12 February 2010

The Shangri-Las: Leader of the Pack

So over here at Lyrics, Weakly central I’ve been hanging out in the 70s for the past few weeks, but today we’re going even further back—back to 1964, when the teen tragedy subgenre of doo-wop music was at its peak, shortly to give way to Beatlemania. And what better example of teen tragedy than the Shangri-Las’ #1 hit, “Leader of the Pack”?

If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s summarized rather neatly on its Wikipedia page. The summary doesn’t do the absolute incoherence of the story justice, though—for that you have to go to the lyrics themselves. So let’s do so, where we start with some forebodingly minor piano chords, leading into a conversation, presumably at the corner ice cream shop, or wherever it is well-groomed clean-cut white kids gathered back then.

(By the way, the narrator of this story is named Betty, and one of the singers in the Shangri-Las was Betty Weiss. I have no idea if she was the lead singer on this song—and what little i’ve been able to find seems to point to it being her sister, Mary Weiss—but i’m going to call her Betty just to make things easier for myself.)

Voice 1, spoken: Is she really going out with him?
Voice 2, spoken: Well, there she is. Let's ask her.
Voice 3, spoken: Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing?
Betty, spoken: Mm-hmm.

So there’s the setup, with Betty wearing Jimmy’s ring. This apparently was a big deal back in the late 50s and early 60s—it meant that you were “going steady”—and the smugness in Betty’s closed-lips affirmative is palpable.

Voice 1, spoken: Gee, it must be great riding with him.

Her friends, naturally enough, are impressed. Not only does she have a boyfriend, he has a motorized conveyance (a motorcycle, as we find out later from the sound effects) with which he can drive her places.

What more could a middle-class girl want?

Voice 2, spoken: Is he picking you up after school today?

And he appears to no longer be in school. Betty done found herself an older guy!

Betty, spoken: Unh-unh.

And with this sad little verbal shake of the head, the first cracks in Betty’s absolutely wonderful world start to show.

You’d think that the response to such an answer would be “Really? Why not?” That’s what i’d ask, anyway—it would keep the flow of the conversation going. But Betty’s friends refuse to submit to such hidebound conventions.

Voices 1, 2, and 3, spoken: By the way, where’d you meet him?

They were hoping that Betty would give a simple answer like “At that bar in Chelsea” so that they can follow up with another non sequitur along the lines of “Incidentally, what color is his hair?” Instead, the singing starts. (I’ve put background vocals, done by the remaining three members of the group, in parentheses.)

I met him at the candy store.
He turned around and smiled at me.
You get the picture?
(Spoken: Yes, we see.)

At the candy store? I’m imagining the candy store in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a bunch of ten-year-olds milling around and buying Wonka Bars while some motorcycle-riding tough guy tries to pick up any high school girls who accidentally walk in. Not that that would be remotely creepy, of course.

That’s when I fell for (the leader of the pack).

A guy looks at you in a candy store, you fall for him right away? I only hope he bought you the big box of chocolates.

But despite such an auspicious beginning, things aren’t all sex and cookies for the loving couple.

My folks were always putting him down (down, down).
They said he came from the wrong side of town.
(Whatcha mean when ya say that he came from the wrong side of town?)

Apparently Betty’s friends don’t understand certain common idioms used in the English language, so to answer them: It means that Jimmy resides in a section of the town that is generally associated with a lower socioeconomic class, or possibly even a criminal element.

In other words, Betty is calling her parents classist prigs—you know, Power to the People! and Down With the Man! and all that. Oh, and the main message of this song, too, which is True Love Starts in Candy Stores!

(And i’m not even going to mention the insanity of trying to fit the question into the meter of the song.)

They told me he was bad,
But I knew he was sad.
That’s why I fell for (the leader of the pack).

Okay, i realize this is being narrated by a teenage girl who’s recently had a pretty severe shock (as we find out later in the song), but that’s no excuse for this sort of narrative idiocy. I mean, let’s break this down, shall we?

First of all, being bad and being sad are not mutually exclusive, no matter what Betty seems to think.

