Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Psychobilly.
When punk and rockabilly had a baby, the little bugger wasn’t pretty. Called psychobilly, the greasy mutant lovechild and its birth were both figuratively incestuous and totally inevitable.
According to most rock ’n’ roll histories, Eisenhower-era hillbilly rebels like Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, and Jerry Lee Lewis were the Johnny Rottens of their day. Recognizing the kinship, many of the first-generation U.K. punks nicked ’50s fashions and hairstyles, and their simple three-chord bashing harked back to rock’s early days—before everyone grew beards and started singing about politics and feelings and other crap.
Psychobilly’s official place, date, and time of birth are points of debate, but two bands generally get credit for the musical midwifery. Only one of them, enduring British trio The Meteors, accepts the honor, and while that group certainly pioneered psychobilly as it became known and codified in early-’80s Britain, there’s no denying the importance of the other, The Cramps.
Spawned in the mid-’70s, when an Ohio oddball born Erick Purkhiser picked up a hitchhiking guitarist and fellow Sacramento State student named Kristy Wallace, The Cramps was arguably the first band to Frankenstein together punk, rockabilly, and trashy B-movie imagery, the three essential elements of psychobilly. Except Purkhiser and Wallace were too clever, sexy, funny, and eclectic in their tastes to be shoehorned into any stylistic box.
By the time they landed in New York City, they’d renamed themselves Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach and laid the groundwork for a sound that would grind up and regurgitate all of their influences. Rockabilly was one, but Lux and Ivy were also hardcore collectors of doo-wop and garage-rock records, and their passion for mid-century American low culture wasn’t limited to obscure off-brand Elvises.
To be certain, The Cramps didn’t invent the classic psychobilly sound. They played with equal parts distortion and twang and never employed the all-important upright bass. But they may have given the music its name. Legend has it that during their early days performing at venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, they used the term on promo posters. It comes from the 1976 Johnny Cash hit “One Piece At A Time,” which fittingly tells the story of an obsessed GM employee who slowly steals parts from the factory until he’s able to build a “psychobilly Cadillac.”
Like fellow CBGB vets the Ramones, The Cramps peaked early and fell into a pattern of repeating themselves, sometimes with diminishing returns. They never made a bad album, but their first two—the fast and fuzzy Songs The Lord Taught Us (1980) and creepy, crawly Psychedelic Jungle (1981)—stand as their best. They recorded the former with ex-Big Star singer Alex Chilton at Sun Studio in Memphis, where Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Roy Orbison cut their essential ’50s sides. With its mix of killer originals (“TV Set,” “Garbageman”) and covers of forgotten garage and rockabilly nuggets (“Strychnine,” “Sunglasses After Dark”), Songs The Lord Taught Us provides the blueprint for every record The Cramps would release through 2003’s Fiends Of Dope Island, their final proper album before Lux’s death in 2009.
In the late ’70s, as punk was happening in New York City and London, a rockabilly revival was also underway in the U.K. It was from this patently nostalgic scene that The Meteors founder P. Paul Fenech arose with a distinctly new and British take on vintage American rock. Fenech couldn’t relate to songs about high school or hot rods, so the singer and guitarist wrote about death, zombies, aliens, serial killers, and other stuff that’s since become psychobilly’s requisite subject matter.
With the 1981 full-length debut, In Heaven, The Meteors gave the world its first proper psychobilly album. Compared to the jacked-up racket made by many of today’s bands, In Heaven sounds tame, and it’s not always radically different from the neobilly fare being put forth by groups like The Polecats (featuring future Morrissey collaborator Boz Boorer on guitar). But the combination of faster tempos, edgier subject matter, and scratchy, screechy vocals (some from bassist and co-songwriter Nigel Lewis, who left in 1982) gave tunes like “Shout So Loud,” “Maniac,” and “Psycho For Your Love” enough attitude to signal the start of something new.
In some respects, the first wave of psychobilly was similar to 2 Tone ska, another U.K. movement that involved punk kids repurposing decades-old music and culture from across the Atlantic. One major difference is that psychobilly was staunchly anti-political, and it’s remained so. That’s why a group like The Living End, a popular Australian punkabilly trio that’s half Stray Cats and half The Clash, doesn’t qualify.
