Transcript 114–Leader of the Pack

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I’m simultaneously in and out of my comfort zone.

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Do I have some trivia for ye today? I sure do. What’s more, this one may be kind of easy for you, but here goes: What musician whose career took off in the 1970s has a doctorate in Astrophysics?

I’ll have that answer to that question, and the story behind it, near the end of the show.

Today we’re looking at “Leader of the Pack,” the 1964 song by the Shangri-Las that’s often held up as one of the best of the Splatter Platters, those Teenage Tragedy Songs of the late 50s and early 60s, but it was also one of the last of that genre, more likely a victim of the British Invasion than of any boredom with the format.

[BLACK DENIM TROUSERS AND MOTORCYCLE BOOTS]

So let’s talk about those for a minute. There’s almost no doubt that the genre really took off with this song…

Leiber & Stoller’s “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” was released in 1955, only a week before actor James Dean was killed in an automobile accident. Quite by coincidence, the song struck a chord in our nation’s youth and the song, recorded by The Cheers, began climbing the charts immediately afterwards, peaking at Number Six on the Billboard chart and becoming Leiber and Stoller’s first top ten hit. And the weird thing is, if you listen to the entire song, it strikes me that they were probably playing it for comedy.

It wasn’t long before some specific tropes emerged: eternal love, reckless youngsters, despairing over a lost love, disapproving peers or adults, and of course motor vehicles. And while it wasn’t strictly necessary, oftentimes you got a smattering of sound effects just to round out the entire experience. And that’s all I’m going to say about it right now because it feels like I can do an entire show on the Teen Death Splatter Platter phenomenon, so I need to save some of what I’ve got, here.

[WALKING IN THE SAND]

In the summer of 1964, the Shangri-Las had a huge hit with “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, and they needed a follow-up song. George “Shadow” Morton had only written the one song, largely as a means of calling Leiber and Stoller’s bluff about being able to write songs at all, so he was a little taken aback when he was asked, “Hey, what do you want to do about the second record?”

And once again, here’s where the stories diverge a little bit. The problem is, I couldn’t find all the details involved. However, the writing credits on this song would be Shadow Morton along with the songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Morton’s version of this is that he pretty much wrote the song by himself, telling a story about drinking a bottle of champagne and writing it on a shirt cardboard with his kid’s crayons, and that Barry and Greenwich were added to the writing credit for “business reasons”. Greenwich has publicly disputed this, but I wasn’t able to find any hard sources on this. However, I will say this: while neither Barry nor Greenwich were known for writing or producing Splatter Platter songs, their work in the Brill Building meant that they knew Lieber and Stoller, and were more familiar with the structure of those songs. So, if I had to guess—and this is absolutely a guess—I’d be willing to bet that Morton came up with the basic storyline, and Barry and Greenwich hammered it into the framework and made it into the iconic song it became.

[LEADER OF THE PACK]

Anyway: Morton wanted the song to be recorded by another group known as the Goodies, who were also sometimes known as the Bunnies. But the folks at Red Bird Records gave that a big No Thank You. So when the call came for a follow-up song to “Walkin’ in the Sand,” he had to offer up “Leader of the Pack.” But there was some pushback from the label about the song itself. They thought it wouldn’t get airplay. So Morton recorded it himself on the Q.T., thinking that if he laid down the tracks the way he’d planned it, Red Bird couldn’t refuse to release it.

The song was reportedly recorded in two different places. The instrumental portion of the record was laid down at the Ultrasonic Recording Studios in Hempstead on Long Island in July of 1964. Now, here’s an interesting story: In an interview with Uncut magazine in 1998, and again with Howard Stern in November of 2016, Billy Joel said that he played piano on some of the demos for the song. He says what he played was note-for-note what you hear on the record, but at the time he was about fifteen years old and not in the musician’s union, so chances are his work didn’t make it to the final recording. He says it was his first recording session. What’s more likely is that the playing that appears on the record was by Mike Rossi, who was a staff musician at Ultrasound. In fact, Rossi said in his autobiography that there were 63 takes recorded before Shadow Morton was happy with what he had, largely because there weren’t any written charts, so the musicians kept making mistakes. Rossi said that he was personally responsible for screwing up Take 62. I should also note that musician Tony Visconti claimed in his 2007 autobiography that he was the piano player, but there’s pretty much nothing to support that claim.

