A Rocket in My Pocket: The Hipster's Guide to Rockabilly Music
US: Oct 2011
Excerpted from the introduction from Rocket in My Pocket: The Hipster’s Guide to Rockabilly by Max Décharne. Published October 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Serpent’s Tail Publishing. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Hold It, Fellas, That Don’t Move Me, Let’s Get Real, Real Gone for a Change…
Rockabilly came from the Southern states of America. I’m from England, but it always struck a chord with me. In the early seventies I was still at school, growing up near Portsmouth, the dockyard city on the south coast. The place always had a strong Teddy Boy contingent, who could still be seen in those days running the dodgem cars at the funfair down on the seafront – the same one that featured in 1973’s fifties-era film That’ll Be the Day, which, like the same year’s American Graffiti, came with its own very useful double soundtrack LP of 1950s material. Fifties nostalgia was in fashion, usually in a family-friendly, watered-down version such as that being peddled on the TV sitcom Happy Days, which was itself inspired by American Graffiti. Books about James Dean seemed to be appearing at a rate of almost one a month, and many of the glam rock bands on British radio had hijacked a sizeable portion of their acts from the original fifties rockers. The word ‘rockabilly’ was hardly ever mentioned, but if you turned to the back pages of the NME, down among the small ads for hippy clothing, there was always one from a company called Orpheus, based in a concrete brutalist car-park-cum-shopping arcade called the Tricorn Centre, Portsmouth. Orpheus would sell you Teddy Boy drapes, bootlace ties, drainpipe jeans and brothel creepers – all of which, in a time of split-knee loons, 30-inch flares and five-inch stack-heel boots, was something of a revelation.
I knew I liked rock’n’roll, but it wasn’t always that easy finding the original recordings when your main record outlet was the local branch of WH Smith. I’d been a piano player since the age of four, and a drummer since 1972, when I was twelve. A few months after getting my second-hand drumkit, I bought my first LP, a TV-advertised K-Tel compilation called 25 Rockin’ & Rollin’ Greats. Sure, they crammed on far too many tracks a side, but it had Wanda Jackson doing ‘Let’s Have A Party’, Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps with ‘Be Bop A Lula’, Roy Orbison’s ‘Oh! Pretty Woman’ and even Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ majestic ‘Shakin’ All Over’. These were all the original cuts, but what I didn’t know at the time was that the versions of Carl Perkins’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ or Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ were later re-recordings. Still, it had a fair amount of roots rock’n’roll and even some rockabilly on it, and I would practise my drumming by playing along with both sides of the album.
I probably first heard the word ‘rockabilly’ on Mott The Hoople’s single ‘Roll Away the Stone’ in November 1973, when Ian Hunter sang ‘There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night’ during the middle eight, but mostly the phrase rock’n’roll seemed to cover everything. Hunter was clearly a fan, as was Roy Wood, whose new band Wizzard could be seen regularly on Top of the Pops larking about in a selection of drape jackets, performing fifties-influenced songs like ‘See My Baby Jive’ (1973) and name-dropping the likes of Dion in their lyrics. In 1974 they went even farther with an album called Introducing Eddy & the Falcons, on which Wood wrote a selection of new songs, each in the style of a different fifties rocker. One of these (‘I Dun Lotsa Cryin’ Over You’) was a remarkably close facsimile of the Elvis, Scotty & Bill Sun rockabilly sound, although at that stage all the Elvis songs I knew were those on his 40 Greatest double LP which had come out the same year.
Gene Vincent, 1956
An occasional series in the NME at that time, called Junkyard Angels, attempted to hip the readers to rockers from the past, and in June 1974 Roy Carr used the slot to talk at length about Elvis’s Sun sessions under the headline ‘The Original Greasy Trucker’, concluding with a couple of sentences that got right to the point: ‘What I still can’t comprehend is why, after all these years, RCA haven’t collated all the “official” released Sun tracks onto one volume and released it with all relevant details as a collector’s edition. After all, these are perhaps the most important rock records ever made.’
Someone out there seems to have been listening, because the following year, the first official LP collection of Elvis’s Sun material appeared on RCA, with excellent sleeve notes by none other than Roy Carr. There may not yet have been much of a market for such a thing back in the US, but over in Britain it was much appreciated and long overdue. The rockin’ scene had grown to such an extent in the UK that on 10 April 1976, the NME put Teddy Boys on the cover of the paper, accompanying a lengthy article inside by Tony Stewart profiling the rise of British bands like Crazy Cavan & the Rhythm Rockers, or the Flying Saucers, together with details of prime rock’n’roll pubs such as the Adam & Eve in Hackney, the Castle in the Old Kent Road and the rock’n’roll nights at the Lyceum Ballroom. The word ‘rockabilly’ was also bandied about, and there was a classic description of legendary ‘King of the Teds’ Sunglasses Ron Staples:
Portsmouth’s finest rockin’ gear, 1974
“Sunglasses Ron is one of the movement’s characters, almost a legend in his own time. Ron’s a menacing beery-faced 32-year-old who always wears shades, a shabby brown drape and white crepes. His bootlace tie is looped through a swastika, and thick brass rings adorn all his fingers, which are usually firmly clutched round a pint of light’n’bitter. Originally from Newport, he’s had his photo in the papers almost as many times as Eddie Cochrane [sic], his Main Man. Living only for authentic rock’n’roll, he’s not particularly impressed with reworkings of his hero’s music. Not even The Who’s version of ‘Summertime Blues’. ‘Well,’ he says. ‘I’ve just had a piss and that went down better.’”
