A Rocket in My Pocket: The Hipster’s Guide to Rockabilly Music

[20 October 2011]

By Max Décharne

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

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

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

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.

The Hottest Thing in the Country

The main reason I wanted to write a book about rockabilly is that I’ve loved it for many years, and in all that time, as different musical genres came and went, it seemed as if it never really received the respect it deserved. The history of rock music in general has been shaped by journalists from the sixties generation. Modern rock writing began with mid-to-late sixties magazines, staffed by people in their early twenties who grew up on the Beatles and the Stones, for whom the fifties were already ancient history – something that happened before they were old enough to care much about music. Hence, the work of the fifties rockers – even though barely a decade old at the time – was often depicted in those magazines as a quaint survival from another era, to be mocked and humoured like ear trumpets, horseless carriages and Granny’s Victorian furniture. Nineteen sixty-two and the first Beatles recordings were seen as Year Zero, the invention of everything modern, and all that came before it some unmentionable embarrassment. As the years have passed, that generation of writers has continually shifted the goalposts, so that even though those same Beatles records are now approaching their half-century anniversary, as far as much rock writing is concerned, the Fab Four are still ‘modern’, and the fifties still back in the Dark Ages. Rockabilly, and much original rock’n’roll, has often been sidelined and ignored over the years because of this attitude.

Music books that have mentioned rockabilly in passing often seemed to think that running through the achievements of five or six of the best-known artists from Sam Phillips’ Sun label was sufficient to cover the entire genre, as if these were the sole figures of note, and Sam’s groundbreaking label had been the only game in town. This is about as useful as assuming that the whole complexity of the 1920s blues scene can be adequately dealt with by buying a Bessie Smith greatest-hits package. There were hundreds of labels, many thousands of performers who made it onto wax, and tens of thousands of recordings. The scale of activity was immense, yet rockabilly as a genre has still received remarkably little of the attention that it deserves. One book couldn’t possibly mention every artist, still less every record, but the aim here is to give a picture of how the music developed, where and how it was made, and in what situations it was heard – the clubs, the radio and TV shows, and the films. This is the story of the music itself, rather than any individual performer, although Elvis rightly casts a giant shadow over its glory years.

So what exactly is rockabilly music? Essentially a mutant blend of uptempo country and hillbilly sounds combined with the backbeat of jump R&B, it erupted in numerous dance halls, bars and cheap studios across America in the wake of the massively influential handful of singles which Elvis cut for the Sun label in 1954 and ’55. Rockabilly on its own ground is as pure, direct and unmistakable as the guitar blues of Robert Johnson or the rebel sounds of early Jamaican ska, perfect in its simplicity, but open to thousands of variations.

The story of rockabilly is largely one of individual recordings rather than stars. Most of the great performances were laid down by unknowns whose careers were over almost before the ink dried on their record contracts: one killer record, then a lifetime of low-paying straight jobs. Yet the first pure rockabilly record ever made launched its teenage singer on the biggest and most successful career trajectory the music world has ever known. When Elvis walked into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in May 1954 to record his debut single – ‘That’s All Right’/‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ – he laid down the blueprint for the worldwide rock explosion of the 1950s, but also defined pure rockabilly for all time.

The term ‘rock’n’roll’ proved wide enough in the fifties to encompass everything from the R&B-flavoured, sax-and-piano-led sounds of Little Richard to the pure street-corner harmony vocalising of Dion & the Belmonts. Chuck Berry is for many the epitome of rock’n’roll, yet his records were reviewed favourably in Britain at the time by the rock-hating magazine Jazz Journal as an example of pure urban blues. Rockabilly, however, is a more elemental strain: less inclusive than rock’n’roll, but easier to define. Take the two sides of Elvis’s 1954 debut single. Both were cover versions of songs from the mid-1940s. ‘That’s All Right’ was a gutsy uptempo jump blues written and recorded by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup. ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ had been the biggest hit recorded by Bill Monroe, the man who mapped out and defined his own genre of music: bluegrass. In the hands of a simple three-man band – Elvis, Scotty & Bill – these two songs, one black, one white, became 100 per cent rockabilly.

