49) Del Shannon – “Runaway”

The fascinating part of working on this blog is discovering the sheer range of songs that topped the charts, both in terms of quality and of cultural endurance.  Some of the #1’s are flat-out terrible, but just as puzzling are the mediocre songs that vanish from the public consciousness the week they drop off the charts.  And, then, ever so rarely, are the indisputable classics.  These are the songs which not only maintain their potency years after their initial release, but which act as musical watersheds or otherwise define their era.  These songs outline the difference between “oldies” and songs that transcend their time to be great, period.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Del Shannon’s “Runaway” because it’s always been in the ether.  I do remember the moment when it clicked for me, though.  I was about 8 or 9, and I was leafing through booklets at a stained glass store while my grandmother shopped.  At the first sound, the serrated guitar strums, I froze.  I was drawn in by the song’s sinister urgency, punctuated by the piercing yet celestial tones of some unknown instrument.  This is not an oldie, I thought, but something much darker and scarier.  Even in high school, when I listened mostly to the arty funk of Talking Heads and the squall of Sonic Youth, “Runaway” was always in my top 5 songs.  I credit “Runaway” with sparking my love for the electronic organ, although the instrument in question is actually a clavioline modified by keyboardist Max Crook and renamed the Musitron. 

It’s the Musitron that is the crux of the tune.  Few pop listeners would have heard a synthesizer before at all, but having their first experience be with the Crook’s contraption is like trying your first pepper and having it be a Scotch bonnet.  The instrument’s otherworldy sound – simultaneously like a piano, a tuba and something that would have been recovered at the Roswell crash – catches the ear and sears the tune into the listener’s memory.  But the Musitron wasn’t the only ace that Shannon, Crook and co. had up their sleeves.  There’s also  the unusual chord change in the verses (A minor to G), the “wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder” falsetto of the chorus (few white boys had copped the technique before on record), the subliminal alienness of the pitch-corrected vocals (sped up because Shannon had sung a little flat).  Even when Shannon rerecorded “Runaway” for the ’80s TV drama Crime Story with darker lyrics (“watchin’ all the planes go by/some live and others die”), it couldn’t match the original’s sonic mixture of menace and desperation.  Just as nothing before or since sounded like the Musitron, so too does “Runaway” remain an anomaly: bizarre yet catchy, sinister yet heartbreaking. 10

Hit #1 on April 24, 1961; total of 4 weeks at #1
49 of 967 #1’s reviewed; 5.07% through the Hot 100

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4 Comments

Filed under 10, 1961

4 responses to “49) Del Shannon – “Runaway”

  1. Kevin B

    Like you, I also have a very personal connection to this song.

    I had always enjoyed, but passively listened to “Runaway” many times before on oldies radio stations at home, in the grocery store, and possibly in the the dentist office waiting room, but I remember the first time I truly *heard* the song.

    I was twelve years old in December of 1990 when my parents and I were on I-15 traveling from LA to Vegas. For lunch we stopped off at a 50s diner in Barstow that had a revolving rack of discount oldies cassettes. Bored with what was in the car my father let me pick out a few tapes, and I somewhat randomly chose Del Shannon’s greatest hits.

    We were likely approaching Clark Mountain summit at 5.000 feet with snow blanketing the ground when I peeled the wrapper and gave it to my father to place in the tape deck. Naturally, “Runaway” was the first track on side A.

    Looking outside the window at the desolate Mojave desert landscape, my mind faded as I focused in on Del’s vocals and the Musitron. I was not listening to a song from 30 years prior, but instead a tune that was written for the present moment. With winter break approaching, I had backed out of a pact I made with myself to talk with a girl at my school with whom I was infatuated. Moving forward, Del’s melancholy became my melancholy for the two weeks before school started back up again– I must have played the song 30 times during that time period in my Walkman.

    The Musitron has a quality that reminds me of the Theremin, or a good Stereolab arrangement. I think you hit on it with your “piercing yet celestial tones” description. I was also not surprised when I recently read that Max Crook also recorded with a Moog later in the decade, another otherworldly instrument.

  2. Eddie George

    I have heard both Del Shannon and Roy Orbison live and
    in person:
    No comparison.
    Shannon’s sound was ” studio ” produced.
    Orbison’s voice was original.

    But, I did like ” Runaway “. Great sound,
    cool lyrics.

  3. GeorgeL

    Shannon was the first artist to put a Lennon-McCartney song in the Top 100. He recorded a version of “From Me To You” which scraped the lower reaches of the Top 100 in 1963. I thought some of his later records (“Keep Searchin” etc) were pretty cool.

  4. Anonymous

    The 1967 version has a lot going for it, too!

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