:: Article

Excerpt: A Rocket in My Pocket

By Max Décharné.

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STRAY CATS, POLECATS & BORN-AGAIN HEPCATS

New bands, new audience, and a new spark for the old flames

Although the 1980s in Britain were in some ways be a miserable wasteland brought low by mass unemployment, Margaret Thatcher and witless synth-pop horrors, it also turned out to be the finest era for seeing the original generation of rockabilly artists performing live over here, while a new set of mostly homegrown young groups began playing the music, some of whom even made the charts.

Over in America, a band who’d also been spending countless hours picking through old rockabilly singles in out-of-the-way places were starting to be noticed, although, like the original rockers themselves, they found that England seemed perhaps more tuned in to their wavelength than some cities back home. These were The Cramps, and they probably had the finest taste in navigating wilder extremes of America’s rockin’ past than just about anyone. The fact that they also looked suaver than hell, and turned out, if you had the good fortune to meet them, to be genuinely decent people, remains one of the wonders of recent musical history.

The Cramps started out in the 1970s playing regular gigs in New York punk clubs like CBGB and Max’s, and their setlist regularly featured rockabilly covers such as ‘Rockin’ Bones’ (Ronnie Dawson), ‘Uranium Rock’ (Warren Smith), ‘Can’t Hardly Stand It’ (Charlie Feathers) and ‘I Got A Rocket In My Pocket’ (Jimmy Lloyd). A fine example of one of their remarkable early live performances was captured on film when they played a free gig for the residents of the California State Mental Hospital at Napa on June 13, 1978. It’s black & white, decidedly low-fi and the audience wanders in an out of shot in the finest slow-motion stage invasion in rock history, and it’s absolutely compelling. Shot for the rough equivalent of a couple of packs of Lucky Strike and a pint of whiskey, it puts to shame pretty much every other live video ever recorded.

A year later the Cramps were over in England, having landed a deal with Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. label, which meant they wound up supporting Copeland’s brother’s band The Police in one of the most ill-matched double bills since Hendrix opened for the Monkees. On June 23, 1979, the band appeared on the cover of the NME, with a lengthy feature inside written by Nick Kent. He attempted to provide some background about the history of rockabilly, as well as mentioning that the band’s own favoured description of their sound was “psychobilly voodoo” – which seems to be the first use of a term which would come to be applied to many bands in the 1980s who blended rockabilly with a punk sensibility. Kent knew there was something different about them, and spent the majority of the article seeking to pin it down:

The Cramps baulk at being considered reactionaries, fervently believing, on the contrary, that the basic spirit of rockabilly as they both view and practice it is the well-spring of pure rock’n’roll essence. In practice, their sound can be seen as utilizing a similar feel and tension as that of the Ramones. Also like the Ramones, their songs appear, superficially anyway, to sound all very much one of a kind.

Their debut album, Songs The Lord Taught Us, had been recorded at the Sam C Phillips studio in Memphis, with Alex Chilton producing. Alex himself was no stranger to this sort of thing. The Kent article quotes the Cramps as saying of him, “We’ve heard he’s playing in a band called Panthers Blazing (sic). He’s not singing or writing songs. Just playing on guitar.” The band in question was Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, another group who have flown the flag for the true rockabilly spirit from the late 1970s up until the present day. Years later I corresponded frequently with Tav when preparing an article to accompany his superb photographs of Tennessee juke joints and Memphis musicians, and he told me some of his memories of those days:

At one time Memphis qualified as the murder capital of North America. It is not that there are any fewer killings today, only more killings somewhere else. Five or six homicides remain a daily average. Cold killers beat Piano Red to death in his own bed the first week-end after he’d returned from some dates in Europe with a pocketful of money. The same cold killers that came to Red’s house one afternoon while I was videotaping him. One of the kids pulled out a .32 calibre pistol from under his T-shirt, aimed it right at the camera lens and asked, ‘Now d’you want me to shoot you?’ Around the same time the Cramps came to town to record, and they were a revelation of how apocalyptic rock’n’roll can be.

Panther Burns and The Cramps played primal double-header shows in Memphis at the Orpheum around that time, and Tav says that the band applied the same level of mayhem when making their debut album:

In Studio A of Sam Phillips’ Recording Service at 639 Madison Avenue, the Cramps took the very same approach to recording, as if they were on stage. After a while one lost count of the chairs, stand-up ashtrays and metal coat racks that Lux twisted, tossed, and smashed around the studio in the process of recording of a single track. Nor can one forget the confrontations between Lux and the studio engineers – who had radically different ideas on how to capture their performance onto tape, and who were even less understanding of his leaping about on the tops of amplifiers, piano lids and Leslie cabinets during the course of a take.

