Gravediggers’ Ball – A History Psychobilly

By Jason Ahlquist

The Scene is twenty years old and never took off with any real force. But a new movement of horror-rockabillies is clawing its way up through the internet and micro-distribution networks to scare the life out of big-money music.

They just can’t kill psychobilly.

It’s been festering and mutating throughout the western world’s music scene for over two decades. Now it’s building infernal temples in Asia. Just when you think you know the face of the beast, psychobilly reveals a hidden tendril, plugged into a new musical genre. Like an alien brain-slug insinuating itself into the musical metamind of America and Europe.

Origins: The Chimera

Psychobilly’s deep origins are somewhat mysterious. Its mother is certainly the elder god of ’50’s Rock n’ Roll – replete with the sound and imagery of Elvis. You can can even hear the Appalachian mysteries of ancient country and western. This alone would classify it as nothing but a revival movement.

But let’s not forget the corruptions of the two fathers: punk rock and horror movies.

I don’t care what anyone tries to tell you – without the dominance of these two it ain’t psychobilly – ’cause it ain’t a fusion of musical sounds.
It’s a mutation.
A monster.
The first stirrings of the psychobilly meme complex came both appropriately and ironically from the Man in Black himself. Johnny Cash’s 1976 “One Piece at a Time” had one fleeting reference to a car built Frankenstein style entirely from stolen parts. He called the car a “Psychobilly Cadillac”. Around the same time, a seemingly different musical world was forming. Death Punk (sometimes referred to as Death Rock) first appeared on the American West Coast in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and centered around the Los Angeles bands Voodoo Church, Burning Image, 45 Grave, Kommunity FK, Christian Death, the Superheroines, etc. The term psychobilly was later used by The Cramps on show flyers to describe the punk and rockabilly fusion that made their sound. And of course there was the thunder of The Misfits.

All of this happened was currently happening in America. The vortex of influences twisted around for a few years. Each part exerting influence on a number of musical movements – goth rock, industrial, post punk.

But across the Atlantic, these influences spawned something else.

In 1980 The Meteors formed in South London. The trio frankenstiened their ideas together from three different bodies: punk, rockabilly and horror and science fiction fandom.

Their first live show at a rockabilly night at The Sparrow Hawk in north London was a disaster. This was a rockabilly crowd and they were too punk for most of the audience. They were heckled off the stage. The crowd may as well have had pitchforks and torches.

But the strong survive through adaptation. The Meteors began to play outside of rockabilly venues and eventually developed a loyal following – their own scene.

Because of lead singer P. Paul Fenech’s habit of spitting blood Kiss style at performances, many London club owners feared that they would inspire trouble and refused to book them. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Meteors would insist that their shows be “a politics and religion free zone” in order to focus on having a good time and avoid disputes between fans. Because of this example, there are hardly any political themes in psychobilly music today.

It was the true birth. The moment all the influences aligned and psychobilly was set loose upon the Earth. But it wasn’t going to be a gargantuan flash like other musical movements. Psychobilly creeps.

With the exception of the West London nightclub Klubfoot, psychobilly had a hard time of it in the Eighties. Fans often had to organize “Psychobilly Weekenders” where many bands are featured on one bill to attract many attendees from all over. The first weekenders were organized in the UK in the mid-80s. They still happen in California, Texas and Japan.

Despite the lack of instant success, the sounds and ideas behind psychobilly continued to draw new followers. Eventually it spread through most of Europe, Canada and parts of the United States with bands like the Sharks and Batmobile. Later the Necromantix, Demented Are Go, the Klingonz, Mad Sin and Asmodeus followed.

Alan Wilson, founder of The Sharks was around in the prenatal days. He’d been in many rockabilly bands since the mid Seventies and is considered a guiding light in both neo-rockabilly and psychobilly.

“Psychobilly as a whole has evolved over the years and is, in my opinion, now much less ‘billy’ than it was originally. Back in the early days there was a Rockabilly scene from which came bands like The Blue Cats who were really wild. They were very ‘billy’ but you couldn’t really say they were Psychobilly. The term Neo-Rockabilly started to be used to describe such bands. It’s a matter of perspective too. If you are slap bang into retro rockabilly, you might consider say the Blue Cats or the Space Cadets as psychobilly, just because they are outside of what is traditionally acceptable to retro rockabillies. However if you’re a die-hard Demented Are Go fan, then The Blue Cats might seem pretty much a straight rockabilly band to you.”

Alan was also the publisher of the Deathrow ‘zine that covered the scene for many years, making him a firsthand chronicler of psychobilly’s ups and downs.

“In the early days it was all quite shambolic with maybe just a few small labels, then gradually it became more organised. That’s when I got out to pursue a production career. When I came back to it in about 1992 it was very different. Lots of the older bands had gone, lots of new ones had become quite big. There were more promoters, many more labels and a string of regular venues. A lot of the older bands came back. It’s quite amazing how Psychobilly just keeps going.”

