THE DAWN OF PSYCHOBILLY
King Kurt, photo from Wrecking Pit
by Nate Katz
There is no doubt that scenes have a significant impact on music and its culture. The subcultures that focus on genres follow the typical rules of the genre and the context of the time. Scenes add new layers of rules to the music, and each scene will have its own variation of a sound. However, sometimes scenes are not just moments in time. Sometimes they are the start of entirely new genres that spread across the world. That is what the first psychobilly scene was. It created an entirely new genre of music that would infect all of Europe, and eventually the world. Psychobilly is one of the most unique music genres out there. It takes bits and pieces from everything it can, mashes it all together and somehow it works. The result is an entirely new unique genre and culture. 1980 to 1983 is considered the first wave of psychobilly. The degenerate monsters that started it all come from London, playing small time gigs, gradually moving up to the monstrous European movement of the mid to late '80's. But it all started out in a few dive bars back in London, England.
1980 was an important year for Britain. Recently elected Margaret Thatcher's policies led to a drastic decline in employment, especially among the blue collared and youth (Kim, 2005). A year later, there were five race riots within the London area (see Timeline below). On a political level, London was incredibly tense. Fans of psychobilly (known as psychos) wanted none of this, or at the very least a break from the stress created by the political world. By establishing an unwritten rule that the music was to be apolitical, psychobilly music became a method of escape from the real world.
At the same time, the revival of the B-movie, particularly the return of horror movies, occurred. During the psychobilly scene, countless classic horror movies were released. These included noteworthy titles such as The Howling, The Shining, a remake of The Thing, Friday the 13th, and An American Werewolf in London (All 80s Movies). Psychos gravitated towards these movies due to their lack of seriousness, mindless gore, and enjoyed the throwback to the original B-movies of the 1950's. It is no coincidence that songs such as "Mutant Rock," "Ghost Train" and "Attack of the Zorchmen" appeared as these classless movies were appearing in theaters. By combining the political climate and movie releases, a music genre which had songs with no deep meaning and campy lyrics came to be (Downey, 2004, p 77-78). However, there was some dissent from the code. When the band Restless retired, their lead singer Mark Harman claimed that their music was too complex for psychos to actually understand ("Psychobilly Meltdown," 1988, p 12).
On a sonic level, psychobilly stems from a variety of different genres of music. While traces of glam, metal, and punk can be found in psychobilly, at its core, psychobilly emerged from rockabilly, particularly the neo-rockabilly movement London during the late 1970's (Brackenridge, 2007, p 13-15). The neo-rockabilly sound was too mild, mainstream, and had such a strict guideline towards lyrics that it kept people from expressing themselves or pushing the limits. Due to hostility from the rest of the neo-rockabilly movement, the mold was broken and the music genre psychobilly emerged ('The Birth of Psychobilly').
Psychobilly bands tended to share common characteristics. They generally included drums, a guitar and an upright bass. However, it was not uncommon for a band to exchange the upright bass for a bass guitar. The second common line up was with a drummer and two guitarists. Every band also has a singer, who may be an additional member or play an instrument themselves. Early band logos were often in the style of a classic rockabilly band with blocky shaken letters. Other bands would have their logos inspired by old horror movies. Words would be written with a scraggly outline or in the form of dripping goo as you would see on a cliched horror movie poster. The physical build of band members was varied, with a combination of smaller slimmer members, and often more burly members as well. However, the larger members were usually restricted to singing or playing the upright bass.
Bands tended to originate out of fans, and it was not uncommon for a die-hard fan who knew the songs incredibly well to fill in and eventually replace a drummer or a bassist. There was little separation between bands and their fans. They wore the same clothes, had the same behavior and generally were more concerned with having fun and their music heard than truly being adored. Before and after playing, band members would be in the crowd listening to other bands, and if you didn't recognize a face, they would blend in perfectly, making them indistinguishable from the average fan.
King Kurt was one of the bands that got psychobilly on its feet. King Kurt (which has no one named Kurt in it) was unique for many reasons. The first noticeable reason was its size. Aside from your standard team of three or four, King Kurt had six players. The band combined both common line-ups, giving it an upright bass player, two guitarists, as well as the traditional drummer and singer. King Kurt then proceeded to include a saxophone player as well. King Kurt's original lead singer was talentless, but due to friendship, the band decided to put more emphasis on backing vocals instead of having the lead singer carry the burden himself (Brackenridge, 2007, p 24). More notably than their lineup, King Kurt is known for its rambunctious antics that received tabloid attention. This is why they are perhaps one of the more well known bands to those unfamiliar with the psychobilly scene, and where their importance truly lies (Brackenridge , p. 23). King Kurt had a bad reputation for doing things that would make people question the band's stability. These included going on stage in dresses, dressed as Zulus, and playing drinking games on stage. Tabloids often accused them of mixing drugs or poisons into whatever they made people drink on stage, tossing dead animals into the crowds, and rampant sex occurring as they played. While nothing can be completely proven, many who attended concerts would likely say these rumors portray a fairly accurate depiction one of King Kurt's concerts (Brackenridge, p. 25).
King Kurt's behavior brought a great deal of attention to psychobilly, often being the closest thing to mainstream media coverage. The band became a topic of discussion as well as a method to attract many people to find out what exactly was going on. No one knew what they were going to do next, but everyone was talking about what they were hoping for and anticipating to be thrown at them.
Another highly influential band was The Sharks. The Sharks brought in elements of new wave music to their sound. While many bands had sharper lyrics with emphasis on horror movies or a mockery of life in what may seem like mindless rambling to an outsider, The Sharks took a different route. The Shark's first album Phantom Rockers (Downey, 2004, p. 80) was very self aware of who psychos were going to be, as shown in their lyrics. In the song "Take a Razor to Your Head," they clearly seek out those breaking away from neo-rockabilly into psychobilly (Downey, 2004, p. 77). It is perfectly clear what their intentions are as they sing, "When your mom says you look really nice, all dressed up like a ted, follow this cat's advice and take a razor to your head!" Other songs about endorsing a psychobilly lifestyle include "Moonstomp" and "We Say Yeah," making Phantom Rocker a series of anthems of what it is to be psychobilly.
Standing above all other bands, The Meteors are by far the most important; as they are the first psychobilly band to ever see the light of day (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 19). The Meteors are behind both the first and last major recording of the first psychobilly scene. The first being In Heaven and the last being Wreckin' Crew (p. 21). As a result, they have developed their own cult following of psychos known as "The Crazies" who have helped influence the scene as well.
Starting in the neo-rockabilly scene, the Meteors were quickly shunned for being too different. Excuses for exclusion from rockabilly concerts varied from the band having too extreme of a sound to having green hair ('The Birth of Psychobilly'). There were even early band members who were too afraid of what the band would become and fled as fast as they could (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 19). The Meteors are noted for searching for the purest form of psychobilly imaginable. As a result, fans have created the phrase "Only the Meteors are Pure Psychobilly" often abbreviated to 'OTMAPP' (p. 22). The Meteors are still around to this day, and due to their quest to keep and create the purest psychobilly imaginable, it is impossible to say if they have changed the expectations or the expectations are changing them.
While radio is the typical medium that introduces bands and genres, that is not the case for pschobilly. Psychobilly made its introduction in the form of film. The Meteors made this contribution through the short film appropriately titled Meteor Madness. The film appeared before the ska-rock movie known as Dance Craze (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 20). The film's excessive antics and wild beats would draw countless youth towards The Meteors and inspired them to continue exploring psychobilly. The success of the film led to the release of the single "Meteor Madness" that would be produced by Cheswick Records (p. 20). The Meteors then moved to Island Records, who recorded and produced the first full psychobilly LP, In Heaven (p. 21).
The Sharks, from 1982
While Island Records deserves credit for the creation of the first full psychobilly album, they are not the ones that kept psychobilly alive. Nervous Records, a label that specializes in rockabilly and psychobilly, produced the overwhelming majority of psychobilly records during the early 1980's. Any band that seemed appealing would be signed as fast as possible, and a single was most likely around the corner (Downey, 2004, p. 77). Roy Williams, a part time radio DJ, went on to found Nervous Records when he signed a rockabilly band known as The Jets ('About US'). A year later, Nervous had its first release, with the Polecats first album (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 58). Williams continued to "drag the scene forward, kicking and screaming" (p. 57). As a result, Williams worked towards signing countless bands. Almost every major psychobilly band from the scene, has at the very least, one single produced through Nervous.
When bands weren't recording with Nervous, you could often find them playing in a dive bar. But there was one place where all the psychos gathered and all the bands were eager to play. That place was Klub Foot. Starting in 1982, the Clarendon Hotel Ballroom was transformed into the psycho paradise known as Klub Foot (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 28). For years, the Clarendon would be filled with a new breed of rockabilly-punks every weekend causing as much havoc as one could imagine.
In its early days, psychobilly relied almost entirely on word of mouth to be spread throughout London (p. 53). If your friends did not know of it, the odds were that you did not either. This made psychobilly itself the topic of conversation at many concerts- what new bands were emerging, song releases, band drama were all discussed. Everyone wanted to know what was going on and it was the only way to find out. Roy Williams saw this gap and stepped in again creating a newsletter that would be passed around known as "Zorch News" allowing fans to keep up with psychobilly news that specifically related to bands involved with Nervous Records. Many psychos did not truly know the history of the music (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 14). There are a variety of reasons that early psychos were uneducated to the genre and the scene's past. The first is that those completely ignorant were brought in by Meteor Madness and jumped into the scene without any knowledge or introduction otherwise. Others became involved just out of curiosity when searching for the truth of what happens at a King Kurt concert. Another reason is that while the scene is generally a blending of many different cultures, punks had far less trouble transitioning due to both pace and the need for musicians to be more self sufficient (p. 50). Rockabilly fans were also snobby, stubborn, and narrow minded, but many eventually made the shift. Sometimes, the motivation was to get away from all the things wrong with rockabilly fans (p. 49). Those that made the change from rockabilly to psychobilly were, in general, those that were far more informed.
