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Go cat, go! - (Nov, 1998)
Lance up your saddle shoes and grease back
your pompadour - rockabilly's back
By Christopher Muther
McCarthy is perched on a railing at the Middle East nightclub on a recent Friday night, surveying a room filled with guys showing off greased-back pompadours and women sporting ponytails and saddle shoes. But this is no sock hop costume party or "Grease'' cast reunion. On this night, the Middle East is ground zero of Greater Boston's latest burgeoning music scene - rockabilly.
"I like rockabilly because it's raw and powerful,'' said the 18-year-old Emerson student. "But it still sounds great. Plus I like the way the guys look. They're kind of dangerous and look like they're from the wrong side of the tracks.''
The label rockabilly applies to much of the rock 'n' roll that dominated jukeboxes in the 1950s. Pre-movie and jumpsuit Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, and even Buddy Holly fall under its umbrella. The sound is characterized by hollow body guitars (think surf music), upright bass, and songs about hot rods, parties, and pretty women.
While swing music is currently all the rage at clubs in town, rockabilly - its greasy and rowdy younger cousin - is experiencing an underground revival in Boston. Small neighborhood bars such as the Linwood Grill in the Fenway and the Brendan Behan and the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain regularly book rockabilly bands.
"The audience is definitely growing,'' said Kevin Patey, lead singer of the rockabilly band the Raging Teens. "It started as a small nucleus of people who would seek out shows. Now it's no longer just a hard-core group of people. If you go out and stumble upon it, chances are you're going to have a fun time.''
Aside from the retro factor, what's striking about the rockabilly scene are the friendly crowd and the high-spirited songs.
Bands range from rockabilly purists, such as the Racketeers and the Cranktones, to those that mix in punk, such as the Amazing Crowns and the Speed Devils.
"The music pertains to everybody and anybody,'' said Dana Stewart, lead singer of the Racketeers. "It's a blue-collar art form that speaks to both young and old. It's definitely not a closed clique. Outsiders tend to see a lot of the crowd is greased up and in 1950s clothes,'' Stewart said, but you don't have to don thrift-store finery and grease up your hair to enjoy the scene.
Most fans are surprisingly young, especially considering that many of their parents weren't old enough for the first rockabilly wave. But you'll also find folks in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.
"I think if you go down to the Linwood to see a band, you're probably going to fit in,'' said Stacey Toon, editor of Cheeseball, a quarterly magazine that follows Boston's rockabilly, swing, and lounge scenes. "There's every walk of life there.'' The rockabilly look and attitude is inspired by "Rebel Without a Cause''-era James Dean and '50s hot rod culture (sort of a John Waters movie meshed with "American Bandstand''). But most of Boston's rockabilly greasers are looking for a good time, not a fight. While there are frequent references to '50s delinquents, the dangerous look of today's rockabilly lovers is more a nod to the coolness of the past than a desire to act like a hoodlum.
Rockabilly scenesters warn first-timers against trying to dress the part. Anyone who slathers his hair with gel and wears a vintage-looking shirt from Urban Outfitters will immediately be suspect. Vintage is a way of life for many in the rockabilly scene, so phonies don't stand a chance.
"Don't think you can walk in the first time and be some kind of player,'' said Toon. "Just absorb it, take it in and the rest comes naturally. You'll slowly adapt if it suits you. If you're coming in trying to cop a fad, the radars are going to be out.''
For rockabilly diehards, the look is much more than a fad. They seem to live in a time warp, not only wearing vintage clothing but also using vintage lingo like calling one another "cats.''
"For me, it's about the music, but it's also a lifestyle,'' said "Skinny'' Mike Feudale, bass player and lead singer of the Speed Devils. "My apartment is full of vintage stuff. I dress primarily in a rockabilly style: rolled up dungarees, greased hair, and bowling shirts.''
Pointing out that there are no particular dances to learn, Toon said, "Rockabilly doesn't feel quite as exclusive as swing.'' Some fans do swing dance to the music, but you don't need to master the steps to have a good time.
At a multi-band rockabilly show at the Middle East last month, half the audience crowded the dance floor, while the other half lingered at the bar or chatted in the back of the hall. Some were swing dancing; others just tapped their feet to the beat.
Fans of alternative bands will need to adjust their attitudes before going to a rockabilly show. The rockabilly crowd doesn't scrutinize the music and worry about looking cool. Rockabilly lovers dance, clap, and are quite sociable.
"That's why this scene is growing,'' said Jason "King'' Kendall, lead singer of the Amazing Crowns (formerly the Amazing Royal Crowns). "People are so sick of seeing bands get up there singing their angst-ridden songs while staring at their shoes. Rockabilly is a reaction to grunge and all of the negative music. This music is really positive, feel-good music.'' The musical style got its start in the early '50s when white country or hillbilly artists started performing soul and R&B songs written by blacks.
