Rock may not have as much of a future as Mick Jagger recently suggested. But it does have a past, and for an increasing number of musicians that's enough.
The Memphis rockabilly music of the mid-'50s, for example, has recently undergone an extraordinary resurgence in popularity. Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis all returned to the studio in search of the elusive sound that first brought them prominence. Queen scored a number-one hit by cranking up the echo and pulling out a reverberating bass. New Wave musicians have all tried to borrow a piece of the Sun Records sound with varying results.
Still no one, it seems, has done it better, or more consistently, than Washington's own Billy Hancock and the Tennessee Rockets, as a quick listen to their new album, "Shakin' That Rockabilly Fever" (Solid Smoke 8015), will attest.
What really sets Hancock apart is that he displays more than a simple affection for rockabilly; he understands it.
He proves this time and again on "Rockabilly Fever," a compilation of 14 tracks he recorded for Ripsaw records in the past three years. Each song is enlivened by a raw, exhilarating audio mix. There's not even a trace of the clean, glossy and ultimately hollow sound that compromises so many rockabilly releases.
And rather than rehash familiar material, Hancock writes his own songs; records lesser-known tunes by writers who provided Elvis with material; or "countrifies" the blues in the same way Presley did.
No matter which way he turns, the results are gratifying. His own songs bristle with energy. "I'm Satisfied" suggests Elvis' "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine" while the vibrant spontaneity of "Knock Kneed Nellie" recalls Carl Perkins' infectious delivery.
The songs by Presley's songwriters Leiber and Stoller and bluesman Arthur Crudup make you wish Elvis never heard of Hollywood. Without once parodying him, Hancock zeroes in on Presley's highly stylized way with a ballad on Leiber and Stoller's "Stay Awhile," one of the few songs on the album that owes more to Elvis' days on RCA than Sun.
A Muddy Waters blues also suggests Hancock was born too late. Just as Presley bridged the gap between country and blues with "Milkcow Boogie," Hancock does the same with Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied." The result is an ingenious synthesis of styles, the sort that made rockabilly so refreshing 25 years ago, and one that still remains vital to many listeners today. What's more, Hancock and the Tennessee Rockets make it all look so easy. As any rockabilly fan knows, that's half the battle.
Certainly Shakin' Stevens could learn a few things from them. Born in Wales, Stevens has had considerable success as a neo-rockabilly cat on the British charts in recent years. Early on he was produced by Dave Edmunds, who also appreciates the exuberant pulse of the original Sun recordings. Unfortunately, Stevens' latest release, "Get Shakin' " (FES 7415), comes up short in that department. The album, which includes several of Stevens' British hits, suffers from a shallow mix, some disposable songs and a lack of focus.
It's a shame, too, since Stevens has talent. The songs "Hey Mae," "This Ole House" and "Marie, Marie" are lively and convincing, even if the sound mix is brittle at times. But when Stevens isn't aiming for the charts, his songs tend to be little more than filler. In the end, he succeeds only in emphasizing his talent as a gifted rockabilly vocalist by assigning the listener the chore of skipping over the weaker material.
Happily, that's not the case with Billy Burnette's "Gimme You" (Columbia NFC37460). The son of rockabilly pioneer Dorsey Burnette, Billy released a promising rock album last year after spending some time in Nashville as a songwriter. His last album virtually overlooked that aspect of his career, but his new one capitalizes on it.
The songs are all Burnette's and the production is pure Muscle Shoals, Ala. In many respects producer Barry Beckett and his stable of studio musicians are as responsible for the success of this album as Burnette himself. His knowing touch combined with Burnette's knack for deftly recalling echoes of everyone from Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins to Ricky Nelson and Sam Cooke makes this new release a very pleasant surprise.