Discover more from Listening Sessions
Del Shannon Breaks the Mould
One of rock's most unique singer-songwriters goes psychedelic
Welcome music lovers once again to ‘Listening Sessions.’
This edition’s essay takes a look at singer and songwriter Del Shannon, best known for his hits ‘Runaway’ and ‘Hats Off to Larry.’ Shannon was a thoroughly unique and special musician and by focusing on an album he made in 1968, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, I try to give a sense of why he has inspired the reverence of musicians like Jeff Lynne and the late Tom Petty. I hope you enjoy it.
Coming up later in August will be an essay on the indefatigable Herbie Hancock and one of his most interesting early albums, My Point of View, recorded and released in 1963.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all.
If you’re reading this and are not yet a subscriber of ‘Listening Sessions,’ I hope you'll click the button below to subscribe and get each edition delivered straight to your inbox. I publish a long-form essay on music three times a month, every 10 days or so.
If you are a subscriber, share ‘Listening Sessions’ with any music fans in your orbit.
Here’s a fun fact: the first artist who charted a Lennon and McCartney composition on the Billboard Hot 100 was not the Beatles. It’s singer-songwriter Del Shannon who holds the honour. He had appeared with the group on a package tour in England in the spring of 1963 and took a liking to ‘From Me to You,’ recorded it and in the early summer, pushed it to #77.
Shannon, born Charles Westover on December 30, 1934 in Coopersville, Michigan, was a different kind of teen idol in the early sixties. It wasn’t simply that he wrote most of the songs he sang. It was the themes that preoccupied him: the deep, underlying threats to a happy life. It was the sound of his records: urgent and unsettling. Shannon’s keyboardist Max Crook played the eerie and futuristic sounding Musiatron, an instrument that was unlike anything heard in rock music up to that point. It was also Shannon’s voice: a deeply earnest attack with a falsetto that could chill one to the bone.
Whereas tearjerkers like ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ by Ray Peterson and ‘Teen Angel’ by Mark Dinning (two examples of the so-called “tear-drop rock” trend of the early sixties) were literal in recounting tragedy, Shannon left the details unspoken—why, for example, the protagonist in ‘Runaway’ ran away is entirely open to your interpretation.
In Shannon’s music, I hear presages of Shadow Morton’s dramatic productions for the Shangri-Las, the coming British Invasion, the pop craft of Neil Diamond, David Gates, Janis Ian, Laura Nyro, bubble-gum pop and power pop, especially in the hooky handclaps of ‘Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)’ and the violent slap of a two-by-four on ‘Stranger in Town.’
If Shannon’s rise seemed meteoric; he seemingly came out of nowhere to hit the top of the charts with ‘Runaway’ in early 1961; his fall was the fall that befell much of the rock and pop field once the Beatles broke stateside and began rock-and-roll’s rapid maturation in the mid sixties. 1964 signaled the danger ahead, 1965 confirmed that report and once 1966 rolled around, the torch had fully passed from rock’s first generation to its progeny, leaving artists like Shannon adrift.
His music from 1961 up to 1965 shows that while this narrative is demonstrably true, it is still one full of nuance.
For starters, Shannon, perhaps more than others, had a natural affinity for the British sound. His big hit ‘Little Town Flirt’ anticipates it in its dancehall beat and the Shannon-penned ‘I’ll Be Lonely Tomorrow’ from his 1964 LP Handy Man, with an appealingly light bossa-nova beat, is something that you could graft a John Lennon vocal onto and it would fit snuggly on the Fab Four’s debut Please Please Me. ‘I Go to Pieces,’ offering Shannon’s trademark brand of heartbreak that reached deeper than most was one of the biggest hits for Peter and Gordon, among the first British acts to find fame in the States after the Beatles.
