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Wild Abandon

Go cat go! Elvis gets happy feet as DJ Fontana (left) and Scotty Moore play on.

It may seem quaint now, even after punk's scorched-earth campaign, to think of '50s rockabilly as a danger to Western Civilization, especially in light of pop culture's rampant envelope-pushing since then. But a closer inspection would make even the seen-it-all cynics take pause.

The scene: I'm seeing Th' Legendary Shack Shakers in concert for the first time. The crowd might -- might -- amount to 30 people. It's July 5th, a notoriously slow date for bands because potential concertgoers are worn out from a weekend of partying. But even by those standards, this is a paltry crowd.

I'm trying my best to keep a safe distance from frontman Colonel J.D. Wilkes, who's careening around the stage, contorting his body into bizarre poses, pressing the microphone against his throat while his growls become Southern Gothic shadows made flesh. He has the fire of a Pentecostal preacher who's been possessed by the Devil. And that fiery, bluesy harmonica playing -- at some crossroads somewhere, the Devil's kicking at some dust, thinking that maybe he taught Wilkes a little too well.

In short, Wilkes is a fire-breathing, harp-blasting force of nature. Whether he's truly a maniac or it's all a big schtick, I'll leave to those who know more about the band. But Wilkes and the rest of the Shack Shakers are madmen onstage.

For all the collections out there, rockabilly can be surprisingly frustrating to track down. It seems like every time you find out about someone cool, his best albums are out of print. The following records, though, are fun listens and fine introductions, even if they do blur the line between rockabilly and straight rock 'n' roll.

Buddy Holly, The Definitive Collection (Geffen, 2006)

Rating: 8

A year and a half -- that's all it took for Buddy Holly to change the face of rock 'n' roll, and then he was gone. This collection goes straight to the heart of his legacy, with no filler to be found even in the rarities. Cuts like "Oh Boy!", "Peggy Sue", and "Not Fade Away" still crackle with life on this nice introduction to Holly (of course, his original albums are no slouches, either).

Wanda Jackson, Queen of Rockabilly (Ace, 2000)

Rating: 8

Wanda Jackson's free-spirited, decadent growl must have scared the mothers of young men everywhere. When she wasn't recording country, Jackson wasn't just laying down the best female rock around -- she was recording some of the best rock, period. Queen collects all of her major rock sides, making it an instant history lesson. Listen to "Fujiyama Mama" and wonder at the weirdness of a world where lyrics like "I've been to Nagasaki / Hiroshima too / The same I did to them, baby / I can do to you" actually became a hit in Japan.

Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley (RCA, 1956)

Rating: 9

Hard to overestimate the importance of this one in general. Elvis spawned countless imitators, especially in the ranks of hiccupping rockabilly singers, and he brought young America's bubbling sexuality right into the mainstream. Plus, you can't beat any album with contributions from Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins, Bill Black, and Carl Perkins.

Various Artists, Rockabilly Riot (Sanctuary, 2003)

Rating: 7

More for rockabilly neophytes, Rockabilly Riot focuses on big names (Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ritchie Valens, etc.). But it also holds surprises like the Johnny Burnette Trio's "The Train Kept A-Rollin'", which sounds like the train jumped a bridge and the band's scrambling to finish the song before they hit bottom. Diehards might question the disc's large umbrella, arguing that some of this ain't strictly rockabilly, but it traces the roots of early rock 'n' roll surprisingly well.

I took my eyes off Wilkes only once or twice during the show, usually to watch tattooed, pompadoured guitarist David Lee tear it up. For my trouble, I got a plastic water bottle, courtesy of Wilkes, upside my head. Wilkes has a rep for sending things into the crowd, and considering that those things can include spit and his own pubic hair, I got off lucky fielding only a piece of flying plastic. When my sister found out I'd seen them, she asked, "How was the show? You didn't get hit in the head with anything, did you? The girl who did my tattoo got hit in the head with a See and Say toy when she saw them. A stool flew past me but no damage."

And that's the Shack Shakers all over. My friend and I agreed that it was one of the few concerts where, even as we enjoyed ourselves, we felt uncomfortable. Wilkes and the Shakers are such a primal force that you feel like one of them might leap off the stage and beat you for any perceived lack of enthusiasm. I was bobbing my head and tapping my foot vigorously, which for an introvert like me is like swinging from the rafters, and I could feel Wilkes, in the midst of some stab at Russian dancing or hillbilly voguing, judging us and finding us wanting. In a crowd of 30 people, there's just nowhere to hide.

As a result, I think I finally understand what all those parents back in the '50s were afraid of. Granted, Wilkes and the Shack Shakers' brand of psychobilly is a far cry from the early days of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and rockabilly, but the group's unadulterated link to the primal origins of rock 'n' roll has a foot as squarely in the '50s as it does the post-punk era.

To hear accounts of the era, the birth of rock 'n' roll -- and rockabilly, in particular -- scared the living hell out of people. Juvenile delinquency, alcohol, fighting, and sex: these weren't considered fit topics for the kids to be hearing. And that hip-shakey music, forged in a crucible of pure adrenaline and hormones? Trouble, nothing but trouble, obviously designed to corrupt every red-blooded American youth!

That's the angle taken by Rhino's recent Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly box set. Four CDs worth of rockabilly both familiar and obscure, Rockin' Bones doesn't attempt to become a history lesson (which it states first thing in the liner notes). It doesn't try to answer the hotly contested question of who gave birth to rockabilly. The tracks aren't in chronological order. The essays, while informative and fun, aren't meant to confer an instant degree in all things rockabilly. James Austin's introductory essay lays down some solid background, while Deke Dickerson's "A Brief History of Rockabilly Guitar" essay does a great job of conveying not only Dickerson's enthusiasm for rockabilly, but also sketching out the myriad ways that guitarists and their styles popped up from song to song.

Rockin' Bones succeeds as a portrayal of rockabilly -- born in the American South and typified by supercharged electric guitar, drums, and slap-back bass -- as a moment frozen in time. The genre fell out of favor before it could be truly co-opted and corrupted beyond repair, but not before it could be filled with colorful characters and fly-by-night labels. From the cover's homage to pulp novels, complete with leather jackets, switchblades, and a dangerous girl who practically licks her lips at the thought of blood, to the song selection, Rockin' Bones revels in rockabilly's popular image as dangerous stuff.

When rockabilly hit in the early '50s, rock 'n' roll had yet to completely break open; many songs were reaching various audiences by existing as both country versions and as R&B versions. Pat Boone was just beginning to bowdlerize R&B hits like "Ain't That a Shame" and "Tutti Frutti", and Elvis was still a couple of years from blowing the lid off the whole thing. As Deke Dickerson writes in the liner notes, rockabilly occupied an envious middle ground: "Add a sax or piano, it becomes rock 'n' roll. Add a fiddle or banjo, it's country." And with its fascination with the lurid side of life, it was perfect fodder for exploitation films like Joy Ride (1958) ("The hot cars! The cool parties! The easy dames!"), Roger Corman's Teenage Doll (1957) ("This story is about a sickness, a spreading epidemic that threatens to destroy our very way of life"), and Robert Altman's The Delinquents (1957) ("These are the children of violence, who live today as if there's no tomorrow!").

Audio snippets from such films are sprinkled throughout Rockin' Bones for flavoring, and at first glance, it might seem like the box set plays up only the campy quality of rockabilly. But while the set certainly celebrates the genre's pulpy persona, it makes sure to celebrate the music as a vital, influential genre. More important than rockabilly's contributions to recent ironic pulp revivals is the genre's crucial role as a foundation for punk rock. In the fashions, in the hair styles, in the DIY ethos, in hosts of musicians tackling songs they probably couldn't handle -- they'd all wind up in punk trappings before long.

It seems quaint now, even after punk's scorched-earth campaign, to think of some of these songs as dangers to Western Civilization, especially in light of pop culture's rampant envelope-pushing since then. But a few songs on Rockin' Bones make even a seen-it-all cynic like me take pause. Take John & Jackie's "Little Girl", which laces the sounds of a female orgasm throughout the song in a call-and-response frenzy. This wouldn't make it past a parents' group today, much less back in 1958. Lorrie and Larry Collins's "Whistle Bait" stands out because Larry, all of 14 years old, sounds so full of hormones that he might just self-combust. "Black Cadillac" finds Joyce Green threatening, "I caught you cheatin' and runnin' 'round / Now I'm gonna put you in a hole in the ground / I'm gonna ride to your funeral, baby, in a black Cadillac" -- it's one long murder fantasy, bluesy and catchy as all get out. Ronnie Allen's "Juvenile Delinquent" boasts, "My mommy had a date while my daddy's out to work / I went and told my daddy, so he shot that dirty jerk". And then, of course, you've got Link Wray's "Rumble", with that primordial power chord that would affect rock 'n' roll forever.

Rockabilly also gave birth to classic songs like Dale Hawkins's "Suzie Q", which boasts a thrilling lockstep combination of guitar, drums, and bass, and which puts CCR's classic rendition to shame. Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac", put to good use by the Clash on London Calling, overflows with rockabilly reverb. The Cramps put their unique psychobilly stamp on Freddie and the Hitch-hikers' "Sinners". And then, of course, there's Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues", which would still be famous even if the Who hadn't gotten hold of it. Rockabilly's punk links are clear, but rockabilly also sits in rock's DNA like a mutant gene waiting for its chance to shine. Led Zeppelin gave rockabilly a goofy nod with a song like "Hot Dog", but Queen, of all people, flashed plenty of rockabilly fandom in "Crazy Little Thing Called Love". And we'd be remiss not to mention the Stray Cats, whose whole-hog love for the outer trappings of rockabilly nearly obscured not only a tight band, but also guitarist Brian Setzer's substantial chops honoring rockabilly guitar greats like Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, and James Burton.

As neat as it is to hear the legendary tracks, though, rockabilly's real character can be found in the tons of stuff lost to obscurity. One of rockabilly's most thrilling aspects is the sense that a lot of these musicians were giving it their all and unleashing their ids because, well, there might not be another shot (and in a lot of cases, there wasn't). Rockabilly borrowed liberally from R&B (especially the blues side); for many white kids in the '50s, it was their only chance to hear this kind of stuff. Rife with 12-bar blues progressions and a lead guitar aesthetic borrowed from artists like B.B. King, rockabilly brought a very hip-oriented, sensual angle to the rock side of the fence. It was the hot thing, and lots of people wanted a piece of it, even if they didn't completely understand or believe in it. When you scan the credits for many of these songs, you sense rockabilly's rampant birth-and-death cycle when it came to upstart labels across the country; everyone from DJs to motel managers were trying to capture lightning in a bottle and make a buck.

On the country side, there are plenty of musicians who slipped back and forth between rockabilly and more traditional twang. But there are also some country legends hidden along the way, just at the start of their careers, taking on rockabilly pseudonyms. George Jones becomes Thumper Jones with "Rock It". Buck Owens becomes Corky Jones with "Rhythm and Booze". For an even more bizarre pseudonym, you've got the Phantom, whose unlikely affiliation with Pat Boone led some people, Robert Plant among them, to speculate that the Phantom (masked as he was in a Lone Ranger mask) might be Boone himself. Too bad it's not true, but the Phantom's real-life story doesn't lack its own quirks. Judging from some of the life stories that have been affected by rockabilly, alter-egos could be a pretty sensible idea. Besides, if you were an up-and-coming country singer, why not try your hand at this hot new rockabilly/hillbilly thing while you waited for your Nashville ship to come in? The slap-back bass wasn't all that foreign to country, and the chicken-pickin' guitar playing that typified rockabilly wasn't too far from the cleaned-up licks in Music City. So whether you were trying to record some music without getting on the bad side of your contract (like Ronnie Dawson, who was already recording rockabilly when he took the name Commonwealth Jones), or if you were just trying to hit the big time by whatever road was available, rockabilly wasn't that much of a stretch.

In fact, the enclosed artist bios are almost as fascinating as the songs themselves. Some, like Wanda Jackson, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, went on to become stars. Others had behind-the-scenes success on other artists' records or by writing songs later in their careers. Still others seem to have walked out of the woods, laid down a few tracks, and then walked back into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. Larry Collins (of "Whistle Bait" fame) went on to write, surprisingly, "Delta Dawn" and "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma". Big Al Downing, as a black member of a racially mixed band, routinely hid in a bass case so he could be smuggled into white hotels. The Phantom was paralyzed in a car crash, having never recaptured his "Love Me" success. Hasil Adkins, a fevered outsider from the get-go, recorded a whole album about chickens. "Brand New Cadillac"'s Vince Taylor, after huge success in Europe, eventually spent his time in France, dressed in white robes and blessing people at the Champs-Elysees. Virtually nothing is known about Danny Dell, Jackie Morningstar, Freddie and the Hitch-hikers, Kip Tyler, or Ronnie Pearson -- heck, in some cases, we're lucky to know their real names.

As such, Rockin' Bones whets your appetite for more by raising as many questions as it answers. It doesn't propose to be the end-all-be-all rockabilly collection. There are just too many quirks and characters in the genre to pull that off in a small set, anyway. But it does a fine job of conveying that sense of youthful recklessness and wild abandon that was there at the start of rock 'n' roll's birth. And over four discs, it rarely feels redundant; there's just too much energy and fire.

What's important, though, in considering rockabilly, is not to dismiss it. Rather than look at rockabilly as some "phase" that had to be gotten past in order for rock 'n' roll to become respectable, in much the same way a teenage boy puts away childish things as he walks into adulthood, it's more accurate to view the rockabilly years as a necessary foundation for everything that came after. It lurks in rock, in country, in blues -- not only in genres which it inspired, but also in genres from which it borrowed. Rockabilly's thrilling stuff for any listener who lives for those visceral moments when a guitar solo crackles to life, when a rhythm sections falls into sexy lockstep, or when a singer just loses his or her mind.

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