The "leader of the pack" is the archetypical bad boy - the guy you definitely don't want your daughter to date. He's head of a motorcycle gang, and in this song, the girl falls for him hard. Her father forbids her from seeing him, so she breaks it off. He gives her one last kiss, then rides off into the rain, meeting his doom when he crashes his bike.
This is a tale of young love, parental disapproval, and death by motorbike. Mary Weiss, the lead vocalist of the Shangri-Las, said in Telegraph magazine, April 14, 2007, "I don't think I would be able to put feeling into the song unless I had really thought about the lyrics. I put a lot of my own pain into that song. I don't think teenage years are all that rosy for a lot of people - they certainly weren't for me. They are the most confusing time of people's lives and there is a tremendous dark side to the record, which I think teenagers related to. The studio was a great place to let the pain out."
She went on to comment: "I thought it was amusing when they (British radio and TV stations) banned 'Leader' because of the mod and rocker stuff. When I got off the plane in my leather jacket everyone knew which side I was on."
This was written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and producer Shadow Morton. Morton was looking for a follow-up to the first Shangri-Las' hit, "Remember (Walking in the Sand)
." He had a motorcycle and was part of a motorcycle gang in his youth, so he, Greenwich and Barry decided to use that as the theme. Together, they came up with the rather dramatic story, being sure to name the characters in the lyric (Betty and Johnny) so the listener could form an attachment. A hallmark of the song is the spoken dialogue that sets up the story.
A young Billy Joel played the piano on this song - probably. He explained to Uncut in 1998: "I know I played piano on a session. The girls themselves weren't at the session, but that kinda happens all the time, the singers come in later. I played note for note what is on the record, but I wasn't in the musician's union – I was about 14 or 15 – so for all I know they may have got a union guy in to do it later. I never got paid, never got a form to show it was me on the record, so I can't say for sure it's me, but I like to think it was. Actually, it was my very first recording session – a guitar player friend got me in. I also did 'Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)'.
The producer, Shadow Morton, was a strange guy. He had a very theatrical way of producing, he used to wear a cape in the studio. I don't know if he'd been taking any intoxicating substances – what did I know at that age? – but he was very intimidating to a young kid like me. I just kept my head down hoping no one would find out I wasn't in the union, but I never got paid, so maybe someone squealed on me."
According to Jeff Barry, they used a real motorcycle for the sound of the revving engine. Shadow Morton sometimes talked about how they wheeled the motorcycle into the studio to record it, but Barry explained that they attached a microphone to a long cable and recorded it on the street outside the New York City studio (Mirasound Studios on 47th Street). The bike was a Harley Davidson owned by Barry's engineer, Joe Venneri. Fortunately, Venneri's Harley was not used to create the crashing sound - that was a sound effect.
The opening bit of dialog in this song, "Is she really going out with him?," was used by The Damned to open their first single, "New Rose
," in 1976, with lead singer David Vanian reciting it. In 1979, Joe Jackson appropriated the line for his hit "Is She Really Going Out With Him?
Later in 1964, the producers Ron Dante ("Sugar, Sugar
"), Tommy Wynn and Danny Jordan released a parody of this song called "Leader Of The Laundromat," which they issued under the name The Detergents. In that song, a guy falls for a girl in a laundromat, and it doesn't end well. This parody went to #19 in the US.
In the UK, this charted three times: first at #11 when it was initially released, then at #3 with a 1972 re-release, followed by a 1976 re-release at #7.
This song has been covered by a wide range of artists, including Twisted Sister, The Chipmunks, and Bette Midler. Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie teamed up with Stooges guitarist James Williamson to release their version in 2019.