Furthermore, Shannon’s progression as a singer and songwriter saw him gradually shed his influences—two, among others, Roy Orbison and Dion—to become fully his own artist. Indeed, his best records are when he offers himself directly to the listener through the sadness, the danger, the hubris and the desperation in his voice and through his words as a songwriter. A notable exception was an album of Hank Williams Sr.’s songs he recorded in 1964, especially ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ and ‘You Win Again.’ Shannon exhibits a deep internalization of Williams Sr.’s songbook that strongly contrasts with Shannon’s attempt to sing an Orbison classic like ‘Running Scared,’ in which he is too preoccupied approaching Orbison’s operatic build to the legendary climax to put forward a truly personal interpretation.
Shannon’s initial records were on small labels like Big Top and Amy before he moved to Liberty in 1966. His first two albums on the label, This Is My Bag and Total Commitment, had zero impact and subsequent work with Rolling Stones’ producer Andrew Loog Oldham (yet another British connection) went largely unreleased. In 1968, Shannon released his most ambitious album, engaging with the psychedelic movement of the time to present a Del Shannon that bore little resemblance to any of his previous work. Perhaps that’s why the album was called The Further Adventures of Charles Westover. Unlike his previous releases, there alwwre no covers and fully 10 of the 12 songs were either written fully or co-written by Shannon (the exceptions were ‘Be My Friend,’ written by Dugg Brown and ‘New Orleans (Mardi Gras),’ penned by Jim Pulte).
Taking a step back, the idea of Shannon going psychedelic is not as preposterous as it may seem—the equivalent of your father trying to impress your friends by talking hip to them. Other musicians of Shannon’s vintage had done it and if the results did nothing commercially, the results, in a musical sense, could often be extremely intriguing. Rick Nelson’s Another Side of Rick radiates Californian sophistication—the driving rhythm of ‘Barefoot Boy’ combined with guitarist James Burton’s chicken-pickin’ is infectious and the slight psychedelic gauze at the beginning of ‘Suzanne on a Sunday Morning’ resolves into a hint of the country rock that Nelson would soon help popularize.
The Everly Brothers’ late-sixties records are equally fascinating—hear the blissed-out females singingly hazily in the background on ‘Love With Your Heart #2,’ the eerie, gothic ‘Lord of the Manor’ or the San Francisco fuzz guitar lacing their remake of ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’ on their landmark album Roots (I wrote about it last year. Check out my essay here).
Count in Del Shannon here too. The lead track ‘Thinkin’ It Over’ includes a march-like verse coiled tight that releases into a shuffle chorus, handclaps accentuating the rhythm and Shannon’s vocal double-tracked. A transition into the next-to-final chorus with slightly-out-of-focus backing vocals momentarily achieves levitation before returning to terra ferma. There is a fine balance struck here between a pop foundation and the filigrees that are the touches that characterize much of the music on The Further Adventures of Charles Westover as psychedelic. It is, for the most part, a harmonious blend. In its way, daring too. Credit Don Peake here, a guitarist and arranger whose work in the sixties included collaborations with everyone from Bobby Darin to Mahalia Jackson.
‘Silver Birch’ calls to mind the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ focusing its episode of grief on a lone figure, likely older, holding vigil near a tree where her initials as well as those of her beloved were carved—what was once a marking of love to be everlasting is now a permanent monument of it being forever lost. Shannon’s lyrics dovetail with the production’s dark and forbidding sound. The low, repeating wail of a brass choir combines with a menacing fuzz guitar to situate the Baroque setting in the Day-Glo era, and is part of Shannon’s gift of evoking a vivid and affecting darkness. The ending of ‘Silver Birch’ dissolves into a musique concrète episode that seques into ‘I Think I Love You.’
Even as the song tells a far more conventional narrative—a man on verge of adulthood trying to balance falling in love with the fear of being tied down—the strings and a guitar that sounds like a sitar bring a psychological edge. Additionally, lines like “her life is filled with pain” and “her father can give me many things” are enigmatic statements devoid of details that invites listeners to bring their own hang-ups to fill in the story Shannon is telling, which becomes more unsettling at the conclusion when he slips into his trademark falsetto.
