Almost as soon as teenagers were invented, they started dying off in droves—on the pop charts, anyway. Although the word “teen-ager” first appeared in print in the September 1941 issue of Popular Science, the idea of a distinct life phase between childhood and adulthood began forming decades before, driven by a liberating combination of newly enacted child-labor laws, growing enrollment in public high schools, and the invention of the automobile (and its natural outgrowth, modern “dating”). But it was in the cushy sameness of the Eisenhower-era suburbs that teen angst became downright Shakespearean as a morbid pop-music subgenre known as the “teenage tragedy” ballad—or, more colorfully, the “death disc” or “splatter platter”—emerged in the mid-’50s.
Cars played a role in this, too, in songs about drag-racing hunks meeting fiery ends and pretty girls who weren’t so pretty anymore after their boyfriend’s Corvette veered off a cliff late one Saturday night. In fact, the phenomenon was sparked by a heap of twisted metal: James Dean’s death by car crash in September 1955. A few weeks before the accident, rock ’n’ roll vocal group The Cheers released a single called “Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots,” a barbershop-style number about a biker who collides head-on with a semi truck. After the crash, the surface similarities between the song and Dean’s tragically premature demise buoyed “Black Denim Trousers” at No. 6 on the Billboard charts, and a trend was born.
Bridging the square earnestness of Brill Building pop and the war-torn hangover of the late ’60s, teenage tragedy songs share a common ancestor with the country-music staple of the murder ballad. (Death-obsessed “man in black” Johnny Cash recorded enough of these to produce a compilation CD simply titled Murder.) Both draw from the European (and later, Appalachian) folk tradition, whose story-songs about ghastly death frequently involved a moral component. Loosely based on real-life incidents, these ballads urged young women not to get themselves into “trouble,” lest they be cruelly dispatched by a cold-hearted cad who would rather have a murder on his conscience than an illegitimate child.
And although they were updated lyrically for the mid-20th century, teenage tragedy songs served a similar purpose. Equal parts thrilling campfire tale and stern lecture, they allowed teens to vicariously experience the excitement of surfing and drag racing and forbidden love with handsome delinquents while warning them that their defiance would literally kill them. Setting them apart from their country and blues counterparts, teenage tragedy songs rarely featured murder—record labels were trying to appeal to sheltered suburban teens, not hard-drinking ex-cons—and usually found their unfortunate protagonists meeting their maker due to their own negligence. (Suicide was a little more common, especially in country crossover numbers like Bobbie Gentry’s No. 1 hit “Ode To Billie Joe,” where the narrator’s boyfriend kills himself by jumping off of the Tallahatchie Bridge.)
It shouldn’t be too shocking to learn, then, that these songs were almost always written by professional (i.e., adult) songwriters, using teen idols as mouthpieces for their blatantly commercial, ultimately conformist agenda. So while the whole “mortal danger” thing did provide an element of titillation, teen-tragedy songs, especially the ones sung by clean-cut crooners like Pat Boone and the Everly Brothers—both of whom recorded teen-tragedy hits that didn’t make this playlist, because they’re unbearably corny—can come off as, well, more than a little bit uptight. (You can hear some of the lamer examples of the genre here, if you must.)
They were also overwhelmingly sung by white artists, because in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the only face of youthful rebellion that was acceptable in American pop culture, even as a cautionary tale, was a white one. Take The Shangri-Las, whose “Leader Of The Pack” is one of the cornerstones of the subgenre: The Shangri-Las were one of the few all-white girl groups and, not coincidentally, the “bad girls” of the genre. They could get away with wearing leather pants and singing about motorcycle-riding bad boys, while black girl groups adopted nonthreatening “innocent” or “sophisticated” personas in order to counteract the inherent threat of their skin color. (A perfect example of the former is The Dixie Cups of “Chapel Of Love” fame, who often wore white gloves and frilly dresses in promotional photos. The Supremes personified the latter.)
Teen tragedy began to fade from popularity as the folk revival and early rock ’n’ roll were overwhelmed by the British Invasion in the mid-’60s, and once the Vietnam War gave American youth some real life-and-death scenarios to worry about, this odd subgenre didn’t stand a chance. The late ’70s and early ’80s saw something of a revival of teen tragedy among punks and nostalgia-minded rock ’n’ rollers, songs performed with varying degrees of irony depending on who was playing them.
Several decades after that, it’s hard to listen to teenage-tragedy songs as anything other than amusingly dated relics. Deathly serious but high camp, openly rebellious but deeply uncool, it’s not surprising that these songs almost instantly inspired parodies, several of which became staples of Dr. Demento’s musical-oddities radio show a decade and a half later. Peeling back the layers of irony, we’re left with a snapshot of an anxious culture, not quite ready for the revolutionary spirit that would sweep the world a few short years later, but not bound to the seriousness of purpose that had defined the ’30s and ’40s, either. Gaze over the edge of the cliff, and try not to fall off.
