22nd January 2020
During the 50s and early 60s a morbid fad took hold in popular music with the event of the teen tragedy song, often termed ‘death discs’ or (my favourite) ‘splatter platters’. Doomed lovers and teen death stories have been popular for hundreds of years with Romeo and Juliet definitely being the most famous, but I doubt the oldest. The obvious rhyming of the words good-bye, cry and die may have something to do with it, but that’s just a guess!
It’s not often I do a mini-feature of songs I don’t particularly like, and I am no great lover of this morbid form of pop, but the (fortunately) brief period when this kind of shock-shlock found popularity is pretty interesting. Although some of the songs are cringe-worthy and melodramatic, they tell the story of the period and in that context (and that context alone), they deserve a listen.
If you were to try and pin a date on the splatter-platter phenomenon it would have to be 1955 (my year of birth) when the hit-machine team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller wrote Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots.
In a stroke of irony the song was recorded by a band named The Cheers, and as fate would have it, the single was released two weeks before James Dean, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, died in a tragic car accident. In a fine example of causation, because of his death, the song shot up the charts and opened the musical floodgates and emotional wallowing that was the era of the teen misery song.
Let’s listen to the song that is said to have started it all before exploring some reasons why this strangely morbid genre caught on. Here’s Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boot, and I warn you now, it’s dreadful!
Nothing quite exemplifies the principle of formula songwriting like the splatter platter. Star-crossed lovers, breaks-up/make-ups, eternal devotion, sudden death, despair, suicide and lost love – it was all there, set against a background of disapproving parents, motorcycles and fast cars. Sometimes, if listeners were lucky, they would have all of these ingredients in one tear-jerker of a song!
Amongst the first splatter platter that I became aware of was Tell Laura I Love Her, that awful saga of the stock car racer who dies in a bid to win the race that would have given him the money to buy a wedding ring for his teen sweetheart.
It was written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, one of the many writing teams in the Brill Building hit machine. In 1960 Singer Ray Peterson took it to #7 on the US Charts, whereas in the UK, Ricky Valance took the turgid tale to the #1 slot. The original song was actually meant to be set at a rodeo, but horse fanatic Jeff Barry was instructed by RCA’s team to change it to a stock car race to keep it more in keeping with their recent No 1, Teen Angel.
In a show of true British decorum of the time, Decca Records decided not to release the original Ray Peterson version as they regarded it “too tasteless and vulgar” and they destroyed the 25,000 copies already pressed. Why local Welshman Ricky Valance’s cover version wasn’t given the same treatment isn’t known, but the BBC also initially banned any version of the song from being given any airtime as they considered it “Bad Taste”, and in true Nanny State fashion, was worried about possible copycat activity. They subsequently lifted the ban and it shot to #1 for 3 weeks.
I was only 5-years-old at the time and can’t remember the song from then. The first time I heard it was in 1965 when Jody Wayne took it to #1 on Springbok Radio Hit Charts in South Africa. I may have only been a precocious 10-years-old at the time, but I had strong views on what I didn’t like, and this was it! To this day I agree with both Decca and the BBC’s opinions about the song, in any form!
Dr Kirsten Zemke, the Australian ethnomusicologist, believes that the splatter platter genre is specific to the period, but has persisted in various forms since. In examining why such songs as Teen Angel, Ebony Eyes and Dead Man’s Curve were so popular, she concludes that the baby boomer cold war period with its focus on patriotism combined with push of consumerism on one hand, and the rising counter-culture beat poets and anti-establishment writers on the other, started to fuel a new rebellion in teens.
It is strange to think of these songs as the ultimate teen rebellion, but as mild as they may seem to us these days, back then the view was that the only way out of parents’ (and/or societal) control and expectations was death. The tragic passing of big names in popular music like Sam Cooke, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens added fire to the popularity of the genre.
I’ve kept the best example of a splatter platter for last. Leader of the Pack was a number one pop hit in 1964 for the girl group The Shangri-Las and credited the writing team of George Morton, Jeff Barry (again) and Ellie Greenwich. There is an apocryphal story that Morton wrote the song using one of his kid’s crayons on a scrap piece of cardboard while sitting in his shower cubicle, drinking champagne and smoking a cigar, but it sounds a bit too showbiz for me!
George Morton was a perfectionist and it took an astounding 62 takes of the song before he was happy. The sound effects were reportedly created by riding a motorcycle through the lobby of a hotel and up to the floor of the recording studio. There were no arrests but a ticket was issued. Again, this is rumour and the probability is that it was just a track from a stock effects record.
As with Tell Laura I Love Her, the BBC refused Leader of the Pack airplay in the UK due to its death theme and the possible incitement and violence between the rival Mods and Rockers gangs. Despite this, the song reached #3 on the BBC-free Singles Charts. It was re-released in 1972 (after the ban had been lifted) and charted again at #7. It went on to chart on hit parades around the world which shows that misery is universal!
I suppose it is fitting that one of the songs from this strange gene made it into Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Leader of the Pack was that song. I’ve chosen the 1964 live clip to close this feature. My favourite part is the rebel leader providing the live sound effects straddling his bike clad in shiny leathers over his crisp white collar and tie, The rebelliousness of it all!
Reach for the Kleenex – here’s the Shangri-Las and Leader of the Pack.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021