The Number Ones

April 24, 1961

The Number Ones: Del Shannon’s “Runaway”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

***

Rock ‘n’ roll was music for teenagers. That’s what was magic about it. The best of those ’50s and early ’60s singles are the ones that treat teenage concerns — life-altering crushes, soul-obliterating breakups, knife-edge first-date nerves — as the intense and apocalyptic things that, at least in the moment, they are. Del Shannon wasn’t a teenager; he was a 26-year-old bandleader, a former Army serviceman and truck driver and carpet salesman from Michigan. But on “Runaway,” his greatest enduring contribution to the pop-music canon, Shannon made getting dumped sound all-the-way operatic.

If you wanted to reach — like really, really reach — you could call “Runaway” the first synthpop song to reach #1. It is, quite literally, a pop song with a synth on it. Max Cook, the keyboard player in Shannon’s band, played a Musitron, a sort of early-synth electric piano contraption that Cook had invented himself. On “Runaway,” it sounded grand and dramatic and otherworldly, an across-the-stars response to Shannon’s heartbreak.

Shannon himself sings with real grit in his voice, at least until he hits the wailing-baby falsetto of the chorus. He sounds bitter and contemplative and resolute, and then all of a sudden he’s making this ridiculous wah-wah-wah noise. The band behind him plays hard R&B, with a clapclap-clap beat and menacing baritone-sax burps and a guitar line that could be called folkie if it had been played at half-speed. “Runaway” is a strange, feral piece of pop music. It commits.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: I could go a lot of different ways here. I could go with the “Runaway” cover that the Traveling Wilburys recorded in 1990, immediately after Shannon’s death by suicide. I could go with Shannon fan and collaborator Tom Petty’s namecheck on “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” I could go with the opening credits of the ’80s Dennis Farina TV show Crime Story, which used Shannon’s re-recorded version of “Runaway” as a theme. But I’ve got to go with my heart. So here’s miserable Chicago punk bastards Screeching Weasel blasting through a 30-second cover of “Runaway” on their 1988 album Boogadaboogadaboogada:

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