Volume 4, Issue 1: Spring 2008


“Mmmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil”: The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack,” and the Cultural Context of the Motorcycle Rider

Lisa MacKinney

On 28 November 1964, the Shangri-Las’ single “Leader of the Pack” reached Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The subject matter of the song, its dramatically compelling performances, and innovative production techniques catapulted the Shangri-Las into international fame and controversy. The central figure in the song is Jimmy, a motorcycle rider whose teenage girlfriend is forced by her parents to end their relationship. Distraught, he rides off into the rainy night, crashes his bike and dies. On the surface, it seems that Jimmy could have ridden straight out of The Wild One and over to pick up Betty after school. Closer examination reveals a far more complex character, unfixed and malleable. Musicologist Jacqueline Warwick has observed that Jimmy functions as “a shadowy male figure” to give the girls something to talk about, noting that this “is a strategy common to soap opera writing” (193). Jimmy is certainly this, but also much more. As a voiceless, ghostly figure, Jimmy is able to function as a cipher for a range of white, postwar, generational, gendered, and class-based conflicts. By 1964, the motorcycle rider was a well-established icon of white American manliness, and, together with his bike, was a figure of tremendous cultural resonance—a solo traveler, a man-machine. Although the initial impetus for the figure of Jimmy seems to have been a real-life biker, both he and his bike are transformed through the complex processes at work in this compact and deceptively simple pop song.

“Leader of the Pack” is credited to three songwriters—the Brill Building songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and George “Shadow” Morton.[1]  According to Morton, the inspiration for the song stemmed from an incident that took place in his hometown of Hicksville, Long Island, when he was a teenager:

. . . my mother . . . gave me a few dollars and said, “Go down to the diner and get yourself a cup of coffee. Get out of the house, you're driving me crazy.” . . . I came over the hill and . . . I couldn't believe what I saw . . . at least 150, 200 kids at this diner. Bikers, hot rodders, gum smacking ladies—not careful at all about their language and what they had to say . . . I found in Hicksville the toughest gang you could ever imagine. All the kids were . . . yanked from Queens, The Bronx, Brooklyn—and a lot of them because they'd been in trouble, they were going the wrong way. They all gathered around this diner, mostly hot rods . . . about a dozen bikes. Bumpy was the man. He was the head guy. He was my inspiration for “The Leader of the Pack.” He took me under his wing as I was one of the newest kids around . . . I became like his little brother. (“The ‘Shadow’ Reappears”)

This scene, as described by Morton, conjures up a postwar parental and governmental nightmare of wayward, rampaging youth. The popularity of motorbikes, hot-rods and gangs with teenagers was one of many causes of consternation among middle-class parents and authority figures, since this was generally seen as evidence of the “infiltration of lower-class and criminal values into youth culture” (Gilbert 18).

The fear of “respectable” society being infiltrated by so-called lower-class characteristics fuelled an intense scrutiny of teen culture, and panics over the juvenile misbehavior that many felt was inextricably linked with it.[2] This was reflected in a veritable explosion of academic treatises examining juvenile delinquency, gang warfare, street culture, and urban offenders, which attempted to develop theories pertaining to the understanding, development and prevention of these social problems.[3] In his 1955 sociological study, Delinquent Boys, Albert K. Cohen noted that

the hallmark of delinquent subculture is the explicit and wholesale repudiation of middle-class standards and the adoption of their very antithesis . . . the delinquent is the rogue male. His conduct may be viewed not only negatively, as a device for attacking and derogating the respectable culture; positively it may be viewed as the exploitation of modes of behavior which are traditionally symbolic of untrammeled masculinity, which are renounced by middle-class culture because incompatible with its ends, but which are not without a certain aura of glamour and romance. (Cohen, 129, 140, italics mine)[4]

It is undeniable that Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One, Johnny Strabler, inhabits this dual territory that Cohen describes. But Lily Phillips has argued persuasively that the age of Brando’s Strabler was a crucial component in the development of his iconic status. He is not merely a biker, he is a young biker—the sullen, defiant leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, and the poster boy for post-war juvenile biker delinquency.

