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.
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: