Issue 3, Article 3

Rockabilly Riot

by Jen Kaminsky

I love Elvis, and the Stray Cats, and 50’s style rock ‘n roll, and rock n’ roll in general, and somehow they all have something to do with a mysterious little genre of music called rockabilly. During the summer, I had something of a running joke with my friend Alison, about all the different subgenres of rockabilly-psychobilly, thrashabilly, trashabilly, punkabilly, surfabilly, gothabilly, etc-that seem to keep popping up in various music discussions. In our joking, ironic fashion we mused on why there might be so many of them and whatever could all of those names mean? So I figured that I would attempt to clarify all of this and maybe learn a little more about a genre of music that I think is really cool. But remember that musical genres are flexible, fluid things so I’m sure that someone out there will say that I am completely wrong or that I’ve left out that obscure band that is "essential" to the development of everything else.

Anyway, at the library I found this great book Go Cat Go by Craig Morrison which did a great job in explaining the origins of the genre and giving bios for some of the people involved in it. On the first page, he gives a really useful list of things that make a song rockabilly. The highlights include:

- obvious Presley influence

- identifiable country and rhythm and blues inflections

- strong rhythm and beat

- a wild or extreme vocal style

- an energetic, blues-influenced electric guitar solo

- upright bass, especially if played in a slapped manner

and not:

- harmony singing

- saxophone

- piano, unless it is Jerry Lee Lewis’

The word Rockabilly, being a combination of rock n’ roll and hillbilly, reflects the hybrid nature of the music, and also it’s just a lot easier to say than "country and western rhythm and blues" or "country and western rock ‘n’ roll". The great Carl Perkins, original author of the song "Blue Suede Shoes," suggested that "rockabilly is a country man’s song with a black man’s rhythm." By 1956 musicians, fans, and media were using the term to describe a variety of great acts that had recently adopted the new style.

Although others have claimed that they were playing the style before him, it was most likely Elvis Presley who recorded the first rockabilly song. One fateful day in July of 1954 Elvis and his musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black gathered at the Sun recording studios in Memphis to record "That’s All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Through extensive touring as well as radio and television appearances Elvis and others, who responded to the sound spread rockabilly throughout the country. Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis are easily the most identifiable of these musicians, but other greats include Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and the Burnette brother’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. Since few of these artists were able to generate chart-topping hits, the big record companies were slow to respond. Indie labels like Sun in Memphis, Mar-Vel in Indiana, and King in Cincinnati popped up to fill the void. But this first wave of rockabilly sound enjoyed success for only a short period, being popular and recorded widely from 1954 to 1959.

The first rockabilly revival began in Europe in the early 70’s. Romanticism of the 50’s and early rock ‘n’ roll could be found in America as well at this point, but the Europeans with their distance had always taken their fantasies to another level. While people all over were reacquainting themselves with the rockabilly sound, the movement is most associated with the Brits and is related to the punk explosion that occurred a few years later. Record stores in England started selling the old music, and labels began to reissue out of print and hard to find material. Many of the original musicians, like Roy Campi and Sleepy LeBeef, obscure musicians in the 50’s, enjoyed a new vogue, recording new material and touring extensively throughout Europe. Interest in the states, however, was not as widespread and many American collectors had to buy the music as an import. The Stray Cats, the best known of the revival bands, began playing together during their high school days in New York, but they moved to London in 1980 to make it big.

The revival produced new styles and types of rockabilly, though the fans always had a distinctive style. The revival coincided with the reemergence of the Teddy Boys or Cosh boys, a sub-culture that originated during the 50’s in the East End of London as working class kids. They affected/mocked upper-class style by donning Edwardian drape coats, drain pipe trousers, and crepe-soled creepers or pointed-toe winkle-picker boots. The Teds—original and revival—devoted themselves to the values of their working class origins and the energy of 50’s rock ‘n’ roll, but at times they could be a violent, racist, bunch of kids. Before Malcolm McClaren opened Sex and became the infamous manager of the Sex Pistols, he and Vivienne Westwood sold records and 50’s clothes to the Teds at their store Vive Le Rock before deciding that in their conservatism they were boring and doing nothing "new." From the beginning, the look, for both men and women, was loud, sexy, and tough. For the American, first wave image, think James Dean and Marlon Brando in The Wild One, the archetypes of the American greasers, with their slicked back hair, jeans, and leather jackets. Think Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe emitting sex appeal in tight capri pants and short sleeved angora sweaters. The Brits cultivated the Ted image. Rockabilly style now is a combination of all these images. I bought a pair of creepers in New York, and saw a bunch of Brits dressed like greasers putting away pints in a pub in North London. But the look is always cool and dangerous, as well as maintaining its affiliation with the 50’s.

The original rockabilly sound evolved from a number of genres. Musicians of the revival combined that sound with the other strands of music that had developed since the 50’s. While so many bands have continued to produce a specifically 50’s sound, others have mixed in punk, surf, metal, and even goth sounds. This evolution has produced a variety of billy subgenres. Psychobilly is probably the most substantial of these. The Psycho sound developed in England in the late 70’s with bands like the Cramps(US) and the Meteors(UK). They speeded up the sound, making it harder, adding punk influences, and diminishing the country and acoustic components. The Reverend Horton Heat (the early stuff especially) has probably had the most success with the psycho sound. The Amazing Royal Crowns and Rocket from the Crypt, while not specifically billy groups, mix in the sound to enhance their style of rock ‘n’ roll.

Rockabilly has become popular in the last few years and lots of bands have tagged the billy name onto what they were already playing. Surfing the web, I listened to a song by the Deans, a band claiming to be "surfabilly." Hmm—my vote was a bunch of tame boys playing crap surf pop. Suddenly everyone being some sort of billy is really cool. I read through a discussion on about trying to find good gothabilly bands. Y’know what, they couldn’t really find any. Y’know why? The genre doesn’t exist. These are all just a bunch of names for the same thing. I personally think it’s lame that every band needs 16 different adjectives to describe their sound. I know I participate in this discourse and have uttered sentences telling people that I just got some great new album by some post-punk noisy indie-rock band while neither of us know what I have just said, but I still think this obsession with categorizing is silly. These categories never describe the music any way.

But bringing it back to the billy thing, I think that psychobilly is an acceptable genre. Just like the musicians of the 50’s, modern bands bring a variety of styles to the rockabilly sound. The main difference today is that these styles are rarely country or rhythm ‘n’ blues. So I think of the psycho genre as being an umbrella-type term for all the different strands of contemporary and post-punk rockabilly. I totally support the creation of a new genre when a band is doing something new with the music, but I don’t think that the bands that claim to be all of these stupid billy genres are doing that. They just want to be cool, and think that claiming to be some type of weird billy genre will help. Well I don’t think it does. But what do I know, I mean it’s all just rock ‘n’ roll to me.

Issue 3 Contents - Previous Article - Next Article