GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Kirby Kellogg (she/her) is a horror writer and music journalist from Maine who’s been reviewing and analyzing music for almost a decade. You can find her most recent fictional work on the pages of Let the Weirdness In: A Tribute to Kate Bush from Heads Dance Press, and you can find her on Twitter @sugarbombstim.
One realm that a lot of people say horror hasn’t gotten really into is music. Sure, certain genres of metal focus on it, you’ve got your horrorcore rap albums (clipping has made some absolute classics), you’ve got murder ballads from centuries gone by, and you’ve got your Hallowe’en-only spooky singles and novelty songs. But in comparison to the genre’s domination of film and page, music can seem like a relatively bloodless medium… but only if you ignore the absolute river of dead teens from the fifties and sixties.
The ”teenage tragedy” song, known mockingly as the splatter platter, has always fascinated me. The premise is usually relatively simple: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, one of them dies in some tragic way. Sometimes, there are variants—the love was unrequited, it was all a dream, there’s no love story at all. But they all involve young people dying, a throughline that leaves them feeling dangerous and subversive. Many of the songs I’ll be discussing below were once banned by the BBC (although, strangely enough, only one of them was part of the similar Clear Channel bans post-9/11).
People have always been interested in death—and just as interested in romanticizing it. It’s why we return to the well of Romeo and Juliet so often; to die for love is noble, romantic, and inherently impactful. Art about death comes naturally, especially in the form of music. Teenage tragedy has roots in previously mentioned British murder ballads, but it really came alive at a strange intersection in both American and musical history. The 1950s gave rise to the first real rock stars, leaving legacies that span borders and decades, mostly emerging from the United States. America was an interesting place back then too—at this point, there was a tourist industry surrounding the Bonnie and Clyde death car. It’s no wonder gore got big.
The backbone of the teenage tragedy song isn’t just a look at death through rose-coloured glasses, though. There’s a very important, very American coincidence you need to understand in order to grasp how splatter platters got so big. The first of its kind was a song called “Black Leather Jacket and Motorcycle Boots”, a quick-fire track performed by The Cheers and written by Brill Building stalwarts and Elvis hitmakers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. This was their first big hit, telling the story of “the Terror of Highway 101,” who breaks his girlfriend Mary Lou’s heart when he’s hit by a train while speeding down the road on his motorcycle. It’s not a great song…but the circumstances that surround it are very important.
The song was released in late September of 1955; the week before American actor and cultural icon James Dean died in a car crash. That week, the song skyrocketed to number six on the charts. It’s unknown how long it stayed there and the song’s impact was small at the time, but it was only the first flash of a meteor shower of both splatter platters and high-profile deaths to come along.
The loss of James Dean was followed by a spate of deaths in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The second and most prominent of waves came on the heels of “The Day The Music Died”—the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper in a plane crash on February 3rd, 1959. Those deaths left a seismic impact on the rock genre as a whole—and one of the aftershocks were the rise of songs about young people dying as they had.
One of the first teenage tragedy songs to come out of this era was even penned by the Big Bopper before his passing. The track “Running Bear” was originally performed by Johnny Preston and was the first of its kind to hit #1. It’s the tale of two Native American teenagers in love who die together in the river separating their tribes. It’s aged about as well as you’d expect for a song from the ‘50s about Indigenous people penned by a white man, complete with “war cries,” chanting, and references to the white concept of their heaven, the “happy hunting ground.”
Many tracks followed its lead when it came to the death type; invoking suicide by drowning. “Endless Sleep” by Jody Reynolds dodges the trope only by studio interference—they wanted the love interest to live, while Reynolds’s original lets her die in her beau’s arms. “Patches” by Dickey Lee leans into the Romeo and Juliet of it all by having the rich boy’s poor girlfriend leap to her death and drown under a bridge in “Shantytown” after being abandoned. He shortly follows her into the grave. That in and of itself is an anomaly: both lovers dying. Gender-wise, it’s a pretty even split on whether the boyfriend or the girlfriend dies. Because of the tracks’ nature (and the time period), it’s usually the girlfriend who dies if a man is singing and the boyfriend who dies if a woman is singing. There are a few exceptions though—the most notable being “Tell Laura I Love Her”, sung from a third-person perspective about a guy named Tommy who dies in a stock car race trying to win enough money to buy his girlfriend Laura a wedding ring.
