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Sunday, June 26, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Psychobilly
Psychobilly occupied a space between punk subgenre and roots revival; it brought to life the essential style of rockabilly; one of the essential building blocks of rock 'n' roll in the 1950's and fused it to the punk aesthetic. It appeared at about the same time that a traditionalist rockabilly revival was underway; both enjoyed their first heyday in the early 80's. Psychobilly never really went away entirely, and underwent a renaissance in the 90's; reverberations of the style can be detected in key 00's bands as well.
Its hallmarks are a fast, breakneck tempo, lots of reverb and echo, vocals that range from an ironic croon to manaical wails, and lyrics dealing with all manner of degeneracy stemming primarily from drinking, drugs, sex, bad religion, and trash culture. One thing the lyrics never deal in are politics. It is a seedy, seamy musical form; therein lies its allure.
The Cramps can take credit as the genre's inventors, although after the genre became known, they tried to disassociate themselves from it. On handbills to their shows they used terms like "psychobilly" and "voodoo rockabilly". The term "Psychobilly" can be traced to "One Piece at a Time", a 1976 hit by Johnny Cash which referred to a "psychobilly Cadillac". Other artists unwittingly contributing influence to the style were Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who mixed blues with rockabilly and added hysterical vocals; Motorhead, the English proto-speed-metal band of the 70's who borrowed rockabilly rhythms for their noisy riffing, and Long Island's Stray Cats, who led the traditionalist rockabilly revival of the 80's.
The psychobilly scene, in terms of a "scene", appeared in England first, before spreading to America. The Meteors, a London band formed in 1980, was a trio comprised of a rockabilly member, a punk veteran, and a horror movie fan, essentially touching on all the main ingredients and distilling them into a new sound. In England, punk was still a polarizing music in 1980; The Meteors declared their gigs to be "politics free", which helped the lyrics dwell on other matters.
The UK psychobilly scene gathered around a venue called Klubfoot, which would often feature a lineup of psychobilly bands on specific days, to encourage travel from outlying areas. The early UK psychobilly bands had strong garage band influence as well; this sound grew more metallic as the 80's wore on. In the U.K. the scene was as much about fashion as anything else; the form was much more purist and non-glam in America.
In the U.S., a psychobilly scene began to develop in Los Angeles and surrounding areas in 1980-1981; it also cropped up in Europe and Japan. Some L.A. area psychobilly bands came to be known as cowpunk; a subgenre of psychobilly with a more Americana roots-rock sound. Unlike the UK scene, it wasn't fashion-oriented, and remained largely blue collar. The Gun Club is the father of the L.A. psychobilly scene; psychobilly and cowpunk eventually spread throughout the west and midwest, and became particulalry associated with Texas, particularly in the Dallas area.
In the 90's, psychobilly was picked up by a new generation, led by Texas-based Reverand Horton Heat. Even the White Stripes have a little psychobilly in them, particularly on their first releases.
Some important/influential psychobilly artists/songs include:
1. The Cramps: Tear It Up
The Cramps, from Sacramento CA, were in some respects the ultimate psychobilly band, and were certainly America's first. Their all-American blend of garage punk, greaser rockabilly, horror movies, and sexual perversion set the template for the West Coast school of psychobilly that would develop over the next couple of years. Their sound was comprised of the demented howls of singer Lux Interior (Erick Purkhiser), twangy one-note leads from Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kristy Wallace), noise guitar from Bryan Gregory (Greg Beckerleg) and primitive pounding from drummer Miriam Linna. "Tear It Up" is from their full-length debut, Songs the Lord Taught Us, a 1980 effort produced by pop maverick Alex Chilton (ex-Big Star). It is a ripping Billy Burnette cover that surpasses the original, which sounds timid and flat in comparison. After several personnel changes, the Cramps are still out there, still with Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach, somewhere, today.
2. Gun Club: For The Love Of Ivy
Gun Club, original fixtures on the embryonic Los Angeles psychobilly scene in 1980, put the "psycho" in "psychobilly". Led by wildman, boozehound, and screaming banshee Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Gun Club's music was fuzzy, degenerate music from the edge. Contemporaries of X and the Blasters in those days, they eventually packed up and moved to New York's Lower East Side. Their 1981 debut, Fire of Love, stands as a true landmark of indie rock, post-punk, roots-rock, and psychobilly. A swampy brew of roaring blues rock and gothic country, cut with rockabilly rhythms, it represented a new rediscovery of American styles that seemed to lead places, even if the lyrics were sleazed out. On "For The Love Of Ivy" Pierce sounds like the animated corpse of Hank Williams, after about a dozen shots and assorted pills. Pierce and Ward Dotson raunch things up on guitar, while the drums and cymbals crash over the urgent, propulsive, increasingly manic 4/4 din. Miraculously, Pierce kept this up for 14 years, right through 1994. However, years of abuse caught up with him, and he died in 1996.
3. Hasil Adkins: The Wild Man
One of the most psycho characters in rock history, a favorite of obscuro collectors, Hasil Adkins worked well beyond the fringe in utter (and literal) isolation for nearly a quarter of a century before he was discovered and championed by the Cramps. A story worthy of a book, Adkins was born poor in the Appalachean town of Madison, WV in 1939. He discovered music, especially Hank Williams', as a boy over the radio. The isolated youth taught himself to play in a one-man band style; playing guitar while working the drums with foot pedals. He set up a vacuum-tube era home recording machine and commited his rockabilly to tape. Lyrically, his songs showed the obsessiveness of the mentally ill; he wrote a song for an imaginary dance craze called "The Hunch", he compared a woman to a can of "commodity meat" in "She Said", he sang of chickens and eating peanut butter. He kept this up, with barely a soul listening to his tapes, for nearly 15 years. He occasionally played live, in cheap dime honky tonks, and got a few singles out on dusty, broken-down local labels. The Cramps' Miriam Linna heard one of his tunes in the late 70's, and was struck by its unique, out of this world rockabilly. The Cramps covered his "She Said" in 1981, and got him his first real recording session in 1986, thirty years after he had started, as well as releasing a compilation of his singles and tapes. "The Wild Man" comes from this 1986 session, and displays Adkins still playing drums and guitar simultaneously. Intense and surprisingly good. Adkins died in 2005.
4. Reverend Horton Heat: Bad Reputation
Reverend Horton Heat is probably the most commercially successful psychobilly band in a genre that is seldom sells many records. They've never had anything remotely resembling a hit, but their albums have usually made the Top Heatseekers charts, and twice made the Billboard top-200. Led by James C. Heath, who used Reverend Horton Heat as a stage name, as did the whole trio, the band began playing in the Dallas area in 1985; their debut album, Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, appeared on Sub Pop in 1992. Sub Pop invented a legend about Heath; he had spent years in a juvenile facility and supported himself as a pool shark and street musician; he claims it isn't true. "Bad Reputation" is from their Sub Pop debut, and demonstrates the band at its rawest and most fierce; Heat plays guitar like a firebrand, while his band mates keep up rudely. Their 1994 album with Interscope, Liquor In Front, introduced them to a much larger audience, but this debut, re-recorded before release on a two-track, stands as the purest stuff.
5. Angry Johnny & The Killbillies: Life, Love, Death and the Meter Man
The public first heard of Angry Johnny, of Easthampton, MA, as the graphic artist who designed the cover to Dinosaur Jr.'s Where You Been, in 1993. He also had a band; the Killbillies, with bassist Jim Joe Greedy and drummer Dwight Trash, and made his debut with Hankenstein. Angry Johnny has one ugly voice; gutteral and hoarse, which suits this musical style perfectly. "Life, Love, Death and the Meter Man" is a hardcore honky tonk rockabilly with macabre lyrics about dismembering the meter man with a chainsaw. The band has never really gotten very big beyond the confines of their local area, but are still at it; Puttin the Voodoo on Monroe was released in 2004.
6. Southern Culture On The Skids: Voodoo Cadillac
Southern Culture on the Skids hail from fertile Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and play up rockabilly's trailer-trash angle and southern stereotypes, which included tossing fried chicken into the audience. Musically, they were a fairly complex stew of rockabilly, boogie, southern rock, and southern r&b with some punk and surf thrown in. Their debut EP appeared in 1985, but the band's recording career really didn't gether steam until their first album release, Too Much Pork for Just One Fork in 1991. The band enjoyed some solid commercial success in the late 90's after signing with a Geffen subsidiary. "Voodoo Cadillac" is from their 1996 Geffen/DGC album Dirt Track Date, and benefits from Rick Miller's hot rod guitar. The album was greeted with some disappointment, since it included some re-makes from the earlier indie albums, but in truth its a fine collection.
