In this article series, drawn from her guest segment on bFM called ‘Genre Rules’, Dr. Kirsten Zemke, Ethnomusicologist from the University of Auckland, exposes us to interesting and varied popular music genre from across time and place.

Tuesday, 22 Sep 2015

Teenage Coffin Songs

The "teenage tragedy song", "tear jerker”, "splatter platter", or the “teen coffin song” are a style of rock and roll ballad that were popular in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The songs usually narrate a dreadful teenage death, foregrounded by “true love”; and can be sung from the viewpoint of the dead person's sweetheart or from the viewpoint of the dead (or dying) person. The songs often feature spoken word monologues (recited through an echo chamber), related sound effects (crashing cars, swishing waves, motorcycle revving), elaborate orchestrated arrangements and crooning vocal style. The stories typically have these common features: 

  • a boy and a girl fall in love

  • Their relationship is doomed, because they come from different worlds or their parents “just don’t understand”

  • One of them dies disastrously (automobile accident, drowning etc)

  • They promise that they will meet each other again in heaven

A few classic examples will make you realise that you’ve heard Teenage “coffin” songs many times before, and they are ubiquitous:

  • “Leader of the Pack” The Shangri-Las

  • “Ode to Billie Joe” Bobby Gentry

In “Leader of the Pack” the female narrator is dating a “bad boy” motorcycle driver. Her father forbids her to date him, so in anger the boy drives too fast on his bike in the rain… and... you can guess what ensues. “Ode to Billie Joe” is a bit more mysterious. The protagonist’s family is sitting at dinner talking about a teen boy who killed himself by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. There is some insinuation that the female narrator was seen with the boy on the bridge and they were throwing something off it (a baby perhaps?). This 1967 song, besides being a huge seller and named #412 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Song of all time, actually falls outside the main period of “coffin” songs, showing that the genre actually never “died”.

This is not a genre like some others in that there’s not a related subculture, there’s not a cohesive fan group, there’s no particular type of clothing style, and it’s not related to a particular place. These songs are more strictly a “music genre”- a set of musical tropes that have been repeated enough to become a “thing”. They sold well in their time, and the style has persisted throughout the decades in various forms. And ….they have an interesting history.The question some writers have asked is “why?”. Some of the reasons suggested for this genre’s macabre popularity are:

  • These were the ultimate teen rebellion songs. The only way out of parents’ (and/or societal) control and expectations are death.

  • They were a natural extension of the “unrequited love” song, facilitated by the obvious rhyming of: good bye, cry and die.

  • There were a number of publicised deaths of pop stars and young actors in that time including Sam Cooke, Jimmie Rodgers, Sal Mineo, Hank Williams, Johnny Ace, Eddy Cochrane and of course the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the ‘Big Bopper’ in 1959. This might explain the interest in songs around death, tragedy and sorrow

 This type of music is also given the honour by some, of being what nearly killed rock as a genre. In some circles, rock history is considered to have experienced a dearth, a period where it was dissipated, watered down, bowdlerised, and was almost expunged from existence, until it was resurrected by the British Invasion (the Beatles mainly) in 1963. The “in-between years” started at the end of the nineteen fifties, after the initial burst of rock and roll. Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis was in the army, and others like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis left the music scene for drastic personal reasons. Rock and Roll became “mainstream” in this phase, with Dick Clark’s television show, teen beach movies and young white teen idols now performing the music. I strongly disagree with this thesis, seeing instead the time as an incredibly creative and diverse period which saw girl groups, surf music, novelty songs, Brill building song writers, and Motown acts breaking down the hegemony of the white male rock star/band- which was eventually reclaimed by the Beatles and has persisted until the present. One writer sees the “Teenage coffin songs” as being the very worst of the “in-between years”, a genre which nearly signalled the “death knell” of rock and roll. This is now for the reader to decide: is this genre the very worst of the worst- a low point in popular music writing and maudlin stupidity? Or is it simply a reflection of the very human fascination with death and the morose, in all art and literature, and throughout time?

The two iconic songs of the genre are Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” and Ray Peterson’s (Ricky Valance) “Tell Laura I Love Her”. “Teen Angel” was initially banned on radio in 1959 for being “too sad” (?!!?) but as it went up in the charts radio eventually played the track, and it went to number one in the U. S, charts in 1960. “Tell Laura I love Her” went to number seven in the U. S. charts (also in 1960). The song was re-recorded by Ricky Valance in the U. K. where it went to number one. It was a hit in 14 countries, and sold over seven million copies.

  • “Teen Angel” Mark Dining

  • “Tell Laura” I Love Her Ray Peterson

In “Teen Angel”, a couple’s car stalls on a railroad track. They get out of the car, but the girl runs back…. and the train comes….. in the wreckage, they find her mangled body, and her hand is clutched around his high school ring. Yes, she went back for the ring.