1. “A Young Man Is Gone,” The Beach Boys, Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
The Beach Boys’ intentional tribute to James Dean came eight long years after The Cheers’ unintentional one, released in 1963 off of their album Little Deuce Coupe. Like “Black Leather Jacket,” “A Young Man Is Gone” lacks rock ’n’ roll swagger, but The Beach Boys’ beautifully harmonized a cappella track is far more pleasurable to listen to, for one simple reason: These guys were much better singers.
2. “Dead Man’s Curve,” Jan And Dean, Drag City (1964)
“Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan And Dean also features a surf-music group singing about a young man dying in a car crash, although this one is more upbeat (and was a much bigger hit, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100). Co-written by Brian Wilson, promoter Artie Kornfeld, Beach Boys car-song specialist Roger Christian, and William Jan Berry himself, the traditional surf harmonies—plus some canned sound effects—lay out the tragic consequences of a couple of spoiled rich kids racing their Jags through the hills north of Hollywood. (Someone actually took the time to map out the route on Google Maps, should you feel compelled to tempt fate with a tribute joyride.) Berry was nearly killed in a car crash driving around the same area later in the ’60s, outside of a house formerly owned by Roman Polanski. Spooky.
3. “Leader Of The Pack,” The Shangri-Las, Leader Of The Pack (1964)
Here it is: The ultimate teenage-tragedy song, and one of the most melodramatic pop-music performances ever committed to disc. (It’s also a really fun karaoke song.) The Shangri-Las, being prone to theatrical displays of lovelorn tough-girl teen angst in general, had several hits dealing with death. But this was the most successful, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1964 (rather late in the teen-tragedy cycle) and inspiring innumerable covers and pop-culture parodies—one of which, the 1965 novelty song “Leader Of The Laundromat,” sparked a lawsuit from The Shangri-Las’ manager, George “Shadow” Morton. Written by Morton and pop songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, “Leader Of The Pack” is also notable for containing the gloriously dumb lyrical couplet “They told me he was bad / But I knew he was sad.”
4. “Teen Angel,” Mark Dinning, Teen Angel (1959)
“Teen Angel” is a doo-wop–influenced slow-dance number in the vein of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” although this one is more of a last-dance song than a first dance. Released in late 1959, “Teen Angel” knocked another song about dead teenagers—Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear,” whose Native American theme defines “problematic”—from the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. It would end up being his only hit. In the song, Dinning laments his lost sweetheart, who, honestly, was not the brightest. As callous as that sounds, listen to the lyrics: The couple successfully clears the train tracks where their car has stalled, and then Dinning’s best gal runs back into the face of an oncoming train. What was so important, worth sacrificing her precious teenage life? Her boyfriend’s easily replaceable class ring. That’s some anti–drug-ad–level stupidity.
5. “Endless Sleep,” Jody Reynolds, Endless Sleep/Tight Capris (1958)
Originally, the melancholy love object dies at the end of “Endless Sleep,” released in 1958 by rockabilly one-hit wonder Jody Reynolds. (His less-successful follow-up single, “Fire Of Love,” might be more recognizable thanks to covers from MC5 and Gun Club.) But Reynolds had to change the ending in order to convince his label to release the song, so in the last verse the song suddenly shifts from Reynolds’ guilt after his sweetheart commits suicide to him saving her by pulling her from the waves. As little sense as that makes, Reynolds’ raw vocals and the spare arrangement still make for a haunting song.
Speaking of haunting, here’s Roy Orbison, who could make ordering a pizza sound tragic and eerie. “Leah” shares a nautical theme with Jody Reynolds’ hit, but in this song Orbison isn’t saving a girl from the sea, he’s drowning while diving for oysters—not a winking metaphor, even though it sounds like one—for his girlfriend, Leah. Released in 1962, “Leah” is a minor entry in Orbison’s discography that only made it to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. Orbison did perform it for his Black And White Night concert DVD in 2012, though, with an all-star band of superfans that included Bruce Springsteen, who flirted with the genre himself in “Wreck On The Highway” off of 1980’s The River.
This song sounds like it was sung by a preteen choir boy, and the looks of Denton, Texas’ own Ray Peterson don’t do much to dispel that image. Regardless, copies of “Tell Laura I Love Her” were burned in the U.K. in 1960 for being “tasteless,” before a cover by Ricky Valance went on to become a hit there later that year. (It also got a response song, “Tell Tommy I Miss Him,” by country crossover artist Skeeter Davis in 1961.) Like “Teen Angel,” it’s hard to listen to this song without some vigorous head-shaking at the foolishness of the main character, who enters a stock car race in order to raise the money to buy his teenage girlfriend a wedding ring. All she’ll be doing is praying for your soul when your car flips and catches on fire, dummy! Haven’t you heard one of these songs before?
