Teenage Death Songs
aka: Teenage Death Song
A Teenage Death Song is a song about dead or dying teenagers. Also known as "death rock" (not to be confused with the music genre of the same name
), they were a staple of pop music in The Fifties
and early Sixties
, when Rock & Roll
was very much a teenage phenonemon, but they are still written occasionally today. Most, if not all, are Glurge
staples and often examples of pure unadulterated Narm
Often a romantic tragedy written from the point-of-view of the dead teen's girlfriend or boyfriend, but sometimes are written as if the dying (or even dead) teen is singing himself. Often, but not always, there are also parents who are sorry they weren't more understanding. Usually a Morality Ballad
, and if homicide is involved a Murder Ballad
Expect spoken word bridges (recited through an echo chamber), sound effects (crashing cars, swishing waves), and some of the most attractively orchestrated arrangements in early rock recordings. Many, though not all, of them are inexplicably upbeat
if you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics.
Sometimes also classified as a "Tear Jerker
", especially if the age isn't quite right but the trope otherwise fits.
The name is taken from one of the chapter titles used in Stephen King
This is a Death Trope
, so expect UNMARKED SPOILERS
is dedicated to Teenage Death songs.
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- "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning (1959): Bob sings about Alice's death when his car stalls on the Railroad Tracks of Doom. After removing his ring during a fight, she got out when the car stopped but went back for the ring. She collects a Darwin Award and he gets to sing about it. Ironically intended as a parody of the genre, this ended up being one of its signature tunes.
- "Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Peterson (1960). Tommy enters a stock car race to earn the money to buy Laura an engagement ring. He crashes and dies, but not before belting out this tune.
- "Tell Tommy I Miss Him" by Marilyn Michaels, released the same year, was a response song written from Laura's point of view.
- "Last Kiss" features another car crash. This one really happened, and was much worse than the song lets on. Originally recorded by composer Wayne Cochran in 1961, the most famous version by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers in 1964, it was most recently covered by Pearl Jam.
- "Dead Man's Curve", by Jan And Dean (1964) ends in yet another car crash.
- Averted, in that no one actually dies in that song. The singer is explaining how he got his injuries to the ER doctor throughout the song.
- Yes, but in the final verse he tells the doctor that he "watched the Jag (which was the car racing him) slide into the curve". The listener could easily infer that the other driver wasn't so lucky.
- The song rather eerily foreshadows Jan Berry's own 1966 crash on the real-life Dead Man's Curve on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He didn't die either, although he did suffer severe brain damage and partial paralysis.
- Bill Anderson's "Candy Apple Red" (1964). The sheriff's daughter falls in love with a local petrolhead. They die after a chase, colliding into a roadblock erected by the sheriff with the eponymous car exploding.
- "I Want My Baby Back" by Jimmy Cross (1965) parodies the genre. (No, it has nothing to do with Chili's ribs.) A nasty twist on necrophilia.
- On some '70s variety show (The Captain & Tennille Show), the "Sweathogs" of Welcome Back, Kotter fame sang a parody called "Pizza Death." The verse, sung by John Travolta as Vinne Barbarino, told of how the teenaged pizza deliveryman died in a crash, but, though his body grew cold, the mourning crowd was able to eat the still hot pizzas in the van. The refrain ran:
Johnny drove the delivery van —
Not too bright, but we all loved him,
'Cause he was Paparelli's Pizza Man! (The Pizza Man!!)
- "Detroit Rock City" by KISS (1976) is about an (actual) KISS fan who died in a crash trying to get to a concert.
- 7-11" (1981) by The Ramones.
- "Car Crash" by punk-rockers The Avengers (1977).
- "Burma Shave" by Tom Waits (1977) is about two young teenagers who crash their car trying to make their way to the titular town.
- "Suzy and Jeffrey" by Blondie (1980) Another car crash.
- "Blasphemous Rumours" by Depeche Mode (1984) is about a 16-year-old girl who fails a suicide attempt only to die a sickly ironic death in an automobile accident at 18.
- A contemporary entry into the genre: The Gaslight Anthem's "The '59 Sound" (2008), about an actual friend of the band who died in a car crash.
Young boys... young girls
Ain't supposed to die on a Saturday night.
- "The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows" by Brand New (2004), a song about and sung by a dying teenager following a car crash, staying behind to watch over his girlfriend (who was in the crash as well) until he knows she's safe.
- "(All I Have Left Is) My Johnny's Hubcap", in one of Mad Magazine's vintage parody albums.
- The National Lampoon stage show Lemmings parodied all sorts of rock music, including a '50s teen death song, where at one point, the girl says the boy in the accident looks like one of the many pizzas they'd shared.
- "Joey" (2009) by Sugarland.
- "Three Stars" (1961) by Eddie Cochran, commemorating the deaths of Richie Valens (who was 17 at the time), Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson a.k.a The Big Bopper in an airplane accident. The pilot, Roger Peterson, was hardly 20 himself.
- Likewise, "American Pie" by Don McLean, which deals with the same accident.
