During the 1960’s rockabilly was mainly heard on the nostalgia tours. Wanda Jackson, the ‘First Lady of Rockabilly’ had a hit in 1960 with ‘Let’s Have a Party’ a remake of an earlier Elvis hit, but eventually had more success with her country songs in the 60’s and settled there. That decade was tough on cats. Charlie Feathers, who’d had a string of hits in the 50’s, didn’t record an album during the 60’s, next releasing in 1974 when artists like Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe were bringing the genre back. The style continued to influence all bands coming up in the 60’s but rock had turned and left the ducktail behind.
But all things return. In 1970 Dave Edmunds resurrected an old Dave Bartholomew/Pearl King song from the 50’s and had a world-wide hit that started bringing the cow back home.
Edmunds hooked up with Nick Lowe and formed Rockpile. During the next few years rockabilly became a ‘new’ sensation. In 1976 a 22 year old kid working as a data entry clerk for an accounting firm put together some songs, writing at night at his work place so he wouldn’t disturb his young family. After work as well he went to a studio to record these songs. Nick Lowe had heard of Elvis Costello playing around town and writing songs for other acts, and he agreed to produce the album that cost 1000 quid and took about 24 hours of recording time. From the 1977 release My Aim Is True, ‘Mystery Dance’.
The rest of the album is pretty much part of New Wave but this is straight up rockabilly. And the picture on the album. Kid was definitely channeling Buddy Holly. I think this first was Costello’s best album, but it didn’t do well enough for him to quit his day job. Amazing.
Basically from 1975 to 1979, especially in London, rockabilly was getting New Life.
In 1979 a band from Massapequa, NY started building a following on the punk circuit playing with bands like The Cramps that were forging another sound from rockbilly to be termed psychobilly. More on that later. This band’s influence came straight from guys like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, right down to the Teddy Boy image. They had trouble breaking out and heard about a new Teddy Boy revival happening in London (of course). They moved to the UK and got the attention of Dave Edmunds who brought them into the studio. With Lee Rocker on the double bass, Slim Jim Phantom on a classic 50’s stripped down kit, and Brian Setzer on that Gretsch, playing what Guitar World magazine rated No. 92 on their 1998 100 Best Guitar Solos. God I sound like Casey Kasem.
The Stray Cats became probably the most commercially successful of the revival rockabilly acts.
From the same album, "Rock This Town", which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has listed as one of the songs that shaped rock and roll. Those guys at the RRHF. This is a song shaped by rock and roll. By the way, you clowns still don’t have Jethro Tull in the hall. Idiots.
Now. As much as I loved the Stray Cats music and style, let’s face it. They were the most commercially successful because they were the most vanilla of the lot. Rock and roll’s trademark was always metered by how much yer parents hated the shit. If I wanted to get my kids to stop listening to something, I would embrace it, and it would disappear from the house. Rock and roll needs to be something that scares the crap out of mom and dad or it ain’t rock and roll. The rockabilly revival of the 70’s and 80’s morphed into a trash and burn rockabilly style that had many names, including trashabilly and gothabilly, and the most enduring name was mentioned in a Johnny Cash song “One Piece At A Time” written by Wayne Kemp which became a Top 10 Country hit in 1976. “Red Rider this is the Cottonmouth in his psychobilly Cadillac”.
Now we back in the scary weeds. The Cramps were pioneers of the punk/psychobilly sound which had come out of the NY scene revolving around CBGB’s. Featuring Lux Interior and his wife/guitar player Poison Ivy, This is ‘Garbageman’ which was on a Cramps compilation album with one of my favorite album names, Bad Music For Bad People.
Ok, dat shit’s funny I don’t care who you are.
The Cramps were dark on some level but mostly were hilarious and innovative. Like Punk. Never figured out how Lux kept those damn leather pants up.
If I attempt to talk about psychobilly without mentioning The Meteors one of you knuckleheads will get on a pony and start shooting. These guys were definitely a huge part of the genre and stayed that way until, well, now. They were formed in 1980 and recently in 2016 released an album The Power of 3. This next is from a 1988 video, ‘Rawhide’, with Paul Fenech riding a horse with a guitar in one hand.
Rockabilly and by default psychobilly had roots in and used the western and country themes of fast cars, slow women, and whiskey. Originally I was going to do a column on my favorite rockabilly band but there was so much great material the column became two and included as many influences on these next guys that I could muster.
Around 2006 I was playing in a rockabilly band in LA with my son Dean and his buddy from the Musician’s Institute named Charlie Faupiano. I hadn’t been in a band in 25 years having raised a family and all. But Charlie and Dean needed a bass player and I had gotten a job running operations for a factory in Corona which moved me out to LACA, so I got drafted. Charlie and Dean turned me on to what had been happening since the olden times when I was playing the Stray Cats and Elvis Costello stuff in a New Wave power trio in the early 80’s. Charlie had a red Gretsch and could play anybody and anything. Truly amazing. But he had a red Gretsch because at the time what he loved with passion was the billy goin on. They gave me a CD of the tunes they wanted to play and I fell in love all over again.
More damn fun then you can have with more than two people.
The guy who really stuck out on the CD was Charlie’s guitar hero, Jim Heath. Heath had played around bands in and after high school around Corpus Christi but eventually settled down with a member of his first band after college and started raising the obligatory Texas family. In 1985 an old roommate blew through town and regaled Heath with stories about the punk and rockabilly subculture that was happening in Austin. Wife must’ve loved that. Heath went with him to a Dallas nightclub, The Bijou. Here’s how shit comes around. The band was The Cramps and the top of Jim’s head came clean off. He’d kept up his guitar playing and by now was a true blazer. So he formed a band as Reverend Horton Heat, shortening his last name. The wife left with the kid and the dog and the rest just happened.
Three pieces, and they sound just like this live. Jimbo Wallace doing that great slap bass joined the Rev in 1989 and together create on stage what is in my humble opinion the most fun you can have on three legs.
This is the first song I heard on that CD.
I was hooked.
Also on the CD.
Shiver Me Timbers.
There are boatloads of live vid’s of the Rev all over the net thingy and I recommend them, but really go see them live. Check out their website. The tour schedule is insane still, and if they aren’t coming near you in the next year you live in Indonesia.
I told you about the country influence on all these rockabilly guys. This song always makes me cry.
I was actually done with this column but during edit I found a recording from an early Rev session where the thing fell apart from the start. I’d heard it once but lost track of it. Bear with me. This is cool.
Dean, Charlie and I met Heath and Jimbo at an outdoor concert in San Luis Obispo and someone should ask me to tell that story.
Most of the material for these last two columns came from wet dreams at summer camp, but I do want to shout out to Dan McCauley at PS Audio who turned me on to The Cramps.