Album: Leader of the Pack
. . .
I don’t even know where to begin with this one, so I’ll begin with 50-year-old memory: the first that I can remember hearing any part of “Leader of The Pack” was during an early-70s TV commercial for 60s oldies. I specifically remember hearing the singing of “the leader of the pack” followed by the iconic motorcycle revving. I thought “what the fuck?” because I could hear the hook, but was bumped by the sound effect.
The Shangri-La’s were a pair of sisters: Mary & Betty Weiss and identical twins Margie & Mary Ann Gansler, all of them still minors when they first started recording with George “Shadow” Morton, who had the idea of matching their tough girl personas with melodramatic songs with Spector-ish arrangements.
The result was this weirdly irresistible combination of utter slickness and complete authenticity, the epitome of which was their biggest single, “Leader of the Pack,” which starts with one of the Gansler sisters asking incredulously “is she really going out with him?”
With its multiple breakdowns and amateurish spoken word passages, “Leader of the Pack” is barely a song. That said, it’s an amazing performance, an entire tragedy in 3 minutes, telling the story of a girl named Betty, who is in love with bad boy Jimmy — a right and proper bad boy name, of course — all of which we discover in the opening dialog.
“Is she really going out with him?”
“Well, there she is. Let’s ask her.”
“Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?”
“Gee, it must be great riding with him
Is he picking you up after school today?”
“By the way, where’d you meet him?”
I love how the Gansler sisters “by the way, where’d you meet him?” is weirdly rushed — and a complete non-sequitur — in order to hit the timing of the opening verse, which is a total pop masterclass.
I met him at the candy store
He turned around and smiled at me
You get the picture? (yes, we see)
That’s when I fell for
(The leader of the pack)
And then, with a motorcycle rev, it kicks in, aiming for a wall of sound, but attaining more like a chain link fence of sound, though which you could hear “ooooooh” backing vocals, comments, and of course that short sharp shock “leader of the pack” VROOM VROOM!
The problem is, of course, that Betty’s parents don’t approve of her candy-eating, motorcycle revving bad boyfriend. And so they force her to break up with him leading to this spoken word part
He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye
The tears were beginning to show
As he drove away on that rainy night
I begged him to go slow
But whether he heard, I’ll never know
Which leads to my favorite part of the song, a desperate scream of “Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!” over screeching tires and a crash into the final part of the song. Because Jimmy didn’t ride; Jimmy died!
Finally, after one last verse, they repeat “the leader of the pack – he’s gone” over more squealing tires sound effect, just in case you didn’t figure it out.
This is all incredibly ridiculous, and yet, because of the verisimilitude in the performance, it felt real. Which is why the kids ate it up — it went to #1 here in the U.S. and #3 in the U.K. — and why it’s been covered and parodied endlessly ever since.
“Leader of the Pack”
“Leader of the Pack” performed on TV, 1965
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