Songs The Lord Taught Us was released in 1980, at the start of a decade when synthesised sounds and stadium bombast would largely rule the airwaves. Yet this also turned out to be an era that began with various second-generation rockabilly bands storming the UK charts, while the trickle of original 1950s acts making the journey over to play for the hepcat audience rapidly turned into a full-scale invasion. Soon there would also be little need for bands to play on inappropriate bills, as a separate rockabilly gig circuit developed, with its own major events such as the Hemsby weekenders or the mid-1980s all-dayers at the Birmingham Powerhouse. For news, it was no longer necessary to rely on the mainstream weekly music press, since first-class specialist magazines such as Adam Komorowski’s New Kommotion (founded 1976) and Trevor Cajiao’s Now Dig This (founded 1983) provided detailed information about all facets of the scene and the history of the music, whilst showing the original artists who were starting to come over a fitting measure of respect.

Rockin’ On Top of the Pops

As for the mainstream charts, it was a common enough sight to see bands whose own music bore no relation to rockabilly or rock’n’roll either adopting 1950s haircuts and clothes, while suits available from shops like Johnsons in World’s End, Rock-a-Cha in Kensington Market and shoes from Robot in the King’s Road were regularly being worn by all sorts of people in the pages of new rock / lifestyle magazine The Face. The look was everywhere, and it was becoming harder to separate the genuine rockabillies from the fashion victims. As a musical style, it could be thrown in for flavour on one or two tracks of an album, just as reggae had been picked up and put down by all kinds of bands during the punk era. A prime example would be the song ‘Messed Around’, a convincing slap-bass rocker recorded by Squeeze on their 1981 album East Side Story, which was also released as a single in the US.

Rockabilly was so well-established in Britain by 1981 as one of the country’s recognised youth movements that London Weekend Television devoted an entire programme in their 20th Century Box series to explaining its distinguishing features to their viewers. By this stage it was clear that many old-school Teds had little time for the largely younger rockabilly fans, and the feeling was sometimes mutual. Whereas the classic Teddy Boy clothing was based around an Edwardian drape jacket, and the Teds themselves pre-dated the arrival of rock’n’roll in England by roughly half a decade, the new rockabilly crowd tended to dress more like the original Memphis rockers themselves, often wearing vintage fifties US clothing bought at Flip in Covent Garden, who’d been importing huge amounts of it since 1978.

Rockabilly was certainly all over the UK media by that stage, and in the Top Ten. The Stray Cats had come over from Long Island in the summer of the previous year, rightly figuring that London was a better bet. For a month or so they were sleeping on the floor of the publicist’s office in the West End, but success came very fast. They landed an NME cover feature only six weeks after their arrival (before even signing a record deal or releasing a single), which carried the misleading strapline “Stray Cats – How Yankee Quiffabilly Put The Bop Back In Britain”. In actual fact, the band had come to this country precisely because the rockin’ scene was far stronger here than anywhere else in the world, and, like the Cramps, the Ramones and Blondie before them, they went from playing small clubs in New York to major venues in London, with sympathetic crowds and lots of column inches in the music press.

Britain already had plenty of rockabilly and rock’n’roll acts – longtime trailblazers like Crazy Cavan & the Rhythm Rockers, the Flying Saucers, Shakin’ Stevens or CSA, or newer outfits like Whirlwind and The Polecats, while Matchbox reached the UK Top Twenty in 1979 with a song called ‘Rockabilly Rebel’, and scored further hits in 1980. Even a mainstream chart act like Queen had used a complete rockabilly pastiche sound for their 1979 hit ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’. Yet, as far as the press were concerned, the Stray Cats had the major trump card of being American. Still, as anyone who saw their early gigs will tell you, they could certainly deliver the goods. On November 20, just as their Dave Edmunds-produced debut single ‘Runaway Boys’ was climbing up the charts, I stood down at the front of their show at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, taking pictures of their blistering live performance. Listening to them soundcheck earlier in the evening, it was also quite something to hear 19-year-old Brian Setzer casually throwing in note-perfect snatches of Cliff Gallup’s guitar solos from various 1956 Gene Vincent recordings between numbers, just for the hell of it.

The Stray Cats, like many of the newer bands, used an upright bass, rather than the electric which some older groups were still attempting to use for rockabilly. Without the slap and the accompanying click of a double bass, half the authentic sound is missing, no matter what you do. It was this that gave ‘Runaway Boys’ its distinctive pulse, and yet to hear ‘king of the Teds’ Sunglasses Ron tell it on a 20th Century Box programme, the Stray Cats and the newer fans were the beginning of the end:

In this country it’s gone right down. Very few of the old clubs are left. What there are, they’re getting over-run by these youngsters out there – punkabillies, or whatever they are, you know. A lot of people like myself who are still about just don’t bother any more, it’s just not worth the effort. You can go there and mix, but when you get up and you jive with your wife, and you get a dozen kids who are pogo dancing around you, you think, ‘what’s going on?’, you know. Are we listening to the same kind of music?… Let ‘em have their own do and let them have their music there, but for christ’s sake let us have our music, you know? There’s not enough of our lads left…

A Rocket in My Pocket: The Hipster’s Guide to Rockabilly Music by Max Décharné is released through Serpent’s Tail on July 29.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 25th, 2010.