How does Jimmy, who seems at least partially based on a real-life juvenile delinquent biker, compare with the Strabler-type figure as characterized by Cohen? In the spoken introduction to “Leader of the Pack,” which takes the form of seemingly vacuous schoolgirl chatter, the listener is immediately alerted to a problem with Jimmy, before we even know his name. The opening question is not “Are they really going out together?” or some other form of equal pairing—but “Is she really going out with him?” There is something odd, unusual, problematic about this girl going out with this boy. We soon learn (“Gee it must be great riding with him”) that Jimmy rides a bike.[5] It’s also implicit in the question “Is he picking you up after school today?” that sometimes he does, so Jimmy is not at work, at least not at a regular 9-5 job. Then, finally, Betty bursts into song, declaring:

I met him at the candy store
He turned around and smiled at me . . .
You get the picture?
(Yes, we see . . . )
That’s when I fell for
The Leader of the Pack.

The revving of a bike leaves the listener in no doubt that Jimmy is the leader of a pack—gang—of motorcycle riders. Betty’s meeting Jimmy “at the candy store” is also noteworthy. Far from being neutral public territory, candy stores were spaces often known to be frequented by gang members. Eric Schneider, in his study of postwar gangs in New York, described them as

typically small storefronts, with a counter, a soda dispenser, magazine racks, and perhaps a jukebox and some stools or a small table, candy stores provided a place where gang members could meet, gossip, and, if space permitted, dance with their debs. (153)

Particular candy stores were known to be the headquarters specific gangs; rival gangs knew where to find the leaders of their opponents, police knew which candy stores to raid, and street workers attempting to reform gang members hung out and made contact with them at a given gang’s candy store (Schneider 152-53). Of course, not all candy stores were gang hangouts, but in the context of this song, the location is significant.

Betty’s family is none too pleased about her choice of boyfriend, who not only eschews some core middle-class values, but possesses characteristics clearly recognizable to the average white middle-class parent as delinquent. Betty complains to her girlfriends about her family’s response to Jimmy, lamenting, “My folks were always putting him down / They said that he came from the wrong side of town.” This loaded lyric introduces a class element—whether literally or metaphorically “from the wrong side of town”—as far as her parents are concerned, Jimmy is not suitable for their daughter. Implicit here is the commonly held assumption that juvenile delinquency, and its concomitant gangs of leather-jacketed motorcyclists, was a product of working-class neighborhoods and behaviors. The perceived spread of this social problem into “nice” middle-class families was a source of great anxiety, as parents became “fearful that their children were adopting the form and substance of working-class alienation in their music, dress, slang, and attitudes.”[6] Through her alliance with Jimmy, Betty is effectively contributing to a weakening of class boundaries, alarm about which is the prerogative of an older generation. Betty is not concerned; on the contrary, this is one component of Jimmy’s attractiveness.

All this locates Betty in the realm of delinquent girls, since dating a rebel itself constituted an act of rebellion. Jacqueline Warwick has observed that the “juvenile delinquent” discourse concerning

“bad girls” differed significantly from the perceptions of male teens in trouble. . . . While bad boys were more easily understood as individuals, responsible for their wrongdoings, bad girls at mid-century were seen as evidence of inadequate patriarchal control, and they threatened an entire social order. Taking up with a bad boy was often understood as the first step on a slippery slope away from father’s loving control and towards a life of adolescent and eventually adult disrepute. (196)

