Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Psychobilly: The Definitive History

Psychobilly is a genre of rock music that mixes elements of punk rock, rockabilly, and other genres. It is often characterized by lyrical references to science fiction, horror and exploitation films, violence, lurid sexuality, and other topics generally considered taboo, though often presented in a comedic or tongue-in-cheek fashion. Psychobilly music is often played with an upright double bass instead of the electric bass more common in modern rock music. Psychobilly gained underground popularity in Europe beginning in the early 1980s, but remained largely unknown in the United States until the late 1990s. Since then the success of several notable psychobilly bands has led to its mainstream popularity and attracted international attention to the genre.

1 History
1.1 Origins
1.2 First wave in Britain
1.3 Second wave in Europe
1.4 Third wave internationally
2 Style
2.1 Music
2.2 Fashion
3 See also
4 References
4.1 General references
4.2 Footnotes

The evolution of psychobilly as a genre is often described as having occurred in waves. The first wave occurred in Britain in the early 1980s, the second wave took place at the end of that decade and spread through the rest of Europe, and the third crested in the late 1990s with the genre finding international popularity.[1]


In the mid- to late 1970s, as punk rock became popular, several rockabilly and garage rock bands appeared who would influence the development of psychobilly.[1] The term "psychobilly" was first used in the lyrics to the country song "One Piece at a Time", written by Wayne Kemp for Johnny Cash, which was a Top 10 hit in the United States in 1976. The lyrics describe the construction of a "psychobilly Cadillac."[2] The rock band The Cramps, who formed in Sacramento, California in 1972 and relocated to New York in 1975 where they became part of the city's thriving punk movement, appropriated the term from the Cash song and described their music as "psychobilly" and "rockabilly voodoo" on flyers advertising their concerts.[2] The Cramps have since rejected the idea of being a part of a psychobilly subculture, noting that "We weren't even describing the music when we put 'psychobilly' on our old fliers; we were just using carny terms to drum up business. It wasn't meant as a style of music."[2] Nevertheless, The Cramps, along with artists such as Screamin' Jay Hawkins and the Stray Cats, are considered important precursors to psychobilly.[1][2] The Cramps' music was heavily informed by the sound and attitude of 1950s American rockabilly, and they recorded numerous covers of songs from the Sun Records catalog. Their 1979 album Songs the Lord Taught Us is considered influential to the formation of the psychobilly genre.[3]

First wave in Britain

The Meteors, formed in South London in 1979, are considered the first verifiable psychobilly band. Their albums In Heaven (1981) and Wreckin' Crew (1983) are recognized as landmarks of the early years of the genre.[1][3] The Meteors blended elements of punk rock, rockabilly, and horror film themes in their music. They also articulated psychobilly's apolitical stance, a reaction to the right- and left-wing political attitudes which divided British youth cultures.[1] Fans of The Meteors, known as "the Crazies", are often attributed with inventing the style of slam dancing known as "wrecking", which became synonymous with the psychobilly movement.[2] The short-lived Sharks, formed in Bristol in 1980, followed closely behind The Meteors with their influential album Phantom Rockers.[1][4] Another significant British band were the Guana Batz, formed in Feltham, Middlesex in 1983.[4] Their first album, 1985's Held Down to Vinyl at Last, has been described by Tiger Army frontman Nick 13 as "the most important release since the Meteors' first two albums."[1]
The Klub Foot nightclub, opened in 1982 at the Clarendon Hotel in Hammersmith, served as a center for Britain's emerging psychobilly movement and hosted many bands associated with the style. Johnny Bowler of the Guana Batz describes the club as "the focal point for the whole psychobilly scene. You'd get people from all over at those gigs. It built the scene. Record labels like Nervous were there, signing bands all the time."[1] A live compilation album entitled Stomping at the Klub Foot was released in 1984, documenting the club's scene and the bands who played there.[1][3] At the same time psychobilly bands were forming elsewhere in Europe, such as Batmobile who emerged in the Netherlands in 1983, released their debut album in 1985, and soon began headlining at psychobilly festivals and at the Klub Foot.[5]

