Psychobilly, punkabilly, cowpunk, horrorbilly…call it what you will, but this strange phenomenon of lewd, crude, rude, tattooed, spittin’, cursin’, quiff-wearin’, ’59 Caddy-drivin’, horror-lovin’, wreckin’ zombies has been popping up here, there, and virtually everywhere! Cruising the drive-ins, gobbling up at the local greasy spoon, slamming at punk shows, and hanging out at vintage car shows and tattoo expos are just a few of the many activities in which “psychos” (as this unusual species is commonly called) may partake. Hell, walking down the street, you might even see the quintessential psycho hellcat. He may be a cross between James Dean and Sid Vicious with a two-toned quiff, wearing creepers and a studded biker jacket with “Demented Are Go” painted on the back. And perhaps, the inked retro dolly on his arm could be Bettie Page’s twin or she might even have Marilyn Monroe-platinum tresses, wearing a vintage dress and fishnets or a cherry red halter top, leopard-print capri pants, and stiletto pumps. Whatever image comes to mind, here is the low-down on the history and culture of the psychobilly ho-down that you know and love today.
On wikipedia.com, “psychobilly” is defined as “a genre of music generally described as a mix between British punk rock of the 1970s and the American rockabilly of the 1950s.” The actual term “psychobilly” is said to have been coined by Johnny Cash in his ’76 tune “One Piece At a Time”, about a “Psychobilly Cadillac”. That same year, The Cramps began billing themselves as “psychobilly” on flyers promoting their earliest shows. However, The Cramps do not typify modern-day psychobilly and, in fact, do not align themselves with the subculture. Like it or not, though, they are a pivotal influence on many of today’s bands.
Psychobilly music typically uses a double bass, rather than the standard electric bass, with fast guitar and heavy use of snare drums. Lyrics are most often driven by vignettes of zombies, spooks, ghouls, monsters, fast hearses, horror flicks, sex, cemeteries, and good time rock ‘n roll. Although generally thought of as an intrinsically “American” subculture movement, with its roots firmly planted in ’50s rock ‘n roll, psychobilly, as it is known today, goes back to 1980 London with the formation of The Meteors and continues to be more popular in Europe than in the US, even today.
The Meteors are the first documented band of the psychobilly genre to incorporate the use of the double bass, as well as the whole modern psychobilly concept, general style, and apolitical stance. The Klubfoot went into business as the Holy Land of British psychobilly nightlife in 1982, the same year Demented Are Go formed in London and proved to be one of the biggest influences on psychobilly bands nowadays. After Klubfoot shut down, psychobilly seemed to almost disappear until the early ’90s with the rise of the Reverend Horton Heat and his “Psychobilly Freakout”, as well as outfits like Mad Sin, Klingonz, etc. Since then, it has continued to gain more and more notariety, particularly with the Nekromantix, Horrorpops, and Tiger Army (truthfully, the latter two being a bit too poppy for my taste). Other great bands of today: Calavera, The Van Orsdels, Thee Merry Widows, The Deadutantes, 7 Shot Screamers, and more.
At any psychobilly show, you might see some dancing… only, it’s not your average dancing. That would be what’s called “wrecking”. According to wreckingpit.com, wrecking is more like a demented hybrid of “slam-dancing and freestyle wrestling”. It’s basically the semi-official psycho happy-dance, hence the Nekromantix song, “Struck By a Wrecking Ball”.
Baffled about Betties? Confused about Caddies? Have no clue what a quiff is? Never fear, the Psychobilly Mini-Glossary is here! Here are just a few little common “psychobilly-isms”, decoded and defined.
- Betties: Ladies, most often of the rockabilly and psychobilly persuasion, who emulate ’50s pinup queen Bettie Page, particularly with the long, wavy, jet-black hair and supershort “fetish” bangs.
- Caddy: Cadillac
- Hellcat: Term of endearment or admiration among fellow psychobillies.
- Psycho: Someone who is into psychobilly music and identifies with the subculture. Also used to describe psychobilly in short.
- Psychobilly: Genre of music combining raw old school punk and fast rockabilly with horror-themed imagery and lyrics. Also called punkabilly, cowpunk, horrorbilly, etc.
- Quiff: Quintessential psycho hairstyle, primarily worn by guys, which is something of a cross between a mohawk, a flat-top, and a pompadour.
- Wrecking: Form of slam-dancing at a typical psychobilly show. Often described as a mix between “slam-dancing and freestyle wrestling”.
The 13 Essential Psychobilly Albums
Here, in no particular order, are the 13 must-have albums for fine, upstanding psychos… some new music, some old. Note: Many albums listed below are indeed not technically considered “psychobilly” per se, but in this writer’s humble opinion, are crucial to any psycho’s music collection and need not be stereotypically psychobilly.
- The Cramps: Songs the Lord Taught Us
- Reverend Horton Heat: Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em
- The Misfits: Static Age
- Social Distortion: Mommy’s Little Monster
- The Essential Johnny Cash” double-disc album
- Cult of the Psychic Fetus: Funeral Home Sessions
- Cult of the Psychic Fetus: She Devil
- Demented Are Go: Satan’s Rejects
- 7 Shot Screamers: Keep the Flame Alive
- Nekromantix: Curse of the Coffin
- “Rockabilly Riot!” compilation
- Thee Merry Widows’ self-titled EP
- Stray Cats: either Built For Speed or Rock This Town will do
For an excellent, extensive resource on psychobilly, go to www.wreckingpit.com.
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