Stray Cats in Japan Photo credit: Masao Nakagami (Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Psychobilly: Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

Many punk hybrids have come and gone since their heydays, but the punk-rockabilly one, psychobilly, has endured and is still thriving around the world today.

Psychobilly inhabits a space where some of rock’s oldest genres—rockabilly, garage, surf, country, and blues—cross-pollinate with punk rock. Despite looking back to look forward, this sub-genre of sub-genres has never stopped moving and mutating, such that today it ranks among punk’s most enduring and revitalizing manifestations. Make a pit-stop in London or Los Angeles, Germany, Sweden, or Japan, and you will find a vibrant psychobilly scene that seems to defy time, not to mention the usual boom-and-bust trajectory that befalls most rock movements.

Anthropologists might account for the timeless appeal of psychobilly by citing its primal components—from both punk and rockabilly. As rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest hybrid, rockabilly got its “rock” from black R&B and its “billy” from white “hillbilly” country music. Together they provided the raw materials of 50’s popular music, and together they symbolically and literally resisted the enforced segregation that defined the southern states from which they mostly came. These combined forces of street rebellion have since infiltrated all rock music, but nowhere more so than in the transatlantic punk rock that emerged in 1976.

Similarities abound between rockabilly and punk, such that when listeners first heard the Sex Pistols covering Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” (1959) and the Clash covering Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” (1959) in 1979, their punk treatments raised few eyebrows. Both genres depend on energy and attitude to bring excitement to their basic song structures and instrumentation. Their singers need not be blessed with Caruso’s range, but they must transmit those feelings society generally requests we withhold from polite company. Whether coded for sex in rockabilly or for violence in punk, theirs are the voices of the id, or, according to those less enamored with these wild ones, the idiots.

img-119Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Although Johnny Cash, the Johnny Burnette Trio, Gene Vincent, Hasil Adkins, The Phantom, and even Ian Dury have claims for influencing rockabilly’s many mutations, it took the arrival of
the Cramps onto the stages of New York’s CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City in 1976 for it to take on a thoroughly punk manifestation. When advertising their early NYC gigs, the Cramps used the word “psychobilly” on their flyers, not as some genre description but to promote their oeuvre, in Jon Savage’s words, “Rockabilly recast for a sicker age” (606). The term actually had no genre meaning at the time, and was just a term the band had lifted from a song recorded by Johnny Cash, “One Piece at a Time” (1976), about the building of a “psycho-billy Cadillac”. As a portmanteau, the term proved prescient, aptly describing the schlock-horror symbolism and mood that both the band and their future acolytes would bring to the rockabilly form.

Original rockabilly had established comic book horror and sex as its go-to topics, but both had been kept tame by self-restraint and the cover of double-entendres. The Cramps, though, removed the mask of innuendo with such inquisitions as “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?” (1985) and “What’s Inside a Girl?” (1986). And should ambiguity still remain, singer Lux Interior performed these songs like a man in the throes of an orgasm, periodically deep-throating his microphone to ram the point home.

Critics were quick to note that the Cramps had as much in common with the punk bands they were sharing the CBGB’s stage with as with rockabilly bands of yore. Performance provocation, shocking lyrics, and bastardized rock ‘n’ roll: weren’t these the staples of a Ramones, Dead Boys, or Suicide performance? Yet, the Cramps were always both a part of and apart from the punk in-crowd. Unlike their peers, they disavowed the culture of now, reveling in a romanticized other world that Hollywood had processed and packaged. Although brighter, funnier, and more self-deprecating, the Cramps had much in common with the goths and death rockers of the time, all of whom shared their love of all things dark, sinister, and wonder-ful. These punk heretics had taken the road heading out of society, away from its sordid struggles and realities. Their destination was into an imagination fed by the detritus of past popular fads like teen comics, B-movies, and late night sci-fi TV.

Unlike many of their punk peers, too, Lux Interior and Poison Ivy had little time for the Live Aid-type charity rock that attracted the likes of Bob Geldof, Bono, and Billy Bragg. Political consciousness and correctness were not the Cramps’ idea of punk; they just wanted to play “bad music for bad people”, for the outlaws, outcasts, and deviants of rebel rock mythology. This omnipresent strain of punk (anti-)politics sees punk as being a deviant rather just than portraying one, a distinction that has long divided the subculture between those that regard punk as a lifestyle lived and those that embrace it as a political art aesthetic. The Cramps embrace the former and reject the latter in their early manifesto anthem, “Garbageman” (1980), with its essentialist rebuttal, “You ain’t no punk, you punk / You wanna talk about the real junk?”

Although the Cramps animated the NYC club circuit, they became a cult phenomenon in the UK. There, they landed in a nation where a roots rock ‘n’ roll revival had been thriving for years. However, the rough and ravaged sound on their debut album release, Songs the Lord Taught Us (1980), was out of time and key with the dominant pop-a-billy of Shakin’ Stevens, Darts, and Matchbox. The Cramps’ impact was not on the charts anyway, but in opening ears and eyes to a new take on old styles, to the possibility of mutating rather than just reviving the rockabilly form.

A schism soon emerged within the so-called “neo-rockabilly” movement between the old guard purists and the new punkabillies. Teddy boys and traditional rockabillies had already established their disdain for punks by engaging them in pitched battles on London’s King’s Road every Saturday afternoon, so they were never likely to let them or their kind in the doors of their pubs and clubs, never mind into their music. Shut out, the new young lovers of rockabilly and punk would not be shut up. Instead, they set up their own independent superstructure around their own subculture, just as punk had done three years earlier.

Many of the new bands—the Polecats, the Sharks, Restless—signed to Nervous Records, an independent label swiftly cobbled together by scene enthusiast Roy Williams in 1979. As with punk in 76, official media channels largely ignored the underground insurgency, so Williams started the newsletter Zorch News while zines like Deathrow sprang up to keep the in-crowd informed. They found a sympathetic venue in Klub Foot, a space in the old Clarendon Hotel in Hammersmith, London. Here, every psychobilly band of note cut their teeth (and others’ as well!) in a place that gained a reputation for its atmosphere of mayhem, where “wrecking” crews made the pogo and slam dance seem like waltzing by comparison. It seemed that all the troubles of Thatcher’s bloody Britain could be temporarily ignored amidst the madness of a night at Klub Foot.

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Leading the psychobilly pack were the Meteors from South London. Their cries to the quiffed “crazies” at Klub Foot to “go mental” were as responsible as anything for bringing out the “psycho” in the psychobilly hordes. Rockabilly had always been a genre driven by energy and intensity, but with psychobilly, pandemonium prevailed. Lyrically, the bands had little new to offer beyond the usual retelling of splatter scenes from horror movies, but their sound was nastier, with vocals more desperate, guitars more distorted, basses more slapping, and drums more cracking.

I recently spoke with Rob Tyler, drummer with the Hot Rod Gang, Outer Limits, and Restless during the scene’s heyday. He recalls how the spirit of psychobilly inspired him to “attack” his drums with “greater speed”, to adapt and add to his traditional techniques. “Psychobilly afforded us the opportunity to let rip on the drums while still playing the same rhythms as before,” he explains.

And as for those complaining old school revivalist purists, their dress code demands were snubbed, too, as crafted green quiffs, combat boots, and even corpse paint were mixed and mismatched with traditional ’50s garb in a proud declaration of sartorial and subcultural independence. The Sharks even took a shot at their generation’s ex-es with an instructional song targeting those kids ready to shed their long Teddy boy locks: “Take a Razor to Your Head” (1983).

Back in the USA, a broad roots-rock revival was in effect, though without the kind of centralized subculture identity fostered in London. As a result, punkabilly bands existed, but most aligned themselves with the more established punk scene. In Los Angeles, bands like X, the Blasters, Agent Orange, and Social Distortion tapped into rockabilly, surf, garage, and upbeat country, but they were mostly regarded as punk outliers rather than as innovators of a new punk mutation. Nevertheless, hardcore’s distorted guitar sounds crept into their retro leanings, leading to some unique concoctions such as Social D’s Mommy’s Little Monster (83), a billy-core prototype that would inspire successors like The Reverend Horton Heat, a band that paid homage to their deeper roots by titling their 1990 album Psychobilly Freakout. Far from being a momentary blip, this distortion-driven manifestation is now a dominant force in worldwide psychobilly, according to Rob Tyler.

Punkabilly music in the US was based primarily in Los Angeles, where it mingled with the city’s hot rod culture and East LA’s long-standing Latino hepcat community. On the East coast, though, eccentrics like the Cramps operated in virtual isolation, such that those within the same force field had nothing like the support network established in London. Such was the case for
the Stray Cats, three rockabilly-loving kids from Long Island struggling to survive on a patchwork club circuit. When one night a British bartender offered to take them to the UK where their punked-up takes on old Gene Vincent songs would be better received, the trio jumped and jived at the chance.

Although the band by-passed the underground Klub Foot scene, in London their self-described “punkabilly” was welcomed into the mainstream as the real thing, their first three singles, “Runaway Boys” (1980), “Rock This Town” (1981), and “Stray Cat Strut” (1981), all hitting high on the charts, establishing the band before their triumphant return to the motherland. More traditional than many of their British psycho peers, the Stray Cats’ leather-look, wild pompadours, street swagger, and explosive sound were just as punk-inspired and identified.

Many punk hybrids have come and gone since their ’80s heydays, but the punk-rockabilly one, psychobilly, has endured and disseminated. All around the world the craving to hear the signature sounds of roots rock ‘n’ roll performed by bands with attitude and energy continues to transcend the dictates of time, place, and any single genre—and there are no signs that such primal desires are diminishing.

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Works Cited

Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond. St. Martin’s. 2002.

Tyler, Rob. Personal Interview. 12 December 2020.