It is significant, then, that Betty’s father is the one to deliver the wrecking ball. Betty tells her girlfriends that “One day my dad said ‘Find someone new.’ / I had to tell my Jimmy ‘We’re through.’” The way the song contextualizes Betty’s parents’ handling of her implied delinquency is therefore telling. In theory, Betty has a model dad: present, and involved enough in the life of his teenage daughter to be concerned for her welfare, and insist and ensure that she ends her relationship with the undesirable biker/delinquent Jimmy.[7] However, this is categorically not where the song’s sympathies lie, creating a critique of Betty’s father and the particular brand of middle-class conservative, conformist patriarchy that he espouses. It is a mark of the song’s complexity that it is possible to miss this. Ian Inglis, discussing a group of eleven “teenage death discs” released between 1959 and 1964, argued that

in those songs where there is parental opposition, it is made abundantly clear that resistance to their instructions will inexorably lead to tragedy . . . in “Leader of the Pack” the girl’s disagreement with her parents results in the boyfriend’s death. (486)

In fact, precisely the opposite takes place. Jimmy died because he rode off into the rainy night in acute distress after Betty ended their relationship in accordance with her father’s directive. It is Betty’s obedience to her parents’ instructions that results in Jimmy’s death, not her defiance of them.

“Leader of the Pack” walked a fine line, as those involved in its creation were acutely aware. Morton claims that he took the idea for the song to Jerry Leiber, the lyricist half of the renowned Leiber and Stoller songwriting team, and co-owner of the Red Bird record label to which the Shangri-Las were signed. “Leader of the Pack” was (ultimately) the Shangri-Las’ second single on Red Bird. But Morton says that initially, he was told not to produce it, and that the label would not pay for it:

It was dangerous. They were afraid of the repercussions. “Radio stations aren't going to play it! Parents aren't going to let their daughters go out and buy it!” I mean, it's a song about a young girl falling in love with a motorcycle man . . . clearly a bad girl. (“The ‘Shadow’ Reappears”)

In a 2007 radio interview, Mary Weiss, whose impassioned singing contributes immeasurably to the song’s enduring power, revealed her own trepidation about “Leader of the Pack”:

I really had to sit down with this one. I took it home and listened to it for a very long time before I agreed to do it. . . . Even at the time, it was pretty much out there. There was a very rigid environment, even globally. . . . I mean, the record was banned in England the first time it came out.[8]

“Leader of the Pack” was a Number 1 in the US, but the ban by the BBC in England ignited a storm of controversy and forced the cancellation of a planned English tour (Betrock 102). In January 1965, New Musical Express (NME) ran an article entitled “No-One Objected to Shangri-Las in States,” which essentially downplayed the hullabaloo (Altham 3). What is really striking, though, is exactly what the fuss was over. In stark contrast to the apparent concerns of the song’s creators, it seemed that neither English nor American audiences particularly objected to the notion of a young girl falling in love with a biker.

The author of the NME article noted that “one of the greatest criticisms of ‘Leader of the Pack’ was the inclusion of a motorbike used virtually as a musical instrument” (Altham 3). Today, “Shadow” Morton is hailed as a pioneer in the field of record production techniques, and his particularly innovative use of sound effects frequently cited as ground-breaking. But at the time, it seems there was some difficulty accepting “Leader of the Pack” on its own terms. English pop singer Lyn Ripley, better known as Twinkle, was sixteen when she wrote and performed “Terry,” which has as its subject matter a girl whose motorcycle-riding boyfriend died in a crash. “Terry” was released in England before “Leader of the Pack” and was already in the charts.[9] It too had been banned by the BBC, but had apparently received enough airplay on pirate stations to generate considerable sales.[10] Given the similarities in subject matter of the two songs, Twinkle was called upon for her opinion of “Leader of the Pack,” and said, “People in this country tend not to go for gimmick records and I thought that the sound of the motorbike on disc might put people off. I say good luck to them with their musical motorbike” (qtd. in Altham 3).

