Picture this: Good-girl Betty meets motorcycle bad-boy Jimmy at a candy store, where he’s obviously buying candy cigarettes. He turns around and smiles at her. You get the picture? (Who knew that candy stores were such popular pick-up joints in 1964?) But is she really going out with him? Yep, the next thing you know, she takes Jimmy’s ring, wraps her legs ’round those velvet rims, and straps her hands ‘cross his engines (no, wait; that’s another song about an outcast luring a chick to his Harley). Anyway, Daddy tells her to ditch the biker. Alas, the sad, misunderstood Jimmy drives off into the sunset to crash and burn. Oh, the drama, the poignancy, the sound effects! How we all longed for a Jimmy who would self-destruct for us!
With its theme of death and lost innocence, many think of this song as an early punk rock ballad. The BBC banned it upon its release, yet it managed to climb to #11 on the U.K. charts in 1965. It reached #3 in Britain when the ban was lifted in 1972 and peaked at #7 when it was re-released in 1976.
I still grin when I think of how my childhood friends Jann and Mary Jo used to cry when the sound of Jimmy’s squealing tires and ultimate smash-up exploded from the speakers of their record player. As for me, I always imagined that if Jimmy hadn’t croaked he would have knocked up Betty, robbed a gas station, and been sent to juvie — leaving Betty to spend her life working in that candy store to support their love child.
Here’s a video of The Shangri-Las – identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser, and Mary Weiss (whose sister Betty was also in the group) – performing their classic melodrama on the TV show, “I’ve Got a Secret.” The guy on the motorcycle is singer Robert Goulet!
A song this silly begs to be parodied. So, I now present some of the most famous of the “Leader of the Pack” spoofs.
The first and best of the bunch, and a favorite of the Dr. Demento radio show, is “Leader of the Laundromat,” performed by The Detergents. The composers of “Leader of the Pack” – Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and George “Shadow” Morton – sued the group over this parody, but the suit was eventually settled out of court.
A group called The Downliners Sect released a song called “Leader of the Sect,” which was included on their 1965 “Sect Sing Sick Songs” EP.
In 1965, an American radio producer and singer named Jimmy Cross released a spoof called “I Want My Baby Back,” about a couple that collide head-on with the leader of the pack. British DJ Kenny Everett declared it “The World’s Worst Record.” It’s delightful. (It appears that the creator of this amateur video had a thing for Sal Mineo.)
The Capitol Steps, a political satire group, builds its entire act around parodying current events by rewriting lyrics to famous songs. Thus, we have “A Leader Named Barack.”
Even ad agencies couldn’t resist parodying the song. Check out this British commercial for a brand of butter: “Our Leader is Lurpak,” featuring motorcycle claymation!
And finally, the last and most tasteless parody is one called “Leader of Iraq” by Bob Rivers, which tells the story of the execution of Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein. I couldn’t find a video or audio clip (which might be a good thing), but here is a sampling of the very twisted lyrics:
[Spoken over occasional humming:]
[Girl #1:] Are they really gonna hang him?
[Girl #2:] Well there he is, let’s ask him.
[Girl #1:] Saddam, is that a hangman’s noose you’re wearing?
[Girl #2:] Gee, it must be great goin’ to see all those virgins.
[Girl #1:] Anyone bring their camera-phone today?
[Girls:] Allahhh! By the way, how’d they catch him?
They found him in a spider hole.
He was filthy, hairy and smelled of pee.
D’ja get the picture? (Oh, yeah/we see.)
That’s how they sniffed out the leader of Iraq.
[Sound of a gunshot and then excited male voices talking & shouting.]
George Bush was always hunting him down, (down, down).
For having those weapons that nobody found.
The whole world knew he was bad.
But seein’ him swingin’ on YouTube is sad.
He fell through that trap door – the leader of Iraq.
If parodies are proof of a song’s popularity and impact, then “Leader of the Pack” is truly an icon of the age of 45 rpm records!
© Dana Spiardi, Nov 28, 2014