(This article orginally appeared on Yahoo! Contributor Network in December 2012.)
Psychobilly has long been the red-headed stepchild of rock and roll – with its roots in ’70s punk and ’50s rockabilly, but much cheekier than its parental counterparts, it has lurked on the perimeter of mainstream music. With its retro hot rod and leather jacket sensibility, and its love of all things horror, it’s the “Night of the Living Dead” of modern music. Or, you could say, it’s like your parents’ Halloween. Or punk with an upright bass. Call it what you will, but it’s a genre that hasn’t been taken too seriously, even by those who play it and listen to it. And quite unfairly, one could argue.
While 70s punk legends The Cramps may be recognized as one of the forerunners of modern psychobilly, the genre’s real roots go farther back, in such traditional genres as rockabilly, country and even the blues, making it a uniquely modern take on traditional American roots music. And that’s why despite the campy zombie makeup, fake blood and odes to zombie prom queens, the genre deserves a little respect.
To put it in simplest terms, psychobilly is rockabilly or even country music played at punk rock tempo. While some newer to the psychobilly crowd may relate more to the puk side philosophy of faster, louder, harder, established bands leave no doubt as to the importance of the rockabilly side – and how closely it connects to the punk form of music most would consider on opposite ends of the spectrum. According to Rockabilly/Psychobilly Info blog, Sinner, vocalist and drummer for The Chop Tops said, “The people who say we don’t play rockabilly don’t know their musical history. Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash – those were the original punks.”
Johnny Cash? To those outside the psycho scene that may seem surprising, but consider this: not only do many songs have a twangy-guitar, slap-bass, country influence, but Cash himself coined the term psychobilly (via the lyrics of songwriter Wayne Kemp) on his song “One Piece at a Time,” which referred to a “psychobilly Cadillac.” And so the term was born, even if the music didn’t evolve till later.
While most psychobilly bands tend to avoid politics or anything serious, the lack of pretentiousness is a refreshing break from the hardcore punks or politically correct, top 40 rock. Much like its rockabilly forerunners, psychobilly is about playing music and having a good time. The relatively small scene size contributes a sense of family at various concerts, tattoo festivals, and vintage car shows, as well as the friendliness of people in the scene. While there are always a lot of other folks mixed in at these events, the psychobilly “tribe” is instantly recognizable, with their 50s inspired pencil skirts, cuffed jeans, leather jackets, victory-rolled hairstyles, sideburns, wedge cuts (a cross between a pompadour and a mohawk) and tattoos…lots of tattoos. Usually horror-inspired with the old Universal monsters being a perennial favorite.
So if you love your parents’ (or grandparents’) old records, classic horror, Elvis Presley, and vintage hot rods, check out the psychobilly scene. Just beware of the wrecking pit. But if you do get knocked down, unlike the punks, the psychos will laugh, help you up, and hand you another beer. And keep rockin’ that upright bass.