Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 4: Del Shannon, Pop Star - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 4: Del Shannon, Pop Star

WHO HE? To some, no more than a footnote in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles, or two-and-a-half minutes on a Golden Hits of the Sixties compilation. Yet there is a convincing case to be made for Shannon as one of the true godfathers of modern pop music.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week