At any rate, a few days later Morton brought in the Shangri-Las to Mirasound Studio in Manhattan, which at that time was on the second floor of a hotel. I took the time to look it up and Mirasound moved north about ten blocks a few years later, and the hotel has since been torn down and replaced—twice. Morton had the girls record their vocals over the finished instrumentals. And once again, the stories vary as to how the motorcycle sounds were achieved. One of the more persistent stories is that Morton got a motorcycle, which he drove through the lobby and up to the second floor where the studio was, and of course the hotel management was none too pleased with that, so the police were called. And when the police arrived, they issued a ticket and said “Do your session and then get that motorcycle out of here, we don’t care how but don’t drive it through the lobby again.” A second version of the story is that Jeff Barry’s engineer supplied the motorcycle but they just ran a long cable down to the street and recorded it that way. And then you have Mary Weiss, the lead singer for the Shangri-Las, who said in an interview a few years ago that it was just a sound-effects record. Again, I don’t know for sure. What I DO know is that the motorcycle revving noise we hear each time is the same sound, which suggests that it was already recorded by the time the Shangri-Las got there, so Weiss may not have known a real bike was used. The story about driving the bike through the lobby is ridiculous, but it also makes the most sense because its sound is crystal-clear and doesn’t have any other background noise like you’d get with a microphone on 47th Street. And the bike crash was, of course, a sound effects record.

The master was taken to Red Bird and it turned out that both Morton and the label were correct: Red Bird scheduled a release, and some stations refused to play it, including the BBC, partly because of the whole “mods and rockers” subculture controversy—they thought it would incite violence between the two groups—and parly, it’s believed, because it was a Splatter Platter. It didn’t much matter, though, because the record took off in both countries, making it to Number One in the US and Number 11 in the UK despite the lack of airplay. Not only that, it charted twice more in the UK, reaching Number 3 in 1972, when it was reissued after the ban, and again in 1976 when it was released on two different nostalgia labels and the figures were combined to calculate its chart position. It was also a Number One record in Australia and New Zealand on that initial release, and Number Three in Canada.

Now, I’m going to offer up one more theory I had about the success of this particular Splatter Platter. It’s something that came to me during the week, and while I was doing my research for this episode I found a 2014 article in Rebeat Magazine that offered up the same theory, so at least I know someone agrees with me on this one. The song has a bit of a back-and-forth conversational tone, with the girl Betty telling her friends about the tragic story, which makes it kind of a play set to music. But the other thing is that Mary Weiss was fifteen years old when the song was recorded. Now, a lot of the other Splatter Platter singers were young as well, but they’d put a little polish on their singing to make them sound more mature. Weiss and company, however, never sound like anything other than adolescents, and I think that helps sell the whole thing. The Rebeat article, which unfortunately doesn’t have a byline, also notes that the singers switching from impassioned cries like “I felt so helpless, what could I do?” to solemn recitations like “Leader of the pack, now he’s gone” is also reflective of the way teenage girls can quickly switch gears tonally.

Oh…kay. Cover versions. You bet there were some covers, including by Better Midler. I’m not going to play that one here because you have to hear the whole thing to understand that it’s a little weird. Hilary and Haylie Duff sang the song as members of the Shangri-Las on theTV  show American Dreams. The Carpenters made it part of their act for a few years, so it appears on their Live in Japan album. There’s a version by Alvin and the Chipmunks,

[TWISTED SISTER]

and then there’s this version…

…This is a 1985 cover by Twisted Sister, which you can tell does a gender flip on the song, told from the Bad Boy’s standpoint, but it’s the girlfriend getting in the accident. For what it’s worth, in the video she doesn’t die. It was released as the first single on their album Come Out and Play, and made it to Number 53 on the Billboard Hot 100.

And finally: I’ve actually spoken about this, way back in Episode 33. Singer Ron Dante put together a group called The Detergents, and they created a parody version of the song:

[LEADER OF THE LAUNDROMAT]

That’s not Dante singing lead, rather it’s Danny Jordan, and I imagine it’s not a coincidence that he’s the nephew of Paul Vance, one of the co-writers and producers of the song. This song made it to Number 19 on the Billboard chart and led to the Detergents getting sued by Barry, Greenwich and Morton for copyright infringement. That suit was settled out of court.

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked out about the musician who first gained popularity in the 1970s, who has a doctorate in Astrophysics?

Well, back in the early 1970s our guy was studying for his degree and playing with a band called Smile. The band was getting a lot of gigs, until finally he had to choose between school and music. This guitarist chose music, and the band’s lead singer suggested that Smile change its name…to Queen. Likewise, that lead singer chose to change his stage name around the same time, to Freddie Mercury. Queen went out on tour, and Brian May’s studies were sidetracked for about thirty-five years while he worked with one of the biggest bands in the world.

[STONE COLD CRAZY clip]

However, he did re-register at Imperial College to finish his doctorate work in 2006 and finally managed to graduate with his doctorate in Astrophysics in the spring of 2008. And the wild part is that because the research he’d been doing for the doctorate was so sparse during that 35-year interim, the science attached to it hadn’t advanced much, so he was pretty much able to just pick up where he’d left off.

Now, while May left his studies behind, he did note that his training as a physicist helped him from time to time with his music career. And one of the best examples would be this:

[WE WILL ROCK YOU clip]

This isn’t a crowd of people, nor is it an effect. It’s literally just the four members of Queen stomping and clapping in a recording studio. But May was able to mathematically calculate what it would take to make it sound like hundreds of people without creating lots of unwanted echoes at the same time.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we get a taste of Cold Turkey.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.