While psychobilly didn’t have a definitive record label, like 2 Tone did, the scene did have a headquarters. Located at the Clarendon public house in London’s Hammersmith district, Klub Foot was the go-to nightspot for early psychobillies, or psychos, who dressed precisely as their music sounded. They paired greaser-style leather jackets and cuffed-up jeans with creepers and Dr. Martens boots and topped off their ensembles with brightly colored wedge hairdos that looked like mohawks crossed with pompadours. They even had their own form of slam-dancing called wrecking.
Most Klub Foot bands stuck to a strict formula of slapped-on double bass; brittle, echoing guitar; and vocals imbued with shrieks and hiccups of the Elvis and Gene Vincent variety. Many of the groups heard on the essential Stomping At The Klub Foot series released by ABC Records in the mid-’80s are fairly interchangeable, but a few stand out. One of the best was Torment. Led by singer-guitarist Simon Brand—whose nasal, talking vocal style and uncommonly cerebral lyrics are even more memorable than his towering quiff—the Bristol trio released a string of classic LPs on the Nervous label, maybe the closest psychobilly and neobilly had to a 2 Tone.
On the title track from Torment’s excellent 1986 debut, Psyclops Carnival, Brand references the devil not for silly shock value, but rather to convey some of the inner-turmoil also heard on tunes like “Nightmare,” “Time To Think,” and “Head Driven Sinner.” (Such songs might have been evidence of the mental-health struggles that would lead Brand to suicide in 1994.)
Before forming Torment, Brand played guitar in Frenzy, who took a more lighthearted approach to mental anguish (see: “Schizophrenic Emotions”) on the band’s excellent debut, Hall Of Mirrors. Heading up Frenzy was singer and bassist Steve Whitehouse, who’d previously thumped for another seminal U.K. outfit, The Sharks. Despite their brief initial run and somewhat traditional ’50s-style sound, The Sharks left their mark with 1983’s Phantom Rockers, which included the anthem “Take A Razor To Your Head,” a tutorial for psychos looking to distance themselves from the pompadour-rocking Teddy Boy subculture associated with more conventional rockabilly.
There was more colorful, cartoonish fun to be had with Guana Batz. Established in 1982, this poppy, punk Feltham foursome featured the indelible Pip Hancox, a tatted-up, bleach-blonde amalgam of Elvis and Billy Idol. The first Batz long-player, 1984’s Held Down At Last, is another must-own, and their string of independent chart hits—among them a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”—made them one of the scene’s most visible bands. Now based in California, the Batz are one of the few OG psycho acts still gigging, though they haven’t released new music in decades.
Given psychobilly’s peculiar look and sound, it’s no surprise that most of the first-wave U.K. bands failed to achieved much commercial success. One exception was King Kurt, who cracked the British Top 40 with 1983’s politically incorrect “Destination Zululand,” issued on the seminal New Wave label Stiff. Some psychobilly purists quibble over whether King Kurt was psychobilly, since the band played with saxophone and an electric bass and favored more of an irreverent take on good-time ’50s rock ’n’ roll, but regardless of classification, 1983’s Ooh Wallah Wallah is a tremendously entertaining album.
As with any style of music linked to a subculture, psychobilly has its share of purists. If there’s one band they can all agree on, it’s still The Meteors. With Fenech at the helm, plugging away as the lone original member, the group has released more albums—and cycled through more drummers and bassists—than anyone can count. Fenech isn’t shy about talking up his place in history, and in 1988, he and the band released an album whose title has become a rallying cry for fans: Only The Meteors Are Pure Psychobilly.
In its infancy, psychobilly resembled both of its parents, rockabilly and punk, more or less equally. As the ’80s wore on, though, it followed more in the footsteps of the latter, growing louder, faster, and more ridiculous. One of the first bands to crank the distortion and play at berserker speed was Demented Are Go!, a gang of warped Welshmen whose 1986 debut, In Sickness & In Health, is said to have launched psychobilly’s second wave.
The album opens with a cover of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” wherein singer Mark “Sparky” Phillips growls the opening “Weeeell” like a chain-smoking demon fighting laryngitis with whisky. Sparky dives into the lyrics with the same gonzo gusto, changing “She’s the queen of all the teens” to “She’s the girl of my wet dreams.” So it goes on In Sickness, an unholy marriage of breakneck punk, shock-rock-abilly, and, on tunes like “Pickled And Preserved,” jokey country-western.
