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Hot-heads in hot-rods: seven of the very best Death Discs

6 May, 2015 — by Christopher Ratcliff0

How seven classic songs mined dangerous driving and teenage tragedy for big bucks and sick yucks.

shangri-la's leader of the pack

The Death Disc, also known as a ‘splatter platter’, ‘car crash song’ or quite simply a ‘teenage tragedy song’ is a style of ballad popularised in the 50s and 60s sung from the point of view of either a dying (or dead) teenager or the dying (or dead) teenager’s sweetheart.

Although the method of death is often a car or motorcycle accident (normally the outcome of a hot-headed teen riding off angrily without caution or helmet, or just being rubbish at drag racing) occasionally the merciless, bony hand of fate likes to spice things up with a train wreck, a school bus plunge or a good old fashioned hit and run.

Whichever way it goes down, the outcome is the same. A teenager’s life is tragically cut short on the tarmac and that same dead teenager’s sweetheart is left all alone and in tears.

These massively popular and often banned torch songs occupy a very niche and morbid chapter in popular music history. They’re were mostly heartbreaking, occasionally sick, but also kind of fun, which is why we’re taking a look at them now.

‘The Ballad of Thunder Road’ – Robert Mitchum [1957]

Robert Mitchum, so very menacing in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, has a surprisingly sprightly tone in ‘The Ballad of Thunder Road’ which betrays the liquor soaked tragedy at the heart of the song. A moonshine peddler with a “tank filled with hundred-proof” goes on the run from the law, only to come to an inevitably tragic end.

Stealing the tune from a Norwegian Christmas song, Mitchum himself co-wrote‘The Ballad of Thunder Road’ to be featured in the drive-in movie classic ‘Thunder Road’ starring Mitchum himself as the bathtub-gin peddler. However Mitchum’s version of the song wasn’t used in the finished film.

As Mitchum’s character barrels his way into an electricity substation at the end of the movie, the ballad’s couplet is particularly affecting: “there was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst. The law they swore they’d get him, but the Devil got him first.”

‘Johnny Remember Me’ – John Leyton [1961]

Featuring gorgeous production from Joe Meek, this is a gripping and melodramatic tale of a deceased woman haunting her lover, left miserably behind in the mortal world. Many of Meek’s hallmarks can be heard here: the galloping percussion, echoing reverb, the eerie backing vocals, an obsession with the occult.

This was predictably banned by the BBC, who seemed to spend most of the 50s and 60s lying to young people about death.

‘Last Kiss’ – Wayne Cochran [1961]

Inspired by an incident in Barnesville, Georgia, in which several teens were killed and two seriously injured when their car struck a flatbed logging truck, this ballad is an off-kilter heartbreaker, telling a simple tale of a man losing his girlfriend in a date gone horrifically wrong.

There’s also a cover by Pearl Jam, which obviously piles on the misery. Wayne Cochran’s original has a fitting simplicity though and the lyric “she’s gone to heaven so I’ve got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world” is saddeningly futile.

Although you may take it less seriously when you find out what Cochran’s hair looks like…

wayne cochran last kiss record cover

Look at it. Then throw up a bit. Then look at it again.

‘Leader of the Pack’ – The Shangri-Las [1964]

Perhaps the most famous example of this macabre genre. A song in which Jimmy, the bad boy from the “wrong side of town”, begins to date Betty much to her parents’ chagrin. Betty coalesces to her parents disapproval, breaks up with Jimmy who then “sort of smiles, kisses her goodbye” and immediately dies in a motorcycle accident.

In the above video it takes a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief to imagine that the 42 year-old account manager on a crappy moped is the leader of any pack, let alone the pack, and would perhaps appear more impressive if he didn’t have to push himself off the stage.

‘Terry’ – Twinkle [1964]

The ultimate death disc. This one has it all. A laconic dreamlike pace. A quarrelling couple. The moody young man haring off into the night on his motorcycle. An ambiguous accident, and the mascara smeared plea of “please wait at the gates of heaven for me Terry”.

This was also banned by both the BBC and ITV, ensuring its acceleration up the charts.

Side note: Jimmy Page is one of the session musicians who play on the original recording of this track, I shit you not.

‘Dead Man’s Curve’ – Jan and Dean [1964]

Jan and Dean’s ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ is a chilling warning to all you wannabe drag-racers out there, and it’s replete with Beach Boys’ surf-rock, two-part harmonies, hilarious baritone delivery and the screech of tyres on tarmac.

Incidentally Jan, or William Jan Berry, was the son of aeronautical engineer William L. Berry who was the project manager of Howard Hughes’s aeronautical folly the Spruce Goose. Berry even flew with Hughes on its first and only flight.

This has nothing to do with music or Death Discs. I include it because I will probably never have call to use this useless trivia in a more relevant place.

‘Phantom 309’ – Red Sovine [1967]

The story of a hitchhiker who gets a lift with trucker who turns out to be the ghost of a man who died 10 years ago. The trucker in question gave his life to save a school bus full of children from a collision with his own truck. A B-movie twist that arrives with complete and exhaustive explanation in the final minute of the song after what feels like hours of banal country and western.

Modern Death Discs

There have been many modern attempts at producing a Death Disc since the grey days of the 50s and 60s, all of which take teenage tragedy as their influence, but come up unsatisfyingly short.

Post hardcore band The Blood Brothers’ ‘Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck’ is an excellent track, but the protagonist seems to survive the tire tracks zig-zagging their torso “like a devil’s self portrait” so it doesn’t really count.

The same can be said of Radiohead’s ‘Airbag’ (“I’m amazed that I survived, an airbag saved my life”) although the bigger problem with that is that it’s probably a metaphor for something that isn’t a car crash. The Smith’s double-decker bus in ‘There’s a Light That Never Goes Out’ that “crashes into us” is also disappointingly hypothetical.

‘Kiss Them For Me’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees was inspired by the untimely tractor death of Jayne Mansfield, but it’s far more abstract than the early examples. You already have to know that this song is about Jayne Mansfield’s death to understand the references.

Even towards the late 60s, most Death Discs were pastiches – The Ramones’ ‘7-11’, 10cc’s ‘Johnny Don’t Do it’, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s ‘Death Cab For Cutie’ – great songs admittedly, but still pastiches.

We don’t necessarily have a modern equivalent of the simple, narratively driven, cautionary tales of the 50s. I’m sure ‘Leader of the Pack’ gave many a teenager pause for thought before riding a motorcycle without a helmet, but what about today’s kids though? Who will teach them life lessons through the accessible art of song?

Unfortunately 5 Seconds of Summer are not currently riding high in the charts with a song about texting while driving. Nicki Minaj has yet to release a controversy-courting song spelling out the dangers of cyclists passing on the left-hand side. Sam Smith hasn’t once stressed the importance of high gears and low speeds when driving in snowy weather.

It seems for a true lesson in mortality, you have to look back to the early 60s. When cars were big and flammable, they didn’t have seat belts or anti-lock brakes, traffic control was infrequent and teenage lives were fleeting.

Hot-heads in hot-rods: seven of the very best Death Discs
Hot-heads in hot-rods: seven of the very best Death Discs
How seven classic songs mined dangerous driving and teenage tragedy for big bucks and sick yucks.
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