In “Tell Laura I love her”, Tommy enters a stock car race to win the cash prize, so he can buy Laura a wedding ring. Somehow Tommy’s car is “overturned in flames” and they “pulled him from the twisted wreck” and “with his dying breath”, they heard him say: “Tell Laura I love her”.

“Patches” by Dickie Lee, 1962, is a Romeo and Juliet type “forbidden love”. A teenage girl drowns herself when her romance with the narrator is forbidden because they live on different sides of town: “a girl from that place would just bring me disgrace so my folks won't let me love you”. This song was banned by some radio stations, because the singer plans to "join her": “It may not be right but I'll join you tonight. Patches I'm coming to you”.

To be a classic teenage coffin song, the protagonists must be teenagers, and the track would fall into the classic period of late fifties- early sixties. And the song would have some of features mention previously like sound effects and spoken monologues.

There’s also motorcycles and trains. The wide-ranging list then belies the transience and brief life span of the “Teenage coffin songs” genre. While the more musicologically homogenous version had a discrete time period, there obviously continues to be a fascination with death (usually in relation to love) expressed in our pop music.

For instance, even in the decades following, up until the present, popular music charts are riddled with versions of the teen death song.

Here is only a handful of what could qualify reiterations of the teen death theme:

  • “Detroit Rock City” Kiss 1976

  • “Janie's Got A Gun” Aerosmith 1989

  • "Beyond the Realms of Death" Judas Priest 1978

  • “Helena” My Chemical Romance 2004

  • “Mary Jane's Last Dance” Tom Petty 1993

  • “Girlfriend in a Coma” The Smiths 1987

  • “18 and Life” Skid Row 1989

  • “Jeremy” Pearl Jam 1992

  • “Too Old to Rock and Roll: Too Young to Die!” Jethro Tull 1976


And just like the reasoning for the initial Coffin songs period, there has continued throughout the decades to be tragic, occasionally bizarre, and untimely deaths of music stars. To name only a few: Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham, Tupac Shakur, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Michael Hutchence, Jeff Buckley, and Aaaliyah.

So whether you love them or hate them, whether they incite laughter or tears, this type of song seems to have remained rife. And as popular music scholars, there is no need to actually determine their “worthiness” but rather it’s valuable to examine what their tenacity and popularity says about us- as people, as a society, as music lovers.

On a side note it should be mentioned that there are a few related “genre”. One is “Car songs” of the similar late 50’s- early sixties period. These are related because, yes, some included a crash or a death, but they also had some similar features to the Coffin song like “car noises” and centring on teen life and narratives. Rhythm and Blues had been a more adult African American music. As the genre shifted into the younger, more “white” rock and roll, the themes became less overtly sexual, and more “teen”, with cars being a very important subject:

Car Songs (50’s-60’s)

  • “Last Kiss” J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers 1964

  • “No Particular Place To Go” Chuck Berry 1964

  • “Little Deuce Coupe” The Beach Boys 1963

  • “Detour” Patti Page 1951

  • “Route 66 Theme” Nelson Riddle 1962

The main thing to get out of all this is that popular music is weird and wonderful, and it says weird and wonderful things about us. And, no matter how dominant the “mainstream” may seem and how oppressive hegemonic record company control can be, looking at these genre fragments highlights the continued diversity of both music and the human experience. But unlike previous month’s articles, I do not recommend continuous listening and exploration of this genre… who knows how the mind and heart might respond………

***

Some sources and references:

  • http://www.nyx.net/~anon52ea/DeadTeenSongs.html

  • http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TeenageDeathSongs

  • Kelly, Michael Bryan. The Beatle Myth: The British Invasion of American Popular Music, 1956-1969. McFarland, 1991.

  • Denisoff, R. Serge. "“Teen Angel”: Resistance, Rebellion and Death—Revisited*." The Journal of Popular Culture 16.4 (1983): 116-122.

  • Wikipedia

***

In this article series, drawn from her guest segment on bFM called ‘Genre Rules’, Dr. Kirsten Zemke, Ethnomusicologist from the University of Auckland, exposes us to interesting and varied popular music genre from across time and place. Besides potentially adding to musicians’ diverse palette of musical influences and inspirations, she hopes this segment will also spark discourse and understandings around popular music itself, how it responds and reacts to global and localised creativities. Many bands and artists may think they find genre tags limiting, but genre is important for bands to find their audiences and vice versa. They also often come with incumbent scenes, aesthetics and social movements, besides just musical differentiation. Genre are important for marketing and promotion strategies, and have bearing on finding suitable types of venues and record labels for bands and artists. Don’t hide from genre… embrace it!


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