Inspirations wash over the album. ‘Be My Friend,’ in which Shannon snarls a la Mick Jagger “baby, won’t you be my friend when I’m in town” juggles an edgy menace with a dramatic, temporary shift to 3/4 time. The reference point to the Rolling Stones is also felt on the driving ‘Been So Long.’ While ‘Gemini’ may subtly hint at the dichotomy of Del Shannon the persona and Charles Westover the man, it’s Donovan and ‘Mellow Yellow’ which most clearly comes to mind when hearing the song’s hut-two-three-four beat.
In all these, influences are sufficiently sublimated to fashion something new, interesting and valid. On the contrary, ‘Runnin’ on Back’ calls Tommy James and the Shondells’ ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ and the Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride’ too literally to mind for the act of creative transformation to similarly take place here. Even so, the hard rock of the coda, with Shannon putting his all into his vocal and an organ that echoes the opening of Vanilla Fudge’s tortoise-slow cover of the Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On,’ shows that imitation wasn’t solely at play here.
‘Conquer’ stands as a deeply original drama of deliverance of a troubled soul and ‘River Cool’ is seductively swampy—the kind of groove that would soon make Credence Clearwater Revival the American band of 1969.
Shannon reaches further and deeper on ‘Colour Flashing Hair.’ There’s a magnificent build to the chorus, incorporating strings that call to mind how they were used on the Beatles’ eternally freaky ‘I Am the Walrus.’ Capturing the moment of slipping from the conscious to the unconscious, Shannon calls to mind Carl Jung’s description in Man and His Symbols: “The subliminal state retains ideas and images at a much lower level of tension then they possess in consciousness. In the subliminal condition they lose clarity of definition: the relations between them are less consequential and more vaguely analogous, less rational, and therefore more “incomprehensible”.” This is a fully realized psychedelic performance.
But, as always in psychedelic music, you grab hold of too much ambition and the plot dissolves like a tab of acid. Perhaps that’s why ‘Magical Musical Box,’ with its chamber-music strings and harpsichord, gives off cold feelings. I mean, don’t get me wrong, that Shannon co-wrote and recorded such an un-Del Shannon like track makes me slightly giddy, I guess I just wish it were better. Thankfully, there’s the final track of the album, ‘New Orleans (Mardi Gras),’ which mixes a Middle Eastern woodwind line, soulful background singers in the spirit of the Sweet Inspirations and a rocking resolution to each verse, not to mention a solid vocal by Shannon, alternatively serpentine and straight-ahead, and ends with what sounds like a field recording of a Fat Tuesday filtered through pancakes and gumbo washed down by one too many.
Similar to his previous LPs on Liberty, Shannon’s The Further Adventures of Charles Westover went nowhere and has languished in almost complete obscurity since. A vinyl reissue by Chicago’s Trouble in Mind Records in 2015 was a welcome development as is the fact that it is also available for streaming.
Shannon never revisited the psychedelic terrain, turning soon afterwards to record production, scoring major hits with Smith (‘Baby It’s You’) and Brian Hyland (‘Gypsy Woman’). Alcoholism bedeviled him into the late seventies. Kicking the bottle and hooking up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers led to a brief renaissance: a top 40 hit with a remake of Phil Phillips’ ‘Sea of Love’ in 1981 from the solid Drop Down and Get Me.
When Roy Orbison passed away just at the start of his own artistic renaissance in 1988, it was rumoured that Shannon was approached to replace him in the Traveling Wilburys. While the tale is an apocryphal one, Shannon’s Rock On! gives a sense of what it would have sounded like if he had been welcomed into the Wilbury clan, with Jeff Lynne and Petty’s involvement in what turned to be Shannon’s final recorded statement, a vital document that showed the creative fire never left him. How cruel then that Shannon took his own life on February 8, 1990.
Of Del Shannon, Tom Petty once said: “He was one of those guys who had everything I wanted when I started to write songs: great stories, a really good sound and that great, big, high voice.” Jeff Lynne has called him “my hero.”
There’s a lot of pain in Shannon’s music but also a lot of gutsy determination to press ahead and, as he sang on The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, to eventually “conquer the dawn.” For Del Shannon, the struggle was all too real.