Vol. 1, Issue #16 Sept. 1st - Sept. 14th, 2006

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

The Blood Soaked Art of the Splatter Platter

In the late-1950s through the 1960s, American automobiles were high-speed, seatbelt-challenged deathtraps. They didn’t collapse on impact like modern cars - one wrong move, and the cops were scrapping your brains off of the metal dashboard a few hours later. When you mix dangerously designed automobiles with frustrated teenagers coming of age before the sexual revolution, you get a need for speed, a rebel stance, and nimble, young bodies flying through windshields clocked at 120 MPH. Mix all of that with rock’n’roll and you get the splatter platter - songs of teenage death. It is a morbidly entertaining side of pop music that is nearly forgotten.

Confronting mortality is nothing new to the blues, and nowadays it seems absurd to single out songs about death, as punk, rap, metal, and alternative took the severed heads that rolled out from the splatter platters and ran with them. But in the early-sixties, during the peak of the genre, there was something subversive about hearing the gory details of a traffic accident via a perfectly crafted pop record in three-part harmony.

One of the earliest examples was a 1955 novelty by The Cheers (featuring future game show host Bert Convey,) “Black Denim Trousers and Motor Cycle Boots.” The song is about a biker who rides around in said garments “and a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back” until he crashes, and all they find in the wreckage are his trousers and boots. The song is obviously playing on Marlon Brando’s image as the leader of The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (and yes, that’s where the band got it’s name) in “The Wild Ones” (1953). (And by the way, there was another motorcycle club in the film named The Beetles.)

Multiple death discs started showing up in 1959. “Death of an Angel” by Donald Woods & The Bel-Aires, seems to be a normal my-baby-left-me doo-wop song until one member starts crying and screams loudly in the background as it’s revealed that baby in question is dead. Mark Dining had a killer hit with “Teen Angel,” about a couple whose car stalls on a railroad track, but the girl goes back to get the high school ring the boy gave her…and WHAMMO!

In 1960 The Everly Brothers lost the girl they were going to propose to in a plane crash in “Ebony Eyes.” Ray Peterson scored a big with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” which is about a guy entering a stock car race to win money for Laura’s wedding ring, but somehow his car overturns in flames.

One of the biggest and best splatter platters was J. Frank Wilson’s “Last Kiss,” more recently covered by Pearl Jam. The song is about the singer kissing his girlfriend as she dies in his arms after a car crash. The happily bass line to the famous chorus “Oh where oh where can my baby be?” almost keeps you from noticing the strange female vocals mixed in the background that are downright eerie.

In 1964 the death tunes would turn operatic when the art’s mini-skirt clad muses, The Shangri-Las, recorded three classic splatter platters. The two-minute rock opera, “Leader of The Pack,” is the most famous, but there’s also the hauntingly beautiful “Give Us Your Blessing,” a Romeo & Juliet story about a couple not receiving their parent’s blessing, so they drive off crying and fail to see a detour sign. “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” is one of the greatest productions of the 1960s. The depressed voice of a girl softly tells about fighting with her mother and running away from home, only to discover her mother died while she was gone. The song plays out mostly to a background of ghostly female voices and a slow tambourine rhythm. A mournful string quartet comes in for the chorus’ line “Hush little baby, don’t you cry, mama won’t go away,” followed by the girl singer’s loud primal scream; “MAMA!”

A lot of tracks by the Shangri-Las were dramatic. It has been suggested that their dialogue to slow Beethovenesque classical music, “Past Present and Future,” is a woman talking after a rape. The Shangri-Las went against the image of the earlier girl groups; they were marketed as seemingly streetwise, maybe a little emotionally unstable, probably smoked pot, and they seemed a little too impassioned about their boyfriends to be virginal. The New York Dolls paid tribute to the group with “Looking for a Kiss” and The Plasmatics did an updated homage with their own death disc, “Summer Night.”

Before The Shangri-Las were through with their classic run the satires started coming. In 1965 Jimmy Cross released the novelty song “I Want My Baby Back.” The song, complete with sound effects, told about crashing into the leader of the pack; “…and there was my baby- and over there was my baby – and WAY OVER THERE was my baby!” The song ends with Cross digging up his baby and getting into the coffin with her. It became a Dr. Demento favorite.

The most famous send-up is Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” from “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album.”) The set also includes “Revolution 9” which, according to urban legend, was a splatter platter about Paul McCartney’s death if you played it backward – but, of course, LSD was more readily available back in those days.

The Beatles’ film “Magical Mystery Tour” ends with another great splatter lampoon, “Death Cab for Cutie” (and, yes, that’s where the band got their name) performed by The Bonzo Dog Band. The song is a tale about the cab driver watching the singer’s girl, “Cutie,” in the rearview mirror rather than keeping his eyes on the road. The Bonzo Dog Band has a cult following due to their leader, Neil Innes, appearing with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and being the musical brains behind The Rutles.

The end of the classic period came when the joke was lost and everything got heavy again. “D.O.A.” by Bloodrock was an In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-styled death disc about being torn apart in a plane crash. At seven minutes long, it was a little indulgent.

I know of three compilations of splatter platters. In the 1980s Rhino put out “Teen Tragedies” on vinyl, which came with a tissue to dry your tears as you listened to the songs. The Varese Sarabande label has put out a modest CD compilation, “Last Kiss: Songs of Teen Tragedy,” but the mother lode is on an Ace compilation, “Dead! The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits.” Listening to a collection of these tracks will give you a new perspective on pop music and it makes you wonder about the culture (ours) that spawned such a concept. Remember to buckle up.

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.