Ron was a familiar figure in the press in those days. The swastika tie was very likely down to him also moving in biker circles, at a time when Hell’s Angels, and the early punks, often wore them in order to get a reaction out of straight society. The NME article was accompanied by numerous fine pictures taken by Chalkie Davies, including one of my home town’s local legend, Pete Presley, the singer with Portsmouth rockabilly band Shazam. There was also mention of the current campaign for a national rock’n’roll radio show on BBC Radio 1, which culminated the following month in a protest march of Teddy Boys organised by deejays Geoff Barker and Stuart Colman, and fronted by Sunglasses Ron. They won their show – it was called It’s Rock’n’Roll – in a year when rockabilly really came out of the shadows and into the UK charts. Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins’ landmark thirteen-part series of Sun albums on the Charly label, The Roots Of Rock, began being issued that year, and a twenty-year-old rockabilly single called ‘Jungle Rock’ by Hank Mizell, also reissued by Charly, surprised just about everyone by reaching the UK Top Ten, not least Hank himself.
German release of ‘Jungle Rock’, 1976
I bought a copy of ‘Jungle Rock’ as it went up the charts, and I also bought Charly’s follow-up release, ‘Flyin’ Saucer Rock’n’Roll’ by Billy Lee Riley, largely on the strength of reading that it had Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. I also picked up the new T. Rex single, ‘I Love To Boogie’, and then saw in the NME that it was apparently ‘borrowed’ from Webb Pierce’s ‘Teenage Boogie’, currently available on a new album called Rare Rockabilly Volume One, so I tracked down a copy of that and was duly blown away by what I heard. I still wasn’t sure exactly how rockabilly differed from rock’n’roll, but that album, filled with obscure names completely unknown to me, convinced me that there were probably numerous singers out there who’d made astonishing records back in those days but had never quite had the breaks.
From 1976, if you were living in England, it was hard to keep track of the sheer number of rockabilly reissues that started to appear. Chiswick Records had put out Vince Taylor’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’ as their first ever reissue, in 1975, and then when the same company started the Ace label, they gave the world another chance to hear all kinds of fine items like ‘Tennessee Rock’ by Hoyt Scoggins & the Saturday Nite Jamboree Boys (originally released in 1956), or unissued gems like Hal Harris’s remarkable ‘Jitterbop Baby’.
Of course, in 1977 punks and Teds were supposed to be knocking hell out of each other, and many of them were, but I was seventeen that year, and spent much of it buying the likes of Gene Vincent alongside records by the Clash, and Sonny Burgess at the same time as Richard Hell & The Void-Oids. It all sounded like it came from the same three-chord rock’n’roll spirit as far as I was concerned. Not everyone agreed. I remember going to see X-Ray Spex at a place called the Oddfellows Hall in Portsmouth in October 1977, just when their debut single, ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’, had been released. There were only about fifty people there, all of them my age, and when we left the building after the show, a sizeable number of the local Teds – full-grown men at least a decade older than us – were waiting across the street looking to batter some punks. There’s no room in circumstances like that to try to explain how many Eddie Cochran albums you’ve got at home, it’s easier just to run.
As for the original singles, if you were looking for a mint copy of a Sun 45 or 78 that had somehow survived the decades, they certainly weren’t likely to show up at my local record shop. Even up in London, one of the very few places likely to have them, outside of specialist mail-order record dealers, was the Rock On shop in Camden Town. Another was Vintage Records in Roman Way, near Caledonian Road tube station, run by a couple of guys called Mike and Pete, who also published one of the first guides to rare record prices. I probably first heard about Vintage in the NME, and found my way there some time in 1978 on a visit to London. It was a small shop, crammed full of rare vinyl of the 1950s and ’60s, with a tattered original copy of the Rebel without a Cause poster pinned to the ceiling. Propped up on a shelf behind the counter the day I first walked in were two pristine Sun 78s that had just arrived in stock – ‘Slow Down’ by Jack Earls & The Jimbos, and ‘Flyin’ Saucer Rock’n’Roll’ by Billy Lee Riley & His Little Green Men. It was barely two years since I’d bought the reissue of the latter on a Charly 45 brand-new for about 60p. Both of these 78s were priced at £5. I couldn’t afford both, so I took the Riley. Over the next couple of years, I picked up originals of every other Riley single on Sun, plus most of Jerry Lee’s singles for the label, along with stuff like ‘We Wanna Boogie’ by Sonny Burgess & the Pacers, ‘Ubangi Stomp’ by Warren Smith, ‘Come On Little Mama’ by Ray Harris, assorted Johnny Cash singles and a fair few others. The only problem was deciding what to leave behind during a visit. John Peel once told me about a similar shop in Dallas, when he was living there back in the sixties, called Ernstroms: ‘I wish, now, I’d had a truck and just said, “Look, empty your shop into my van and I’ll not trouble you again…”’, and thirty years later, the music still comes tearing right out of those original Sun 45s like they were cut yesterday.