Of all the early rock & rollers, Del Shannon is the hardest to classify. He came on the scene a little late -- his first hits, "Hats off to Larry" and "Runaway," arrived in 1961, five years after rock & roll came crashing in, a long enough period of time where his music felt much, much different than the three-chord ravers of the first wave of rock & roll. He arrived during the peak of teen idol pop and was handsome enough to ride that wave, but he was older than Fabian and Ricky Nelson, scoring his first hits in his mid-twenties. Shannon could be seen as a kindred spirit of Roy Orbison, favoring dramatic ballast to blues boogie, threading a sense of melancholy into his biggest hits, but he never verged on the operatic the way Orbison did. He was comfortable enough with country to cut an album of Hank Williams tunes in 1965 and hip enough to go psychedelic when the times shifted in the late '60s. He wrote his biggest hits but also had exceptional taste in other songwriters, being one of the first American rockers to cover the Beatles, along with such '60s pop hits as Bobby Hebb's "Sunny," Brian Hyland's "The Joker Went Wild" and the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City."
None of this restlessness brought Del Shannon big hits -- his run peaked early, with the back-to-back Top 10 hits of "Hats off to Larry" and "Runaway," with the latter reaching number one, then he bounced back in 1965 with the Top 10 "Keep Searchin' (We'll Follow the Sun)" -- but it did result in a singularly fascinating body of work, one that's compiled in its entirety on Bear Family's box Home and Away: The Complete Recordings 1960-1970. Shannon continued to tour and, when he could, record, until his death in 1990, but this is his prime, when his creativity ran wild but never in a showy way, not even when he dove into trippy psychedelia in 1967, a career move that practically begs for extravagance. Despite that keening falsetto and taste for melodrama, Shannon never seemed over the top; he retained a Midwestern humbleness that grounds his records, even ties together all his musical wanderings. The music on Home and Away may drift from rock & roll to country to pop and back again, winding up with a lean, colorful roots rock reminiscent of Joe South, but it doesn't seems scattershot or random, there's a natural logic to Shannon's movements that keeps his music seeming like pop product that follows the changing times. There's range here but also consistency, with each phase being pretty strong on its own accord, with Shannon subtly altering his vocal style to suit whatever he's singing. Perhaps he was too adept at this, sliding from sound to sound so easily he never wound up cutting a strong overall persona, but that's also a byproduct of his Midwestern breeding; he served the song, not himself. And while that might not have made for superstardom, it did give him a remarkable run, its uniqueness easier to appreciate in one big dose as it is here, for all those phases and stages are placed in context (with Bear Family thankfully saving the alternates and demos for an extended coda, not mixing it in with the rest), making the depth and unpredictability of his work not just evident, but easy to savor.