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).