The conception of “Leader of the Pack” as “gimmicky” is one that recurs frequently, and it seems this was a common frame of reference through which to understand the use of sound effects, which in turn led to the perception of the song as a novelty record. The Shangri-Las never completely escaped this tag. In an extremely positive review of their first LP which praised their singing, “fascinating sound-patterns” and the “most exciting, restless sound—with an organ” of the live material featured on the record, Allen Evans still noted that “the girls do some lines in speaking voices, which adds to the novelty.”[11]

This was brought into stark relief on an episode of the New York based TV panel quiz show I’ve Got a Secret, from late 1964. An elaborate charade is performed by some of the adult contestants, and lines from “Leader of the Pack” acted out as a prelude to a studio performance of the song. The Shangri-Las then mime the song to a leather-jacketed “Jimmy” figure on a bike, played by Robert Goulet, who had already taken an active role in the charade.[12] Goulet pretends to rev the bike in time with the motorcycle sounds, throwing it around in pseudo-comedic attempts at wheelies. All the while, he pulls faces and acts the fool, eliciting laughter from the audience. The song is relentlessly sent up, the rider completely caricatured into a ridiculous, laughable figure.[13] Mary Weiss—fifteen years old, intent on her performance, completely inhabiting the song (albeit in ultra-modest knee-length skirt and blouse combo)—looks unsure a couple of times but does not laugh. Goulet clearly had the star power here; the Shangri-Las are a foil for his antics, and are virtually dismissed at the end of their performance while the host fusses over Goulet. Ultimately, the attempts to make a joke of the song seem incongruous; the spectacle unintentionally riveting.[14]

“Leader of the Pack” was also parodied as “Leader of the Laundromat” by a group of male singers calling themselves The Detergents. Their version was in the charts concurrently with “Leader of the Pack,” and peaked at Number 19 on 9 January, 1965.[15] In this version, the gender of the protagonist is changed to a girl who is doing her washing: “I met her one day at the Laundromat.” “Murray” is told by his dad to break it off with “Betty” “because her laundry came back brown,” and, distraught at this news, Betty runs into the street and is hit by a garbage truck. Although all meant in good fun, it is rather interesting to note that the Jimmy/rider figure is feminized and converted into a character who is a quite useless girl because she can’t even get the washing right, and her inability to fulfill basic expectations of feminine behavior mirrors Jimmy’s rejection of middle-class patriarchal norms. Again, the power of the biker figure is negated, especially since the feminized version has no association with motorbikes whatsoever. Nevertheless, the revving noises are retained in “Leader of the Laundromat,” partly because they are such a distinctive component of the original version, and they have a greater significance, which I will discuss shortly.

On the other hand, if the record was taken seriously, it was seen as morbid and death-obsessed. Vicki Trent, writing in Pop Weekly in 1965, said of “Leader of the Pack”:

To me the disc, which describes in those awful pseudo-sad tones the leader of a motor-cycle gang being killed, is just about the very bottom of the barrel as far as records go . . . to anyone who has had a teenage son, brother, or sweetheart even, killed on a motorbike (and that must be quite a few) it must be sickening. . . . No wonder people, especially parents, are always condemning teenagers for being “juvenile delinquents.” Why shouldn't they when records are sold by the thousand which deal with death and nothing else?

Trent’s explicit linking of songs about death with juvenile delinquency reflects an assumption that became widespread during the 1950s, that the mass media, which included television, movies, comics, radio, and records, was having a negative effect on youth, encouraging juvenile delinquency and contributing to family breakdown (Gilbert 3). This popular perception was shaped most famously by psychiatrist and neurologist Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent (1953). In this book, and in numerous public appearances, Wertham argued that a strong causal link existed between mass culture, particularly comic books, and juvenile delinquency (Wertham 148-71; Gilbert 91-108). His “articulate and coherent explanation for the rise of juvenile misbehavior” (Gilbert 91) had tremendous popular appeal among worried adults seeking explanations for what they saw as unfathomable teenage conduct.

