Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’round the World – The Complete Illustrated History

Rockabilly: The Twang Heard 'round the World - The Complete Illustrated History
Rockabilly: The Twang Heard 'round the World - The Complete Illustrated History

Before I even opened this book, I fell in love with it!  A sumptuous hardback cover photo of Elvis strumming his acoustic and singing his heart out; with a cut out to top and right with the word ‘Rockabilly’ designed to mimic the King of Rock n Roll’s debut album cover; and one ‘borrowed’ by The Clash for their album, London Calling.

In 1977 I was a 12 years old quietly listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little yellow transistor radio pressed against my air when DJ Tony Prince announced in a broken voice that Elvis, the king of rock n roll, was dead.  At the time the only effect this had on me was surprise that it meant so much to someone that he stopped playing the contemporary music I tuned in every night to hear, and began playing back-to-back songs by Elvis Presley (though he was the president of the UK fan club)!

I never forgot that night in August 1977, though rock n roll at the time for me was God Save The Queen, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.  But as I became older, and the constraints of Punk Rock made way for Post-Punk and New Wave, influences from further afield began new hybrids of music in the late 1970’s. Retro sounds merged with punk angst and soon there was a flood of new terms and genres to describe new sounds.

In 1979 my musical tastes were broadened by the re-emergence of Ska music as The Specials paid homage to 1960’s Jamaican legends such as Prince Buster, while a group called The Cramps took influences from old 1950’s Rockabilly, b films, 60’s surfing and garage music to create a grungy, dirty, punk-riddled Rockabilly sound that had music journalists fighting over new labels – Punkabilly, Psychobilly, in fact anything with ‘billy’ in the title.

Like The Specials signposted me to 1960’s Jamaican Ska and Bluebeat, The Cramps opened my ears to less commercial, garage punk Rock n Roll and in turn the original recordings for the Sun Records label by Elvis Presley. Great songs like ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘That’s Alright Mama’ sounded so wonderful to me, where my opinion of Elvis and Rock n Roll had hitherto been tainted by the likes of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ & ‘Hound Dog’.  It was not so much the quality of the songs, but the clean, over-produced production that left me cold, whereas the original Sun recordings gave the music a certain edginess and something more akin to garage and punk.

So, now I am reviewing an illustrated history of Rockabilly music – a music born out of country, bluegrass, jazz, and the blues in the 1950’s that became known to the world in a more commercial sense as rock ‘n’ roll.

Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’round the World – The Complete Illustrated History by Greil Marcus tells the history of the genre and its main characters.  Of course there is a large splash on Elvis Presley’s first steps to becoming the ‘king of rock n roll’ along with other great Sun Recording artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis; along with such legends as Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly & Wanda Jackson along with lesser known artists of the day, as the book relives the golden years of Rock n Roll between 1955-1959 full of photos, movie posters, rare records, the guitars and the fashion.

The story picks up again in the late 1970’s with the revival of Rockabilly with bands such as The Cramps and The Stray Cats. I never knew Brain Setzer, the amazing guitarist & singer with The Stray Cats almost joined The Cramps in 1979 before he enjoyed a short burst of worldwide success in the early 1980’s with songs ‘Runaway Boys’, ‘Rock This Town’ & ‘Stray Cat Strut’.  During this period, the UK was flooded with garage punk / rockabilly bands influenced by The Cramps, those early days of rockabilly from the 1950’s and garage punk of the 1960’s; and the final chapter is a show of strength for the influence of rockabilly today in the music and fashion of artists like Imelda May.

This is a truly great book, a wonderful read, assembled with great loving care by Greil Marcus and worth every penny to all rockabilly psychos or just plain music lovers that have ever wondered where rock n roll came from.

Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’round the World – The Complete Illustrated History by Greil Marcus published by Voyageur Press in hardback priced £20.00 (RRP).

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The Church of Louvin: The Louvin Brothers Sacred Songs, album review

The Church of Louvin: The Louvin Brothers Sacred Songs
The Church of Louvin: The Louvin Brothers Sacred Songs

I first heard of the Louvin Brothers while scanning the writing credits of the ByrdsSweethearts of the Rodeo album, the 1968 album that shocked the counter culture to its knees by embracing what seemed at the time to be outdated, anachronistic music associated with crushingly unfashionable conservative values. Yet the mastermind behind that album, Gram Parsons could credibly claim greater kinship with Keith Richard and Jim Morrison than with Barry Goldwater or Billy Graham.

So what gave? You need to listen, more than once, open mouthed, to Gram singing said Louvin Brothers song “The Christian Life” without a trace of irony to understand how for him the personal, the traditional, the importance of ‘roots’ transcended any perceived politics.

Ira and Charlie Louvin (nee Loudermilk) were born in the 1920s in poverty in the Appalachian Mountains in the Baptist tradition. Although they started out playing and singing gospel they found fame writing straight non-religious country pop had a string of top ten US hits in the 1950s, surviving the onslaught of rock n roll with ease.

This CD brings together two of their albums from the same era that were comprised entirely of religious songs. The style is predominantly country bluegrass as you might expect with vocals that hark back to their gospel origins. The vocals here aren’t particularly soulful but they are heartfelt and those close harmonies that, when delivered by brothers, as with the Everlys and the Wilsons, seem to have that extra bit of magic.

You certainly can’t ignore the lyrics and I guess you’re either going to be put off by them or not. Songs titles like “Nearer My God To Thee”. “Lord I’m Coming Home” and the surprisingly upbeat “Satan Lied To Me” give you all the clues you need. They certainly battled with their own personal Satans. Ira was a noted violent alcoholic, known to smash his mandolin during performances in genuine anger.

However the songs essentially deal with the same range of topics on the human condition that most modern music has done since, only that it’s done through the prism that they know, the one of their religion. What really comes across is that these songs are intensely personal. There is no tubthumping aggressive religious morality here, just humble, modest expressions of personal joy and pain.

The Church of Louvin: The Louvin Brothers Sacred Songs is available on the Righteous record label and is distributed and marketed by Cherry Red.

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