Friday, April 1, 2011

April 1: Del Shannon, "Runaway"

Artist: Del Shannon
Song: "Runaway"
Album: Runaway (single)
Year: 1961

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In every generation, in every style of music, there are always those performers that while falling into a certain category, also manage to stand out as rebels against the norms within that sound.  Such examples can be found from even the earliest days of recorded music, yet as the years pass, many of the reasons that the label of "rebel" was given seem to be forgotten.  This is often due to changes in society that are more accepting of these rebellious qualities, or music moving to a point where such sounds seem tame in comparison.  Yet there are some cases where an artist has moved from one extreme to another, and this is perhaps no more clear than when looks at the career of the great Del Shannon.  Though even in his day, he was considered a "teen idol," the fact of the matter is, due to the style and sound he presented, he was a far cry from his peers on many levels.  Bringing a far darker and often brooding sound to his songs, it is strange to consider how well he sold when stacked up against the "friendlier" sound of the other icons of his era.  Regardless, one can see his influences across all of popular music, and a number of his songs remain in regular radio rotation, more than half a century after they were first released.  Though he is responsible for a number of classic songs, there are few recordings of Del Shannon that better represent his sound than his unmistakable 1961 single, "Runaway."

From the first moments on "Runaway," one can quickly deduce that this song will not be like the other pop hits of the era, as even the guitar has a swagger and tone that is darker than the usual, bright sound found in the big pop hits of the early 1960's.  This element quickly gives the song a great deal of intrigue, and the fact that it was performed by session musician Al Caiola, as opposed to someone who had been playing the song for years, makes this accomplishment even more impressive.  Combined with Shannon's guitar, the duo created one of the most unforgettable guitar riffs in all of music history.  The way in which the drums seem to lightly dance in a completely unique manner further sets the song aside from others, and it is much the reason that "Runaway" has found its way into many seemingly unrelated films.  Yet one can easily argue that the most impressive element of "Runaway" lives within the keyboard playing of Max Crook, and it is in both the progression as well as the tone of his sound that the "magic" of the song resides.  Truth be told, he is actually playing a clavioline-based electric keyboard which he created himself, and it is due to the presence of this sound that later covers of the song simply cannot compare.  It is also within Crook's performance that the almost haunting feel of the song becomes the most clear, and the way in which these elements all fuse together is what makes "Runaway" such a special moment in music history.

Though some may argue that it is the vocals of Del Shannon that link him to the sound of his peers, one can also quite easily make a case for the other side, as much like the music, there is a darker, almost more aggressive element at play.  While there is no question that Shannon can easily work the entire vocal scale, as he does throughout "Runaway," there is a frustrated, almost desperate sound within his voice that gives the song a completely distinctive attitude.  The growl that comes through at points in his voice is surely what helped the song to become such a hit, and even all these decades later, it retains the attitude that it did upon first release, cementing the songs' status as iconic.  Yet it may very well be the unmistakable falsetto progression during the bridge section that remains the most memorable, and it is the contrast between these two extremes that show just how unique an artist lived within Del Shannon.  Furthermore, the lyrics on "Runaway" are able to make the overall mood even deeper, as one can sense the protagonist almost going mad as he walks the rainy streets at night.  While there is certainly a sense of deep love at some level, one can also feel a certain amount of paranoia within the singing, and this feeling of a near nervous breakdown is conveyed perfectly within Del Shannon's amazing voice.

Since its initial release, there have been dozens of recorded covers of "Runaway," with artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt to The Traveling Wilburys to The Misfits all taking their own spin on the song.  It is the latter of these covers that shows just how far the influence of the song reached, and though many may overlook it, the fact of the matter is, one can easily make a direct connection between "Runaway" and the darker, more aggressive bands that would emerge nearly two decades after the song was first released.  For a song that often is placed into the "golden age" category to have such impact is nearly impossible to find in any other song, and this fact alone makes "Runaway" a classic unlike anything else in history.  Furthermore, one can hear the influence of the brilliant keyboard solo all across the psychedelic movement, and one cannot help but cite it as the source for the equally legendary work of The Zombies.  Yet even without all of these clear lines of impact, "Runaway" easily stands on its own, as it represents everything that there is to love about the early rock and roll sound.  From the swinging sound to the heavy attitude within the vocals and the universal theme of the lyrics, few songs have achieved such a level of musical perfection, and it is much the reason that more than half a century later, there are few songs that can compare to the overall superiority of Del Shannon's magnificent 1961 single, "Runaway."

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