Flying Saucers Rock & Roll
Of all rock’s family tendrils, rockabilly is the one that keeps re-boppin’, sporting a revival every decade or so, its coming-of-age kicks allowing each new offspring to roll its own. Guitar-heavy, emphasizing Wild Ones rebellion (“whaddya got?”) and sonic dazzle (heavy on the reverb and chest vibrato), it raves and paves garage-punk (The Seeds to Damned), shockabilly (The Cramps and Chadbourne), new-wave (Stray Cats and Dire Straits), waggle-wobble (Jon Spencer and Boss Hog), Nirvana and the White Stripes. Its spirit is never far from rock’s impulse to verb itself.
Cool Cats, a new retro-compilation of mostly obscure rockin ”billies from the frantic fifties, comes to us courtesy of a Belgian radio d.j. named Dr. Boogie. This is his fourth anthology – the first being Rarities from the Bob Hite Vaults, an assemblage of scarce r&b from the collection of the Canned Heat lead singer, followed by samplings of femme blues singers from the ’20s and ’30s and barrelhouse blues that more than live up to Dr. Boogie’s moniker.
What makes the assemblage stand out from being just another stompfest rockabilly accumulation is the home label of Cool Cats, Belgium’s incredibly eclectic Sub Rosa, which slots these slices of duck-tailed amped-up country music among such avant-garde and world-music luminaries as William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, the Master Musicians of Joujouka, Morton Feldman, Bill Laswell, and Calla. Heard thusly, it becomes clear just how strange an outcropping this rockabilly was and still is, and how specific a style it engendered in its making-heyday.
Rockabilly grew out of country music’s roadhouse wing as the late ’40s began the scissoring of styles that would eventually birth rock and roll. Seizing on the energy of string bands and the danceability of swing bands, adding the pronounced backbeat and gutbucket drive of rhythm and blues, the honky-tonk feel of the music increased exponentially, helped along by the rise of independent labels that stepped in where the majors feared to tread.
Taking 1950 as its chronological tipping point, Roots of Rockabilly Volume 1 gathers country music in the act of becoming a new species. “I’m A Lone Wolf,” boasts Leon Payne, and it’s here that the music truly begins to howl. The Maddox Brothers and Rose give us a “Water Baby Blues” that just needs a twist of the echo-dial to put it in the red, while “Feudin ‘Boogie” is a one-upsmanship contest between Cowboy Copas and Grandpa Jones over who started woogie-ing first. For me, hands down, it’s Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, whose “Bryant’s Boogie” emphasizes that rockabilly would be guitar-driven. Bryant, one of the cleanest and fastest of the newfangled electric six-stringers, and Speedy, whose bar swipes and unexpected sense of rhythmic cut-and-run makes him the Jimi Hendrix of steel (I kid you not – though the duo is in relaxed mode here), show the primacy of the amplified guitar; country twang creating the sound of rock and roll much as the raucous electric blues that was coming out of Chicago. Country’s players were often jazz-influenced, several years older than the singers they backed, and brought a virtuoso flair to the crack of the snare or the thump of the doghouse bass fiddle.
Cue the moment of July 5, 1954, the official birthing day of rock and roll, in the studio of Sun Records, when Sam Phillips leaned into the talkback microphone and said, much like Alexander Graham Bell when he invented the telephone or Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, those immortal words: “That’s fine, man. Hell, that’s different. That’s a pop song now.”
Phillips, running Sun Records, knew that if he could twine the varied streams of r&b and country and put a youthful face on it, he could break onto the pop charts – which was where the real action was. And though Elvis Presley, whose “That’s All Right” literally created the template of the genre (though Bill Haley’s The Early Years shows the idea was well-glimpsed over the horizon), would soon be sold to RCA, Sun Essentials is the Memphis sound in all its glory: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and – most alien-invasion of all – Billy Lee Riley’s “Flying Saucers Rock & Roll.” There are classics galore here – the frenzy of “Breathless,” “Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp,” – and beyond the hits, in such collections as Sun Spots, the range of what Phillips drew from, fundamental blues (Harmonica Frank) and behind-bars group harmony (the Prisonaires), making his rockabilly stew all the more spicy.
It was the space-age texture of rockabilly as much as the music that caught the ear. Phillips seized the technology of the early fifties, overloading his tubes and clattering his rhythm section; it’s even surprising to realize “That’s Alright Mama” doesn’t even have the rimshots of a drum set driving it.
The style caught fire, and a sprouting of small, independent labels hastened to fill the void where the majors feared to tread, or when they did, failed to understand, as in Buddy Holly’s infamous first sessions in Nashville. (You can hear a snippet of a phone conversation with a bottom-line company exec here). Companies like King Records, in Cincinnati, who had begun in the early ’40s to dominate the fields of “race” and “hillbilly” records, and more to the bluesy – Chicago’s Chess and Los Angeles ‘Modern – were well-positioned to seed rock and roll.
Like the garage bands to come, a lot of rock-a-will action took place on the purely local. Be Bop Boogie compiles long-buried workaday rockabilly mostly from Philadelphia’s Gotham label by way of the Oak imprint from rural North Carolina. Don Hager leads a piano-driven Hot Tots through the title track and lets his lead guitarist have a tasty break on “River Rock.” And in a field dominated by the guys, it’s great to hear the femme-tones of the Derocher Sisters, even if they’re a ways away from the sass-and-sashay of Wanda Jackson.
But the greatest slice of rockabilly of all, a tribute to the music’s mania and all-out speedfreak acceleration, has to be Hank C. Burnette’s classic “Spinning Rock Boogie.” Not quite vintage, it’s a product of the British mid ’70s rockabilly revival in England, where the Teddy Boys held sway, wearing drape coats and “creepers” and sneering at their spiritual “bruvvers”, the Punks. On When Rockabilly Rules OK?, there are respectful recreators, like Matchbox with “Rock Rollin ‘Boogie” and Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers doing “Bop Little Lady;” and then there’s Hank C., revving the clutch and popping the car into gear, racing toward the cliff like James Dean, about to launch into the stratosphere.