"Elvis was a huge first pioneer,'' said John Sciascia, bass player for The Cranktones. "His first 45 is a perfect example of what rockabilly is all about. He's playing `That's All Right Mama,' which is a black song, but he's playing it in a more upbeat country style. But he's still singing it with a soul voice. He had the style and the look. His voice is what a rockabilly singer is supposed to sound like.''
Rockabilly experienced a brief commercial renaissance in the early '80s when the Stray Cats struck it big with "Stray Cat Strut'' and "Rock This Town.'' In England and Japan, rockabilly '50s has a large, devout following who worship the American music and style. Not surprisingly, in the United States the current rockabilly rage is biggest on the West Coast, especially among classic car lovers.
Boston's current rockabilly scene can be traced back a decade to two bands, the Boogie Men and Little Frankie and the Premieres. When those bands dissolved, some of their alumni hooked up to form The Cranktones, now generally regarded as the preeminent rockabilly band in Boston.
Cranktones bass player Sciascia said that about five years ago he began noticing more and more fans decked out in rockabilly regalia. Inspired by the Cranktones, some of them formed their own bands - and a scene was born.
Two factions make it up: bands that try to replicate the pure sound of original '50s rockabilly and bands that bring a more modern, punk perspective to the music while keeping rockabilly at its roots. The later style is frequently called psychobilly or punkabilly.
The Cranktones, who play every other Sunday night at the Brendan Behan in Jamaica Plain, are one of the purest rockabilly bands in town. The band occasionally dips into other sounds, just as '50s bands experimented with different forms of music. The trio, fronted by "Cranky'' Frankie Blandino, is not only at the top of the heap in musicianship, but also demonstrates strong songwriting skills. Its "With Your Love, With Your Kiss'' and "Vibrate'' are testosterone-heavy theme songs for young greasers.
Sciascia also plays in two other local bands: Li'l Memphis (which alternates Sunday nights with the Cranktones at the Brendan Behan) and the Spurs, a country swing and rockabilly band.
Except for the Cranktones, whose members are in their 30s and 40s, most rockabilly band members are former punk rockers still in their 20s.
Dana Stewart, lead singer of The Racketeers, played in punk bands before discovering bluegrass, hillybilly, and other roots music.
"I was playing punk rock since I was 14,'' Stewart said. "But I found it was time to play a music that was acceptable to everybody, but still have the energy and power of the punk rock bands I've played in.''
Still, The Racketeers fall into the purist category. Thanks to its authentic '50s sound, the two-year-old band has a strong following of greasy fans.
Stewart said he finds faithfully recreating the sounds of the '50s to be more of a challenge than mixing rockabilly with punk. His band's songs hark back to the days when being a rebel meant smoking in the school bathroom. Numbers like "Easy on the Slacks'' and "Geez Louise'' could have easily been pulled from a jukebox 40 years ago.
"The music is not at all political,'' Stewart said. "It's about cruising and girls and burning the candle at both ends. I like music that helps you get away from it all.''
On the dividing line between purist and psychobilly are the Raging Teens, who formed almost two years ago. The band tries to stick to authentic rockabilly, but its members, who come from a punk rock background, put more sweat and aggression in their songs than the standard rockabilly band. Newer bands, such as Burbonaires and the Boston Blackouts, are also blurring the line between rockabilly and psychobilly with strong, energetic sets.
Originally from Providence, the Amazing Crowns are Boston's most widely listened to rockabilly export.
"The Crowns definitely bring a strong punk ethic to their music,'' said Toon. "Especially with Jason Kendall, the lead singer. He really brings it out. You have a nice hollow-body guitar sound, and at the same time you have a guy who's out-rottening Johnny Rotten. It's that combination of respect for the roots music, but also redefining it for the 1990s that makes them unique.''
Boston's most distinctive rockabilly band is the Strangemen, which more than lives up to its name. With foot-high platinum pompadours and songs such as "Grampa Was an Alien,'' the local quartet describes its music as "a Star Trek episode directed by Quentin Tarantino.''
The Strangemen's music encompasses not only rockabilly, but surf, swamp, and sci-fi. "Hitch-Hike UFO'' and "Space Train'' would have nicely fit into Ed Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space.'' The band's stage shows are a spectacle, complete with wrestling and teddy-wearing back-up singers.
The Speed Devils play revved-up, high-octane kabilly, and sing about drag racing and raucous parties. Singer "Skinny'' Mike Feudale said the raw energy of the music appeals to him.
"Rockabilly was the punk rock of the 1950's,'' he said. "There's a certain authenticity to it that I really like. I really like the whole delinquent side of it. It's really cool.''