One of the most prominent ways to die in these songs is through car crashes like Tommy’s. It’s an easy well to draw from; teens drive recklessly all the time. There’s even a safety film that predates all of these songs that coined a catchy name for it. 1950’s Last Date created the little-used but fitting name “teenicide,” calling it “the fine art of killing yourself” with a car “before the age of twenty.” The phrase never caught on, but it perfectly encapsulates the heavy hitters of the genre.
The undisputed king of the death disc, “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las, got rid of a few wheels: the love interest speeds off on his motorbike and crashes after they’re broken up by her family. The same thing happens in one-hit-wonder tracks like “Condition Red” by the Goodees and “Terry” by British solo singer Twinkle (aka Lynn Ripley). 10cc’s tune “Johnny Don’t Do It” is a late-stager, but features the rider and his girl dying on his bike after they smash into a truck. Then there are the car crash tracks “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning (singer’s love interest gets slammed by a train after their car stalls), “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan and Dean (teens play chicken, one dies, the main casualty of the genre in the Clear Channel ban spree), and “Last Kiss” by Wayne Cochran (basic car crash death, most prominent for being covered by Pearl Jam in 1999).
Many of the crash tracks directly tie into real-world celebrity deaths. While “Black Leather Jacket” got big because of its accidental proximity to James Dean’s death, The Beach Boys put out an acapella track (“A Young Man is Gone”) paying tribute to the real man eight years later. Much more timely but lesser known is “Three Stars” by Tommy Dee, a tribute to The Day The Music Died that gets darker when you find out that Eddie Cochran died a year after recording a cover. The intertwining of real-world death and “death discs” is a deep one—and this won’t be the last time we return to it.
Not all deaths in these songs were as simple as a crash or drowning though. There are the vague deaths of Lori Burton’s “Nightmare” (girls fight over boy, one girl gets killed somehow, other girl is arrested) and Noel Harrison’s “A Young Girl of Sixteen” (rich girl runs off with poor boy, is abandoned, dies somehow). There are also the strange deaths: “The Water Was Red” by Johnny Cymbal has its protagonists get killed by a shark (the boy chops its fin off though, a dark trophy of revenge), and there are a couple of songs about people dying while “shooting the pier.” Brill Building one-hit-wonder Cathy Carroll’s “Jimmy Love” even features the protagonist’s beau being crushed to death by a tree during a lightning storm.
The genre began to taper off in the ‘70s, scoring only one major hit in the U.S. with Terry Jacks’s Jacques Brel cover “Season in the Sun” hitting number one in late December of 1973. There were a few grasps at fame later in the decade, but nothing that stuck. Most notably, the now-comedic “Run Joey Run,” complete with its uncomfortable juxtaposition between the verses sung by a twenty-five-year-old David Geddes and the chorus voice of a fifteen-year-old Paula Vance, made it to number four on the Billboard 100. But save for jokes and a cover on Glee, that too faded. The drag race was over and the teenage tragedy was all but dead.
The death rattle of the teenage tragedy song, however, came with one final nod to real-world tragedy.
In April of 1979, an Irish group called The Boomtown Rats found a hit in the form of a song titled “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Band co-leaders Bob Geldof and Johnny Fingers penned the song together after hearing a news story from a telex machine during an interview in Georgia. A 16-year-old girl, Brenda Ann Spencer, shot at children playing outside their school on a cold Monday morning in January using a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle—a Christmas gift from her father. She injured nine people, eight of them kids, and killed two adults. Her reasoning was simple: “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
The song reached single-digit counts on the top 100 charts around much of the world—save for the United States, where it barely cracked. Whether the tragedy was still too fresh, or the attempt by the Spencers to have the song suppressed was semi-successful, or DJs in America just no longer wanted to spin songs about the dead and the dying, the song faltered state-side. But it made Brenda Spencer a household name, something Geldof admits he regrets.
That was that. A genre that began with tragedy, ended with it. The bones live on in parody and pastiche (a personal favorite is Julie Brown’s “The Homecoming Queen’s Got A Gun”), but little else endures beyond the oldies dial. Most of the performers are gone too, lost to the ages. The death disc, as we once knew it, has been left behind for the horrors of harder metal. But there will always be the black leather jackets and motorcycle boots, and the blood streaked across them on every track.