The wider implications of Wertham’s argument are observable in a letter from an irate mother to the editors of Modern Teen magazine, a copy of which apparently made its way into the house through a friend of her daughter’s. The letter conflates comic books with a number of other features of teen culture, which she perceived as tasteless, alarming and harmful:

I have never seen such a collection of tripe in my entire life. Don’t you realize what you are doing? You are encouraging teenagers to write to each other, which keeps them from doing their school work and other chores. You are encouraging them to kiss and have physical contact before they’re even engaged, which is morally wrong and you know it. You are encouraging them to have faith in the depraved individuals who make rock and roll records when it’s common knowledge that ninety percent of these rock and roll singers are people with no morals or sense of values.

I can just picture a cross-section of your readers, complete with acne, black leather jackets, motorcycle boots, comic books and all. Any fan of yours spends his time failing at school, talking back to his parents, sharpening his switchblade for the next gang fight, wearing sensual revealing clothing, and last and certainly not least, feeding his curious mind with the temptations put forth on the pages of your lewd and demoralizing publication. (qtd. in Brown 15; Gilbert 202-203)

For this parent, mass teen culture, as epitomized by Modern Teen, was a checklist of perceived lower-class attributes and items that signified rebellion, delinquency, and a fundamental rejection of “decent” middle-class standards. These included black leather jackets and motorcycle boots, which are here explicitly linked with, among other things, switchblades, gangs, and rock and roll. As Eric Schneider noted,

parents, journalists and public officials mistook the stylistic affectations of rebellion for its substance. They saw the spread of leather jackets, Levi’s, and rock ’n’ roll as proof that juvenile delinquency was like a contagious disease spreading outward from the slums, rather than as the expression of clever marketing. (Schneider 144-45)

This is not to say that these symbols were meaningless. Rather, their meanings had been transformed; wearing a “gang” or leather jacket “became the symbol of youthful rebelliousness, guaranteed to worry parents and teachers,” instead of an indication of gang membership, as it had been previously (Schneider 144).[16] And “clever marketing” included professionally composed songs like “Leader of the Pack,” which captured and expressed aspects of a certain zeitgeist that ultimately transcended its original milieu of mid-1960s New York City.

It is also important to note that “Leader of the Pack” was merely the latest in a long line of “teen death” records. This did not go unnoticed at the time. Phyllis Lee Levin, writing in The New York Times in 1965, discussed “Leader of the Pack” in the context of “certain teen-age fads,” in this case "the sick songs, or, more politely termed, tragedy songs. The heroes and heroines of these songs issue last messages—or noises—from foxholes, coffins, motorcycles, and even garbage trucks" (72). Some of the more famous “teen death” records include “Endless Sleep,” a hit in 1958 for Jody Reynolds, “Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ray Peterson, from 1960, and “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning, also from 1960.[17] In 1955, The Cheers had a hit with a "death disc" about a biker and his girl, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots.” In this song, the biker is a clichéd thug: he is cranky, dirty and treats his pretty girlfriend Mary-Lou so badly that “everybody pitied her because everybody knew / He loved that dog-gone motorcycle best.”[18] He is a resolutely unsympathetic figure, and when he roars off, impervious to Mary-Lou’s pleadings that “if you ride tonight I’ll grieve” and crashes into a “screaming diesel that was California bound,” the strong sense is that he will not be sorely missed; his death will in fact liberate the long-suffering Mary-Lou. Although the subject matter is similar and the songs undeniably have common elements, “Black Denim Trousers” has none of the narrative complexity and emotional impact of “Leader of the Pack.”

