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).


New releases on Third Man Records

Third Man Records will release two new singles on November 29th, the first is the next episode in the labels Blue Series of 7″ vinyl releases, featuring The Thornbills.

the thornbills
the thornbills

The Thornbills are Michigan cousins Jim Wigand III and Tamara Finlay, between them they harmonise prose with a unique an saturated aesthetic, the themes addressed in their songwriting deal mainly with issues of perception versus reality and are executed in crystalline folk tunes.

For the Blue Series The Thornbills have chosen two Jack White produced songs, Uncle Andrei is a mysterious ode, reminiscent of a Russian waltz while Square Peg is a driving and charming tune layered with the strum of the guitar and wail of the violin.

wanda jackson
wanda jackson

Third Man and Nonsuch Records are proud to produce the latest single from the Queen of Rock and First Lady of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson who brings the latest taste of her signature style to the label.

On the tracks Thunder on the Mountain and Dust on the Bible, Jackson is joined by new friend, producer and Third Man Records founder Jack White, along with help from Jack Lawrence (The Dead Weather/Raconteurs), Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket), Patrick Keeler (Raconteurs), Ashley Monroe, Jackson Smith and Karen Elson, to name a few.

Thunder On The Mountain is a particularly exceptional track. Originally penned by Bob Dylan and chosen for Mrs. Jackson by the poet himself – his rockabilly fever dream is given new life by the songstress.

The Cramps’ Lux Interior dies aged 62

Lux Interior - The Cramps
Lux Interior - The Cramps

I was saddened to hear of the death of Erick Purkhiser, better known as Lux Interior lead singer with The Cramps.

He died on Wednesday 4th February 2009, at the Glendale Memorial Hospital in Glendale, California aged 62.

A pre-existing heart condition was recorded as the cause of death.

The Cramps were formed in 1973 after Lux Interior and Kristy “Poison Ivy Rorschach” Wallace met in 1972. They subsequently married. But though The Cramps were part of the whole New York CBGBs & Max’s Kansas City punk movement they didn’t have much in common with the other bands of that time.

The Cramps’ music was a pre-goth post-punk melting pot of 1950’s rockabilly, rock n roll and 1960’s garage music, with references like Link Wray, The Sonics & The Nuggets. Other influences included sex fetishism, horror and sci-fi b-movies.

Lux Interior was a great front man. On stage he was like a wild young Iggy Pop from the dark side. In fact The Cramps were so aptly described as a night version of The B52’s by Matt Snow.

The Cramps revolved around husband and wife Lux Interior (vocals) and Poison Ivy (guitar). At the height of their success (circa 1979 – 1983) they were joined by the wonderfully cool Nick Knox on drums and alternately Bryan Gregory and Kid Congo on guitar (also of The Gun Club).

In 1979 I bought The Cramps Gravest Hits, a five track UK 12” compilation of The Cramps first two US single releases Surfin’ Bird / The Way I Walk and Human Fly/Domino on Vengeance Records, along with Lonesome Town. Except for the self-penned Human Fly, these tracks were mutilated post-punk “psychobilly” versions of garage rockabilly songs from the 1950s & 1960s. The term ‘psychobilly’ was a musical genre formed to describe the music of The Cramps and many UK bands that followed in their footsteps such as The Meteors & Guana Bats.

In 1980 The Cramps released their debut album, Songs The Lord Taught Us, and in the following year Psychedelic Jungle. The Cramps were at their most creative in this period and the albums spawned the singles Garbageman & Goo Goo Muck. The Cramps also released their best single, Drug Train, in 1980.
In 1983 they released two albums. Smell Of Female – Live at The Peppermint Lounge in New York & …Off The Bone, the first of many compilation albums.

The Cramps went on to release a further nine albums for six labels, including Flame Job in 1994 released on Creation Records and their final album, How To Make A Monster, released on Vengeance in 2004.

Their final album is a compilation of demos, rehearsals and two lives shows from Max’s Kansas City (14 January 1977) and CBGB’s (13th January 1978).

I have fond memories of The Cramps and their early period.

The only time I saw them live was sometime in the early 1980’s. They were awesome. The Hammersmith Palais was really rocking that night, and so was Lux Interior. I recall at the end of the gig he knelt down at the front of the stage, smashed an empty bottle on the speaker and began cutting his chest. There was a story the following week in the NME saying that he had been rushed to Hammersmith Hospital after the show and was stitched up. Nice!

I have just listened to The Songs The Lord Taught Us for the first time in a few years. It starts with three great tracks: TV Set, Rock On The Moon & Garbageman (see video below).


But Drug Train is still the perfect psychobilly track for me: “Come on everybody the drug train!”

Here’s a great live clip of The Cramps performing The Way I Walk from 1978 playing at free show for the patients of the California State Mental Hospital.

Lux Interior tells the mental patients “Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be all right to me.”


Lux Interior – rest in peace

The Stray Cats 2008 Farewell Tour

The Stray Cats 2008 Farewell TourIn 1980, a three-piece rockabilly band from New York, based on the original Sun Studios recordings of bands such as Bill Haley & The Comets with a large slice of post-punk attitude and hairdos, came to the UK to make their fortune.

The Stray Cats were formed in 1979 by guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer with school friends Lee Rocker (born Leon Drucker) and Slim Jim Phantom (born James McDonnell) in the Long Island town of Massapequa, New York.

The Stray Cats had three top 20 UK hit singles – Runaway Boys (1980), Rock This Town (1981) and Stray Cat Strut (1981) and a self-titled debut album.

In 1980 The Stray Cats sounded so different, so fresh compared to other music sounds around at the time; and they were miles ahead of British rockabilly bands that sprung at the time in a mini rockabilly revival.

Further singles missed the Top 40 and The Stray Cats returned to the USA with their tales between their legs.

In late 1984, Brian Setzer broke up the band amid much bad blood and worked as a solo artist and successful session guitarist with the likes of Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and Robert Plant.

The European leg of The Stray Cats 2008 Farewell Tour will be coming to the UK in September with dates already confirmed in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin.

10 September – Brixton Academy, London

11 September – Manchester Academy

12 September – Glasgow Academy, Scotland

14 September – Vicar Street, Dublin, Ireland

They will also be visiting Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France and Belguim.

Visit Brian Setzer’s official website for a full list of 2008 European tour dates.