Second, why would being sad be so utterly attractive? Really, i just don’t get it—“Oh, you look depressed, let’s go out” just isn’t the way my brain works. Apparently, though, Betty is made of sterner stuff than i am.

And finally, this is the second time it’s happened, but what’s up with the motorcycle revving here? There are some sound effects that make sense in the context of the story later in the song, but we’ve already established that Jimmy and his motorcycle aren’t coming to pick Betty up, so why are we hearing it now?

Speaking of the motorcycle sound effect, it was put to much better use on the Detergents’ parody of this song, “Leader of the Laundromat”.

One day my dad said, “Find someone new”.
I had to tell my Jimmy we’re through.

As the father of multiple daughters, part of me thinks that i should play this song to them over and over while they’re sleeping so as to subliminally convince them that if i disapprove of one of their boyfriends all i need to do is say “Find someone new” and they’ll break it off. They’d probably actually just laugh at me, but a man can dream, can’t he?

So anyway, Betty heeds her father’s advice, and so our good doormat protagonist goes to find Jimmy and break up with him. (My guess is that she just followed the sound of the gratuitous motorcycle.)

(Whatcha mean when ya say that ya better go find somebody new?)

Okay, the background singers maybe had an excuse not understanding the idiom they questioned earlier in the song, but this one just proves they’re being difficult.

He stood there and asked me why,
But all I could do was cry.

Besides, she realized how lame it would sound to say “Because my dad told me to.”

I’m sorry I hurt you (the leader of the pack).

The next bit is all spoken, for what it’s worth.

He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye.
The tears were beginning to show.
As he drove away on that rainy night
I begged him to go slow

Twisted Sister, of all people, had the best treatment ever of the drove away on that rainy night line—look carefully at 2:04 in the linked video for the win!

Whether he heard, I’ll never know.

This is the big foreboding line—if the minor-key piano chords hadn’t clued you in already, now you know that something very, very bad is about to happen.

(No! No! No! No! No! No! No!)
Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!

This is accompanied by the sound of a motorcycle driving away and crashing, in case you still needed the tragedy of the moment pounded into your skull.

So Betty’s standing there in the rain, and Jimmy’s now dead. Pretty rough for her—so let’s go to her reaction (which is sung—the moment that’s so dreadful that it merits speaking is past).

I felt so helpless, what could I do,
Remembering all the things we’d been through.
In school they all stop and stare.
I can’t hide the tears, but I don’t care.
I’ll never forget him (the leader of the pack).

Pretty rough for her—except, um, back at the beginning of the song, she was so blasé about everything, that it kind of undercuts the pathos of the moment for me. I mean, i’ve never had a significant other die on me, but i’m pretty sure if someone asked me “Is [name of dead person] picking you up after school today?” i’d most likely do one of two things: Say “No, [name of dead person] is dead” or, probably more likely, burst into tears. (Maybe both.) Betty is apparently much more of a tough girl than i’ll ever be—she just responded back with a simple unh-unh.

Maybe she’s just in shock in the memory of all the things they’d been through—you know, all that stuff that took up so much of her time that her friends, um, had no idea whether she was dating Jimmy at all. Yeah, all those things they’d managed to go through in two hours spread over three days or so, apparently.

And yes, i do recognize that i overanalyze song lyrics. Still, i suspect that this bit of emotional inconsistency would really bother me even if i didn’t, and i figure i can’t be alone in that—can i?

And then, in case you didn’t get that Jimmy’s dead, we get the following on a repeat and fade:

(Gone!) The leader of the pack and now he’s gone (gone gone gone gone gone gone)!
The leader of the pack and now he’s gone!
(Gone!) The leader of the pack and now he’s gone (gone gone gone gone gone gone)!
The leader of the pack and now he’s gone!
(Gone!) The leader of the pack and now he’s gone (gone gone gone gone gone gone)!
The leader of the pack and now he’s gone!

Well, at least “Leader of the Pack” doesn’t have the utter sappiness of the whole class ring idiocy in Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel”—so we might as well take the small victories, right?

1 comment:

  1. That's a depressing song anyway. It has a nice sound, though. It's just depressing.