The psycho style stems from influence of its founding subcultures. This includes, but is not limited to punks, skinheads, rockabillies, and scooterists. While generally of a lower middle class, the class barrier was often broken, primarily by the younger crowds. People who left their homes for London would gravitate towards creating their own groups of scooter riding misfits would fit into the psychobilly scene perfectly. While psychobilly has normally been gender neutral, occasionally small cliques that consisted of only women would appear (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 52).
Psychobilly brought in people from a variety of subcultures. Many of these subcultures brought in aspects of their own styles. The result is a bizarre blend of fashion taking elements from each culture. Skinheads brought in things such as Doc Martens and pilot jackets (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 141). Punks brought in clothes such as the leather jacket and tighter clothing. The jacket would become a staple and it would not be uncommon for the jackets to have their sleeves removed (141). Beneath the jacket was often a band T-shirt or a tartan shirt taken from rockabillies, though these shirts were valued less for the romanticism and more for their durability (p. 141-142). Shoes were generally valued for their ability to dance in, so heavy boots, crepe and suede shoes were the standard (p. 142).
Psycho hair is known as 'the quiff' (Brackenridge, 2007, p.144). The quiff generally falls into three categories; the flat top, the pompadour, and the buzz cut. The pompadour or "pomp" is the hairstyle made famous by Elvis, where the hair is greased back but there is a puff in the front. The flat top is similar to a heightened buzz cut, often going higher up in the front. It usually relies on some sort of gel or pomade to be kept in place. The buzz cut is the most straightforward, keeping hair at its minimum size. However, like most hairstyles of the 1980s, things were taken to the extreme. People tried to get their hair as tall as possible and brought in streaks of strange colors (p. 145). In the early days, the base hair color was expected to be blonde, but later it moved to black (p. 145-147).
When it comes to hair and fashion, as a whole, it was unisex. This made a psychobilly concert a fairly gender egalitarian setting (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 144). However, there were additional liberties that women were allowed. Women also wore tight leggings, miniskirts, and even tighter clothes (p. 144). While women would often have quiffs, it was generally done with the hair curled up and held in place in the front. Many times, the hair would also hang on the sides, creating the famous "Betty Paige" look (p 145-147).
The little difference in clothing would then spread over to behavior. While women were expected to be more feminine the general behavior was not incredibly different. They enjoyed the same movies, did the same dancing, and wanted to escape from reality just as much as the men did. They were expected to be "one of the guys" and they were but being one of the guys wasn't particularly masculine, leaving little force to conform to stereotypically male behavior.
The last artifact of psycho style is the tattoo. Tattoos followed the same general notions as band designs, being highly influenced by the same movies. Common tattoos were images of the macabre nature such as bats, skulls, gravestones, as well as the occasional pin-up doll and band logo (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 147). Unfortunately, early tattoo artists were often unprofessional, resulting in many poor quality tattoos. In order to hide the shame of a shoddy tattoo, many psychos kept piling tattoos on top of each other, drowning out the low quality tattoos in high quality sleeves (p. 147-148).
The most influential of fans are those of The Meteors. These fans eventually took on the title known as "The Crazies" (Brackenridge, 2007, p. 19). The Crazies were a cult that followed The Meteors wherever they could whenever possible. Many of them came into existence during the early years when The Meteors were being kicked out of rockabilly clubs. The Crazies' biggest contribution was their dancing. Originally, the dancing was known as 'going mental'- this type of dancing eventually became known as 'stomping,' and then finally took on its official name: 'wrecking' (p. 19-20). Wrecking is a strange form of dance that can best be described as a combination of slam dancing, swing dancing, and fistfights. There was nothing more exciting and terrifying than accidentally getting sucked into a wrecking pit as everyone left was covered from head to toe in bruises.
The Meteors, photo from Kings of Psychobilly
From 1980 to 1983, a new group of rambunctious youth appeared all over London. Taking scraps from every other subculture imaginable, led by The Meteors and propped up by Nervous Records, the psychobilly scene was born. Whether sitting at home listening to an LP or wrecking in Klub Foot, psychos knew something special was happening, and they were right. By 1983, the scene had ended, but instead of fading into the dark, it took a different direction. Psychobilly had begun to spread outside of London to the rest of Europe and it would run wild through the 1980's. And those first few psychos sat back and watched, as it was the dawn of psychobilly.
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