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Feb 29th, 1996

Cool and crazy

Rockabilly's ageless appeal hits Boston once again

by Amy Finch

Brendan Behan pub, Sunday night, just out for a beer, but an outfit is playing -- loud -- and the crowd's got me stuck near the door amid buzzing talk. But Jesus, that band slice through the blather, through every layer of rock and roll, straight to Memphis 40 years ago. Squeeze up front and find the Cranktones burning down the decades to when Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent were in the prime of their game, to when rockabilly was ripe but not slick, and its heart thumped hellfire.

Rockabilly has coursed through the veins of rock and roll since Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips put the marriage of hillbilly blues and country to wax, recording Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and other less hallowed names like Mack Self, Warren Smith, and Billy Riley. Yet there's a fresh wave of enthusiasm around town lately. A small contingent of pompadoured and saddle-shoe'd folks seems to show up at each rockabilly event without fail. The Cranktones and other bands are showing the way; the scene even has a rockabilly fanzine (Boston's first), The Cool and the Crazy, which debuted last fall.

The Cranktones worked for three and a half years as Little Frankie and the Premiers; they changed their name about a year ago. Frank Blandino has played guitar in country bands, blues bands, and rock bands for years; he says his following was older people who were into R&B and blues. Since he became Cranky and upped the tempo, he's been enjoying a different response. His new audience is in its 20s and not too fossilized to go out on a Sunday night and cut the rug to shreds.

With Frankie singing and playing guitar, John Sciascia on upright bass, and Stan Kozlowski drumming, the Cranktones do the traditional twing-twang stomp like a dream. Mainly they do obscure covers because, Frankie says, "it's hard to write a rockabilly song and not be cliché'd about it." (In his other band, the Fathoms, which is Cranktones plus saxist Dave Sholl, Frankie writes dozens of surf instrumentals, 15 of which will show up on the debut CD that's due out this spring or summer.)

Frankie's been listening to the Desperate Rock and Rollseries (on Flame), trying to find rarities to "put in the context of a trio. We get a lot of our stuff from there. There's volumes of this stuff from the '50s and '60s." He feels he's found his niche, and he's glad to move away from the blues. "I'm a white person," he jokes. "I'd rather play surf or rockabilly so I'm not faking it. I'm a white-trash person."

The Cranktones may lack chic alterna-appeal, but that's fine with Frankie. "Maybe we're not on the punk side enough, but that's okay."

What if he dyed his hair pink or something?

"If I had some hair, I would. I'm sick of trying to deal with my hair. Being in a rockabilly band and not having a pompadour is kind of a liability. The people who come to see the band look better than I do. But they can't play."

Well, some of them can. Dana Stewart, who books the Cranktones, has the '50s dreamboat 'do and dance-floor jitter down smack. Not only that, he sings and drums for the Box Car Phantoms, another trad-type rockabilly outfit that blasts backward through time with wonderful results. When he's not performing with the Phantoms or his other band, the Royal Crowns (a psychobilly band out of Providence), he's scouting around town for new places to book rockabilly shows.

A while back he brought in the untraditional Twistin' Tarantulas from Detroit, and the Lowell-based Invaders to play at the Linwood Grill in the Fenway. The Linwood looks to be a likely spot for upcoming rockabilly artists, especially given the Tarantulas' nice Sunday-night turnout.

Like Frankie, Dana has knocked around in various Boston bands for years -- the Cryptones, the Devotions, the Bristols -- and played in Minneapolis power-poppers the Magnolias. But now he just wants to play rockabilly. "I've always liked swing and big-band music, and if you can adapt the swing and big band without having to have an 18-piece band, you come up with the format of rockabilly, or jump blues."

Dana's hoping to find a nice ballroom somewhere in or around Boston to stage a big rockabilly blowout. "I've been looking around at places that would have a beautiful stage, a real Deco type place, with a nice dance floor. The fun thing about the crowd in Boston is they love to dance but it's just like jitterbugging. It's constantly spontaneous rhythm that's going on."

At a Cranktones or a Box Cars or an Invaders gig, solo wriggling is fine, but that rockabilly chug does cry out for partner dancing -- swing-hybrid spins and twirls. Regulars on the scene are inevitably great dancers, and all that partner-dancing lends a fresh whiff of civility to club crawling. Mosh pits and Gene Vincent didn't mix in 1956; mosh pits and Cranktones don't mix in 1996. Anger is an energy, Mr. Lydon, but there's an artistry to moving in tandem with another person. It's about harmonizing, and it recalls the decorum of a generation past. Woody White, guitarist with neo-billies the Speed Devils, puts it like this: "It says something about getting older and starting to realize that my parents did that stuff. It's kind of weird, rebelling for so many years against my parents and then all of a sudden I'm respecting something from their era."

The pair-dancing is relatively new, according to Cranktones-Fathoms bass whopper John Sciascia. "Those people that are really into rockabilly are into the dress, they're into the look, and they're definitely into the moves. They're way more serious about it [the scene thing] than we are. We're into the music end of it. We try to play it as correctly as possible."

Fanzine The Cool and the Crazy monitors rockabilly correctness as well as giving the scene its cohesive voice. It's a cut-and-paster with album and live reviews of folks like Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys and Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, and others you don't hear or read about much. The first issue included a "Gripping Story by a Desperate Teen," Tom Atombomb, alias Tom Umberger, Box Car Phantoms guitarist-singer. Mr. Atombomb laments the jump-on-the-rockabilly-bandwagon game some clubs play to lure audiences with so-called rockabilly shows: "Why foist half-assed surf bands and punk bands with sideburns upon an audience that's craving backwoods hillbilly firewater?"

The 'zine is a scream, with its, uh, "period" ads ("Sally's Gay with Midol") and public-disservice announcements: "Don't fight juvenile delinquency, join it! Take part in friendly neighborhood skirmishes!" It's the baby of Jon Porth and Sara Josephson, two fans whose love of the music -- and '50s culture in general -- is stronger than the headaches wrought by publishing a bi-monthly almost single-handedly. The couple are matter-of-fact about their toils: Boston needs a rockabilly 'zine, so they're doing it to get the word out. "There's a zillion great bands out there that people don't know of just because they don't have a video or they're not on a major label," Jon explains.

And the pair have done their share of musical excavating. "I'd see Sid Vicious and then I'd have to buy Eddie Cochran albums," Jon goes on. "Then you realize Eddie Cochran's not the coolest, there's all these other guys. Then I listened to [TV cowboy] Roy Rogers. Punk rock and Roy Rogers -- in the middle is rockabilly."

And how would he define rockabilly? "It started from Western swing and hillbilly bop. Rockabilly started in '54 and pretty much ended in '59. Nothing else came out. Those guys were no longer wanted and they were out of jobs. Punk rock's dragging out, heavy metal's been going for 20 years. Rockabilly's the only type of music where you could actually say this is rockabilly, this is not rockabilly. Rockabilly never really evolved."

The Cool and the Crazy isn't made for the Space Age. Or with Space Age know-how. Jon is anti-microwave oven, anti-credit card, anti-computer. All the writing is done on a typewriter. "The only good inventions that came after the '50s are the bank card and the VCR." His friend Kevin Patey has an idea: "We'll get you guys a vintage computer, it'll take up your whole apartment." Meanwhile The Cool and the Crazy can be found at rockabilly outposts like In Your Ear, the Lost Engine Gallery, and Mars in Allston-Brighton and at Pipeline Records and the Garment District in Cambridge.

The Fathoms and the Speed Devils have tracks on an upcoming CherryDisc compilation of Boston rockabilly and surf bands called Tube (it's produced by Drew Townson and is due in stores April 23). As for the Cranktones, they've done some recording at the same place as the Fathoms -- Zippah, in Brookline. "Once this Fathoms recording stuff dies down, we'll probably concentrate more on the trio stuff," Frankie says.

Frankie grew up in Dorchester, where he was taught how to read music and play guitar by his blind father, who read music in Braille. Frankie now lives on the South Shore with his wife and two huskies, Nikki and Nicky. When he's not digging for little-known Desperate Rock and Rollgoodies, what's he listen to these days?

"Western swing -- Bob Wills, Spade Cooley. There's the band Jimmy Rivers and the Cherokees, it's really cool. One week I'll listen to that, the next week I'll listen to surf. Then I'll listen to classical. Anything that moves me in any way."

Even Neil Diamond. "He had his own thing happening. Strange voice, strange tunes." Hey, "Cherry Cherry" is pretty grand. Maybe it could be set to that swingin' rockabilly bop, and it'd be an odd little killer. No more wondrous than stumbling upon the spirit of Gene Vincent thumping hellfire at the Brendan Behan circa now.

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