Rock ‘N’ Roll Meteors: The Psychobilly Revolution
Now, last week we talked about how rockabilly, despite many people’s thinking, is not an extinct genre of music, and in fact it even enjoyed mainstream popularity after a revival movement in the seventies and eighties, but what I did not talk about last week was the fact that running alongside this continuing narrative of rockabilly music is another, slightly stranger, story that has to be told. This, dear readers, is the story of psychobilly: a tale full of wonderful rock and roll crazies, quiffs bigger than your face, and dirty, loud, double bass slap.
Since the story of psychobilly is so long and twisted, however, I shall only be concerning myself with the origins of the new subgenre in Britain. It’s entire history up until now will be dealt with in a later instalment of the Roatrip.
So, let’s start off then with a brief description of what psychobilly actually is as a musical style. Well, put simply pscyhobilly is a mixture between traditional rockabilly music and the punk music of the late seventies, and is a form that grew up in London around a handful of bands who were playing in the early eighties. But, these early psychobilly bands were particularly influenced by a much longer history of psychotic rock and roll. Let’s now take a little look at these proto-psychobilly groups and how they ended up changing the course of music history.
The first recorded use of the word ‘psychobilly’ came in 1976 when Wayne Kemp penned the song One Piece At A Time for country music great/ rockabilly legend Johnny Cash. The track didn’t refer to the subculture we now know and love as psychobilly, but rather used the word to describe a rag-tag Cadillac built from the odds and ends of a wide variety of cars. In a way I suppose this theme continued on to the actual psychobilly bands in the way in which they built a strange musical mesh from the disparate bits and pieces of music that influenced them, but even if one doesn’t accept this argument the song holds firm as one of the great pieces of rockabilly music.
You’ll have to wait towards the end of the track to actually hear Mr. Cash say the infamous word ‘psychobilly’, but it’s well worth the wait.
One Piece At A Time – Johnny Cash
Psychobillies didn’t just take the word from older rockabilly, however. There is also a definite sense that some of the more real-gone artists of that early ere had a large impact on the music that was to come. Accalimed nutjob Hasil Adkins, for instance, has often been called the ‘godfather of psychobilly’ due to his outrageous and energetic stage presence and haphazard, frenzied approad to making music. Here’s a little example of the kind of thing that Adkins was doing back in his heyday.
Get Out Of My Car – Hasil Adkins
Another notable proto-psychobilly performer was a music who went by the name of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Now, technically speaking Hawkins didn’t so much play psychobilly or even rockabilly music as he did rhythm and blues, but nevertheless his overtly theatrical (and often horror themed) stage performances led to his having a very large affect on the later psychobilly bands.
This clip of Hawkins performing his signature tune I Put A Spell On You should hopefully serve as a good example of what I’m talking about here.
I Put A Spell On You – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
And just for fun, here’s another little Screamin’ Jay track to try and get your head around.
Feast Of The Mau Mau – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Another massive influnce on the psychobilly movement (some may argue the single biggest) was a little band from New York who had already started mixing up their own punk aesthetics and ethos with the wild riffs of rockabilly. The Cramps, formed by vocalist Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, took on board the frenzied, frantic playing of people like Hasil Adkins and the shock-rock theatricallity of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and twisted them up with their own in-your-face attitudes to create some frightfully original music.
Cramp Stomp – The Cramps
It is also worth mentioning that The Cramps did use the term psychobilly to describe their band before anyone in Britain ever did, but they later claimed that they weren’t using it as any kind of description of their music, but rather as a carny-barker term designed to drum up business. There are some historians out there, however, who will take The Cramps as the first psychobilly band. I tend to disagree with those people, as it would appear that The Cramps, while a large influence on the later scene, do not actually conform to the generic conventions of psychobilly. They do not, for instance, employ the double bass with the strings tuned down for maximum slap, nor do they use the vocal techniques that have become so characteristic of the scene.
Other historians cite The Misfits’ track American Nightmare as the first true psychobilly song, but once again I would probably disagree and call it yet another strong influence.
American Nightmare – The Misfits
However, now that we have finished talking about a few (but by no means all) of the influences that led to the birth of psychobilly in Britain, I suppose now would be a good time to actually start discussing the birth itself. Well, it all happened back in 1980 in South London where a group of young men formed a little band called The Meteors. Originally part of the neo-rockabilly scene, The Meteors soon shunned the quiffed crowds of retro-rockers and started honing their much more punk sound while still maintaining their roots rockabilly approach to song-writing.
Wrecking Crew – The Meteors
This new and aggressive sound which The Meteors had pioneered was enough to get them excluded from many venues and to make them unpopular with the crowds of rockers at other rockabilly shows, but luckily there were some out there who had become captivated by the new noise they were making. Pretty soon a whole new crop of bands was starting to emerge from the London scene, bands like King Kurt, Guana Batz (actually from Denmark, but played a lot in England), and The Sharks (tragically short lived). Here are a few examples of what this new psychobilly sound was like:
Wreck A Party Rock – King Kurt
King Rat – Guana Batz
Ghost Train – The Sharks
And that, dear readers is the story of the birth of psychobilly. It is by no means and full and extensive account, but it’s all I really have time for today. Have no fear, however, as The Rockabilly Roadtrip will be back again this time next week with yet another installment, this time focussing on what happened after this initial wave of psychobilly rockers took the world by storm.
So make sure you join me for Psycho-Rock-And-Roll All Over The World featuring the music of Demented Are Go, Mad Sin, Tiger Army, Reverend Horton Heat, HorrorPops, Nekromantix, Zombie Ghost Train, and many, many more!
- Stop Nine On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Stop Five On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Fourth Stop On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Stop Eight On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Stay Sick! – The Cramps (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Music Review: Psychobilly (fangirlsarewe.com)
- Stop Seven On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)