Like American punk, rockability was a rock-'n-roll genre so raw and primal that it has taken the world over two decades to fully appreciate its impact. At present, the desire to relive that moment when, in July 1954, Elvis Presley went berserk in Sam Phillips' Sun recording studio, has become an obsession with both collectors and rockabilly revival bands.
In the '60s, rockabilly was recaptured primarily by the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But not until the mid-'70s did the well-intended rescue of a lost genre collapse into a mere cataloguing process. In England, innumerable rockability anthologies have been released (some 50 on the Charly label alone, compiled from Sam Phillips' tapes) and it is this reissue fever that has prompted England's slew of revival bands -- Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers, Whirlwind, Levi and the Rockats, and Matchbox.
The new album by Matchbox, "Rockabilly Rebal" (Sire SRK 6087) is a good lesson in how not to revive the rockabilly spirit. Not unlike the Flamin' Groovies, who continue to rehash '60s hits, Matchbox pursues rockabilly with nostalgic mimicry. Sha Na Na, silly parodists, probably possess a firmer grasp of the style.
The album's title tune (a Top-10 hit in England last summer) could have been recorded by the Charlie Daniels Band, faking their own wild version of the hepcat stance. Matchbox's cover of Freddy Cannon's "Buzz Buzz a Diddle It" aims for the level of mediocrity that spawned so many '50s nostalgia bands in the early '70s (Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps, Daddy Cool). Even their own songs are ineffectual: Steve Bloomfield's "Hurricane," supposedly an original composition, cops its basic riff from Johnny Burnette's "Train Kept A-Rollin."
The album's most frantic cut is a version of "Rockin' at the Ritz," written by Ray Campi (an authentic American rockabilly artist, whose recent work can be heard on "Gone, Gone Gone," available on Rounder). Because the sone is in itself a yearning for the legendary hysteria of rockabilly's past, it bustles with a head-bobbing, feet-tapping rhythm that's difficult to botch.
One's hard-earned cash would be better spent supporting D.C.'s own rockabilly star, Tex Rubinowitz, whose "Hot Rod Man" (Ripsaw 214) is so fast and loose it peels rubber across the turntable.
Without resorting to Matchbox's revivalistic trickery, an outrageous band called the Cramps has invented its own brand of hillbilly fever. Their debut release, "Songs The Lord Taught Us" (A&M/I.R.S. SP-007), is a haunting response to a lifetime of sleazy diners, lonely bus stops and morbid movies at a million drive-ins.
Recorded at Sam Phillips Studio, the album (produced -- apparently during an afternoon nap -- by Alex Chilton, former leader of the Box Tops and Big Star) unleashes a ghastly noise that is nothing less than musical carnage.
If the album sounds like it was recorded 20,000 leagues under the sea and if the band's identity seems too submerged in the Ocean of Camp, understand that trash esthetics dictate such contrivances.
The album begins with "TV Set," a disgusting, albeit devilishly fascinating, tale of a killer who watches, instead of "Real People," the head of his victim stuffed inside a boob tube. Scary stories can also be heard on "Zombie Dance," about a party where nobody even moves, and on "What's Behind the Mask," in which a guy's date refuses to reveal her face.
Yet, as the Cramps sing on "Garbagemen," they are "one-half 'billy and one-half punk," and that ability to blend two different genres (which, until the past decade, were commonly regarded as garbage) is the band's undeniable charm. In contrast to the faithful but sterile revivalism of Matchbox, there is a muddled nobility in what the Cramps choose to recreate. On "Mad Daddy," the Trashmen dance with Elvis Presley; on "I'm Cramped," Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" is played backwards using sloppy chords of Link Wray. Kids who grew up on Kiss will love the Cramps' battered-and-bruised interpretation of Dwight Pullen's rockabilly obscurity, "Sunglasses After Dark."
Although inspired by cultural debris, "Songs the Lord Taught Us" should not be dismissed as a parodic work that never transcends its tongue-in-cheek intentions. It represents something far more substantial -- the triumphant deliverance of the culture of perversity. With the Cramps' debut as evidence, the so-bad-it's-good cultists can rightfully argue that their esthetics generally produce creations that are more fun than those produced by self-righteous attempts at art.