In the U.S., the flag for the indisputable HQ for rockabilly and psychobilly music is firmly planted on the West Coast, where there also happens to be a whole bunch of young Latinos. Coincidental? Maybe, but the more I explore these sister subcultures, the more I think there is a direct cause and effect at work.
But first, for the non-initiated, what the heck is rockabilly & psychobilly? A few definitions are in order. Yes, we just love putting people into little boxes.
WHAT IS ROCKABILLY?
First rockabilly, and I quote, almost word for word from Wikipedia (so you know it must be right).
Rockabilly is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music, dating to the early 1950s. The term “rockabilly” is a portmanteau of “rock” (from “rock ‘n’ roll”) and “hillbilly,” the latter a reference to the country music (often called “hillbilly music” in the 1940s and 1950s) that contributed strongly to the style’s development. Other important influences on rockabilly include western swing, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues. While there are notable exceptions, its origins lie primarily in the Southern United States. The influence and popularity of the style waned in the 1960s, but during the late 1970s and early 1980s, rockabilly enjoyed a major revival of popularity that has endured to the present, often within a rockabilly subculture.
Since I would never use the term “portmanteau” you know I didn’t make the preceding stuff up. But that’s mere definition of the music. What about said rockabilly subculture?
If you live in California you’ve most likely witnessed the rockabilly subculture in action, though at the time, you may have thought someone was headed to a retro costume party. But it’s no costume, for many across the globe it’s a way of life. The girls often dress like “I Love Lucy” or pin up icons like “Marilyn Monroe” and the infamous cheesecake “Betty Page.” Many throw in a retro tattoo… or two… or fifty.
The guys may sport 60’s styled sideburns, a pompadour hairstyle with rolled up jeans… maybe white socks with loafers and/or a black leather jacket in an effort to emulate James Dean, Elvis or just a bad-ass “greaser.” They often drive hooked up hot rods from the ’50s and ’60s, ones they’ve usually restored themselves.
Experiencing rockabilly’s subculture can feel like you’re taking a trip back to the 1950s Americana but it’s not always the wholesome image that may come to mind. While bad boys and bad girls have been with us since Adam and Eve, in the ’50s there was an explosion of teenage car culture and the rebellious nature of rock-n-roll was the personification of that bad boy or bad girl image. Perhaps this rang true especially in California where recent immigrants from nearby Mexico and Central America were soaking up this culture, perhaps in an effort to acculturate.
WHAT THE HELL IS PSYCHOBILLY?
Then there is rockabilly’s even slightly “darker” cousin, psychobilly. Now you may be less familiar with psychobilly but for the music side of things, think punk rock mixed with rockabilly and a big old stand up double bass thrown in. Its origins are up for fierce debate but most people agree psychobilly began in the 1980s in Europe and landed stateside sometime later.
Psychobilly girls may dress a little bolder and dare I say rougher around the edges with possibly more tattoos and a more contemporary style of dress that can incorporate things like S&M, goth or horror. The guys often combine the punk and rockabilly look and may sport a crazy wedge, extreme pompadour or some other over the top hairstyle along with creeper shoes, combat boots or loafers.
There are a lot of variations on the psychobilly look so it’s really hard to describe it in a general manner. You may notice a subtext of horror and goth moving through much of the culture and some people can look a bit cartoonish and personally I think quiet entertaining, which makes sense when you consider many in the scene are artists.
As for the music, there are a lot of songs about death, but in a fun way (i.e. Nekromantix‘s “Who Killed the Cheerleader?” or The Meteors‘ “Slow Down You Grave Robbing Bastard”). Yes kiddies, death can be fun! It’s Halloween every weekend for those who enjoy “wrecking” the pit (sort of a mix between moshing and fighting).
There are some notable exceptions to this cartoon imagery and mortal fixation. The legendary U.S. band The Quakes come to mind. They keep it straight (some say pure) with songs like “A**hole in the Express Lane”. But like rockabilly, it’s complicated. Soooo… once again, let’s turn to our friends at Wikipedia.
Psychobilly is often characterized by lyrical references to science fiction, horror and exploitation films, violence, lurid sexuality, and other topics generally considered taboo, though often presented in a comedic or tongue-in-cheek fashion. It is often played with an upright double bass instead of the electric bass more common in modern rock music. Psychobilly gained underground popularity in Europe beginning in the early 1980s, but remained largely unknown in the United States until the late 1990s.
So that’s the quick version for all of you not in the know, but trust me when I say (bracing for a deluge of emails here) there is MUCH more to the rockabilly and psychobilly subcultures. There are purest on each side and subcultures within subcultures. Sometimes they get combined and fused to points unrecognizable and to those who like their music and subcultures with checklists in little boxes this can be confounding. No worries, I’ve been around both scenes for years and still have a tough time explaining them (what’s that you say? “As clearly demonstrated by this article?” Very funny).
THE LATINO INFLUENCE
Both rockabilly and psychobilly are international. Rockabilly is big in Japan, (not a cliché, it really is) and also in Russia as I witnessed firsthand when I visited in 2010. Perhaps not surprisingly, psychobilly follows a similar geographical pattern and is massive in places like England, Germany and the Netherlands.
In Latin America, both scenes are big, but in pockets. Way down south, Chile has a big psychobilly scene with the band Voodoo Zombie headlining big shows. When I visited Santiago and Valparaiso in 2010 I saw kids wearing Tiger Army and Demented Are Go band t-shirts and sporting wedge cuts.
