June 30, 2012

The Origins of Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hell Cats

My parents when they first started dating.

Music is important to me. There's not a day that goes by that I don't listen to music. When I write, I always make a playlist to help put me in a certain mood. I'll listen to just about anything: punk, metal, goth, industrial, techno, rap, soul, pop, country, folk, and rock. Honestly, about the only thing I don't listen to is jazz--except for swing music.

But, man, the style I've always liked is rockabilly. The slapback sound and the driving beat. Cuffed jeans. White T-shirts with a pack of smokes rolled in the sleeve. Slicked hair. Sideburns. Leather jackets. Fast cars. Girls in tight sweaters. 

Rockabilly is a portmaneau of "rock" and "hillbilly," and began as kind of insult -- "Listen to those hillbillies trying to play rock music." The first written use of the word was probably a press release for Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" in the summer of 1956. While the Burnette Brothers did write a number in 1955 called "Rock Billy Boogie," they didn't cut it until several years later, so the honor of the first recorded song with rockabilly in the title belongs to the Hayden Thompson and Roy Orbinson number "Rockabilly Gal."

In 1956, the rockabilly sound went national with the release of three hit songs: "Folsom Prison Blues," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Heartbreak Hotel." Things started cooking and they burned hot until the start of the 1960's. Carl Perkins career was never the same after his car accident, no matter how hard he tried. Elvis was in the army. Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash. And poor Eddie Cochran died in the same car accident that nearly ruined Gene Vincent.

The music scene moved on.

But rockabilly never died. It's always made a comeback. The first was in the 1970s, thanks, in my opinion, to the brief flash in '68 when Elvis remembered he was Elvis Fucking Presley. Combined with movies like American Graffitti and television shows like Happy Days, people were suddenly interested in the music of the 1950s again. The renewed interest spawned a host of new bands who took the sound further: Robert Gordan, Rockpile (with Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe), The Stray Cats, and The Cramps. They in turn inspired other bands that would lead to other revivals.

My father, off-duty in the Army.
But truthfully, for me, it all started with my parents. Espeically my father. He's always been a die-hard Elvis fan -- my earliest musical memory is Elvis Presley. When he was growing up in Kentucky, everyone called him "The E.P. of Whitley City." He met my mother at an Elvis movie. Hell, sometimes I think the whole reason he joined the Army was because Elvis was in the Army.

My father and I have never been close. We've never had a whole lot in common. Except for rockabilly. I suppose if you were to attempt to psychoanalyse it, my own fixation is probably some subconscious attempt to garner his favor and indirectly his love. To artificially engender the relationship we never had.

Maybe. Probably.

But I don't think that's all exactly. I'm sure it's part of it -- I'm self-aware enough to both realize and admit it -- but there were a whole host of other things that came together for me, creating a certain mystique and making rockabilly the epitome of cool.

I remember watching Happy Days as kid. Fonzie was the coolest and lead me to The Lords of Flatbrush. That film in turn lead me to even older films, stuff like The Wild OneThunder Road, and Rebel Without A Cause. Elvis lead me to other musicians, better musicians -- is there a more tragic loss to music than Buddy Holly? When we finally got cable, it just happened to coincide with Showtime's Rebel Highway series, remakes of classic 50's era exploitation films (most of which are now available on Netflix streaming. When I went to college, a band named the Swingrays happened to be playing in Dunn Meadow, part of an event called Cultural Shock. I turned 21 when the Blue Bird Nightclub was still having Cigartini Night every Monday, and, before I knew it, I was driving up to Indy to see groups like Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars, Josie Kreuzer, and The Legendary Shack Shakers.

Now, the hair and the sideburns are gone. While I still wear blue jeans and white t-shirts, the jeans aren't cuffed and the sleeves aren't rolled. I'm not as wrapped up in the scene now -- I couldn't tell you who's playing and where. But the love is still there.

And that love is the driving force behind the forthcoming Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hell Cats. So, get ready to break your jazz records and cue up the slap bass, leave the fedora to rot in your closet and reach for your leather, leave the .38 in the lockbox and sharpen your switchblade.

There's gonna be a fucking rumble.




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