“Death Of An Angel” is an early example of the genre—and one of the few by non-white singers—recorded in 1955 by Donald Woods And The Vel-Aires, a Los Angeles doo-wop group spun off from early R&B outfit The Medallions. With its funereal beat, muted saxophone, and sobbing and screaming in the latter half of the song, “Death Of An Angel” reimagines “I Put A Spell On You” as a eulogy, sending up teen tragedy even as it helped create it. Nearly a decade later, this song was covered by The Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame, who mitigated the mournfulness with their signature choppy guitar sound and garage-rock swagger.
Look out, teens! Not only is the sea full of ghosts, it’s also full of shaaaarks! Listen closely to the lyrics of this one—they’re quite violent and don’t fit the dreamy music at all, although the part where the narrator rips the fin off of the shark that killed his teenage lover is pretty badass. Released in 1961, “The Water Was Red” failed to chart for Cymbal (yep, that was his real name), who ended up having his one hit with “Mr. Bass Man” two years later, in 1963.
Hillbilly cat Wayne Cochran’s version of “Last Kiss” is probably also the least famous. Cochran’s 1961 single failed to make the charts, but J. Frank Wilson And The Cavaliers had a Top 10 hit with “Last Kiss” in 1964, and Pearl Jam’s cover was in heavy rotation on alternative radio in the summer of 1999. But Cochran’s was the original recording, and the song’s simplistic production, rockabilly guitar, and crooned vocals make this one notable. Later in his career, Cochran would develop a flamboyant stage act—itself ripped off from James Brown—from which Elvis purportedly borrowed heavily in his Vegas days. Now he’s a preacher in Florida. His gigantic white pompadour has remained constant through the decades, though.
Not a lot is known about “A Thousand Feet Below,” an obscure track that pops up on garage-rock compilations from time to time. We do know from the 45 that it was released in 1961 by Landa Records, a small label out of Philadelphia that mostly did soul music. (Landa’s best-known artist would be Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes, and even that’s a pretty deep cut.) It’s a catchy tune, equal parts country-western and early rock ’n’ roll, made eerie despite its upbeat tempo by the ghostly wailing of the narrator’s dead love in the background.
Teenage tragedy crossed the pond with John Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me,” a No. 1 hit single in the U.K. in 1961 despite the disapproval of British censors, who were as squeamish about “splatter platters” as they would be about “video nasties” a couple of decades later. Like “A Thousand Feet Below,” this song is marked by its ghostly female backing vocals, and a fast, driving beat contrasts with the spooky—one could even call it “gothic,” with its lyrical references to ghostly voices echoing across the moors—subject matter. Leyton would only have one more Top 10 hit after “Johnny Remember Me,” but that wasn’t a big deal, really; singing was a side career for Leyton, who made his living as an actor on TV dramas and in films like the 1963 classic The Great Escape.
Born into an upper-crust British family, Lynn “Twinkle” Ripley was determined to become a pop star despite her lack of singing talent. Luckily, her sister was a well-connected music writer, and in 1964 the doe-eyed, go-go-boot–clad, swinging 16-year-old blond released her debut single, “Terry,” a practically spoken-word track lamenting the singer’s boyfriend recently killed in a motorcycle crash. Charming in its guilelessness and featuring a young Jimmy Page on session guitar, “Terry” plays like it was written by a teenage girl—and unlike most of the songs on this playlist, it was. Twinkle wrote the song herself when she was 14, inspired by a gang of rockers who surrounded her father’s Rolls-Royce. By the age of 18, Twinkle was retired from the pop scene, and she died in 2015.
As mentioned earlier in discussing their No. 1 hit “Leader Of The Pack,” Queens-born tough gals The Shangri-Las specialized in teen tragedy, which is why they’re the only group to appear more than once on this playlist. “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” the last of The Shangri-Las’ three Top 10 hits, was released quite late in the cycle, peaking at No. 6 on December 11, 1965. After 10 years of headstrong rebels smashing their bikes (or cars, whatever) to bits on a rainy night, by this time the teen-tragedy formula needed a shake-up, and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” delivers just that. Yes, a teenager’s thoughtlessness leads to tragedy. But it’s her mother who pays the price when a young girl runs away from home to be with a guy she doesn’t even like that much anyway. Poor Mom eventually dies of loneliness, and our regretful narrator plaintively cries, “Mama!” as a string orchestra crescendoes to operatic heights behind her and the rest of the group coos a forlorn lullaby.
