The Petty Archives

Records: Shannon proves he's runaway talent
By Jim Musser
The Daily Iowan - Thursday, October 29, 1981

The period in the early 1960s, beginning roughly with Buddy Holly's death and Elvis leaving for the service, and ending with the arrival of Beatlemania, was a bleak one for rock 'n' roll. Outside of various rhythm and blues group, Del Shannon (along with Roy Orbison and Dion & the Belmonts) was one of the very few to keep the spirit of rock 'n' roll alive.

Yet when Shannon appeared at the Rosebud in Iowa City for two nights last May, it was readily apparent to the lucky few who attended that this was not just another over-the-hill "oldies" act out beating the sticks for the last few bucks it could muster -- this was a rocker who had been lost or misplaced for much too long.

Since Shannon had no record company support to speak of at the time, he was obliged to use local bands (in this case, Compass) to back him up. Such an arrangement limited him to performances of his most familiar (and oldest) material.

 Even with this handicap, the Michigan-born singer roared through two sets, which included "Hats Off to Larry," "Little Town Flirt," "Stranger in Town," "Keep Searchin'," "I Go to Pieces" (a big hit for Peter and Gordon in 1965), "Handyman" (a hit for lots of peopes, most recently James Taylor and his somnambulistic rendition) and Shannon's classic, "Runaway."

Throughout the evening, the 41-year-old rocker demonstrated flawless timing, enthusiasm, perfect pitch and a voice even more powerful and riveting than his remarkable recordings would allow one to hope.

An hour-long interview between sets showed Shannon to be friendly, healthy (looking a full 10 years younger than his age), almost embarrassingly humble and, strangely, lacking the bitterness that might be expected from someone who has been shafted by the industry as much as he has (none of his previous 13 LPs is currently in print in the United States). 

At the time, he was in possession of a cassette of the master of his upcoming LP, Drop Down and Get Me, produced by Tom Petty and backed by the Heartbreakers. The album was set for release on Backstreet Records in June.

June passed -- no Del Shannon record. The summer passed -- still no record. In the last week of October, Drop Down and Get Me has finally been released -- not on Backstreet, but on Elektra Records. Evidently, MCA/Backstreet figured that breaking a "new" artist on a bear market would be too risky, so Shannon was left to shop around.

Whatever the reason, Backstreet's loss was Elektra's (and rock fans') gain -- for while Drop Down is by no means a masterpiece, it does present one of rock 'n' roll's all-time underrated masters in a viable, modern and vital showcase.

Tom Petty, whose greatest strengths have always been his keen sense of rock history and the ability to synthesize classic rock elements into seamless and up-to-date pieces, has given Drop Down and Get Me a classy production job; strong but sympathetic to the artist's intent.

The Heartbreakers (minus Petty except in minor roles) are their usual tasteful and muscular shelves as Shannon's backing band. Phil Seymour, the Records' Jude Cole and Kym Westover (who is presumably Shannon's relative -- Del was born Charles Westover) lend stylish backing vocals. Like Petty and the Heartbreakers' LPs, this is basically a guitar album, with Mike Campbell's biting leads and stinging 12-string keeping it on a rocking edge.

Of Drop Down and Get Me's 10 tracks, recorded in three separate sessions between October, 1979 and February of this year, seven are "new" Shannon originals (no "automatic hit" remakes of "Runaway" here). "Life Without You," "To Love Someone" and "Never Stop Tryin'" are the best of these, displaying Shannon's deft sense of melodic rock songwriting.

"Liar" is a fairly well-crafted song (complete with a trademark Shannon electric ocarina sound by Benmont Tench), but the lyrics are dumber than a Cap Snaffler. The same applies to "Sucker For Your Love," but "Midnight Train," which closes side two, is a full-tilt, toes-to-the-floorboard romp that works very well. The title track sounds like Mitch Ryder's more recent efforts, with Shannon affecting a harsher, throatier voice.

While most of Shannon's hits were at least co-written by him, he has shown a flair for handling other people's material -- his version of the Beatles' "From Me to You" actually outsold the Fab Four's in the United States. For Drop Down, he has selected Don Everly's "Maybe Tomorrow" (a country duet with Kym Westover that is nicely done but a little out of place on this disc), a punchy rendition of "Sea of Love" and the Stones' "Out of Time."

The choice of "Out of Time" is especially inspired and is one of the album's highlights. The song lends itself perfectly to Shannon's vocal capabilities, and there is a certain sense of irony as he delivers the final verse:

"You're obsolete, my baby
My poor old-fashioned baby
I said baby, baby, baby you're out of time"

Obsolete? Never. Old-fashioned? Perhaps a tiny bit. But out of time and back just in time. Shannon is a class act that has been sorely missed. There's obviously a lot of rock 'n' roll left in him and if he gets somewhere with this record, perhaps someone can get a Del Shannon's Greatest Hits back into print in the United States.