Teenage Death Songs: “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las


“Is she really going out with him?”

The Shangri-Las’ 1964 epic, “Leader of the Pack,” is the biggest teenage death song of them all. It has been covered, referenced, and parodied on more occasions than one could possibly tally up.

“Leader of the Pack” was written by soon-to-be legendary girl-group producer Shadow Morton, with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (Barry also co-wrote teenage death classic “Tell Laura I Love Her.”) Morton’s over-the-top production, featuring spoken word, chanted backup vocals, revving motorcycles, and, of course, squealing tires and crash noises, approaches madness–Jim Steinman, the man behind Meat Loaf, credits it as a big inspiration for “Bat Out of Hell”, one of the most over-the-top creations in the history of music:

I thought, “I gotta write the most extreme crash song of all time.” One of my favorite records was “Leader Of The Pack” by the Shangri-Las. You heard the motorcycle and it was like a movie. I wanted records to be like movies.

“Leader of the Pack” certainly is like a movie. The gossiping girls at the beginning take us into a flashback, the age-old tale of a girl meeting a boy from the wrong side of the tracks (oddly, at a candy store). Good-girl Betty caves into her father’s pressure to get rid of biker Jimmy, but is too upset to explain why when it’s time to tell Jimmy that it’s over. He tries to hide his pain, and when he starts to fail, he turns away and speeds recklessly off into the night to his doom.

Returning to the present, Betty no longer cares what anyone thinks. But it’s much too late for that.

A few tidbits on the cultural impact of “Leader of the Pack” from Wikipedia and other sources:

  • It hit number one on the Billboard singles chart. And the Billboard black singles chart.
  • It charted in the UK four times in the span of eleven years.
  • It inspired a parody by the Detergents, “Leader of the Laundromat,” in 1965. The parody hit number 19. (I may cover this song in a future post.)
  • There was a Broadway musical called Leader of the Pack, based around the songs of Ellie Greenwich.
  • Its opening line, “Is she really going out with him?”, became the hook to Joe Jackson’s classic 1979 song.
  • “Is she really going out with him?” is also the opening line of “New Rose” by the Damned, considered the first British punk single.
  • A 1983 McDonald’s TV commercial declared the Big Mac to be “Leader of the Pack” and used a snippet of the song.
  • Twisted Sister had a minor hit covering it in 1985 (destroying their credibility as a metal band forever, in my opinion).
  • “Leader of the Pack” is on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Incidentally, Shadow Morton would go on to produce one of my favorite albums, Too Much Too Soon by the New York Dolls.

This is part four of a grisly series. Other posts in this series below the fold.

Teenage Death Songs: “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning

Teenage Death Songs: “Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ray Peterson

Teenage Death Songs: “Run Joey Run” by David Geddes

Teenage Death Songs: “The Water Was Red” by Johnny Cymbal


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: