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Aug 04

DEL SHANNON – “Runaway”

Popular16 comments • 2,368 views

#120, 1st July 1961

The spaceman came to England at the start of July. Any reluctance that might have been felt over allowing Yuri Gagarin, the world’s most famous Soviet, to tour his propaganda triumph was surely outweighed by the simple wonder of meeting a man who had seen and done the things he had seen and done. He was a living, walking piece of the future, a future you can also catch in “Runaway”s shrill instrumental break, whose thin and eerily modulated circus tones bring even more melodrama to an already urgent song.

The gadget that made these piping sounds turned out to be not a true synth but a ‘Muzitron’, and the song’s co-writer had built it out of whatever was lying around, including bits of his TV set. “Runaway” already had a solid gimmick – the “wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder” hook – and you wouldn’t think it needed the Muzitron at all, but its presence makes the song. Its chirpiness has a mocking air, taunting Shannon just as he’s admitted that this is no ordinary breakup – his woman has not only left him but vanished. Then when the Muzitron takes the place of a second verse it makes it clear that there will be no explanation, no hint as to where the girl might have gone: she is free, Del is abject, and only mystery remains. One imagines Gagarin’s minders turning a radio dial in their London hotel, hearing the song, and perhaps frowning.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Anonymous on 21 Apr 2006 #

    What a load of drivel. It is simply a great record.

  2. 2
    Bruce Sterling on 26 Dec 2006 #

    I’ve plowed my way through several dozen of these squibs with growing respect
    for the author’s perspicacity, but the “Muzitron.” Wow! I never knew that.
    Google on, Mr. Ewing, sir.

  3. 3
    wichita lineman on 7 Aug 2008 #

    It’s the ultimate fairground anthem, the first record you’d look for on a Wurlitzer jukebox in a forgotten suburban caff. Runaway is all energy and mystery, from the densely thrummed opening chords through its falsetto hook (“wah-wah-wonder”) to the eerie, Muzitron solo (more Laika than Gagarin). The lyric is beyond melancholy – it is harrowing, filled with dread and paranoia; the runaway girl may not even be alive. David Lynch is surely a fan.

    It was the kind of record you could build a career on and Del Shannon didn’t disappoint. The existential angst of Runaway became a template that he was still using at the far end of the decade on the ghostlike Colorado Rain. He couldn’t write any other way – the fear and the demons in Shannon’s music echoed the mind of its maker.

    It’s a shame we’ll only encounter Del just the once on Popular. As his career started to tail off in the beat boom, he rediscovered his groove with near-miss Keep Searchin’, a no.3 at the end of ’64. “Gotta find a place to hide with my baby by my side” – the lyric was even bleaker and more oblique than Runaway, the sound newly toughened by the Brit beat influence. The cry of the fugitive, a possible abductor with his (underage?) girl who’s “been hurt so much, they treat her mean and cruel”, Keep Searchin’ ends with a desperate, beautiful, lupine howl of release. Like Runaway, it’s a stone 10.

    From this point on, Shannon rarely stumbled until his semi-retirement as a performer in ’69. Keep Searchin’ had an even more paranoiac sequel in Stranger In Town where a private detective, or maybe a hitman, gets thrown into the equation. On Break Up in ’65 he’s so wracked and tortured that he can’t even convey his fears in words, resigning himself to losing his girl – though he seems to have zero evidence this is about to happen. The single was a flop (Stranger In Town turned out to be his last UK hit) and Del was devastated. He took boxes of the single and threw them tearfully into a Michigan river.

  4. 4
    Pete Baran on 7 Aug 2008 #

    More on Max’s Musitron (the Z I think may be Tom’s affectation).
    http://go.zibycom.com/members/002222119/Site4/maxmusitron.html

    The page finally explains why that Stereolab was called Jenny Ondioline as well! (Thoug French Disco was the best on that EP).