Who can forget the big Psychobilly Carnival in Curticuba, Brazil every year? Mexico City? Hell yeah! LA-based Calavera who helped establish the scene in both Mexico and the U.S. comes to mind, but there are many more. Even in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean you’ll find a psychobilly scene with bands like the Los Hell Gamblers.
Rockabilly has a surprising presence in Argentina. If you ever visit Buenos Aires hit up the bar Mundo Bizarro and hear the band Los Primitivos. Just next door in Montevideo, Uruguay is a hell of a rollicking band called Rudos Wild that plays a genre of music sometimes called punkabilly, a sound pioneered in the U.S. by bands like Social Distortion and The Cramps.
In places like Bogota, Colombia where classic rock, punk and metal are kings there is an emerging psychobilly scene. In nearby Medellin, a band called Dorados Rockabilly Trio is starting to make headway and turning the locals on to the joys of rockabilly.
In the U.S. the scenes are bigger but also spotty. It’s fledgling on the East Coast in NYC with promoters like Rebel Angel and Amylulita (a Latina) and psychobilly bands like the The Memphis Morticians and rockabilly bands like Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. helping to keep things alive at numerous venues in Brooklyn and at places like Otto’s Shrunken Head in downtown Manhattan.
While you’ll find an odd smattering of Latinos on the scene in NYC, the Midwest and Texas, if you head West where the scene is much more prevalent, I think you’ll notice that without Latinos in rockabilly and psychobilly, there essentially would be no scenes.
Latinos on the west coast are a young, powerful and loyal bunch (just ask Morrissey). When I interviewed Nick 13, lead singer of Tiger Army a few years back at the Warped Tour, he point blank stated that young Latinos’ loyalty to Morrissey and Tiger Army were key to their decision to lay down some Spanish tracks on their Music From The Regions Beyond CD.
Yes, if you really want to experience rockabilly and psychobilly subcultures in their full glory, the west coast is the place and more specifically Los Angeles, California where pin up girls and burlesque is almost mainstream, where hooked up hotrods and classic cars are ingrained in the culture and where bands like the afore mentioned Social Distortion play for sold out crowds in arenas in front of an impossibly diverse mix of kids too young to drive along side guys and gals approaching retirement age.
The West Coast is where you’ll find big events like Viva Las Vegas, a huge weekend gathering every April where rockabilly and psychobilly fans the world over invade Las Vegas to attend car shows, concerts, burlesque contests, etc.
There is the massive Hootenanny Festival down in Orange County that is, yes, a hoot! There is the big Ink N Iron tattoo festival and car show, the Mooneyes car show like the one I recently attended where thousands rockabilly and psychobilly enthusiast gather. Not to mention the dozens of big and small concerts and “sock hops” every week.
At all of these events at any given time at least 50% of the crowd is Latino, yet no one seems to notice or care, it’s so ingrained in the scene and the culture out here, well it just simply… IS. Similar to how rockabilly and psychobilly, which are very distinct and separate musical genres, can also blend together seamlessly to create one awesomely spectacular, colorful event.
There’s that Latino rockabilly powerhouses Big Sandy and Omar and the Stringpoppers as well as dozens of psychobilly bands, like the Psycho Madbatz or The Grims fronted by Latinas or Latinos. There are retro “swingbilly” bands like Pachuco Jose Y Los Diamantes or the “drunkabilly” band the Moonlight Cruisers who are 100% Latino but have followings of all colors and stripes (Yes, there are a lot of billies involved, all suggesting it might finally be cool to be a hillbilly, so long as you are being ironic, I suppose). Many burlesque, pinup queens, and just plain fans are Latina (check out Facebook and you’ll see user names like “Cholobilly” and “La Cholita”), and car clubs have names like “Peligrosa.”
I know some people will say “well that’s just LA” and that is partly true. I’m a little rusty on this but young people in LA are disproportionately Latin (I think around 50%). But go to any other “non Latin” music event in the west coast and show me a crowd that is so blatantly Latino influenced? Is it coincidental that the West Coast, land of Latino culture is also the land of rockabilly and psychobilly culture?
And more importantly, how did a largely black (rhythm & blues) and white (country), southern musical style (some might say redneck) from the ’50s like rockabilly become so embraced by Latinos? I’ve interviewed dozens of people over the years working on my documentary Punktology… the Worldwide Influence of Punk which tries to branch off into this territory and many people don’t even remember when they first got into the sub culture.
Many, on the west coast at least, were simply born into it. Their parents listened to this music and hit similar events. With the number of children in attendance at the Mooneyes Xmas festival I attended, I believe it. Looking as young as three or four, some already had mohawks or pompadours and were wearing leather jackets with cool sunglasses. Some arrived in “hooked up” strollers ala hot rod style.
So the old “rebellion against parents” theory doesn’t really hold water for most young Latinos in this instance. In many cases, it was the parents or an uncle or aunt, who perhaps themselves children of those searching for a better life in “El Norte,” not only embraced the lifestyle but helped to create it. If anything, young Latinos seem to be following in their footsteps and being the largely loyal folks they are will probably pass the culture down to their kids, even as it changes and mutates over time.
Despite all the interviews I’ve conducted on this subject, I’m still insatiably curious about the Latino influence on the rockabilly and psychobilly scenes. I’m not sure I have all the answers, or even part of them just yet and maybe it doesn’t really matter. All I really know is that I love Latin culture and I love rockabilly and psychobilly. So if you see non-tatted, out of place looking Gringo at an event with a camera, chances are it’s me. Come up and say hello.