It was a beautiful day,
the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del
were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’
- Tom Petty
“Runnin’ Down A Dream”
All the mystery, tension, fear, longing and loathing of the Rock-N-Roll idiom are wrapped up together in Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” sometimes
called “Little Runaway.”
The rain, the rain…
“Runaway” tells a simple and enduring story of a man who has lost a love; indeed she has run away. The listener is led to consider whether the narrator/singer has driven her to run off, but that point goes unresolved. We find ourselves in a bleak, almost apocalyptic, emotional landscape where there is only rain, and tears that are the same as the rain. There is a man walking the empty streets.
The opening guitar riff heralds the existential dilemma of the character who, as he walks along, wonders
What went wrong
with our love
a love that was
The quest for the runaway continues, giving us the sense that this search for the physical runaway will not be successful – ever. We also know the answer to the recurring question found in the chorus – “Why?” – plainly cannot be answered.
And as I still walk on
I think of the things
we’ve done together
while our hearts were young
Those are a few lines that boil down the best of Rock’s lost-love sub-genre.
The musical side of “Runaway” is incongruously peppy, almost happy. That is, until you listen to the lyrics. But the peppiness devolves into a maniacal break on an instrument called a musictron, an early version of a synthesizer that is one part Phantom Of The Opera and one part hallucinatory speed trip. A few notes into the break, the peppiness morphs into an audio portrayal of an intense pathology.
Shannon’s vocal is a benchmark for subsequent rockers. You can hear him in John Lennon. (Shannon was the first American to cover a Beatles composition, “From Me To You”). Aside from the homage in “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” Tom Petty has cited Del Shannon as a major influence, as have Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Everclear and – of all people – Elton John. It is also easy enough to hear the musical influence and sentiment of “Runaway” in Bruce Springsteen hits such as “Hungry Heart” and “Backstreets.”
“Runaway” has been covered over 200 times. The list of artists reads like a Who’s Who of American and British pop music: Elvis Presley; Lawrence Welk; Tony Orlando; The Traveling Wilburys; The Small Faces.
Everclear’s Art Alexakis said at Shannon’s induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame: “Through good times and bad, Del Shannon sounded like the same haunted man, hunting for some lost beauty he would probably never find, but for which he had to keep searching.”
The haunted chorus of “Runaway” is deathless. If there’s a Rock-N-Roll heaven, you know the band will be playing “Runaway” at some crucial moment in the big show.
I’m a–walkin’ in the rain
Tears are fallin’ and I feel a pain
Wishin’ you were here by me
To end this misery and I wonder
She ran away and I wonder
Where she will stay
My little runaway
- Guitarist Buzzy Pizzarelli, father of current-day guitar virtuoso, John Pizzarelli was brought into Bell Sound Studio in New York for the “Runaway” sessions.
- During its 4-week stay as Billboard’s #1 hit, “Runaway” was selling as many as 80,000 copies per day and eventually sold a total of 6 million records.