Despite various lineup changes and hiatuses, Demented Are Go! has kept up the same shtick ever since. Its most recent album, Welcome Back To Insanity Hall, landed in 2012, and with tunes such as “Retard Whore” and “Devil Says Kill,” it’s a fine reminder of everything awesome and irksome about the group. In small doses, the campy grind-house imagery, crude sex jokes, and almost metallic galloping are good for a laugh. But a little goes a long way.
By the late ’80s, psychobilly had begun to spread throughout Europe, and 1987 saw the formation of second-wave stalwarts Mad Sin. The Berlin group has been churning out raucous, heavily punk-influenced records for more than a quarter-century, and while frontman Köfte DeVille isn’t as distinctive a demonic crooner as DAG’s Sparky, his voice is easier to stomach, and Mad Sin’s pummeling is more palatable, if less unique. With bits of ska and spaghetti Western, 1996’s God Save The Sin is the place to begin in the group’s extensive discography.
Boasting nearly Mad Sin’s longevity—and perhaps a touch more personality—are Nekromantix. The Danish crew formed in 1989 and released four albums before flirting with mainstream success in 2002, when they linked up with Rancid singer Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat label for Return Of The Loving Dead.
Nekromantix is yet another psychobilly act that’s essentially a vehicle for one artist, in this case Kim Nekroman, who sings his gothy ragers while wailing away on a coffin-shaped bass he himself designed. The group doesn’t really break any new ground, but Nekroman brings the heavy without sacrificing the humor and hooks, and that, plus their musicianship, has endeared them to punks, rockabillies, and even fans Rob Zombie, who Nekromantix toured with in 2009.
The other major band often mentioned in conversations about second-wave psychobilly is The Reverend Horton Heat, the popular Dallas trio fronted by singer, songwriter, and ace guitarist Jim Heath. Much as The Cramps couldn’t be pigeonholed, the good Reverend has always checked a number of boxes. Heath self-identifies more as rockabilly than psychobilly, despite the single “Psychobilly Freakout,” a highlight of the band’s 1990 debut, Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em.
That album arrived via Sub Pop, and for a while, The Reverend Horton Heat benefited from the alt-rock boom that helped launch labelmates Nirvana. With 1996’s It’s Martini Time, RHH edged ever so slightly toward swing and the retro cocktail culture celebrated in the film Swingers, released that same year. The trio’s wheelhouse, though, is the kind of wiseacre punkabilly found on 2014’s Rev, a record about cars, zombies, and chicks.
Nekromantix wasn’t the first psychobilly group to sign with Hellcat or start selling T-shirts at Hot Topic. That would be Tiger Army, the dark, introspective California emo-billy band led by singer and guitarist Nick 13. Tiger Army is probably the most famous and most divisive third-wave psychobilly act—both distinctions resulting from the group’s sad-vampire lyrics and pop-punk crossover appeal. Much of the hate aimed at the Army is unfair, since Nick 13 is no poser. He grew up on Gene Vincent and The Meteors but also The Cure and The Smiths. On 2004’s excellent Tiger Army III: Ghost Tigers Rise, he combined all of his influences in ways that made sense to him.
Ghost Tigers Rise stands as the band’s high-water mark, though 2007’s Music From Regions Beyond gets an A for ambition—especially “As The Cold Rain Falls,” Nick 13’s attempt at a New Order dance jam. Tiger Army toured sporadically in the early ’10s, but Nick 13 has mostly focused on his country-leaning solo material, which is also worth checking out. Earlier this year, Tiger Army announced plans to record its fifth album, so the conversation regarding this group is bound to continue.
That Tiger Army nearly broke big in the early ’00s shows how much things had changed for psychobilly in America since the late ’80s, when the criminally overlooked Buffalo trio The Quakes were forced to relocate to London to find any semblance of an audience. When the group released its sophomore album, 1990’s brilliant Voice Of America, it fell on deaf ears, as did the New Wave-influenced follow-up, 1993’s New Generation, which includes a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Behind the Wheel.”
Both of those Quakes albums have the cool, angsty vibe of Tiger Army’s best stuff, and all these years later, Quakes leader Paul Roman is still making the rounds and releasing solid albums like 2012’s Planet Obscure. (Quakes bassist Rob Peltier, it should be noted, played on Tiger Army’s eponymous 1999 debut.)
