120. ‘Runaway’, by Del Shannon

Hold up! Just before I pause for another recap, what’s this I hear? A late contender for best song?

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Runaway, by Del Shannon (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 29th June – 20th July 1961

This is a song the greatness of which has long been recognised. I’m not sure I can add much more to the debate. ‘Runaway’, by Del Shannon, is a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ‘Rolling Stone’ Top 500-songs-ever kind of tune. It’s catchy, it’s innovative, it’s irresistible. It comes in all a-frenzy and lifts you up, up and away on a frantic piano riff. As I walk along, I wonder, What went wrong with our love, A love that was so strong…

Let’s break it down, shall we? I can now state – after an extensive bout of listening to said song – that the brilliance of ‘Runaway’ can be put down to three things. Of which number one is… The rasp in Shannon’s voice as he sings the chorus. I’m a-walkin’ in the rain, Tears are fallin’ and I, Feel the pain… He truly sounds heartbroken, singing at the top of his lungs as if it will help bring his runaway baby back.

Number two… The hook. Every classic pop song needs one. Here it’s simple enough: I wonder, I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder… And just to be sure: Why? Why-why-why-why-why? Ask anyone to sing a line from ‘Runaway’ and I bet they recreate (probably quite painfully) Del Shannon’s falsetto on these lines.

And number three… The solo. This is the innovative bit. Because what in God’s name is that instrument? It sounds weird enough to my modern ears. To the unsuspecting people of 1961 it must have sounded like it was coming from another planet. It’s a Musitron – an early version of the synthesiser. And so we have what is technically the first ever electronic #1 single – around twenty years early! This is why I love the charts. The fact that it is a list of songs based solely on how many people have bought them. Nothing else. Anything can follow anything. Which means one month on from The Temperance Seven’s ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ looking back to the 1920s, we have ‘Runaway’ and its crazed Musitron solo looking forward to the 1980s.

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There are plenty other reasons why this is a classic, of course. But why bother trying to explain? It might be the chords, the minor key, the tempo… Or yes, it might be the solo, the hook or the voice. But some songs just have ‘it’ – that magic formula that ensures a timeless hit.

Del Shannon – AKA Charles Westover – had been in the music business since the mid-fifties, and ‘Runaway’ was his first and his biggest hit. He wouldn’t have any subsequent hits as big. I’m semi-familiar with his other work: ‘Hat’s Off to Larry’ is catchy enough, but I would recommend the brilliant ‘Little Town Flirt’ as his best song that isn’t you-know-what. He had several further Top 10 hits in his native US, and even more in the UK, but no more #1s. He descended into alcoholism and tragically shot himself in 1990, aged just fifty-five. Which helps add a further melancholy edge to his already pretty melancholy most famous song.

This is a brilliant Number One single – no doubt about it. It’s catchy, yet not banal. Familiar, yet innovative. Uplifting, yet sad. It is also – and perhaps this says more than anything I’ve written –  the first of our hundred and twenty number ones to have a ‘Behind the Lyrics’ feature on Spotify – the sort of honour only bestowed on pretty much every modern pop song but only the most classic of classic hits.

8 thoughts on “120. ‘Runaway’, by Del Shannon

  1. Poor Del. Every time I hear this song I feel sad. His last show was at the Surf Ballroom in Feb. 1990. It was a tribute to Buddy, Ritchie and The Big Bopper. I didn’t even know that Del committed suicide until about 2 yrs ago. Even before that this was a sad song to me, when most people at the diners I went to seemed to think it was fun.

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