My Teenage Castle (Is Tumblin’ Down)
Little Peggy March
Written by Billy Gussak/Stephen Friedland
Produced by Hugo & Luigi
"I Wish I Were a Princess" b-side
RCA Victor 47-8189 (June 1963)
To inaugurate this humble exploration of the birth of teenage culture in the ’50s and ’60s, I could do worse than start with the song that gives the blog its name: Little Peggy March’s “My Teenage Castle (Is Tumblin’ Down)”. In addition to punning on the platform for the blog, it’s a song I really love, and it also gives us our first look at a classic teen-pop trope I’m sure we will revisit often – the breakup song.
I first encountered Peggy March through two rather different films that use her best known song, the 1963 smash “I Will Follow Him”, in surprisingly similar ways. In his landmark experimental work Scorpio Rising from 1964, Kenneth Anger plays the song over depictions of the life of Christ, intercut with shots of homoerotic bikers and Fascist imagery. Nearly thirty years later, Whoopi and the gals from Sister Act explicitly realized the song’s religious potential by transforming it into a rousing gospel stomper. (Anger’s film also makes excellent use of the b-side, “Wind-Up Doll”).
"My Teenage Castle" appeared as the flip-side to "I Wish I Were a Princess", the follow-up single to her big hit. Peggy March was only fifteen at the time of recording, leaving her reluctantly saddled with the "Little" appellation. Unlike its chart-topping predecessor, the record only reached a disappointing #32. March, in fact, would never again make it to the top ten in the US. She did, however, maintain a decades-long following in Europe and Japan. She eventually moved to Germany and was even a candidate to represent the country at Eurovision.
"My Teenage Castle" seems to draw its inspiration from Skeeter Davis’s crossover country classic "The End of the World", which had nearly topped the charts three months prior. Both are breakup songs driven by a simple arpeggiated piano line in 12/8 time. Yet while Skeeter’s despair is almost comically narcissistic (“Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to the shore? Don’t they know it’s the end of the world ‘cause you don’t love me anymore?”), March’s delivery is free of histrionics. The spare, matter-of-fact lyrics make the song more of a plaintive sigh than a wail (“Oh, what is love? Love is gone, gone with my castle above”), and the very fact that she can reflect on her naïve, faded dreams and identify them as a specifically teenage phenomenon implies a self-consciousness than most teen-sob-songs lack. I know I’m going too far here, but the weary resignation puts me in mind of Mahler’s famed setting of Rückert’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”). That hint at maturity also stands in stark contrast to the a-side “I Wish I Were a Princess”, which even fifteen-year-old Peggy March felt was too juvenile for her to sing.
The production came from Hugo & Luigi, a Brill Building team responsible for huge hits like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens and many of Sam Cooke’s great singles. The songwriting was a collaboration between Billy Gussak, the drummer with Bill Haley & The Comets, and Stephen Friedland, better known to ’60s pop nerds as Brute Force. Under that name Friedland released a bizarre, cult album of satirical baroque pop in 1967 called Confections of Love, full of song titles like “To Sit On a Sandwich” and “Tapeworm of Love”. His double-entendre laden single "The King of Fuh" was banned from radio airplay, but reportedly George Harrison and John Lennon loved the song so much they had it privately pressed by Apple Records.