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