Girl group The Whyte Boots never actually existed, which is probably for the best because you would not want to mess with them. Written by Lori Burton and Pam Sawyer—one of the few female songwriting duos of the era—as a tribute to “Leader Of The Pack,” Burton and Sawyer ended up singing “Nightmare” themselves when no actual girl groups were interested. Philips Records then hired three teenagers to strike their toughest poses with whips and white leather boots, then sent them out as “The Whyte Boots” to do interviews about a song whose recording they didn’t actually participate in. About a young delinquent who accidentally kills another girl in a fight, “Nightmare” is the aural equivalent of a John Waters movie, evoking tough girls with switchblades hidden in their hairdos and prison-style tattoos of their boyfriends’ initials.
Deemed “The Worst Record Of All Time” by British DJ Kenny Everett in the late ’70s and trumpeted as such on his radio show, “I Want My Baby Back” is sometimes erroneously credited to Harry Nilsson. Nilsson did, in fact, write two novelty songs for Jimmy Cross—one a Herman’s Hermits parody and one about Superman—before hitting it big. But this particular teen spoof had nothing to do with Nilsson, and was co-written by Gil Garfield of teen-tragedy pioneers The Cheers. Cheekily referencing both “Leader Of The Pack” and “Teen Angel,” “I Want My Baby Back” is the heppest novelty song about necrophilia you’ll ever hear. Driven insane by his sweetheart’s fatal dismemberment in a car crash, the narrator digs up her coffin, opens it, and climbs inside—all accompanied by cheap haunted-house sound effects—declaring, “Oh baby, I dig you so much!” Then he sings the chorus one final time, changing the words from “I want my baby back” to “I got my baby back,” with his voice muffled by the coffin lid. Jörg Buttgereit would approve.
Proving that teenage-tragedy songs were ripe for parody from the very beginning, “Transfusion” was released eight years before “I Want My Baby Back,” all the way back in 1956. It was also far more successful, reaching No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s equally weird, demanding that doctors “slip the blood in me, bud,” “shoot the juice to me, Bruce,” and “pour the crimson in me, Jimson” after losing lots of the red stuff in a dramatic highway smash-up. The narrator isn’t explicitly named as a teenager, but his references to himself as a “fast-riding daddy with a real cool head” make it worthy of inclusion. Nervous Norvus was the stage name of Jimmy Drake, who ironically worked as a truck driver before making it big with “Transfusion” at the age of 44. That fame didn’t last, though, and Drake went back to cruising the highways of America for a living before dying of cirrhosis of the liver at 56.
18. “7-11,” Ramones, Pleasant Dreams (1981)
The Ramones always had a bubblegum influence to their sound, but Joey Ramone really wears his Shangri-Las–loving heart on the sleeve of his leather jacket on the straightforward “7-11,” from the group’s post-Spector foray into commercial pop, 1981’s Pleasant Dreams. Produced by 10CC’s Graham Gouldman—who dramatically cleans up the guitars and vocals, losing some of that frenzied Ramones energy in the process—this kitschy number finds Joey in an unusually light mood, sipping milkshakes at the drive-in and listening to The Beach Boys instead of starting fights outside CBGB. That is, until an oncoming car crashes straight into his teenage baby, ending the fun permanently.
19. “Come Back Jonee,” Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
It’s only a vowel away from “Joanie,” but the title character’s name is pronounced “Johnny,” as in the guy haunted by his dead girlfriend in the song we heard earlier. Perhaps obviously—this is Devo—Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale’s take on a dead teenager ballad is less earnest than Joey Ramone’s. It does fit the classic lyrical mold, though, telling the tale of a young musician whose Datsun crashes head-on into a semi, leaving his girlfriend to cry. Musically, “Come Back Jonee” is spastically hummable, one of the standout tracks on the all-around classic Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!. “Come Back Jonee” is also known among Devo fans for its raucous live performances—one of which is captured in the official video, where the band plays in cowboy outfits purchased for them by Neil Young.
20. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got A Gun,” Julie Brown, Goddess In Progress (1984)
Conceived as an absurdly over-the-top parody of teen-tragedy tropes with a Valley Girl twist, Julie Brown’s comedy song “The Homecoming Queen’s Got A Gun” isn’t quite as funny anymore in the post-Columbine era. It was received with delight upon its release in 1984, appearing on Rhino’s mostly earnest Teenage Tragedies compilation LP—which came with an actual tissue sticking out of the back cover—and receiving heavy airplay on Dr. Demento’s radio show. Brown said in a 2000 interview about her short-lived Comedy Central show Strip Mall that she no longer felt comfortable playing “The Homecoming Queen’s Got A Gun” live. But she clearly didn’t think it was in that bad of taste, re-working it into a Sarah Palin parody song called “The Ex-Beauty Queen’s Got A Gun” in 2008.
Note: Some songs featured above were unavailable via Spotify.
Purchasing via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.