In September 1955 a young rock n roll group called The Cheers released ‘Black Denim Trousers’, a song capitalising on the recent trend in high-speed road accidents and the newspaper hysteria surrounding it. It told the tale of a young, fast-driving motorcycle rebel who eventually meets his untimely demise in a head on collision with a lorry, leaving only his “black denim trousers and motorcycle boots” on the road. This has been since noticed as the first example of what would become an extraordinarily strange, morbid and often forgotten sub-genre of the fifties rock n roll era – the teenage tragedy song.
‘Black Denim Trousers’ itself is quite unremarkable; it probably would have faded into obscurity had it not received an injection of publicity larger than anyone could have ever imagined within a week of its release. On 30th September 1955, on his way to a drag race, a young actor named James Dean crashed his Porsche Spyder head on into an oncoming Ford Custom Tudor coupe. The Hollywood darling and poster boy of a young hopeful generation was dead. James Dean’s death at such a young age not only created huge shockwaves through the entire world, but it brought about a fascination and romanticism associated with untimely death not seen since Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (which incidentally was the inspiration for The Mystics 1961 song ‘Star Crossed Lovers’ in which two teenagers, their love forbidden by disapproving parents, drive head on into an oncoming car). From then on, tales of teenage tragedy or ‘death songs’ as they would come to be known were a staple on the Billboard 100, this was an artistic fascination with human suffering on a truly Grecian scale.
Among the several of causes of death found on the weekly charts were drowning (Jody Reynolds – Endless Sleep, Pat Boone – Moody River), suicide (Mark Dinning – The Pickup), and the sure-fire hit maker - drag racing. Detroit was building modern cars for a young fast-living generation and motor racing had become the past-time of young America; this was reflected in the music being made and car crashes became the darling of the death song. Ray Peterson’s ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ as well as the answer song ‘Tell Tommy I Miss Him’, Jan and Deans ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ and perhaps the best titled of any teenage tragedy song, Jeanne Hayes’ – All I Have Left is my Johnny’s Hubcap (she goes on to wear it around her neck in tribute, which can’t have been at all comfortable) all dealt with the dangers of the new sport that had captured the imagination of thousands of young men.
"James Dean’s death not only created shockwaves through the entire world, but it brought about a fascination and romanticism associated with untimely death not seen since Romeo and Juliet."
It seems absolutely unthinkable with our modern-day selection of manufactured inoffensive pop stars that suicide pacts, fatal car crashes and necrophilia (yes, necrophilia, see Jimmy Cross – I Want My Baby Back), were once seen as acceptable subject matter for pop songs. Although it may seem shocking to us, young death was an issue the newly christened ‘teenagers’ were living with on a day-to-day basis in 50s America. Not only did teen idols like James Dean, Buddy Holly and Judy Tyler (Elvis’ leading lady in Jailhouse Rock) all die early in fatal crashes, Cold War paranoia had the country by the scruff of its Ivy League sweater. It was a very real possibility for Americans that the destruction they had witnessed in TV reports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be repeated at any time in their own back yard. To a post-war teenager in America, life was cheap.
Nowadays songwriters like Nick Cave and PJ Harvey have carved out a niche writing brilliantly macabre songs on dark subjects like death and loss, but what makes the teenage tragedy song even more disturbing is they were being sung by mainstream pop groups like the Shangri-Las (‘Leader of the Pack’ is about the town playboy dying in a motorcycle accident); imagine the squeaky clean boys from JLS singing lyrics like “A girl named Patches was found / Floating face down in that dirty old river” on Loose Women – it’d be worth doing just to see the look of discomfort and confusion on Jane McDonald’s face.
As disturbing and frankly odd as the whole thing is, it’s undoubtedly a sad fact that young death was taken so lightly at the time that it was frequently reduced to the triviality of a three minute pop song. Thankfully as the sixties progressed, four boys from Liverpool rescued the pop song from its own funeral and took it back into more positive realms as Beatlemania took America by storm. The rest, as they say, is history, but next time you hear yourself moaning about the state of music these days, spare a thought for the hundreds of young teens ‘killed’ in the name of pop music. Long live the teenage tragedy song.
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