A Dance to the Music of Time — “Leader of the Pack”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: Leader of the Pack
from the 1965 album Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las
reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100

Over the past couple of months, while you all were busy brushing up your French or making your fifteenth tapestry, I did something vaguely interesting (by nerd standards): I compiled a list of songs that had reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100, gave them a couple of listens, and gave them a score out of 10. (I’m somewhere around 1981 right now, so only a few more virtual years before I enter “music I’m uncomfortable with” territory, but hey, we all have to jump out of our comfort zones.) There are, of course, a few patterns that have emerged. Most Beatle songs get an 8 or above, but ALL Stones number ones have an 8 or above. Loud rock songs get high scores, but REALLY loud ones don’t. Get too melodramatic, you get nothing more than a 4, and so on.

Actually, about that last one. Popular music is just SO melodramatic at times. List any ten songs you can remember, at least one of them will be the singer moaning at great and unnecessary length about how they are so sad for whatever reason. And though it’s definitely cliched and wrong to say that older generations were much more melodramatic than ours, I have to say I found the most of it in early 60s “story songs” (not to be confused with “songstories”, which a certain someone has been writing a lot of recently). These were songs which basically used a scenario to explain why they were feeling so sad — you know the type: “I am by the river, where my loved one accidentally drowned, therefore I now see my lover’s face in the water every time I go there”, etc, etc. Sometimes they were good (Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is one of my favourite songs EVER), but more often they were so contrived and weepy that you couldn’t help rolling your eyes in disgust. This trend dropped after the British Invasion — no use telling a story about your feelings when you could just say them out directly — but there were ones that you can somehow love, despite all the cheese. One of them’s “Leader of the Pack”.

The group name already screams melodrama: “the Shangri-Las” conjures images of lofty snow-capped mountains, delicate emotional maidens and so on. (In reality, lead singer Mary Weiss infamously used to carry guns with her on tour.) The FIRST PARAGRAPH of their Wikipedia page points out that their specialty was “teen melodramas”, and the big hair that band members had in their heyday sort of told you that this was a band which dealt in big emotions too. Without noticing it, they’ve already hyped up their ability to tell a story even before you’ve listened to the song.

But what storytelling abilities. The first thing that happens in the song is a big, fat piano chord: the sort that demands authority, tells you to “listen to this” — but also the sort that instantly means trouble. You listen to that chord, and you just know that something bad’s going to happen. Then you get the faint, wistful humming, seeping out from that chord just under the gossip of the other girls — it sounds out of this world. Ethereal. It shouldn’t belong on Earth. There’s already a central mystery, the first signs of something big coming your way, just with that first chord, and you don’t really know what to do with it.

Then there’s the vocals. When the first sung vocal comes in, it’s a complete surprise: in response to the other girls’ almost offhand enquiry “by the way, where’d you meet him?”, Mary Weiss (or rather, her character Betty) bursts into song like you would in a musical: “I met him at the candy store”. The thing is how desperate she makes it sound immediately: “store” is uttered with such pathos and such energy that you immediately sense that there’s more to it than just youth. I don’t know about you, but I immediately detected a touch of heartbreak in that sequence, as if all that emotion had been pent up inside the narrator, waiting to be released by that trigger question. It’s just like a musical — nobody ever starts singing whenever they’re prompted, and it’s slightly jarring to hear. But nobody really cares, because the emotion in that first line already hints at more: you have a story coming up.

What kind of story though? The conversation in those first few seconds tells us that this is a story about finding love, and our curiosity is fed by all those nods they make to the audience. “He turned around and smiled at me — you get the picture?” “Yes we see…” say the backing singers. They don’t need to do that query, but that’s the weird and wonderful thing about the interactions between Weiss and the backing singers: the latter becomes our proxy, teasing out the entire story, voicing out the questions we might have. But gradually these questions become something else: a warning that these aren’t the questions we should be asking. Questions that like “what d’you mean when you say he came from the wrong side of town?” are never answered. The backing singers, like us, are always stubbornly naïve and one step behind: they, too expect this to be your typical love story, one where something is gained. Betty’s story, however, is one where love is lost, and the responses disappear in time for the climax of the story.

