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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy