Death ballads aren’t really about the unfortunate who dies. Listen to Valance’s pallid, picky enunciation; listen to the way he caresses every detail – “he was the youngest driver there”; “as they pulled him from the twisted wreck” – the way he almost licks the word “flames”. Valance’s graveside manners are those of a voyeur, sighing and wringing his hands as the guillotine falls. This morbid fascination with youth cut down recurs whenever youth is admired – only the circumstances change, from Little Nell through the gilded boy poets of 1914 to teenage lovers whose deaths prove their passion. There was always a Valance in attendance, to paint, sculpt or sing the pitiful details.
(Of course the dead didn’t have to be real, often weren’t, though it’s interesting that the death ballad in Britain stopped selling well in the 80s, when tabloid reporting of real death became more intrusive and more sentimental. The goggle-eyed pieties of the balladeers could hardly compete.)
The form is ghoulish, then, but the records can be good – indeed grand. The fatal climaxes of the Shangri-La’s hits are some of the most effective constructs in all pop. Even so they still seem a bit camp now – it’s hard somehow for death songs not to. Ricky Valance is no Shangri-La, though his “Tell Laura” leaves a (somewhat clammy) imprint on you even so.
Postscript: Joe Meek heard the American original of this and recorded not only another version but also a Brit-clone of the answer song, “Tell Tommy I Miss Him”. Both flopped, but Meek wasn’t finished with death songs and within a year would have released the best example ever to top the British chart.