- "Ebony Eyes", by The Everly Brothers (1961) involves a soldier whose girl is flying to marry him, when the plane, on which she will be arriving, crashes. Ouch.
- "D.O.A." (1971) by Bloodrock. Airplane crash due to mid-air collision.
- Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun" (1974). When Terry Jacks recorded "Seasons in the Sun", he had just been diagnosed with leukaemia, and the song could well have been his actual farewell song. Fortunately, he got better.
- "Rocky" by Austin Roberts (1975-and unrelated to the movie) tells the story of young lovers who get married, have an infant daughter, and then the wife unexpectedly dies to an unmentioned disease. The lyrics go "Rocky, I never had to die before. Don't know if I can do it." In the last verse she suggests she will always be around and help him in spirit whenever he and their daughter would be in need.
- "Back of My Mind" (1980) by Breathless. The protagonist's girlfriend dies from complications of abortion.
- "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry (2010) is part sentimental last requests, part cynical quip. The girl knows her words will be worth more after she dies. She's oddly cavalier about her impending funeral, too. "So put on your best, boys, and I'll wear my pearls."
- "Cancer" by My Chemical Romance
- "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro. The protagonist's fiancee has died from an unspecified disease.
- "Girlfriend in a Coma" (1987) by The Smiths.
- "Tonight" by Iggy Pop (1977) deals with a drug overdose; the dying girl's lover stays by her side as she slips away. (Co-writer/producer David Bowie, who also contributed backing vocals, recorded a cover of this for an album of the same title in 1984, but dropped the opening verse that establishes the girl is dying and thus it became a straightforward love ditty [and duet with Tina Turner]).
- "Tommy (Don't Die)" - Steaknife.
- Johnny Cash song "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" (1960) about a young cowboy, who takes his guns to town, with fatal results.
- The well-forgotten "Run, Joey, Run" by David Geddes (1975) about a teenage affair that ends tragically when the girl gets pregnant and her father gets pissed and tries to kill her boyfriend, only for her to take the bullet for him.
- Not so forgotten these days since Glee did a rendition of it.
- Richard Thompson, "Vincent Black Lightning 1952" (1991). A roguish young biker falls for a girl with an interest in bikes, reveals he's been in trouble with the law in the past. Gets mortally wounded by the police during a robbery, leaves his bike to his girl on his death bed.
- "53rd and 3rd" (1977) by The Ramones.
- "I Don't Like Mondays" (1982) by the Boomtown Rats. Bob Geldof was being interviewed at WRAS-FM in Atlanta GA when news came in about a shooting at an elementary school. The title of the song comes for the suspect's reason for the shooting.
- "The Homecoming Queen's Got A Gun" by Julie Brown (1984) which anticipates a Columbíne-style massacre.
- "18 and Life" by Skid Row (1989). The protagonist has shot his friend and gotten life sentence.
- Parodied by Mitch Benn in the song "Now He's Gone", which originally appeared in an episode of Mitch Benn's Crimes Against Music. In the episode he explained his theory that the message of Teenage Death Songs such as "Leader of the Pack" was "Dead boyfriends are safe", and illustrated it with a 50s teenybopper tune about a girl who was killing her boyfriends before they could do anything to hurt her.
- "Janie's Got A Gun" by Aerosmith.
- "Cocaine Blues" by Johnny Cash. The protagonist, drugged on cocaine, shoots his unfaithful girlfriend.
- "Delilah" by Tom Jones. The protagonist kills his unfaithful girlfriend with a knife.
- "Becky" by Be Your Own Pet. A girl stabs the Alpha Bitch, who has bullied her, to death and goes to juvenile prison, but thinks it was worth of it.
- "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" (1955) by the Cheers, may be the prototype death rock song, as well as the inspiration for "Leader of the Pack" a decade later. It was popular enough to have a parody, Dodie Stevens' 1959 "Pink Shoelaces".
- "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las (1964) girl sings of her love for Badass Biker who gets it after driving away all stormy mad because her parents forced her to break up with him. The Goodees revisit this in "Condition Red" in 1968.
- Twisted Sister actually did a P.O.V. Sequel that counts too.
- Not to mention the Detergents' parody, "Leader of the Laundromat".
- "Teenage Cremation" (1975) by Australian artist Bob Hudson. Protagonist's girlfriend has been killed in a motorcycle accident.
Perils of nature
- "Running Bear" by Johnny Preston (1959). Written by the Big Bopper, it's a Romeo and Juliet about young Native American lovers who defy their families, their warring tribes and a rough river to be together. The river gets them, but the last line says they'll meet in the next life.
- "The Water Is Red", 1960, by Johnny Cymbal (his real name). Girlfriend eaten by shark. The protagonist takes his knife and goes to kill the shark.
- "Jimmy Love" by Cathy Carroll (1961). This fakes you out by starting as a wedding song until she says her fiance will be waiting for her at church, in his coffin. He was killed by a falling tree the night before. No, he doesn't get to be a vampire.
- Finnish Hawaiian-style rock song "Tiikerihai" (Tiger Shark), where the boyfriend is killed by the shark.
