Del Shannon was never a conventional rock ‘n’ heartthrob. That wasn’t because he couldn’t compete with the rugged good looks of Eddie Cochran or raw sex appeal of Elvis Presley. After all, few could.
More than say, Buddy Holly or even Roy Orbison, there was was something captivatingly awkward about Shannon. That’s because rather than singing about loving or even longing, Del sung about misery, heartbreak and betrayal.
Del’s songs don’t have the proto-incel vibe of Morrissey’s work. It’s absolutely not the case that his characters have never had no-one ever. On the contrary, they’ve loved and lost and decided that all things considered it may well have been better to have never loved at all.
Shannon break-up songs aren’t just about pain, hurt, and regret. They’re also steeped in bitterness, revenge and spite (“Hats off to Larry he broke your heart / Just like you broke mine when you said we must part”).
It’s no coincidence that the first Rolling Stones song Shannon covered wasn’t the merely unfulfilled ‘Satisfaction’ but the vindictively misogynistic ‘Under My Thumb’ (“Under my thumb / It’s a squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day”).
That rancour didn’t stop his flashes of success in the early 1960s. ‘Runaway’ went to number one. ‘Hats Off To Larry’ and ‘Little Town Flirt’ made the Top 20. After that it was always a rollercoaster, and there were more misses than hits, especially back home in the US.
Borrowed from The Beatles after he shared a bill with them at the Royal Albert Hall, Del’s June 1963 cover of ‘From Me To You’ only peaked at 77 – still making it the first Lennon/McCartney song to reach the Billboard Hot 100. In 1964, less than four years after ‘Runaway’ topped the chart, Del scored his last ever Top 10 single when ‘Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)’ reached number nine.
Shannon kept on going, mixing up covers and his own tunes, but despite (or because?) of his willingness to experiment and flit between genres, nothing really stuck. The speed of the shifting sixties was probably the underlying cause, but label issues certainly didn’t help.
On a UK tour a year into his deal with Liberty Records, Del bumped into Andrew Loog Oldham after a BBC interview at Portland Place. Oldham bundled Shannon and his pal/road manager Dan Bourgoise into the back of his Rolls-Royce and played them the then-unreleased Beatles single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’. He also told them how much he loved Del’s take on ‘Under My Thumb’ (which Shannon had co-produced with Liberty’s Dallas Smith).
“It felt like we’d hit royalty here,” said Bourgoise. “Andrew suggested that he had some ideas that he’d like to try with Del, and would Del be up for it? Del was thrilled and eager. Liberty had an office in London and it was pretty easy to push it through with Andrew’s name.”
Del is said to have immediately called Liberty HQ long distance in LA. Sensing the possibility of a hit or at the very least some attention, and with not much to lose, they apparently replied: “Yes, whatever the expense. Go cut with Andrew!”
It all happened fast. Del didn’t have a load of material lying around, but he had ‘He Cheated’, and he and Bourgoise also came up with ‘Silently’ in just one night in a hotel room.Embed from Getty Images
Having someone as well-connected as Andrew Loog Oldham on board meant that there wasn’t a lack of available contributors, with a load of writers from his Immediate label pitching in.
There was Billy Nicholls (‘Cut and Come Again’, ‘Led Along’, and ‘Friendly With You’), Andrew Rose and David Skinner (aka Twice as Much) (‘It’s My Feeling’, ‘Easy To Say’ and ‘Life Is But Nothing’ – the last of which had already been released by Immediate artist PP Arnold as a B-side earlier that year) and Jeremy Paul Solomons (‘Mind Over Matter’).
An astute song-spotter himself, Del brought along Ross Watson’s ‘My Love Has Gone’, a demo of which he’d been hawking around to producers without any success since they crossed paths on a UK tour in in 1963.
Always as much a hustler as he was a manager/producer, Oldham pushed Del to remake his calling card and sole chartopper ‘Runaway’. Del wasn’t keen on the idea, but was eventually worn down/won over.
And Oldham’s involvement meant access not just to Olympic Studios, where the Stones has been recording weeks earlier, but also to the cream of British session talent.Embed from Getty Images
That included Andy White (drums), Big Jim Sullivan (electric guitar), Joe Moretti (acoustic guitar), Billy Bell (banjo), Eric Ford (six-string bass and acoustic guitar), Clive Hicks (acoustic and 12-string guitar), Nicky Hopkins (keys) and Reg Guest (also keys).
Most notably, also appearing on keys was Steve Marriott, whose Small Faces Loog Oldham had only recently signed to Immediate, and bass player John Baldwin (aka John Paul Jones, soon to be a quarter of Led Zeppelin).
Contrary to popular belief, Jones’s future Led Zep bandmate Jimmy Page wasn’t there, having quit session work to focus on The Yardbirds by this point – and he was off touring with them in Scotland while Home & Away was recorded.
“There were three things that Andrew wanted to condense together. The kind of record he wanted to make,” Bourgoise told Kieron Tyler for the reissue liner notes. “Pet Sounds, the Lou Adler stuff with The Mamas & the Papas, and Phil Spector’s ‘River Deep–Mountain High’. Del was intrigued. Andrew had a very definite idea, and Del hadn’t seen that for a while and was totally excited.”
