jimmy had said

Give us your blessings

Please don’t make us run away…

Earnest spoken interludes, booming thunder effects and the ominous doom laden clanging of church bells and the Shangri-Las’ desperate harmonies – all you could ask from a classic 60s splatter platter. Dead good.

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

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