If Roman was ever going to reach a mass American audience, the mix of New Wave and rockabilly might have been his best bet. That combo worked for early-’80s hitmakers Stray Cats—definitely not psycho but respected by many in the scene—and more recently, it’s paid dividends for HorrorPops, the Nekromantix offshoot fronted by Kim Nekroman’s wife, Patricia Day.
Drawing from Blondie and Siouxsie And The Banshees as much as psychobilly (and perhaps the long-forgotten one-and-done British band The Deadbeats, who combined Phil Spector pop and punk rockabilly on 1985’s On Tar Beach), HorrorPops have toured stadiums in Europe, landed songs on MTV, and played the Warped Tour in the States. Real-deal psychos probably don’t wreck to 2004’s Hell Yeah!, but it’s a rare gateway from Gwen Stefani to the Guana Batz, and it’s great.
Both Nekromantix and HorrorPops are now based in Los Angeles, where a longstanding custom-car culture and sizeable Latino fan base have helped create America’s most thriving psychobilly scene. In September, when throngs of dudes with chain wallets and chicks with Bettie Page haircuts marinate themselves in Pabst Blue Ribbon at the Long Beach Psyclone Psychobilly and Rockabilly Weekender, U.K. legends Frantic Flintstones and Guana Batz will share the stage with numerous local acts, including the punkish Blackjackits, the trad-leaning Tone Slingers, the blisteringly fast Wreckin Katz, and the R-rated San Diego-born silly-billies Barnyard Ballers, who’ve been serving up metal guitars and redneck shtick since the ’90s.
In SoCal and elsewhere, psychobilly often overlaps with tiki culture, lounge music, exotica, and surf rock—all of which pair well with pulpy film-noir and horror imagery. Billing itself as “voodoobilly,” as well as the “scariest band in the world,” the enduring San Diego group Deadbolt gets props from psychos for its reverb-soaked guitars and unsettling spoken-word tales of murderous truckers and Zulu curses. To describe the band’s 1996 tune “The Interview” as “Tarantino-esque” doesn’t quite do the twisted humor justice.
Most psychobilly bands aren’t as creative, and as the music and subculture have infested respectable nations from Brazil (home of defunct ’90s-era thrashers Os Catalepticos) to Japan (check out Tokyo’s great Psyclocks), it’s left behind plenty of samey acts with derivative names and standard-issue wardrobes who are content to rip through 12-bar-blues progressions at ludicrous speed. It’s genre music, and that doesn’t always breed innovation.
Bands that distinguish themselves by pushing boundaries do so at the risk of alienating scenesters, though maybe they ought to stop worrying about such things. After all, if only The Meteors are pure psychobilly, everyone else is free to experiment.
1. The Cramps, Songs The Lord Taught Us (1980)
As Lux howls on “Garbageman,” it’s “one-half hillbilly and one-half punk.” It’s not “pure” psychobilly, but purity is overrated.
2. The Meteors, In Heaven (1981)
The first real psychobilly album is also one of the best.
3. Various Artists, Stomping At The Klub Foot, Vol. 1-5 (1984-88)
Recorded live at psychobilly’s first-wave HQ, this LP series features all the early greats, including Restless, The Coffin Nails, and those Dutch masters Batmobile.
4. Guana Batz, Held Down At Last (1985)
Their name roughly means “bat-shit bats,” and in light of “Can’t Take The Pressure” and “King Rat,” that kind of makes sense.
5. Torment, Psyclops Carnival (1986)
Psychobillly meets psychoanalysis as Simon Brand takes the old Meteors decree to “Go mental!” to a whole other level.
6. Demented Are Go! In Sickness & In Health (1986)
“Sickness” being the optimum word. It’s loud, ugly, infectious fun from psychobilly’s second-wave champs.
7. The Quakes, Voice Of America (1990)
If Brian Setzer had been a little less virtuosic and a whole lot angrier, The Stray Cats might’ve made this record a decade earlier.
8. Mad Sin, God Save The Sin (1996)
The upright bass takes a nasty beating on this set of grabby ragers from Germany’s second-wave kings.
9. Various Artists, Hotter Than Hell: An Injection Of Psychobilly Madness (1998)
One of the first comps to highlight the American scene, this CD features the bawdy Barnyard Ballers, the terrifying Deadbolt, and four bands with “hell” puns in their names.
10. Nekromantix, Return Of The Loving Dead (2002)
Tiger Army isn’t for everyone, but it’s hard to argue with the gothy, poppy charge of these great Danes.