As T.S. Eliot almost wrote, this column has become much obsessed with death and sees the skull beneath the skin. Going to a moving memorial service for a departed colleague the other week, and watching his wife leave at the end with her three beautiful and now fatherless young children, brought poignantly home just how vilely cruel death can be.
But perhaps the best way of coping with things we fear is to laugh at them. And I can think of no better way of wringing wild laughter from the throat of death than a hilariously tasteless new album from Ace Records called Dead: The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits (CDCHD 1100).
This ‘deadly medley’ gathers 24 of the hilariously morbid pop songs that were so strangely popular in the early Sixties and which the BBC, in those distant days such a stickler for decorum and good taste, almost invariably banned.
The most famous death hit of all is probably ‘The Leader of the Pack’ by the American girl band the Shangri-Las (1964). This magnificently overwrought teenage tragedy tells the story of a respectable high-school girl, Betty, who is ordered by her strict father to break up with her boyfriend Jimmy, who leads the local motorcycle gang and comes from ‘the wrong side of town’. So distraught is Jimmy when Betty hands him his cards that he roars off into the night (‘Vrrroooom vrrroooom!’) and is so blinded by tears that he immediately suffers a fatal crash (cue skid noises, and lots of crash, bang, wallop on the percussion). At school they all stop and stare, and poor Betty can’t hide her tears. ‘But I don’t care,’ she insists defiantly, swearing that she will never forget her beloved leader of the pack.
With its gossipy chorus of schoolgirls, ethereal choirs and poignant detail (the tragic couple first met in a candy store) the song packs more incident and emotion into two minutes and 50 seconds than many full-length plays I have seen. It’s sheer schlocky bliss.
Unfortunately, you won’t find it on this compilation (though it’s widely available elsewhere), because Ace is apparently saving it for a second bumper volume of relentless morbidity. This is a bit silly, because what the collection does include is the song’s unofficial sequel. This is an unforgettable number called ‘I Want My Baby Back’, written by Perry Botkin and Gil Garfield in 1964, that achieved, ahem, posthumous fame in the late Seventies when it was chosen as the world’s worst record on The Kenny Everett Show.
I remember thrilling to it then, but have long since lost the vomit-coloured vinyl album, The World’s Worst Record Show, that featured it. What a joy it is to have this glorious monument to bad taste back in my collection.
The piece is sung, in a deep southern accent, choked with emotion, by a chap called Jimmy Cross, an actor apparently best known for playing ‘The Amazing Colossal Man, a 60-ft hunk who attacks Las Vegas’.
He describes driving home with his baby after a Beatles concert, where he had a wonderful time watching his baby ‘screaming and tearing her hair out and seeming so full of life’. Unfortunately, it starts to rain heavily and screaming out of the darkness comes some ‘mush-head on a motorbike heading right at us’. By some weird ESP, Cross is able to identify the nightrider as the Leader of the Pack just before he smashes into their car. When he comes around after the crash, the singer starts searching for his baby. ‘I looked around and over there was my baby, and over there, and way over there was my baby,’ he exclaims in horror as he is confronted by her severed and widely dispersed remains. Grief proves too much for him. In the final verse, still desperately wanting his baby back, we hear him digging in the graveyard, prising open her coffin, and climbing inside. The lid slams shut and we hear a muffled necrophiliac cry of triumph as he triumphantly crows: ‘I’ve GOT my baby back.’ Other classics include ‘Terry’ by our very own Twinkle (another doomed motorcyclist), The Everly Brothers’ genuinely haunting ‘Ebony Eyes’ and an astonishing number called ‘Psycho’, which is the confessional monologue of a serial killer. First the girlfriend gets it, then a sweet little puppy dog and finally his dear old Mom. Listen out too for ‘The Drunken Driver’ by an emotion-wracked Ferlin Husky, very possibly the most maudlin country and western song ever recorded — and the competition is admittedly strong. In it the titular drunk at the wheel discovers he has run over his own children. ‘Daddy, why did you do this to us?’ asks the dying son in a pool of blood. ‘It was you and mummy we were talking about when the car it brought us down/ Why did it have to be this way Daddy, why?’ As Oscar Wilde observed of the death of Little Nell, you would need a heart of stone not to laugh.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.