Second wave in Europe
The second wave of psychobilly is noted as having begun with the 1986 release of British band Demented Are Go's debut album In Sickness & In Health.[2] The genre soon spread throughout Europe, inspiring a number of new acts such as Mad Sin (formed in Germany in 1987) and the Nekromantix (formed in Denmark in 1989), whose 1991 album Curse of the Coffin is also considered a landmark of this era.[3] The Quakes became the premier American psychobilly act after forming in Buffalo, New York in 1986, but had such difficulty building a following in their hometown that they moved to London the following year, where they released the influential album Voice of America in 1990.[1][2][3][4] Another significant release of this era was the compilation album Rockabilly Psychosis and the Garage Disease, which acknowledged the genre's roots in rockabilly and garage rock.[3]
The second-wave bands broadened the music's scope, with an "anything goes" attitude that included bringing new and diverse musical influences into the sound.[2] Record labels such as Nervous and Crazy Love helped the genre to expand, although it still remained largely unnoticed in the United States, where the albums were poorly distributed and most psychobilly bands preferred to play "weekenders" than to tour.[2] Nick 13 notes that, while other European trends such as scooter riding, the skinhead movement, and two-tone ska crossed over to America during the 1980s, psychobilly did not: "Why psychobilly is the only [import] that didn't come over here [back then], I really don't know."[2] One American act that did emulate the style, however, was The Reverend Horton Heat, formed in Dallas, Texas in 1985. Their 1990 single "Psychobilly Freakout" helped introduce American audiences to the genre. The band was heavily inspired by The Cramps, and original Cramps members Lux Interior and Poison Ivy have both identified The Reverend Horton Heat as the latter-day rockabilly/psychobilly band most closely resembling the style and tone of The Cramps.[6]

Third wave internationally

The third wave of psychobilly began in the mid-1990s and continued the genre's evolution, with many acts expanding their musical pallette by experimenting with influences such as hardcore punk, indie rock, heavy metal, new wave, goth rock, surf rock, country, and ska and adding them to psychobilly's punk/rockabilly mix.[2] It was during this era that psychobilly became popular in the United States, particularly in southern California, where punk rock had thrived and remained popular since the 1970s. The area's large Latin community, which revered early rock and roll icons, also played a part, as did the popularity of bands like the horror-influenced Misfits and country/rockabilly-inspired Social Distortion, as well as a celebration of hot rod and motorcycle culture.[2] Tiger Army, formed in San Francisco in 1995, became the dominant American psychobilly act following the release of their 1999 self-titled debut.[2][3] Their touring in support of the album helped to establish a foothold for psychobilly across the United States.[1] Los Angeles-based Hellcat Records, run by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, became a home to many psychobilly acts including Tiger Army, Devil's Brigade, the Rezurex, and the Danish groups Nekromantix and HorrorPops, both of whom relocated to southern California in the early 2000s.[2] Guana Batz members Pip Hancox and Johnny Bowler relocated there as well, moving to San Diego where they sometimes perform with Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats under the name Guana Cats.[4] Other notable southern California psychobilly bands formed in the 1990s include the Rocketz and The Chop Tops.

The genre remained vital in Europe, where new acts continued to appear. Asmodeus formed in Amsterdam in 1992, the same year the Kryptonix emerged in France, while the Godless Wicked Creeps formed in Denmark the following year.[2][7] The Sharks also re-formed in Britain, releasing the album "Recreational Killer".[4] Other psychobilly bands and scenes emerged in other countries, such as Battle of Ninjamanz in Japan (formed in 1994) and Os Catalepticos in Brazil (formed in 1996).[7] Australian act The Living End formed in 1994 and scored a hit with the double single "Second Solution"/"Prisoner of Society" in 1998, which peaked for several weeks at #4 on the Australian charts and became the country's highest selling single of the decade. The Living End generally describe their style as "punkabilly" rather than psychobilly because they do not share the genre's fascination with horror imagery, though they do share the characteristic of blending punk rock and rockabilly at fast tempos with a double bass and share much the same fanbase.


Musically, psychobilly is rooted primarily in two genres: late 1970s punk rock and 1950s American rockabilly. Tiger Army frontman Nick 13 has described how the style is based in rockabilly, yet distinct from it: "The number-one misconception people have is that psychobilly is the same thing as rockabilly. Rockabilly is on the family tree, but it's a totally different sound and attitude."[1] Psychobilly progenitors The Cramps acknowledge their music's deep roots in American blues, rhythm and blues, and traditional rock and roll.[2][6] Critics have noted that present-day psychobilly also draws from a number of other rock genres and subgenres. Alternative Press writer Ryan Downey describes the sound as a mix of styles: "Driven by the rhythmic pounding of a stand-up bass, the music swings with the snarl of punk rock while sometimes thrashing alongside speed metal or crashing headlong into country icon Hank Williams."[1] Downey also acknowledges that modern psychobilly's roots extend into two-tone ska, garage rock, and the punk subgenres hardcore punk, street punk, and oi!.[1][2][7] Hilary Okun, publicist for Epitaph and Hellcat Records, notes that "The music appeals to fans of punk, indie, metal, new wave, goth, rockabilly, surf, [and] country."[2] The influence of heavy metal on the psychobilly style resulted in the Nekromantix's 1994 album Brought Back to Life being nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of "Best Heavy Metal Album."[9]

