Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 4: Del Shannon, Pop Star
Saturday 05 September 1998
Take his first hit, "Runaway", the one Shannon record with which you are likely to be familiar. It is a great falsetto howl of urban anguish, in which Shannon walks in the rain (in the rain, of course) through the streets of his town and wonders (why, why, why, wonders) what went wrong between him and his love.
The song is quite unlike the anodyne tunes about red rubber balls and teeny-weeny bikinis that Shannon's contemporaries were releasing around 1961, and marks him down as pop's first great miserabilist. It is not too extravagant to say Del Shannon created the template for Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey and others of the pale and interesting tendency to follow.
"Runaway" was also a ground-breaking single in at least two other respects. The eerie instrumental break in the middle of the record was performed on a "musitron", an electronic keyboard invented by Shannon's writing partner, Max Crook, making it almost certainly the first pop record to include a synthesizer. It also had the distinction of being composed, like most of his records, by Shannon himself, not unusual for country or R&B performers, but at the time almost unheard of for pop singers, who were usually content to reinterpret the products of Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building.
The morose atmosphere of Shannon's first single, instantly appealing to legions of tortured teens, deepened in subsequent releases, whose titles - "So Long Baby", "Two Kinds of Teardrops", "Cry Myself to Sleep", "Stranger in Town" - speak for themselves. The tough-romantic urban loner stance of these records, underlined by the picture of Shannon on one of his first British LPs - open-necked shirt, eyes slightly bloodshot, the collar of his raincoat turned up against the elements - is not a million miles from that adopted a couple of decades later by Bruce Springsteen.
What made Shannon's misery particularly poignant, though, is the fact that it was all authentic. Shannon, born Charles Westover in 1934, was a carpet salesman in Coopersville, Michigan, playing in clubs in his spare time, when he was pitchforked into stardom after a local disc jockey heard him perform "Runaway".
He was never comfortable with fame, feeling himself less attractive (he had a slight hunchback) than the various clean-cut frat types alongside whom he had to appear on American Bandstand. The more success Shannon had, the more depressed he became. In 1966, he took delivery of a box full of copies of his brand new single and went down to Lake Michigan where he sat down and skimmed the lot across the water, saying "I must get out".
Later, when the hits dried up, Shannon turned inevitably to drink, and was a recovering alcoholic at the time of his death in February 1990.
Ironically, when Shannon took a .22 calibre rifle, placed it against his head and pulled the trigger, his career had just taken a turn for the better after some years in the doldrums. Performers like Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne had begun to acknowledge openly Shannon's pivotal role in the history of pop music, and he was reported to be about to join The Travelling Wilburys.
The suicide remains a mystery, but the best guess is that Shannon, in archetypal rock'n'roll loner style, preferred to die rather than face stardom again.
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