- "No Surfing Today" - by the Four Seasons. The protagonist's girlfriend was his surfin' girl and she got caught by the undertow when she went out too far.
- The parodic "Gidget Goes To Hell" (1979) by Suburban Lawns has a shark attack. Jonathan Demme directed the video, which made it onto Saturday Night Live.
- "Endless Sleep" by Jody Reynolds (1958). Reynolds based this partly on Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel". A girl tries to drown herself in the ocean after a fight with her lover, but he rescues her. Technically nobody dies, but because the chorus says "Come join me, baby, in my endless sleep" many people think this is the original Death Rock song. It was banned in England because it seemed to invite kids to commit suicide.
- This may have been one of the inspirations behind Patti Smith's "Redondo Beach" (1975).
- "Moody River", originally written and recorded by Chase Webster, Covered Up by Pat Boone (1961). Sort of a take-off on "Endless Sleep", except the girl actually dies.
- "Patches", by Dickey Lee (1962) deals with a teenage girl who drowns herself when her romance with the singer is forbidden by their respective parents. Another one that was banned on many stations, especially since the narrator says he plans to "join her".
- "Give Us Your Blessing" by the Shangri-Las (1965). And now their parents are sorry they didn't.
- "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry (1967). All about the day that Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. His reasons for doing so aren't revealed in the song, though fans have speculated for decades.
- "Alone Again Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan is a subversion; at the start, the singer climbs a water tower with the intention of jumping off... but can't go through with it and climbs back down in the end.
- "Straight A's" by the Dead Kennedys (1980) is a song about a kid whose parents only love him if he gets good grades. So he kills himself.
- Besides their "Last Kiss" cover mentioned above, Pearl Jam themselves get into the act with "Jeremy" (1991). The kid isn't loved by his parents, is picked on at school, so he shoots himself in front of his class. Jeremy Delle was the real kid in question.
- In "Last December" by Iced Earth (1995), teenage lovers commit suicide together, saying it's their "only way out". "Mother, you have forced us here... Father, now we'll disappear."
- "Four Dead Cheerleaders" by Texas punk band Dropkick (1997), four teen suicides, mostly for stupid reasons, though the last girl in the song killed herself because she was date raped.
- "Tourniquet" by Evanescence is sung by a girl dying after slitting her wrists.
- "Homecoming" by Green Day (2004) on album American Idiot.
- "Whining Teenager's Dramatic Exit," by Matt Osborne, about a school shooting.
- "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" (1974) is about the death of a young soldier; the title lyrics are delivered by his girlfriend.
- "Nineteen" by Paul Hardcastle (1982). A lamentation of the Vietnam War.
- "Youth of the Nation" by P.O.D. (2001).
- "Riding With Private Malone" by David Ball.
- "The Grave" by Don McLean.
- "Travelin' Soldier" by The Dixie Chicks. Another Vietnam War entry. The titular (deceased) soldier had just turned eighteen.
- "Just A Dream" by Carrie Underwood may fit this trope: the protagonist (the fiancee left behind) is just eighteen although the deceased's age isn't given.
- Finnish military march "Sotilaspoika" (Soldier Boy). The protagonist, age 15, joins the Army, and anticipates to get killed in action like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. The march can be taken either as patriotic fervour, or a particularly sad case of a Child Soldier.
Weird causes of death
Sometimes the scythe of the Grim Reaper misses its swing. Here are some examples:
- "Camouflage" by Stan Ridgway (1988). An eerie story of a young Marine in Viet Nam War 1965.
- "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvus (1956). A car crash. Emergency first aid saves the protagonist (again and again), albeit not in the best shape.
- "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" - by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. They live on opposite sides of the Mississippi River and swim back and forth to see each other, avoiding the alligator (and other dangers of swimming a mile across a river). Too bad alligator, you swim too slow.
- "Ruby Jewel Was Here" by Allison Moorer (2002). (She's twelve, but... close enough.) Anyway, Ruby shoots the sheriff with his own gun after he rapes her, and is hanged. Oh, and it's all set to cheerful music.
- Bob Luman's 1960 hit "Let's Think About Livin'" was written as a kind of Take That to the many songs of this type that were popular in that era.
- Steve Goodman did a medley of these for one of his '80s concert recordings.
- "Bat Out of Hell" by Meat Loaf (1977) was inspired by these sorts of songs. His musical partner, songwriter Jim Steinman, makes no secret of his love for this kind of thing.
- The song "Jenny" by Steve Taylor is one, but according to Taylor it's supposed to be allegorical.
- Country staple "Green Green Grass of Home". The protagonist is about to be executed.
- "Let Him Dangle" by Elvis Costello. Story of the wrongful execution of Derek Bentley, who was 19 when he was hanged in 1953 in UK.
- "Castles Made of Sand" by Jimi Hendrix. Three verses - homicide, war and suicide.
- The Breakers, "Surfin' Tragedy", combines the teenage tragedy song with a surf theme, in which the subject, a surfer, careens "ninety miles an hour" into a Malibu pier, killing him instantly.
- "People Who Died" (1980) by The Jim Carroll Band. Lots of deaths.