Today, many of these bands still record and tour and are joined by a number of newer bands like Tiger Army, The Koffin Kats and the Rocketz.

Today: The Cyborg

It’s the 21st century. The future is here. Many of the horror and sci-fi ideas from movies that inspired psychobilly are real issues. Psychobilly is ready for the 21st century. Suddenly all of the forces that have set siege to the big-money music industry have become assets for the lurking beast.

Chris Anderson’s article “The Long Tail” (WIRED Magazine October 2004), describes the emerging media economy as becoming radically different from the previous model.

For the most part, in the old model we could only buy what the big labels gave us. They made their decisions based on a “hit” model. The Hit model emerged from the industry’s inability to give everyone, everywhere exactly what they wanted.

We’ve suffered through decades of lowest-common-denominator “rock stars” not because there were hidden masses out there that actually like the sludge, but because it made distribution and marketing realistic for the business end.Enter the MP3, the CD burner, PayPal and of course the internet.

Suddenly all the rules change.

Ancient bonds that held subcultures in their pits are removed.

Anderson writes in his article that if you look at the streaming charts of online music services such as Rhapsody, not only are their top songs streamed at least once a month, but all of the music at the bottom is played by end-users at least as often. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks, those songs get at least a few fans. Graph it out and it looks like a long dinosaur tail with the little “non-hit” songs at the end and the really popular ones near the ass of the bronto.

What’s truly amazing is when you add up the sheer numbers. The raw totals from the middle to the end of the tail where the “non-hits” live is larger than front where Brittney Spears lives.

Put a dollar sign (or pound or yen – remember we’re talking online global here) and eventually you have a dinosaur choked off by its own tail.

So what does this mean for psychobilly?

Maybe everything.

Consider that the movement has a few generations of underground street cred. Consider that it has appeal to punk, retro and even country sensibilities (listen to “Psychobilly Boogie” by the Kentucky Headhunters). Consider that the new psychobilly scene has a lot in common with the gangbusters indie horror scene and it’s only a matter of time before they mate. Consider that psychobilly is now getting economic love from brick and mortar retailers with dot-com era distribution chains like Hot Topic.

Consider that all of these elements have coordinates dotting the depth of the long tail.

“In my opinion,” said Ryan Davis, head of America’s largest psychobilly niche label, “the current state of psychobilly is healthy and tolerant. More and more bands are blending different forms of music into their psychobilly. It’s beyond rockabilly and punk these days especially in America, although both of those styles of music still play a large part in the majority of psychobilly these days. But still, you will find elements of hardcore, ska, metal, goth, industrial, psychedelic, and even indie rock in some psychobilly today…and that is encouraging to me—I like to see psychobilly develop and incorporate more influences.

“Within the last year, our online sales have picked up considerably. There are a few factors for this…one is that the psychobilly scene in America continues to grow…another factor is that psychobilly fans in Europe, Asia, and Australia are beginning to realize that American psychobilly scene is now home to some pretty top-quality bands. Creating more awareness for our bands has also been helped by the retail chain Hot Topic who have been seriously instrumental in getting more psychobilly to the kids. A lot of the kids who buy our releases at Hot Topic stores then go to our websites to check out more info on our bands and label. Additionally, HairBall8 Records has upped its online advertising which has increased the overall awareness for our psychobilly bands.

For the last several years there’s been a tendency Japanese psycho bands have for blending quite a bit of hardcore punk into their psychobilly. Bands like Battle of Ninjamanz, Spiderz and Mad Mongols would be prime examples. There’s also a great old-school psychobilly band in Japan called The Starlite Wranglers who are more influenced by roots music and early 80s psychobilly. Japan has a massive scene that culminates at the Tokyo Big Rumble, a huge psychobilly weekender put on by Big Rumble Productions each year.

In Greg Bear’s 1999 science fiction novel, Darwin’s Radio (Randomhouse), scientists discover ancient diseases encoded in the DNA of all humans. They were always there, dotted along protein chains that tell us what we are – waiting like sleeping monsters for the condition to be right for global pandemic.

Is psychobilly an example of a sleeping scene that has been encoded in humanities musical metamind? Is the condition and temperature in musical economics just right for it – along with other hidden but long-lived sounds to crawl out of their holes in the longtail, mate with one another, wracking the industry with the illnesses of rebirth? It’s hard to tell. But something is rising forth from the muck.

Other Resources:

The Wrecking Pit

Psychobilly US (psychobilly label associated with Hairball 8)

The Psychobilly Sickness (A Documentary on Psychobilly)

Alan Wilson’s record label

Hairball 8 Records

Deathrow: The Chronicles of Psychobilly (book collection of the Deathrow ‘zine)

The Meteors

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