Leader of the pack
In the late 1950s and early 1960s songs about adolescent romances that ended in death featured frequently in the U.S. Top 40. Characterized by a narrative ballad structure, a highly emotive and melodramatic style of delivery, often with sound effects, and, of course, the death of at least one person, they became known as “teen coffin songs” or (because of the often violent death) “splatter patters.”
Teen coffin songs like “Teen Angel” and “Tell Laura I Love Her” may be seen as a kitsch blip in the history of popular music, but it is interesting to examine what messages this genre of songs may have been communicating regarding romance and, more specifically, romance tragedy.
The Shangri-Las released three death songs, “Leader of the Pack” in 1964 and “Give Us Your Blessing” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” in 1965, and became synonymous with the themes of sentimental teen romance and heartbreak earning themselves a reputation as the ‘myrmidons of melodrama.’
“Leader of the Pack” has subsequently become established as an anthemic paean to autonomy and rebellion that has often been covered and parodied. Built around a Romeo and Juliet motif where ‘bad’ biker boyfriend Jimmy dies in a motorbike accident following ‘good’ girl Betty’s rejection of him as a result of parental pressure, this song incorporates many of the dominant recurring themes of teen coffin songs, in both content and production:
My folks were always putting him down
They said he came from the wrong side of town
Whatcha mean when ya say that he came from the wrong side of town?
They told me he was bad
But I knew he was sad
That’s why I fell for THE LEADER OF THE PACK
[Revving of motorbike engine]
The song brings together several genres of pop music of the time. On the one hand, it draws on the conventions of 1950s romance songs in which love is found through chance meetings, termination is due to uncontrollable external forces, and the girl makes the decisions in the relationship. It also nods to the “Drama of Courtship” which is identified as being central to many of the songs of the 1950s, and specifically to the “All Alone” stage those songs so often described, in which lost love is lamented. Lead singer Mary Weiss’ performance is imbued with a suffering reverberation that resonates sincerity and expresses the ‘knowingness’ of the tragedy of lost love, notably in the final assertion “I’ll never forget him, the leader of the pack,” followed by the haunting and mournful repetition of the line “gooooone, gone-gone-gone-gone-gone, gooooone.” That this particular “him” is from the “wrong side of town,” an embodiment of forbidden desire, also marks the song as belonging to the ‘Girl-Talk’ style that emerged at the beginning of the 1960s, which gave girls the opportunity to hear about previously taboo topics of female adolescence and fantasize about new identities, right on the cusp of the 1960s sexual revolution.
At the crossroads of these genres, “Leader of the Pack” exemplifies the cultural premise that individuality is achieved through the experience of a tragic romance. “True” romantic love is not simply a profound and highly emotional experience, but also one which constructs, or reconstructs, the self. Betty’s identity coalesces first around her love for Jimmy, rebel and leader, then around her rejection of him, and then once more around his death, which turns him into a caring, misunderstood heroic boyfriend as it elevates her status from that of a revered and envied rebel classmate to a matured and knowing heroine.
In “Leader of the Pack,” then, romantic transgression turns to tragedy, but the kind of tragedy which ultimately reinforces the triumph of the loving, romantic self. The distinct vocal style of Weiss heightens the histrionics of the narrative and sense of individuality brought about by heartache, drawing from the classic narrative tradition of the tragedy of forbidden love and the history of the melodramatic form as a site for theatrically playing out social tension and disputes. After all, Jimmy cannot challenge Betty’s representation of their relationship, she alone is in a position to remember “all the things we’d been through,” demonstrating that knowledge—and her internalization of Jimmy’s rebellious streak—to her female peers: “In school they all stop and stare. / I can’t hide the tears, but I don’t care.”
Maybe that’s why she fell for the leader of the pack—so that she could set herself apart from it.
Carey, J. T. “Changing Courtship Patterns in the Popular Song,” American Journal of Sociology 74, no. 6 (1969): 720–731.
Denisoff, R. S. “‘Teen Angel’: Resistance, Rebellion and Death — Revisited,” Journal of Popular Culture 16, no. 4 (1983): 116-122.
Gledhill, C. Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. London: BFI, 2002.
Greig, C. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Girl Groups from the 50s On. London: Virago, 1989.
Horton, D. “The Dialogue of Courtship in Popular Songs,” American Journal of Sociology 62, no. 6 (1957): 569-578. Accessed on December 31, 2011.
Plopper, B. L. and Ness, M. E. “Death as Portrayed to Adolescents Through Top 40 Rock and Roll Music,” Adolescence, 28, no. 112 (1993): 793–807.
Luan Lawrenson-Woods is a Cultural Studies postgraduate and co-founder of Liverpool’s largest free independent arts and cultural network, culturepool. She is particularly interested in the link between romance tragedy narratives and identity and will shortly be leaving the UK to pursue her interest at the University of Sydney as part of their Cultural Studies master's program. Find out more about Luan Lawrenson-Woods .