Nor was “Leader of the Pack” alone in its use of sound effects. A motorbike belonging to one of the sound engineers at the recording session, Joe Venneri, was used for the revving noises (Arthur; Emerson 227). The skid and crash effect was a standard one from a sound effects record. In fact, the exact same effect was used on “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus (1956), “Car Crash” by The Cadets (1960), “Two-Hour Honeymoon” by Paul Hampton (1960, written and arranged by Burt Bacharach), and “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan & Dean (1964).[19] Nevertheless, the use of sound effects in “Leader of the Pack” struck reviewers as completely inappropriate. According to one,

If you like Twinkle’s “Terry,” then you’ll dig The Shangri-Las’ smash American hit, “Leader of the Pack” in a big way. . . . The rumbling, reverberating Spector-like sound, and the absorbing harmonies by the girls are great. But they’re interspersed by a sugary monologue, revving noises, and even the sound of the crash. Personally, I think it’s obnoxious and tasteless, but I’m sure it’ll be a walloping hit. (Johnson 4)

And it was. It seems that most of this discomfort was from adult listeners. Presumably the teenagers who were the main buyers of the record didn’t have these problems with it, and related to its intense emotionality.

However, the true role of the motorcycle sounds has been lost in all of this. It is important to note that Jimmy is voiceless in the song. The entire tragedy is relayed in the past tense—before the song begins, Jimmy is already dead. He comes to us as a shifting mirage, a memory glimpsed through Betty’s tears, the stunned awe of her girlfriends, and the blinkered authoritarianism of her father. The revving of the bike is his leitmotif, his signature melody, his voice. There is a long tradition associating masculinity with machinery and technology, and the revving sounds simultaneously announce Jimmy’s presence and identify him as a rider at one with his vehicle, hyper-masculine, a man-machine.[20] As Hunter S. Thompson put it in Hell’s Angels, "The whole—man and machine together—is far more than the sum of its parts. His motorcycle is the one thing in life he has absolutely mastered. It is his only valid status symbol, his equalizer. . . . Without it he is no better than a punk on a street corner" (96). As critic Jack Sargeant has noted, when Jimmy and his bike crash, the sounds of the accident invite the listener “to imagine all its horrors for themselves.” During the final part of the song an “extended skid is replayed and faded out” and “never allowed to culminate in an impact” (Sargeant 262-63). This has the effect of eternally suspending Jimmy in oblivion, the looped skid his requiem.

Parallels can be seen in Kenneth Anger’s "silent" film Scorpio Rising, from 1963. There is no dialogue. All the riders, including Scorpio, are voiceless. In a sort of cinematic inversion of Jimmy’s role, the soundtrack of the film is entirely pop songs from the late ’50s and early ’60s—very much of the vocal group milieu from which the Shangri-Las emerged—which segue into each other like a long sequence played by a disc jockey on radio.[21]Anger has also used sound effects, predominantly of motorcycles. Tellingly, the first time this occurs is several minutes into the film, after a series of slow, lingering shots that fetishize the machinery of the bikes and their accoutrements. The capped head of a biker appears at the bottom of the screen, rising until the studded words on the back of his leather jacket are visible: SCORPIO RISING—KENNETH ANGER. He turns around, a lingering shot of his open jacket and bare abdomen. All the while, the bike revs—flesh and gears, the man-machine.[22]

“Leader of the Pack” is not attempting anything like the mythic apocalypse of Scorpio Rising, which director Kenneth Anger famously described as “a death mirror held up to American culture” (Powell 74). But Anger has used a careful selection of popular music of the day, bike sound effects and voiceless riders who appear as a series of images, to achieve his particular ends. Scorpio Rising also concludes with a violent motorcycle accident, complete with skidding noises, crash sounds, sirens, flashing lights—all while “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris hammers the point home. Anger’s innovative use of music is central to Scorpio Rising, and Juan Suárez has argued compellingly that the film’s engagement with pop songs, comic books and images of teen idols is at least as important to its artistic success as the avant-garde tradition within which it is usually discussed (142). As Scorpio Rising straddles “high” and “low” culture, the barriers between these traditions are dissolved—so Jesus walks down the street to “He’s A Rebel” by the Crystals (Suárez 167-8). Shots of Brando in The Wild One are juxtaposed with Christ and Hitler, all forming part of Anger’s technique, as Carel Rowe put it, of reducing religion, political history and popular culture into “sets of systems which destroy one another… Different dogmas are equalized (and subsumed by) their structural and ideological parallels (21-22). The “black-leathered motorcyclists who exist outside and in defiance of the prevailing culture” become symbols: they are the catalysts for revolution and the fall of an age (Rowe 26). Their blank voicelessness is central to their ability to function in this way, just as Jimmy’s emptiness enables him to function as a complex symbol of postwar anxieties and teenage desire. That Scorpio Rising and “Leader of the Pack” were made within a year of each other in New York is further suggestive of their cultural connectedness.[23]

