Saturday, 29 October 2011

An appreciation of Del Shannon

It's the ultimate fairground anthem, the first record you'd look for on a Wurlitzer jukebox in a forgotten suburban caff. Del Shannon's Runaway is all energy and mystery, from the densely thrummed opening chords through its falsetto hook ("wah-wah-wonder") to the eerie, space-organ solo. The lyric is beyond melancholy - it is harrowing, filled with dread and paranoia; the runaway girl may not even be alive. David Lynch is surely a fan.

It was the kind of record you could build a career on and Del Shannon didn't disappoint. The existential angst of Runaway became a template that he was still using at the far end of the decade on the ghostlike Colorado Rain. He couldn't write any other way - the fear and the demons in Shannon's music echoed the mind of its maker.

In the beginning he was Charles Westover and he was from Battle Creek, Michigan. Two events shaped his future: when he bought his first electric guitar he practised in the bathroom, amp perched on the toilet lid, and discovered he liked the rumbling acoustics; a little later he asked a girl called Karen to the high school prom, but she dumped him for another guy. Del  was so cut up that he would still talk about this years later. He was drafted in the mid-fifties, married Shirley, got a job in a carpet store, renamed himself Del Shannon in honour of a local wrestler. By night he played rock'n'roll covers in The Big Little Show Band at Battle Creek.

So far, so small town. Shannon was already in his mid-twenties when a college kid from Kalamazoo called Max Crook joined the band. Crook brought with him a home-made, three-legged proto-synth that he called a "musitron". Straight away, they began writing great songs. One was called Runaway, the lyric penned by Shannon on the sly while working at the carpet store. It exploded in spring 1961, and became an international number one. In the anodyne Bobby Rydell/Craig Douglas era, the intense, square-jawed Shannon cut a heroic figure, and was swiftly elevated to the level of Roy Orbison, Dion and Gene Pitney - rock solid names, built to last.

Invigorated by stardom he followed Runaway with two fabulously nasty rockers. Hats Off To Larry again featured a Max Crook solo, but this was a spiteful riposte to an ex who has been ditched by her new beau. So Long Baby was possibly the most relentless, tuneless Top 10 hit of the early sixties, fuelled entirely by bitter glee - "I've got news for you, I was untrue too!" Crook had left to make a solo single (the deathless Twistin' Ghost; check his phenomenal Meek-like The Snake, released under the name Maximilian) and his musitron was replaced on So Long Baby by what sounds like a giant electronic kazoo. While his profile dipped in the States, Del's hits in Europe continued unabated. The loopy Swiss Maid (Question: Will she ever find true love, yodel-lay? Answer: No.) reached number 2 in the UK but failed to even make the Hot 100 in '62; Little Town Flirt was big enough here to have been a prime influence on Merseybeat (imagine The Searchers singing it); Cry Myself To Sleep was unsubtly re-written by Elton John as Crocodile Rock.

All these hits, all the strength in that lumberjack voice, and still Shannon was riddled with insecurities. Musically this manifested itself in lame soundalike sequels (Two Kinds Of Teardrops, too jolly by half; Kelly on the flipside was far better) or songs that clearly aped his contemporaries. Sue's Gonna Be Mine is The Four Seasons' Sherry, and Dion would surely have sued had Shannon's Mary Jane sold in quantity. These singles came in an eighteen month barren patch which coincided with the first beat boom - Del may well have been the first act to chart with a Lennon/McCartney song (From Me To You) in the US, but he felt the chill wind from the Mersey in '63 and '64 like pretty much every other American act. He sought solace in whisky.

And that might have been that had he not ditched the covers (Handy Man, Do You Wanna Dance), worked out why Runaway was so original and successful, and rediscovered his groove with Keep Searchin' at the end of '64. "Gotta find a place to hide with my baby by my side" - the lyric was even bleaker and more oblique than Runaway, the sound newly toughened by the Brit beat influence. The cry of the fugitive, a possible abductor with his (underage?) girl who's "been hurt so much, they treat her mean and cruel", Keep Searchin' ends with a desperate, beautiful falsetto wail of release. It is quite possibly his best record and a deserved Transatlantic top tenner.

From this point on, Shannon rarely stumbled until his semi-retirement as a performer in '69. Keep Searchin' begat an even more paranoiac sequel in Stranger In Town where a private detective, or maybe a hitman, gets thrown into the equation. On Break Up in '65 he's so wracked and tortured that he can't even convey his fears in words, resigning himself to losing his girl -  though he seems to have zero evidence this is about to happen. The single was a flop (Stranger In Town turned out to be his last UK hit) and Del was devastated. He took boxes of the single and threw them angrily into a Michigan river.

The toughness of singles like Break Up and the tinnitus-inducing Move It On Over betrayed a Stones influence. Coincidentally, Shannon was a heavy hero to Andrew Loog Oldham and the two got together for the Home And Away album in '67. A record of full baroque beauty, it was shelved at the time, probably because none of its accompanying singles were hits. Aided by Immediate stalwarts Billy Nichols and Twice As Much, and with Oldham pulling every Spectorian stunt from the box, songs like Cut And Come Again and He Cheated recast Del as a black orchid for the flower generation. It's a truly wonderful record which was finally released as a stand-alone album a few years back on Zonophone. The Further Adventures Of Charles Westover from the following year is almost as good - deeper and eerier, with the gorgeous single Gemini ("Oh, how I'd love to understand you") showing how Del felt locked out of the love-in, detached from the sunshine people while still producing masterful records that they would most likely love if they ever heard them.

Radio and press, though, would barely touch an oldie like Del Shannon and by 1969 he was working more as a producer. Most successfully he revived Bacharach and David's bluest hit, the Shirelles' Baby It's You, for a group called Smith and scored a US Top 10 hit in '69. A couple of solo singles on Dunhill were taken from a half-finished album, issued in its entirety on a Bear Family box set in 2004. One, Colorado Rain, formed a neat circle in its tale of a runaway hippie girl who flits into Shannon's life via a sinister piano motif, only to leave again just as unexpectedly.

The Bear Family set contained a bountifully illustrated book and eight discs to tell the Del Shannon story and, truthfully, it's more than most people would need. Mid-sixties albums like Total Commitment and This Is My Bag (great but misleading titles) are one-take, hits-of-the-day compilations that barely reflect the quality of Shannon's singles. The two discs of demos and home recordings, though, are fascinating: evidently he turned to country (Hank Williams in particular) in the way that Elvis turned to gospel once he was out of the spotlight.

The story can be condensed inside three minutes: if Runaway is too played out for you, try That's The Way Love Is, a flop single from late '63. It comes on like a conventional love song, with girlie back-ups straight off a Paris Sisters session. Then Del starts to remember his misery, starts to tear chunks out of it. Before the end he's shaking, smashing things, putting his fist threw doors and still the pain won't go away. Even Elvis and the Big O couldn't cut you this deeply. And Del Shannon was truly in their league, a heavyweight who should be remembered with the same awe.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for remembering Del Shannon, in his hey day, he was a phenominal singer. He played in the Capitol Theatre in Aberdeen, Scotland app' 1960's. His closing number was Running Scared. Dressed in Midnight Blue suit, playing a Gretch Red Acoustic guitar, he fell to his knees as he ended the song. A unforgetable show. The complete show was a multitude of artists on the road, like Georgie Fame. Del was the headliner

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