7. Mojo Nixon: Elvis Is Everywhere
Mojo Nixon (Neill Kirby McMillan, Jr) was born in Chapel Hill, NC, and graduated from college with degrees in political science and history. He performed in a punk band called Zebra 123 in the Denver area in 1980, and got into hot water with the Secret Service for promoting a show called the Assassination Ball with posters featuring likenesses of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter with their heads exploding. While drunk in New Orleans, he came up with his name; he began using it in the Sand Diego area in 1983. His best album is Bo-Day-Shus!!!, released on Enigma in 1987. Known for his satirical, novelty-tinged subject matter, he gained a lot of notice for "Elvis Is Everywhere" from the album; a rant about Elvis appearing everywhere, and building the pyramids; his guitarist Skip Roper keeps things interesting with a bluesy rockabilly riff. MTV gave him a part-time gig in 1988 as a result; he's also worked as a radio DJ in San Diego in recent years. Nowhere near as legitimately psycho as most of the names on this list, Nixon is included for the gonzo nature of his subject matter.
8. Nashville Pussy: Snake Eyes
Led by the husband-and-wife duo of singer/guitarist Blaine Cartwright and guitarist Ruyter Suys; Nashville Pussy is a group of sleazoids from Georgia. On bass is Corey Parks (brother of NBA player Cherokee Parks) and Jeremy Thompson handles drums. The band specialized in quasi-pornography; their 1998 debut, Let Them Eat Pussy features two guys on the cover doing precisely that. Sonically, they veer more towards a cartoon version of psychobilly, which isn't without its charms. They're hell raisers live, sloppy and semi-competent, but always willing to barrel ahead, and their rural swinger image and mixed gender lineup coupled with their bioker constituency, lend their albums a satisfyingly perverted quality that keeps the necessary danger factor present. "Snake Eyes" can be surmised from its title; it sets the pace for the debauchery that follows on the debut. Their most recent album appeared in 2002.
9. The Meteors: Rattle Shakin' Daddy
The Meteors were England's first, and best psychobilly band, working in a similar vein as The Cramps. Formed by singer/guitarist Paul Fenech, who had been a member of rockabilly revivalists The Souther Boys, the band also included Nigel Lewis on upright bass, and Mark Robertson on drums. Originally, they went by the name Raw Deal, but became the Meteors in 1980 when Fenech decided to deck out the band in punk attire, add a sinister undertow to their music, and camp things up a bit with lyrics inspired by low-budget horror films. Despite lineup changes, Fenech continues to lead a version of the Meteors to this day. "Rattle Shakin' Daddy" comes from their best album, Wreckin' Crew, released in 1983. This album actually benefits from the Meteors toning down their image a bit, and playing the rockabilly a little more straight, a little less for laughs. Still, the Meteors saw themselves as leaders of the genre; on the liner notes, Fenech exclaims, "Only the Meteors are pure psychobilly!"
10. The Lazy Cowgirls: I Can't Be Satisfied
Vocalist Pat Todd, guitarist D.D. Weekday (Doug Phillips), and bassist Keith Telligman originally hail from Indiana, but moseyed on down to Los Angeles to get in on the thriving psychobilly scene there. Adding drummer Allen Clark, also from Indiana, in 1983, they became the Lazy Cowgirls, and began playing the L.A. club circuit. They played fast punk-rock inspired rockabilly, like the Ramones with a biker aesthetic, and merged it with 60's garage band fuzz and Rolling Stones-esque swagger. The band developed a cult, and toured heavily, cranking out some murky but faithful albums along the way. After a five year hiatus from 1990-1995, the band returned full-force and well honed with Ragged Soul, which includes the Weekday guitar workout "I Can't Be Satisfied". After more than twenty years, they're still active, touring and releasing albums, most recently in 2004.
Sunday Morning Playlist is a weekly feature.
Listen to Gun Club: For the Love of Ivy (1981)