The strange thing is how cliched the ending is. Of course you knew from the start that this didn’t end well — the piano chord, the otherworldly humming already told you that. Of course it had something to do with the motorcycle, which you hear every time the words “leader of the pack” are mentioned. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that motorcycle + tragedy = car crash. By the time Betty says “as he drove away on that rainy night, I begged him to go slow”, you already know what’s going to happen. But I have listened to this song at least ten times, and not once have I been able to hold back the goosebumps as the climax comes. Your heart still skips a beat when you hear that squeal of the tires, the girls screaming “LOOK OUT, LOOK OUT” just as there’s a hideous scrunch of metal. Your head spins, your worst fears confirmed — just as the piano shifts up a key.

What happens afterwards is almost laughable. The song continues at a higher key, clearly meant to convey the devastation of the crash’s aftermath. Mary Weiss tries to convey the bathos of a distraught girl, and she actually does sound a tad more subdued — even catatonic — in the last verse. The backing singers, now apparently shocked into not asking any more questions, simply harmonize while Betty finishes up the story and numbly repeats “the leader of the pack — now he’s gone”. It’s almost as if they were worried the listeners wouldn’t understand what had happened.

This is, then, a song that turns the dial of melodrama past 11. Everything about this song is undoubtedly ridiculous, and very overblown. (Do you meet your lovers in candy stores? Do you get to see your love die horrifically in a traffic accident right in front of your eyes? And do you sing about said tragedy to your friends just out of the blue?) In videos of the group performing the song, they always have a motorcycle ONSTAGE, accompanied by the most stilted piece of acting I’ve ever seen from a human being. (Mary Weiss may know how to sell pathos, but her face is… less adept.) Everything seems calculated to tug at your heartstrings: in fact, this song tugs at your heartstrings so frequently that you can’t help but wonder if they’re gonna be broken.

So when it came to ranking this song, I was torn. Cause to be honest, I’m not sure I really enjoyed the song after the sound of the car crash: even though there was a whole minute of song left, I still found myself paralysed, unable to get past that tangle of noise. What the hell had just happened? Why was this crash — this obviously manufactured fatality in a song — so strong in my mind? Those were my questions when I first heard the song, and they’re still relevant now. When I decided that I wanted to write a piece on this song, I hadn’t anticipated how complicated my emotions would be to put on paper. It’s a mishmash that blends into each other, and I don’t even know where to start.

But then, isn’t that something equally fun about pop music? There are songs that mirror how you feel exactly (of this miniseries, “Space Oddity” and “Layla” both came into my life at exactly the right time), and then there are songs that you feel completely detached from (any melodramatic song). And then there’s “Leader of the Pack”, which falls somewhere in between. It makes me feel unsure, takes me out of my listener’s subjective mindset. And that’s what’s interesting about it. This is the sort of song that throws you off your secure pedestal, tells you that what you’ve learnt about music so far doesn’t apply here. I like it for reminding me about that (and also hate it for making me so unsure).

That’s the thing about pop music in general, too. Whether it’s good or not is really dependent on whether we enjoy it. You can put a thousand symphonic tricks into a song and still have it flunk (case in point: the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains”); you can throw out a pile of vitriolic chaos and still it’ll be widely acclaimed as long as it touches a nerve (the Sex Pistols, anyone?). Quality is a strange and vague criterion by which we judge our music, and very subjective most of the time. One person’s taste can vary differently from another. I LIKE “Heroes and Villains”, and still can’t get “God Save the Queen” — the angry version, that is — and yet I’m aware that I’m very much in the minority here. That’s fine, as long as you’re willing to learn and enjoy. It’s all those voices which build up our idea of pop music, really, and things like “Leader of the Pack” — where you’re thrown off-balance, where you learn new ways to enter music — make the whole repository that much more exciting, and much more entertaining to listen to.

I gave it a 10.

(Cover copyrighted to Red Bird Records.)

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