The Shangri-Las’ next single, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” features another, differently sketched version of a “Jimmy” figure. There is nothing overt in the song to indicate that he’s a biker, yet in a live performance on the pop music TV show Shindig!, the group performs the song to a actor wearing a leather bike jacket, dark pants, boots, shades and a peaked black cap—a very clear reference to the protagonist of their last single.[24] And in the final couplet of a section of mid-song dialogue, the lead singer’s friends express concern about her boyfriend: “Yeah? Well I hear he’s bad,” to which she replies, “Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil . . .” Good negates bad, and bad good. He’s not evil, but he is a silent prop, rendered by complex processes of production, narrative and performance into a blank page—nothing, and therefore everything.

“Good-bad” encapsulates with elegant economy the dualities that have emerged here: the Strabler figure, delinquent, threatening and condemned, but with tremendously appealing “untrammeled masculinity”; the “man-machine” of Jimmy and his bike, subsequently disempowered and negated by Goulet and The Detergents. It’s also noteworthy that the laughable parodies to which “Leader of the Pack” was subjected are to some extent a result of its perceived excessive morbidity and its undeniably heightened emotionalism. These dualities ultimately remain unresolved, and the figure of the motorcycle rider emerges as an elastic entity resisting easy definition. Tragically misunderstood, misjudged, Jimmy inhabits the song like a shadow, a martyr to and critique of the type of parenting that is informed by middle-class, conservative, conformist family values. It is this social milieu that produced the panics over juvenile delinquency that are reflected with such sophisticated complexity in “Leader of the Pack.” This is no laughing matter; Jimmy’s death is a direct result of dogged adherence to the core assumptions espoused by white, middle-class America. The figure of Jimmy, so spectacularly successful in “Leader of the Pack”, became the Shangri-Las’ signature “guy,” a silent, misunderstood type whose essential blankness enabled him to fulfill complex roles within their songs and in the lives of their listeners.


I sincerely thank the following people for their contributions to this article: Phil Milstein for generously supplying books, video footage, recordings, and extremely helpful feedback; Bradley Eros for lending me a copy of Scorpio Rising and a pile of Kenneth Anger criticism; Tony McMahon for insisting that I see Scorpio Rising at all costs, and for taking me riding so I could have the authentic “Leader of the Pack” experience. For their feedback and comments I thank my PhD advisors Charlie Fox and Ethan Blue in the Department of History at The University of Western Australia (UWA); and Karen Hall from the Department of English and Cultural Studies. I also thank the anonymous referees for their helpful comments and insights.

1 Morton has claimed sole authorship of the song, however, as Ken Emerson diplomatically put it, Morton has “taken more delight in telling stories than in telling the truth” (225). Morton’s claim is supported by Rod McBrien, with whom he apparently recorded the basic demo in Hicksville (Emerson 227).

2 See Gilbert, esp. pp. 200 ff. For an excellent examination of the impact of international politics on responses to the biker/juvenile delinquent in the USA, see Phillips.

3 These include Cohen, Aichhorn, Cloward and Ohlin; for a useful survey see Giallombardo.

4 Also see Barson and Heller. For the historical background of these ideas, and fears of hyper-masculinity among the working classes, see Bederman.