  5. 5
    JonnyB on 15 Apr 2009 #

    I’ve always thought of this as proto-heavy metal. That is, you can imagine the likes of Deep Purple or early Rainbow coming up with it – you can see Jon Lord evolving from that solo, and the ‘wah wah wah wah wonder’ might anticipate the screaming of any number of seventies rock gods. Or, more to the point, if it had been ten or fifteen years later, perhaps he’d have done it like this. It’s a tremendously exciting burst of pop music, isn’t it?

    There’s a YouTube of him performing it on the Letterman show just a few years back. Terrific voice.

  6. 6
    wichita lineman on 15 Apr 2009 #

    Not exactly metal, but Neil Young ripped the descending chords and apprpriated the verse melody for the heavyweight Like A Hurricane. This must have sounded so BIG in 1961.

  7. 7
    weej on 5 Jun 2010 #

    I remember working in a depot in Southampton and having to put up with Radio 2 (as a 19-year-old this was like some form of torture, might not mind it now) playing as I “picked & packed”. One day this came on and suddenly I realised, as I realise now, that it is one of the most original, most perfectly realised pop songs of all time. When it got to the “Muzitron” solo I started a little dance with my trolley, only for the boss (a thoroughly miserable woman in her 40s) to sprint across the room and change the station to a local radio station, guaranteed-Muzitron-free. I muttered something and trundled off.
    A ’10′.

  8. 8
    Paulito on 6 Jun 2010 #

    @JonnyB, exactly how long ago was this performance from “just a few years back”? Del’s dead since 1990…

  9. 9
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Tim Rice, lyricist(1976)

    Alan Parker , film director(2000).

  10. 10
    richard thompson on 30 Mar 2012 #

    As a teenager I was tortured by Radio 2 at work as well only this was when Wogan and Jimmy Young were on in the mornings in 1981-82, it’s not so bad now, more variety.
    Runaway has been a bit ovarplayed on the Gold stations.

  11. 11
    Patrick Mexico on 28 Nov 2013 #

    This is a solid 9, should be a 10 but I just find the impromptu horn section a bit dystopian. However, now I know where Blur got the foundations for Star Shaped, which is a brilliantly realised pop song on their most brilliantly realised pop album.

    Been listening to every top 40 single from ’60 and ’61 (I know..) and for every one all-time gem, there’s five slices of teenybop tedium.. it’s euphoric to hear something being made by someone with a throaty voice, slightly pasty skin and slightly wonky teeth, you know, like a normal human being. Even a Kasabian cover couldn’t ruin it. Sterling stuff.

  12. 12
    Paulito on 30 Nov 2013 #

    The horn section is an integral part of the arrangement throughout, so I’m puzzled as to how it might be considered “impromptu” or indeed “dystopian”. The wonderfully jarring Musitron solo could be said to answer that description though…

  13. 13
    Patrick Mexico on 30 Nov 2013 #

    I was getting the two mixed up, sorry! Meant the Musitron one.

  14. 14
    mapman132 on 2 Feb 2014 #

    #1 in the US for four weeks. I have to say this is right up there with “Mack The Knife” as my favorite pre-Beatles hits.

  15. 15
    hectorthebat on 4 Mar 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 5
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 534
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Paul Williams (USA) – Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1993)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Songs of the 60s (2006) 64
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 466
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 472
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Guinness Book of Hits of the ’60s (UK, 1984) – Tim Rice’s Top 10 Songs
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 38
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 13
    Paul Roland (UK) – CD Guide to Pop & Rock, 100 Essential Singles (2001)
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Helsingin Sanomat (Finland) – 50th Anniversary of Rock (2004)
    Nerikes Allehanda (Sweden) – The 50 Best Rock Songs of All Time (1992) 17
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 47
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  16. 16
    lonepilgrim on 8 Jun 2014 #

    Del Shannon manages to make the doo-wop stylings work for the mood of the song. Language breaks down into sobs and cries that are then echoed in the piercing moans of the musitron.

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