Psychobilly is commonly played with a simpleguitar/bass/drum/vocal arrangement, with many bands consisting of only three members. Frequently the guitarist or bassist will serve simultaneously as vocalist, with few acts having a dedicated singer. An upright double bass is frequently used instead of the electric bass more common in modern rock music, an influence drawn from 1950s rockabilly and rock and roll groups. The bass is often played in the "slap" style in which the player snaps the string by pulling it until it hits the fingerboard, or hits the strings against the fingerboard, adding a high-pitched percussive "clack" or "slap" sound to the low-pitched bass notes. Some acts have made the upright bass the centerpiece of their arrangements, constructing large and elaborately decorated bass guitars which draw the audience's eye or match the visual imagery of the band and music. An example of this is the "coffinbass" used by Nekromantix frontman Kim Nekroman, a double bass with a body in the shape of a coffin and a headstock in the shape of a cross. Nekroman created his original "coffinbass" from an actual child-sized coffin, and has since designed new models to achieve better acoustics and collapsibility for easier transportation.[10] Another notable act to use a coffin-shaped bass is the Brazilian psychobilly band Os Catalepticos.[7] HorrorPops frontwoman Patricia Day also uses an elaborately painted and decorated double bass which reflects the visual style of her band. Not all groups use the upright bass, however. The Cramps performed without a bass player in their early career, using two guitars instead. They did not add a bass guitar to their arrangement until 1986, and have used an electric bass since that time. Cramps guitarist/bassist Poison Ivy sees this as one of the distinctions which separates the band from the psychobilly movement: "I think psychobilly has evolved into a gamut of things, but I don't think of what people think of, as psychobilly doesn't describe what we do. It seems to involve upright bass and playing songs extremely fast. That's certainly not what we do."[2]
Lyrically, psychobilly bands tend to favor topics and imagery drawn from horror and exploitation films, violence, lurid sexuality, and other taboo topics, usually presented in a comedic or tongue-in-cheek fashion reminiscent of the camp aesthetic. Most acts avoid "serious" subjects such as politics. Original psychobilly act The Meteors articulated a very apolitical stance to the scene, a reaction to the right- and left-wing political attitudes dividing British youth cultures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.[1] This attitude has carried through later generations of psychobilly. Nekromantix frontman Kim Nekroman describes: "We are all different people and have different political views. Psychobilly is all about having fun. Politics is not fun and therefore has nothing to do with psychobilly!"[2]

Psychobilly musicians and fans often dress in styles that borrow equally from 1950s rock and roll and 1970s punk fashions as well as other influences. Men often wear brothel creepers and Dr. Martens boots and shave their heads into high wedge-shaped pompadours or quiffs, military-style crops, or mohawks.[1] The Sharks song "Take a Razor to Your Head" articulated the early psychobilly scene's code of dress, which was a reaction to the British Teddy Boy movement:[1] "When your Mom says you look really nice / When you're dressed up like a Ted / It's time to follow this cat's advice / Take a razor to your head".[11] Women of the psychobilly movement frequently model their fashions after B-grade horror films and hot rod culture.[1] Tattoos are common among both sexes.[1] Overall, psychobilly fashion mixes aesthetics from the scooter boy, skinhead, punk, and rockabilly subcultures, though not all performers or fans choose to dress in these styles.[1]

See also
Timeline of alternative rock
List of psychobilly bands

General references
Downey, Ryan J. "Psyched to Be Here." Alternative Press, November 2004, 76–82.

^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Downey, 77.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Downey, 78.
^ a b c d e f g Downey, 80.
^ a b c d e Downey, 81.
^ "Batmobile". Myspace. Retrieved on 2008-07-23.
^ a b Downey, 79.
^ a b c d Downey, 82.
^ Wade, Kevin (March), "Review: Kiss Kiss Kill Kill", Alternative Press (236.2): 134
^ "Nekromantix". Starkult Promotion. Retrieved on 2007-07-17.
^ Thursby, Erin (April 26,2007). "On the Lighter Side of Death: Interview With Nekromantix". EU Jacksonville. Retrieved on 2007-08-10.
^ (1980) Album notes for Phantom Rockers by The Sharks [CD]. Nervous Records. Phantom Rockers at MusicBrainz.

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