Friday, 02 September 2016 10:59

Del Shannon’s ‘Overlooked Masterpieces’: Digging Into the West Michigan Native’s Trippy Tracks

Written by  Mark Deming
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Born in Grand Rapids on December 30, 1934, Del Shannon was not just one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll stars the State of Michigan produced in the 1960s, he was one of the best American rockers of his era. 

Born Charles Westover, Shannon was an outstanding vocalist with a wide range, able to hit an impressive falsetto with seemingly little effort, and he was a gifted songwriter as well. Shannon’s “I Go To Pieces” was a hit for Peter & Gordon and covered by dozens of artists. He knew a good tune when he heard it, cutting a version of The Beatles’ “From Me To You” in 1963, months before the Fab Four would break through in America. 

But Shannon is best remembered for a string of early-’60s hits that were like nothing else on the U.S. pop charts. With tunes like “Runaway,” “Hat’s Off to Larry,” “Keep Searchin’,” and especially the epochal “Stranger in Town,” Shannon created a handful of potent teenage dramas where love was never easy, danger lurked around every corner, and no one could be trusted. Shannon’s world was so dark, he made Roy Orbison sound positively sunny.

1965’s “Stranger in Town” was one of Shannon’s last major hit singles, and while his talent didn’t fade, his presence on the radio did as harder and more progressive sounds came into vogue with the psychedelic era. But Shannon was far from a spent force, and in 1967 and ’68, he recorded a pair of overlooked masterpieces, Home and Away and The Further Adventures of Charles Westover

Shannon won a significant fan following in England after “Runaway” hit No. 1 in the UK, and he scored a minor hit with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.” As Shannon’s career was going into a slump in the States, he found a British benefactor in Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager and producer who made the Stones a global sensation. In early 1967, Oldham brought Shannon to England to record an album for his newly launched Immediate Records label, backed by some of the cream of London’s session players, including pianist Nicky Hopkins, Steve Marriott of the Small Faces, future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer Andy White. 

The result, Home and Away, was a superb exercise in ’60s record making, with one foot in baroque pop and the other dipping into psychedelia. The album featured some of Shannon’s best vocal work, more relaxed than usual but with all of his traditional passion and assurance, with the support of some great Beach Boys’ styled harmonies. The arrangements were significantly more elaborate than his early hits, but the sound of the album favored Shannon as it pointed his music in a new and more artful direction. Unfortunately, it would be decades before his fans got to hear the results. When a couple of advance singles from the album failed to chart, Oldham shelved the project. While most of the material appeared on the 1978 album The Music Played On, it was in 2006 that the exemplary British archival label Now Sounds finally gave Home and Away a proper release. One listen confirms this was one of the finest lost albums of the 1960s.

Shannon took a bit of what he learned making Home and Away and put it to good use on his next LP, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, a set that mixes straightforward rock ‘n’ roll with psychedelic pop and a shot of rhythm & blues. Unlike Home and Away, Shannon wrote most of the songs on Further Adventures, and the album has a tougher and more muscular tone, even on trippy numbers like “I Think I Love You” and “Silver Birch.” “Be My Friend” is a great, hard-edged blues-rock track, and “Colour Flashing Hair” is a widescreen exercise in folk rock. “Runnin’ On Back” plays like an update of Shannon’s great hits with a harder and heavier attack, and “Magical Music Box” out baroques anything on Home and Away. The Further Adventures of Charles Westover ranks with the most ambitious and eclectic projects of Shannon’s career, and unlike Home and Away, Liberty Records actually released it. It was a commercial misfire, but has developed a richly deserved cult following among fans of ’60s psych, and in 2014, the noted garage-punk label Trouble in Mind Records gave the album a lovingly accurate vinyl reissue. The album is also available on CD from the UK label Beat Goes On, and like Home and Away, it can be easily found via Amazon. 

If Del Shannon’s days as a major rock star were brief, they made a tremendous impact, and he’s still well remembered 26 years after his death in 1990. In Coopersville, Mich., where Shannon lived as a child, the local Rotary Club stages an annual Del Shannon Days Car Show, which this year takes place on August 12 and 13, and features an appearance by Shannon tribute artist James Popenhagen. But as great as “Runaway” and “Keep Searchin’” were, there’s a lot more to Shannon and his legacy than that. If you’re interested in learning how much he had to offer, give Home and Away and The Further Adventures of Charles Westover a spin. 

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