5 “Riding” could also be a metaphor for sex, given the common investment of motorcycles with feminine/sexual qualities and their role as an object of desire: see Pigot 18.

6 See Mintz 295; Schneider 138; Gilbert 18; and Miller.

7 On father/daughter relationships during this period, see Devlin, “Female Juvenile Delinquency,” 83-106, esp. 84-6; see also Devlin, Relative Intimacy.

8 There has been a revival of interest in the Shangri-Las following the release of Mary Weiss’s first post-Shangri-Las solo album, Dangerous Game (Norton Records), in March 2007. Weiss and backing band The Reigning Sound played a number of live shows when the album was released, and have included several Shangri-Las’ songs in the sets. At the launch for Dangerous Game in Cleveland, Ohio (3 March, 2007), “Leader of the Pack” was conspicuously absent.

9 There is some speculation about whether Twinkle could possibly have heard “Leader of the Pack” before she wrote “Terry.” Her sister worked as a pop music reporter, and could have acquired a promotional copy before the record was generally available in England, but this remains conjecture. For more about Twinkle and to hear “Terry” go to http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=177287041 (accessed 14 June, 2007).

10 See “Twinkle—Banned by the Beeb” and Clayson.

11 This idea persisted well into the 1980s: Monica Syrette, writing in 1996, noted that she knew “Leader of the Pack” as “a staple of AM radio when I was growing up, played as a gimmick song like ‘The Monster Mash’ or something.” My thanks to Monica for providing me with a copy of her article.

12 Robert Goulet achieved considerable fame on Broadway for his role as Sir Lancelot in Camelot (1960) alongside Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. By 1964 he was a well-established theatre and television performer; while introducing Goulet, the host of I’ve Got a Secret promoted his upcoming TV special on the CBS network, An Hour With Robert Goulet. He performed regularly until his death from a lung condition in October 2007 (see http://www.robertgoulet.com/index.php).

13 See Lily Phillips’ comments on the Eric von Zipper character featured in the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon Beach movies for the depiction of the biker as an absurd figure.

14 I’ve Got a Secret, November, 1964; to see the Shangri-Las’ performance of the song (without the preceding charade): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FxSM88H-G4.

15 Billboard Hot 100, 9 January, 1965; Hit Parader, May 1965, 12-13, 52. The four members of The Detergents were also from New York—three from Brooklyn, one from Staten Island.

16 Also see Hebdidge 90-112.

17 This is a very small sample. Inglis discusses eleven examples released between 1959 and 1964 (477-88); for a fuller account of this genre see Clayson 47-60.

18 See Emerson 227. Given Morton’s association with Leiber and Red Bird, it seems impossible that he would have been unaware of this song.

19 Thanks to Phil Milstein for pointing this out and providing me with copies of these tracks, especially the truly extraordinary “Transfusion.”

20 On the association of masculinity with technology, see Pigot 47-49. For a more theoretical analysis of the “man-machine interface” and the musicality of throttles, see Steven Thompson 99-100, 107-9 and Alt 133.

21 These include “He’s A Rebel” by The Crystals and “My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels, both from 1963. It is very tempting to speculate that had “Leader of the Pack” had been recorded and released just a little earlier, it would almost certainly have been included by Anger.

22 For a thorough discussion of the homoerotic aspects of Scorpio Rising and their contexts, see Suárez.

23 Scorpio Rising was at least partially shot in Brooklyn: see Markopolis 5. For an extended discussion of Kenneth Anger’s use of popular music, see Suárez 114-18; for Scorpio Rising and popular culture more generally, see Suárez 141-180.

24 The actor is Ian Whitcomb, an English US-based performer who had a hit in 1965 with the self-penned “You Turn Me On.” Today he is a respected performer and chronicler of early twentieth-century popular music (see http://www.picklehead.com/ian.html). The Shangri-Las’ Shindig! performance from 1965 can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuNlEGbAKf0.


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