Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Rise of--and Hysteria Related to--The 1960s "Death Disc": Guest Post by Eric Huang, Morbid Anatomy Foreign Corespondent

In the following guest post, Morbid Anatomy foreign corespondent Eric Huang reports on the little-remembered phenomenon--and hysteria related to--the 1960s "death disc," or songs in which the love interest dies "due to a lovers’ spat, jealousy, a cruel twist of fate, or suicide."

Just a few well known examples of "death discs"--which spanned such genres as rock, Motown and country and western--are "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las (1965); "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobby Gentry (1967); "Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Petersen (1960); and "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning (1960).

Following is the full and fascinating story, along with videos of ten of the best remembered "death discs." Thanks, Eric, for this excellent report!


In the 1960s, there was a trend in popular music dubbed, ‘death discs’ or ‘splatter platters.’ All were songs about love-lost in which the protagonist – often male and almost always named Johnny or Tommy – dies due to a lovers’ spat, jealousy, a cruel twist of fate, or suicide. The girl in the song is usually the one at fault. It’s her honor that he protects to the death, her infidelity/ambivalence that leads to his demise.

On a recent BBC documentary about songs banned in the UK, historians described how death discs were new outlets for women, finally able to sing about their tormented modern lives. The songs reflected a rejection of 1950s morality by a new generation, but it wasn’t a pretty picture: those who didn’t obey the rules always met with death. Jim Stark, James Dean’s character in ‘Rebel without a Cause’ (1955), is a prime example - as are Romeo and Juliet, who were resurrected in Franco Zeffirelli’s award-winning box office smash in 1968. This sexed-up adaptation of the Shakespearean tale had all the ingredients of an archetypal death disc tragedy: youth, rebellion, passion, death.

The plane and car crashes that ended many teen celebrities’ lives from the 50s onwards were a massive influence on this morbid music trend. Sports cars, motorcycles and high-flying airplanes represented another new way of life, one that was too fast for many. Death discs were about losing lovers in exactly this way: tragically in crashes just before a wedding day or right after a warning to be careful. The death disc hit, ‘Three Stars’, by Tommy Dee was about the very plane crash that killed Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly in 1959.

Death discs spanned genres: from rock and roll to Motown to country and western. But the most popular death disc of all was ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-Las. Singer Mary Weiss laments the tragic story of her hot-blooded biker boyfriend. They were deeply in love, but she bowed to societal pressure to ‘find someone new.’ Moments after breaking up, a fatal crash ends his life. So popular was this song about teenage death, that it toppled the Beatles from the US charts!

The popularity of death discs shocked the establishment. Journalist Alexandra Apolloni describes Seventeen magazine’s condemnation of these morbid songs:
A 1965 editorial made it clear that good Seventeen readers shouldn’t be listening to death discs: “I expect the Johnny Mathis version of ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ to live considerably longer than the Shangri-Las’ gory ditties about motorcycling or hot-rodding death scenes."
Nevertheless, ‘Leader of the Pack’ and numerous songs like it flourished in the 1960s. The music industry cashed in on a never-ending obsession with untimely death, turning young idols like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe – later Jimmy Hendrix, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse - into immortals.

Here is a playlist of ten 1960s death disc faves:

"Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las (1965)

"Condition Red" by The Goodees (1968)

"Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning (1960)

"Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Petersen (1960)

"Patches" by Dickie Lee (1962)

"Johnny Remember Me" by Johnny Leyton (1961)

"Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobby Gentry (1967)

"The Hero" by Bernadette Carroll (1965)

"Ebony Eyes" by The Everly Brothers (1961)

"Car Crash" by The Cadets (1960)

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