Although many of the original performers simply called their music rock’n’roll, and generally tell interviewers these days that they never, ever called it rockabilly back in the 1950s, the word ‘rockabilly’ surfaced in various song titles and band names of the time, yet no one could quite agree on the spelling. There were songs called ‘Rock-a-billy Rhythm’, ‘Rock-a-billie Music’, ‘Rock Billy Boogie’, ‘Rockabilly Gal’, and even – praise the Lord and let’s have another bottle of whatever they were drinking – ‘Rockabilly Bungalow’. The word seems to have been a particular favourite of the music industry, and was certainly in regular use from 1956 in the pages of the main trade paper, Billboard. In January 1957, reviewing the musical trends of the previous year, in the wake of the colossal success of Presley, Carl Perkins and others – all of whom were seen as basically country & western artists – the newspaper attempted to define for its readers how the word had come about: ‘... this resurgence of country talent in the pop play area was part of the whole so-called “rock and roll” surge in all fields and gave rise to the term “rockabilly”, applicable to country artists who performed blues tunes and other material backed by the Big Beat.’ In short, hillbilly music with 5,000 volts shot through it.

While the influence of the blues on rockabilly is clear, there was also a strong strain of traditional hill-country songs blended into the mix, going back to the pioneering 1920s sounds of people like the Carter Family, whose high lonesome sounds and simple instrumentation had evolved in turn from the folk ballads which came over with the first settlers many decades earlier.

The story of rockabilly is much like that of the blues in the 1920s and ’30s – a tale of impoverished, unsung musicians making groundbreaking recordings which are only given proper recognition decades later. This was not music that was dreamed up by the major record companies or Tin Pan Alley songsmiths and aimed at the mass market. Rather, the majority of rockabilly recordings stand up as an accurate sample of what was heard at dance halls, roadhouses and high-school hops across the South: stripped down, pure, untainted by studio trickery or the kind of sugary, intrusive arrangements that the major labels were liable to inflict on their more successful artists. Most important of all, you could sing your own songs: in an age where the record company was king, and most singers were saddled with whichever tune the bosses thought would sell, the average rockabilly could mostly write about whatever he wanted: rockets to the moon, Asiatic flu, baboons doing the boogie, stuttering, you name it…

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis

Charlie Feathers always said, when asked to explain why his music sounded the way it did, that it was just a feeling that gets a hold of you – it sounds that way because that’s exactly the way it has to sound: deceptively simple, but devilishly hard to do right. Like punk, or ska, or sixties garage, if you try to make it too fancy, you destroy the very essence of the music. Those that succeeded in capturing the authentic rockabilly sound hit on something elemental – as Jerry Lee Lewis once famously shouted at Sam Phillips during an argument in the Sun Studio that was being captured on tape, ‘That’s right! You’re right! You’re so right you don’t even know what you’re saying!’

Youthful enthusiasm, urgent rhythms and stripped-down arrangements driven along by a slapping upright double bass; these were songs sung mostly by teenagers which dealt with all the essentials of the hepcat lifestyle: girls, cars, booze, dancing. Just like the punk explosion twenty years later, fifties rockabilly was a spontaneous outburst of spirited three-chord songs, in which the major companies had a stake, but there was still plenty of room for tiny record labels, primitive studios, fiercely partisan audiences and wild-eyed, driven performers who weren’t planning much farther ahead than the following week. They were chasing something you couldn’t ever quite catch up with, nail down or explain to your parents.

Lightning in a bottle, a tiger by the tail, a rocket in your pocket…

Max Décharné is a writer and musician. His books include King’s Road – The Rise & Fall of the Hippest Street in the World, Hardboiled Hollywood – The Origins of the Great Crime Films and Straight From the Fridge, Dad – A Dictionary of Hipster Slang. A regular contributor to Mojo magazine since 1998, his work has also appeared in the Sunday Times Colour Magazine, the Guardian, TLS and Bizarre, among others.

In his music career, Max has released eleven albums and something in the region of thirty singles since 1989. He played drums with his friend Nikki Sudden before joining Gallon Drunk in 1991, with whom he toured the world. Since 1994 he has been the singer and principal songwriter with The Flaming Stars. He has also recorded nine John Peel Sessions and played shows all across the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan.

© Max Décharné

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/150108-a-rocket-in-my-pocket/