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.
Here’s Bob Dylan, writing in his Chronicles, Volume One memoir, about hearing his future Traveling Wilburys bandmate Roy Orbison singing “Running Scared” on the radio, back when the song was new:
He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal. Typically, he’d start out in some low, barely audible range, stay there a while and then astonishingly slip into histrionics. His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, “Man, I don’t believe it.” His songs had songs within songs.
Roy Orbison was not a professional criminal. He was a polite Texan dweeb who, during the early rock ‘n’ roll era, had somehow found his way into the same Sun Records constellation that had produced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. His early music was a bit lost in the shuffle, and you can see why. While all his peers were throwing chaotic virility all over the place, Orbison was giving us tremulous hurt, his remarkably expressive croon evoking deep-cut feelings of insecurity and loneliness. But Orbison hung on, finding greater success later by developing and honing that exquisite vulnerability in his voice. It’s that quality that ultimately gives us a masterpiece like “Running Scared.”
Epic is a funny word. It implies length and sprawl as well as size. But “Running Scared” is barely two minutes long, and it’s an absolute epic. The choppy guitar sounds like Mexican folk music. The swirling strings sound like easy-listening jazz. And Orbison himself uncorks the full power of his voice, the “jar a corpse” immediacy of which Dylan wrote. The Orbison of “Running Scared” sounds like George Jones singing opera. It’s devastating.
“Running Scared” is a song about uncertainty, about being with someone but always worrying that the person you’re with will leave your for an ex at the slightest provocation: “Just running scared, afraid to lose / If he came back, which one would you choose?” There’s no chorus, and Orbison outlines the whole scenario in a grand total of 87 words. He and his co-writer Joe Melson claim that they wrote the song in five minutes. But the lyrics tell you all you need to know. It’s a knife-edge tense song, and when it builds up to the moment where Orbison’s girl stays with him, the relief is sudden and overwhelming and hard-earned. It’s a moment that you feel in your entire physical being.
There’s a story about Orbison recording “Running Scared.” He wasn’t happy with his first couple of takes. He just wasn’t singing that final verse loud enough. The orchestra was drowning him out. He’d been singing that final note in falsetto, and he finally decided to just sing it full-on, belting it as hard as he could. Orbison hit that motherfucker so hard that, the story goes, the musicians in the orchestra stopped playing. They were stunned. You would be, too.
BONUS BEATS: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds recorded a cover of “Running Scared,” using it as a B-side for “The Singer,” the singles-from their 1986 covers collection Kicking Against The Pricks. I can’t find that version online. But here’s a skronky, discordant, apparently-live version of the song that Cave recorded with Dirty Three, from Dirty Three’s 1998 tour-only EP Sharks: