Rockabilly, the mongrel offspring of white country swing and black rhythm and blues, peaked almost as soon as it was born in 1950s America. By 1960 Elvis Presley was lost to the army; Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Eddie Cochran had died in accidents on their way to work; and Gene Vincent was fading into alcoholic obscurity. With the advent of 1960s psychedelia and 1970s technology, rock V roll steadily paved over its own roots. But now a new generation of rockers is seeking escape from the synthetic landscape of electro-pop through songs that revive the unalienated pursuit of hot cars, warm girls and cold beer. Rockabilly has finally resurfaced in the North American mainstream with the breakthrough of The Stray Cats, three Americans in their early 20s who have cloned the sound and image of their parents’ era. Last week the band’s album Built for Speed was cresting the charts with international sales of 3.5 million copies, 200,000 of them in Canada.
On the tails of The Stray Cats’ success, dozens of rockabilly bands have emerged across Canada and the United States, including The Bopcats, The Paladins and The Hurricanes in Toronto, The Draggnetts in Edmonton and Buddy Selfish and the Saviors and Herald Nix in Vancouver. As well, vintage rockabilly artists, including Canadians Jack Scott and Ronnie Hawkins, are enjoying revivals, and recently many major record companies have reissued old rockabilly classics.
Meanwhile, some of the new bands are trying to reinvest the music industry with fun and kicks. Unlike the power trios that turned rock into Roman spectacle during the past decade, a low-tech rockabilly trio requires only a guitar, a stand-up bass and half a drum kit—an apt musical prototype for the recessionary 1980s. Economical to perform, the music also offers mindless relief from hard times. “I’ve always liked rockabilly because of its raw energy,” says Rocky Craig, 33, lead singer of Vancouver’s Rockabilly Kings. “You just go out and have a good time— there’s no political message to it.”
By tapping outgoing and incoming generations of rock, rockabilly draws a diverse cross section of fans. When 27-year-old Toronto singer-guitarist Johnny Dee Fury performed in a local club earlier this month, a punk in chains and leather and a middle-aged jitterbugger stood out from a largely young, suburban crowd. Fury, his greased pompadour bobbing to the rhythm, skidded across the stage with one leg jackknifed in the air—a credible
duckwalk considering that the leg was weighted down by a cast. He had broken his foot in a Halifax nightclub in January when he ended a guitar solo by leaping from a table. While punk’s quest for new energy sources helped to reactivate rockabilly, Fury’s songs, full of hiccuping vocals and 1950s hooks, are squeaky clean. “Some call it popabilly,” he says. “I’m not trying to be authentic.” Because trends die young in rock ’n’ roll, most neorockabilly artists want to avoid falling into a rut for the sake of authenticity. The Bopcats, Canada’s most established rockabilly band, has
had modest success; two albums have sold nearly 15,000 copies each, and the band has played prestigious U.S. clubs including the Ritz in New York City. But it now sounds more like a gritty hard rock group than the rockabilly band it started out as three years ago.
Real rockabilly, explains Bopcats’ manager David Booth, requires a slap bass with its percussive click of strings striking frets. Says Stephen Hocura of Toronto’s Paladins, which uses a standup bass: “A lot of people have a superficial image of rockabilly because of the style thing—the pink Cadillacs and clothes and hair. We’re more concerned with the music.” But musicology appears to be the last concern of audiences who show up at such venues as Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom in 1950s and 1960s styles—men wearing greased ducktails, black pointy shoes and bowling shirts; and women sporting poodle skirts and prom dresses.
While neorockabilly adjusts its image, pioneers of the sound are pleased simply to see their music back in vogue. Jack Scott, who was born in Windsor, Ont., and now lives in Michigan, had 19 singles on the U.S. charts from 1958 to 1961, setting a record broken only by The Beatles. His loping baritone became well-known with such hits as My True Love and Goodbye Baby. Now 47, Scott abandoned rock for country music in the 1960s because “everyone wanted to do psychedelic music and use strobe lights.” But, when Scott was invited to play a rockabilly concert in England five years ago, he was astounded to find 20,000 fans dressed in 1950s gear calling for old songs he had not played for 15 years.
Critics have alternately hailed the rockabilly revival as a breath of fresh air and dismissed it as a symptom of rock’s flagging creativity. Forever losing its legacy to generational amnesia, rock has a habit of chasing its own tail. When The Stray Cats’ singer and guitarist Brian Setzer, 23, discovered The Beatles as a child, his father had to tell him that Honey Don't was written by a certain Carl Perkins, who had also penned an obscure song called Blue Suede Shoes.
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