Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published October 26th 2021
Depressing songs sung well
This does seem morbid, doesn't it, just looking at the title of this column? Well, the thing is, teenaged death songs were a strange phase music went through a lot in a bizarre six year period from 1959-1964. So many songs about death and dying, usually for love. Yes, death songs existed before and continued afterwards, but for this strange little time, they were everywhere. And so, for Halloween, I thought I'd look at some of my favourites.
So, word of warning, trigger warning – there is talk of death here. A lot. Including self-inflicted. So, please, if that will upset you, click past. This is about the music of the time, sixty years or so ago, not focusing on the actual deaths, but that topic will come up. Please, look after yourself first.
Like I said, these all come from a very specific time period. As such, the music is the music of the time. You are not going to fine hard rock, psychedelia, rap, pop, etc. songs here. This is original rock. Why this time period? James Dean died in 1955, and Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper all died in January 1959, which definitely would have affected the pop culture zeitgeist. The Defiant Ones (1958) was amazingly popular, and it did not have a happy ending. Horror films were also popular, like The Blob (1958), The Fly (1958), etc., and Hammer Horror Films in the UK were starting to really make themselves known around the world. So, maybe it was in the air.
Then it seemed to have gradually faded in the aftermath of the assassination of John F Kennedy at the end of 1963, when suddenly death was way too close to home.
Okay, no, I'm not a sociologist or historian, but that seems to be what strikes me.
Onto the list. One song per artist, I need to like the song, same as always. Now, I was not sure where to go once I had my first five songs, so I used a book called Death Discs by Alan Clayson (1992, Victor Gollanz Ltd.) to help spark my memory. I did stick with songs in my own collection, but the book was a wonderful memory jolt. (Yes, I own it; my book collection is actually a little larger than my music collection.)
'Running Bear' by Johnny Preston (1959)
A Native American version of Romeo And Juliet was what was claimed at the time, about a young couple kept apart by their warring tribes and only coming together in death in the river that separated them.
'Teen Angel' by Mark Dinning (1959)
The car stalls on a railway line, the couple gets out, the girl runs back, the train comes, and is found with her love's high school ring in her dead hand. Yes, it is very maudlin, made worse by the "oooh-ooh" angelic choir, but this is possibly the epitome of this sort of song.
'Tell Laura I Love Her' by Ray Peterson (1959)
A guy enters a car race to make money, but he is inexperienced, there's a crash and he dies, his final thoughts being the song's title. Another overwrought song, made interesting by Peterson's quavering voice.
'Tell Tommy I Miss Him' by Marilyn Michaels (1961)
All right, following on from the previous track comes this one, a response song to it. Response songs were another thing that happened in the 60s. Here, we are apparently with Laura, who is letting the stars know she misses Tommy. Same tune, different words, same depressing sentiment. It is even more maudlin than the song it follows. Each song here ups the ante somehow.
'Ebony Eyes' by The Everly Brothers (1961)
And speaking of upping the ante, in this Everly Brothers track, he is on leave from a war decides to get married, but his girl dies in a plane crash coming to him, so he never even gets to see her. The spoken word section does make it worse. This is the third time this song has come up. I guess it made an impression on me.
'Big Bad John' by Jimmy Dean (1961)
One of the many songs I inherited from my father on 45. John is a miner, there's a mine collapse, he saves everyone by holding up the roof, but then he dies when it all falls on him. He died a hero… but he still died. I listened to this song so much as a kid; maybe my fascination with writing horror started here? There is a response song somewhere as well, telling how they dug him out alive.
'Moody River' by Pat Boone (1961)
Okay, yeah, upping that ante. Here, the singer goes to the place where he and his girl met all the time for a secret tryst, but he finds her glove and a note, all next to the river. All he has is the note. And the river has his girl. And this from Pat Boone.
'Leah' by Roy Orbison (1962)
The song relates a dream the singer has about drowning while collecting pearls for the titular Leah, but we don't know it's a dream until the end when we discover that Leah was the one who died, probably while collecting pearls. And with Orbison's amazing voice, this just tugs at those heartstrings.
'Dead Man's Curve' by Jan And Dean (1964)
A guy is in his fine car, is challenged to race to the Dead Man's Curve of the title, there's a crash, the other driver is killed and the singer is in hospital with a doctor. A warning song about the dangers of street racing, made all the more tragic in 1966 when Jan Berry suffered serious head injuries in a car crash… not far from the actual, real Dead Man's Curve. Yikes.
'Last Kiss' by J. Frank Wilson And The Cavaliers (1964)
I have 3 versions from the 1960s (plus a Pearl Jam version from 1999), but this is the most popular (the original was by Wayne Cochran And The C.C. Riders in 1961, more chirpy than it warranted). In this one, there is a car crash, and the singer holds his girl as she dies.
'Leader Of The Pack' by The Shangri-Las (1964)
My favourite song on this list! Girl loves a biker, parents don't like it, she tells said biker, he drives off and dies in a terrible motorcycle accident. And, of course, there are all the crashing sound effects to go along with it. This is a stunning song, sung so well – it's a short story in song form.
'Terry' by Twinkle (1964)
This is almost a more anodyne version of the Shangri-Las classic, except the reason Terry the biker rode off was because of the girl's infidelity, making her blame herself even more for his death. Yeah, upping that ante again. Twinkle's voice is a little twee, I think, but the song is still not too bad.
Okay, that's twelve songs, but that's not right. To make a Halloweeny 13, here's a song from ten years later, showing that the death song didn't, well, die…
'Seasons In The Sun' by Terry Jacks (1974)
It sounds so cheery and poppy, a guy saying goodbye to his loved ones as he lies there dying in his bed. Yeah, the maudlin appeal never really disappeared, but the music that goes along with this song makes it feel somehow worse. "We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…" Sun! Fun! Yay?
So, for Halloween, here's your list of songs to make that Halloween party feel just the right amount of dread-filled. Like I said, I'm not sure why those 6 years should produce so much death music, but it did, and for "older" people (like myself, though I was born long after these were recorded) this could make for an interesting Halloween party soundtrack.
While I have said in the past that I am not a fan of Halloween in Australia, nor the way it has been turned into a commercial institution, if you're going to do it, do it right.
With these songs.