"Leader of the Pack"

The Shangri-Las

album cover

The Quintessential Teen Melodrama

Underpinned by the revving of the recording engineer's Harley-Davidson, this 1964 smash is the best example of a crowded subgenre: The tragic tale of young love. The song is the sorrowful reflection of a teenager who falls for the leader of a biker gang. Her parents don't approve. She defends him. Finally they demand that she cut him loose. She breaks the news, and as he drives away, she begs him to "go slow." He evidently doesn't listen, because behind an instrumental passage is the sound of squealing brakes and shattering glass.

The narrative has all the subtlety of a made-for-TV movie, but as rendered by the Shangri-Las—two sets of sisters from Queens, New York, who began singing together just a year before this song rocketed up the charts— "Leader of the Pack" is also somehow touching. The lead vocal, by Mary Weiss, conveys just enough desperation to seem "real," a sense that's reinforced by the keening girl-group harmonies.

Other "tragedy" songs came before this one, but the chart-topping success of "Leader" sparked a melodrama stampede on the pop charts. The Shangri-Las made particularly effective ones: Subsequent hits included woeful tales about abandonment ("I Can Never Go Home Anymore") and heartbreak ("He Cried") that follow the "Leader" formula to the letter.

Genre: Pop
Released: 1964, Red Bird
Appears On: The Ultimate Shangri-Las
Catalog Choice: Mary Weiss: Dangerous Game
Next Stop: Various Artists: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found
Book Page: 692

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#1 from Adam Herbst, New Jersey - 11/16/2008 11:21

Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector taught Joey Ramone how to sing.  Nuff said.

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