It’s the sort of grandiose bullshit pitch/mission statement you could well imagine the 23-year-old Oldham delivering, but the incredible thing is that with those songs and studio musicians – and with Arthur Greenslade arranging – they actually made good on it.
Home & Away is sometimes billed as an attempt at “a British Pet Sounds” but its similarities to Brian Wilson’s masterpiece are essentially superficial. Sure, you can pick out plenty of melodic turns and harmonic whoops that borrow from the Beach Boys, (especially on ‘It’s My Feeling’ and ‘Led Along’), but the album owes almost as much to Spector girl groups, Dusty Springfield’s heavily orchestrated blue-eyed soul, and to Del himself.
The differences from Pet Sounds are as crucial as the similarities to it. Both have a sense of thematic unity, but while the Beach Boys’ album was mainly written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, the patchwork contributions for Home & Away make it feel that bit more unsettled.
Both were effectively recorded by session groups – Pet Sounds by the Wrecking Crew and Del’s album by its London-based approximation – but while Brian led the recording of one instrument at a time in countless hours-long sessions, the eleven songs of Home & Away were knocked out in just four days, giving a sense of spark and spontaneity.
The albums both explore melancholy and heartbreak (“I may not always love you” / “All I’ve got’s memory of you”) but where Wilson/Asher are ultimately hopeful and even redemptive (“Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true”), even with his baroque backdrop, Shannon holds on to his essential bitterness and resentment (“When you left I thought of dying / Then I knew that you were lying”, “He’ll hurt you all over again / ‘cos he cheated and he lied to you”).
The tension of Home & Away builds. The penultimate ‘He Cheated’ is the album’s finest moment and the ultimate synthesis of Del’s utterly overwhelming intensity and the Brit Wall of Sound Loog Oldham was aiming for. Free from Max Crook’s Musitron and Del’s own vocal histrionics, ‘Runaway ’67’ isn’t the barmy masterpiece of the original, but it acts as the perfect closer and coda, giving an incongruous sense of release after all the angst.
Despite the rushed recording, all involved probably had high hopes for what was a fantastic record, but it didn’t work out that way. Bourgoise suggested that the Liberty execs’ jaunt to the Monterey Pop Festival that summer was the death knell for Home & Away. Having switched from suits to spliffs, the label was said to have suddenly decided Del’s album was too square for the new direction.
Maybe closer to the truth was that, not for the first time, record buyers just weren’t interested in what Del was selling. Single ‘Led Along’ failed to chart in the US. ‘Mind Over Matter’ flopped in the UK. Despite hitting the Australian Top 20, even ‘Runaway ’67’ backed with ‘He Cheated’ only reached 112 in the US charts.Embed from Getty Images
Given how poorly the singles had performed, maybe it’s no surprise that Liberty cut their losses and scrapped the album before it was even pressed.
The remaining seven songs stayed in cold storage until 1978, when all eleven tracks were remixed and released with another three songs shuffled into the running order as …And the Music Plays On. Out of shape and out of time, it drifted by unnoticed.
In the meantime, Shannon was undeterred. He picked up the psychedel-ish thread of the abandoned Home & Away and took it even further. Del recorded the more convincingly lysergic The Further Adventures of Charles Westover before the end of the year, having this time written most of the material himself.
Despite its bravery and undeniable quality, it wasn’t a hit, and the possibility of renewed chart success continued to recede as the decade came to a close. Shannon dabbled in production, but as depression and drinking took hold, his output slowed to a trickle.
There were attempts to give Home & Away a proper release in the years after Del died, but rights issued scuppered those plans initially. Instead, the abandoned album lent its name to a comprehensive 2004 boxset which included its 11 songs somewhere in the middle of disc five.
Home & Away was eventually given the standalone release it deserved in 2006, with its intended sleeve, tracklisting and a handful of mono/single mixes as bonus tracks. Another reissue followed in 2012, with a much prettier cover and apparently better sound. Both are shamefully out of print, but the album is thankfully available to stream.
The failure of Del to find an audience with either Home & Away or The Further Adventures of Charles Westover wasn’t the end of the story. He had a resurgence of sorts at the end of the ’70s when Tom Petty lent his patronage for the Drop Down and Get Me album (released in 1981). The collaboration even got Del back in the Top 40 with a cover of Phil Phillips’s ‘Sea of Love’.
A decade on, Petty brought along the Heartbreakers and Jeff Lynne for Rock On! (posthumously released in 1991). There was even talk of Shannon joining the Petty/Lynne/George Harrison/Roy Orbison/Bob Dylan supergroup The Traveling Wilburys when Orbison died in 1988.
It didn’t happen. On February 8, 1990, Shannon took his own life at his home in Santa Clarita, California. He was only 55.
- Home & Away (2006 reissue) liner notes
- Home & Away (2012 reissue) liner notes
- Del Shannon bio (from delshannon.com)
- Home & Away – AllMusic
- …And The Music Plays On – AllMusic
- Home and Away: The Complete Recordings – AllMusic
- Home & Away – Steve Hoffman forums
- Toppermost – Del Shannon
- Home & Away – Something Else review (2012 reissue)
- Further Adventures of Charles Westover – The Active Listener review
- Robert Pollard’s Guide To The Late 60s – Episode 015